Durham Cathedral


Durham Cathedral Essay, Research Paper

Throughout the world, there are many churches, cathedrals, and basilicas; however, of these the best known are most likely the cathedrals. The word cathedral comes from the Latin cathedra, which means chair. This is because cathedrals are churches that hold the chair of the Bishop. England houses some of the most famous, wondrous cathedrals ever built.

Durham cathedral is located in Durham County, England. (See Appendix A) The Cathedral exceeds all other sacred edifices in England in the beauty of its situation; and although not so large as others, its magnificence is surpassed by none. Durham cathedral occupies the summit of a lofty peninsula enclosed by the river Wear, which at that point makes so sweeping a curve that the promontory is almost an island. The elevated tableland thus formed is bordered by steep rocks and beautifully wooded slopes, extending to the margin of the river. (See Appendix F) This singular position adds greatly to the striking effect and grandeur of its general appearance. (History, Topography and Directory of Durham, Whellan, London, 1894)

During the cathedral’s construction, Durham was one of the most important northern outposts of the Normans, who had begun construction on the cathedral shortly after their victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The Norman prince bishop William St. Carileph, who had been exiled to France for some time, razed the older Anglo-Saxon church upon his return to Durham in 1092 to make way for the building of the cathedral that stands today. The cathedral itself was built fairly quickly. Construction began in 1093 and was completed in large part, as Bishop William had planned it, by 1133, with the two western towers added in 1217-1222.

When Richard le Poore, former Bishop of Salisbury, became Bishop of Durham in 1228, the east chapel was in bad shape, so he began the construction that replaced it with the present Chapel of Nine Alters (See Appendix B). By the time Thomas Langley came to the diocese helm in 1406, the western end of the cathedral was in danger of slipping down the steep hill and into the river, due to the shallow foundations originally laid. As a consequence the buttresses that stand today were put in place.

After the Reformation, Robert Horne and Williams Whittingham (the second and third Deans of Durham respectively) tore down a good deal of the original ornamentation in the cathedral. Damage to the interior occureed in 1650 when Oliver Cromwell herded 4,000 Scots prisoners into the cathedral and denied them any source of heat, so they chopped up nearly every piece of wood in the building for their fires. Attempts at repair were made later on when Sir Gilbert Scott directed the 1870’s construction of the present choir screen, not considered by many to be very attractive. The official guide to the Cathedral has this to say of the marble and alabaster screens: “The best that can be said of them is that they might not look so bad anywhere else”. (Durham Homepage)

In the years after the initial construction, two major additions were made to the cathedral. The first was the Galilee chapel built by Bishop Hugh Le Puiset. The Galilee chapel is at the western end of the cathedral and is situated right at the top of the gorge formed by the River Wear where it is overshadowed by the cathedral s twin towers. (See Appendix F) The second addition was the black marble-topped tomb of The Venerable Bede (673-735 AD,) who was the first historian of England. Bede lived most of his life at Jarrow near the River Tyne. His bones were brought to Durham from the ruins of Jarrow monastery in 1020 AD. On Bede s tomb is inscribed the following words in Latin: Haec sunt in fossa Baedae Venerabilis Ossa’, which means in this tomb are Bede s bones. Legend has it that the writer of this poetic epitaph was inspired to use the word venerable by an angel who told him how to complete the rhyme. The inscription dates from 1830. The Galilee chapel is also known as the Lady Chapel as it was once the only part of the cathedral that could be entered by women according to the rules of the Benedictine order of monks. (Durham Cathedral Homepage)

In medieval times Durham Cathedral, reconstituted as the Cathedral Church of Christ and Blessed Mary the Virgin by Henry VIII, was one of the greatest centers of pilgrimage in England, mainly because of the rich and glorious Shrine of St. Cuthbert. A simple gray stone tomb inscribed Cuthbertus is all that remains of the shrine, but prior to the dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century, the whole area around the tomb was an elaborately decorated shrine described as one of the richest monuments in England. The shrine, made of costly green marble gilded with gold, was bestowed with an incredible number of gifts and jewels including contributions from kings, queens, churchmen and wealthy nobles. These gifts were stored in beautifully decorated wainscot lockers which were situated on the north and south sides of the cathedral. These lockers, which also contained relics associated with St. Cuthbert, were opened for viewing on special occasions such as the feast day of St. Cuthbert. The magnificent shrine of St. Cuthbert was destroyed in the sixteenth century along with many other shrines throughout the land by the order of King Henry VIII. The men who opened St. Cuthbert s tomb found a number of precious jewels and a wand of gold which were all confiscated by the crown.

Durham cathedral is considered by many to be the best example of late-Norman cathedral architecture. Its Romanesque style s resemblance to a castle can be seen in the thick stone walls and solid presence atop the cliffs over the river Wear. (See Appendices C, D, and E) The constant threat of violence in Northern England led to a Norman architectural style that was slow to incorporate the light and airy Gothic style that penetrated cathedral design in Kent and the rest of southern England. Thick carved pillars dominate the nave of Durham Cathedral and the relatively few small windows leave the interior dominated by a damp gloom more characteristic of a castle than a church. The carved stone vaultings of the aisles and nave don’t soar like those of Canterbury and York but rather exude a notion of perpetuality and sheer strength akin to the thick columns of a Roman temple, hence the name Romanesque. Because of these fortress-like characteristics, it is not clear how much the cathedral building is meant to glorify God and how much to stand up to persistent Scottish invasions.

One of the most important aspects of cathedral architecture involves the style of vaulting used. The builders of Durham Cathedral in England invented a new method of building arches. They built two intersecting diagonal arches across the bay, on lighter centering perhaps supported high on the nave walls, and then found ways to fill out the shell resting on secondary centering. This gave a new geometric articulation the ribbed vault. Ribs did not modify the structural characteristics of the groin vault, but they offered constructional advantage and emphatically changed the vault s appearance. The cathedral at Durham is also important for the flying buttresses, a feature invented by the Norman masons at Durham. Situated in the triforium or upper story of the cathedral, they can not be seen by visitors. (Durham Homepage)

As can be seen by all of the significant events and features of Durham Cathedral, it holds an extremely significant place in history, architecturally, historically, and religiously. It is still widely visited today, both for special religious occasions and daily masses. (See Appendix G for mass schedule.) However, since the cathedral is about 900 years old, it has been, and still is, constantly undergoing repairs and restorations. (See Appendix H for list of major repairs, additions, and restorations.)

In reading about Durham cathedral, I liked its majestic appearance and characteristics. I find this cathedral interesting, because, although it may not be the largest cathedral on Earth, it may in fact be the most unique. It was the first to use ribbed vaulting, and the flying buttress, both of which are designs very well known and noticed today. I do dislike the lighting in the cathedral, because it is dark and gloomy, more like a fortress or castle, however this was the Romanesque style of architecture which was widely used during that time period. As a tourist, I would definitely take the time to visit the architectural wonder and religious landmark that is Durham Cathedral.

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