England’s World Heritage Sites: Durham Cathedral

Standing proudly on a rocky peninsula looking out over the city, Durham Cathedral seems to have been around forever.

A familiar point in the County Durham landscape to anyone who regularly travels by train in the North East on the East Coast Main Line, the cathedral has over nine centuries of stories to tell.


Durham itself was founded and populated by the community of Saint Cuthbert around the year 995AD. The first inhabitants had originally lived on Lindisfarne, an island known to locals as ‘Holy Island’.

Forced from their land by devastating Viking raids, the followers of Saint Cuthbert were in need of a safe place to worship. The geography of Durham, sitting high on a bend in the river Wear with steep river banks, fitted the bill.

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The first order of business was to build a suitable resting place for the remains of Saint Cuthbert. The ‘White Church’ was constructed where Durham Cathedral now stands and a shrine to Saint Cuthbert attracted pilgrims from all over England.

Construction of the Cathedral

It was William the Conqueror, the first Norman King of England, who gave the go-ahead for the building of the Durham Cathedral we see today. Construction began in 1093 and over the course of the next 47 years, the majority of the cathedral was built.

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Fresco of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral’s Galilee Chapel

Additional chapels were added in the 1170s (Galilee Chapel) and 1220s (Chapel of Nine Altars) and towers were added at some point in the early 1200s.

Today, Durham Cathedral is the oldest surviving building with a stone-vaulted ceiling on such a magnificent scale. Its design and construction altered the course of architectural development in Europe.

Catholicism in Crisis

For five centuries, Durham was a significant monastery, but by 1530 King Henry VIII had other ideas. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was a major crisis for England’s cathedrals and the monks who lived and worked within them.

Strangely, while other cathedrals were forced to surrender their wealth, disperse their monks and risk demolition or appropriation by a members of Henry’s inner circle, Durham Cathedral was spared. But why?

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View of the Cathedral from Prebends Bridge  (ShareAlike 2.5 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.5))

Put simply, Henry VIII liked the look of it. Brought up in the Catholic faith and married to committed Catholic Catherine of Aragon for 24 years, Henry remained enchanted by the ancient rituals of the Church and attended Catholic services throughout his life.

Durham Cathedral touched some part of Henry and he chose to protect it by dismissing its monks but introducing a dean and chapters.

The tide of anti-Catholic sentiment Henry unleashed during his Dissolution of the Monasteries could not easily be stopped. As decades passed and Tudor kings and queens died, many ordinary Englishmen and women began to rebel against the Catholic Church.

These rebels became known as Puritans and their rejection of the Church went hand in hand with their rejection of the monarchy. Civil war ensued.

Durham Cathedral was badly damaged by the victorious Puritans who established a commonwealth with Oliver Cromwell at its head.

It was used as a prison for a time during the 1650s and then sat derelict for a decade. The Cathedral did not regain its status until the 1660 when Charles II was welcomed back to the throne.

Power to the People

Things were peaceful for Durham Cathedral throughout the 18th and into the 19th century, until Great Britain was transformed by the Industrial Revolution.

As Britain’s inhabitants struggled to adjust to the rapid shift from an agricultural and feudal society to an aggressively capitalist-industrial one, the issue of reform resurfaced.

The Catholic Church was incredibly wealthy but what good did that wealth do for the local community, many of whom engaged in back-breaking labour in newly created coal mines?

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Part of the Cathedral’s Chapter House

To appease the people, Durham Cathedral was forced to give up part of its property to found the University of Durham.

Still, in 1840 an Act of Parliament stripped the Cathedral of much of its property, leaving behind only a dean and a few canons to keep things ticking over.

Now the Cathedral had to look to the local community to keep it afloat, a necessity that has continued to this day.

Ancient Treasures

Welcoming over 700,000 visitors per year and holding over 1,700 religious services, Durham Cathedral is home to some astonishing artefects.

The coffin of Saint Cuthbert dates back to the year 698 and was described by one historian as “the Tutankhamun’s tomb of the north-east”.

The most important wooden object to survive from the ‘dark ages’, the coffin is displayed alongside the objects found inside it – a portable altar, a cross and an ivory comb.

The Bishop’s throne, or cathedra, is the most important object in any Cathedral as it elevates the building from a church to a Cathedral. Durham’s throne is bigger than any other in Christendom.

On the order of Bishop Hatfield, monks visiting the Vatican measured the height of the Pope’s throne so the Bishop could ensure his own was one inch taller.

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Cathedral nave  (Paul Robson [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The relics and remains of three different saints rest within the walls of Durham Cathedral: Saint Cuthbert, the Venerable Bede and Saint Oswald.

In later years, mere mortals were also interred there. In the 14th century Ralph Neville was buried there in an elaborately carved tomb. The figures which adorn it are said to represent his 19 children, with one figure facing inwards – perhaps the black sheep of the Neville family.

The bold Bishop Hatfield also has an ornate tomb within Durham Cathedral. The bishop’s tomb is the only non-royal tomb in existence that features a royal coat of arms, a gift from his friend King Edward III.

A place of religious worship and learning, Durham Cathedral has stood as a symbol of the power of the Catholic Church for almost 1000 years. To look back at a time of Viking invasion, Norman Conquest, the Dissolution of the Monasteries or the Civil War, all you have to do is step through its ancient wooden doors.