Continuing my blogging theme of Abbeys and Cathedrals…
Cuthbert was monk and spent some of his life at Lindisfarne in the kingdom of Northumbria (NE England) and is considered the saint of that region. Although, he was probably Scottish, not English. He became the bishop of Lindisfarne in 685AD, but gave it up to live like a hermit until his death. It’s after his death that he became known as an important saint.
When Lindisfarne was raided by Vikings in 875, his body, which was kept in a coffin, was carried away by monks. It then went on a bit of a trek as the monks sought out a final resting place for their saint and after a spell at Chester-le-Street, where the diocese of Lindisfarne was established in exile, it was forced on the move again. (If you’ve been watching The Last Kingdom on TV in the UK, you’ll will know that when his coffin was opened, his body was found to be relatively intact.) Legend has it that the monks followed a couple of milkmaids to a bend in the River Wear. The maids were seeking a cow, the monks a defensive position, and in that little peninsula of Durham, they found what they sought. The coffin went no further and a ‘white church’ was built out of wood to house Cuthbert’s relics. Three years later in 988 it was replaced with stone. The present cathedral was built by William of Calais who was appointed Prince-Bishop by King William I.
Durham formed in those early times a buffer state between England and Scotland, giving rise to Prince-bishops who could raise armies and mint their own coin. They always remained loyal to the English crown. Not surprisingly, the cathedral is considered to be the best example of the Norman Romanesque style. Started in 1093 and finished in 1128, it is a magnificent structure with its round arches, bold nave columns and simple decorative style. Its location on the brow of the hill is spectacular and gives the small city an impressive marker that can be seen for miles around.
During the English Civil War, Cromwell kept Scottish prisoners in the cathedral. To keep themselves warm, they burnt most of the wooden fittings and furniture. Many of them died and their graves were recently discovered in 2013.
In 1986 Durham was made a World Heritage site and this includes the Cathedral. Its interior has been used in film productions, including Harry Potter and Elizabeth, although for the latter I’m not sure why as Tudor monarchs lived in brick houses with wood panelling, not the vast open spaces of stone cathedrals!
As for Cuthbert? Henry VIII got him during the dissolution (Durham also had a priory associated with it). The shrine was destroyed, but his coffin supposedly survived. As for his bones, they were exhumed by a secret band of monks and were reburied in an abbey. Rumour says that twelve monks know the location of his bones and only pass it on to the next whenever one of their number dies.
Cathedral since 995
Max Height 66.8m
External length 151.2m
Number of bells 10