Make your own free website on




Durham's towering Bishops' Castle and Norman Cathedral are located perched high on an eminence above a wooded gorge on a narrow peninsula formed by a loop in the River Wear. Together they form a spectacular architectural grouping. The Cathedral dominates the >>little compact neatly contrived city<< (Defoe) and is considered to be the supreme example of Norman architecture in the world.

The proximity of Castle and Cathedral on their hilltop is a reminder that Durham's Prince Bishops were once civil as well as spiritual leaders, united in order to defend the shrine of St Cuthbert against attack. In 1534, John Leland, Royal Librarian and Antiquary to Henry VIII, expressed these functions in describing Durham as >>half church of God, half castle against the Scots<<.

The bas relief of a cow on the north wall of the Cathedral commemorates the legend associated with the foundation of Durham which has it that the monks of Lindisfarne, having removed the body of St Cuthbert, a 7th century ecclesiastic, from its tomb in fear of marauding Danish invaders, and after wandering far over the north of England, were guided to the safety of the natural defensive site of Durham by a woman searching for a cow. The original Saxon church on the site was built, in 995, to house the shrine of the Saint

In 1093 the foundation stone of the present Cathedral was laid and nearly all the major work was completed within twenty years, a relatively short span of time which gives the building an outstanding unity. The central tower is a lofty and graceful Perpendicular Gothic structure. The exquisite Chapel of the Nine Altars contains a magnificent rose window and beautiful carvings. The stone vaulting is particularly noteworthy. Rib vaulting was used at Durham for the first time, a technical breakthrough which represents a major contribution to the history and refinement of building and enabled Gothic architecture to flourish and develop.

It is as a remarkable whole that the Cathedral should be seen, but it does have a multitude of fascinating details. The north door incorporates the fine 12th century sanctuary knocker, a grotesque head, which, once they had grasped it gave fugitives the right of sanctuary within the Cathedral precincts. In the Galilee Chapel at the west end of the Cathedral is the tomb of the Venerable Bede, known as the first English historian. St Cuthbert's shrine was destroyed at the Reformation, however, the oak coffin is one of the many treasures that can be seen in the monks' dormitory museum in the cloisters.

The Castle which >>standeth aloft and is stately built<< (Leland) was constructed by the Normans in 1072 on the instructions of William the Conqueror, and protects the narrow neck of the peninsula to the north of the Cathedral. It was designed as a secure defence against the Scots and Danes, and a residence for the Prince Bishops of Durham who were the king's religious and military representatives in the area. The Castle is dominated by a polygonal 14th century keep, while the most famous single features are the Norman crypt chapel and the 17th century black stair of elaborately carved woodwork.

The Prince Bishops ruled Durham as a City State with their own army, nobility, court and coinage for 800 years. When their unique powers gradually diminished and were finally ended in 1836, the Castle became the home of Durham University, which was the first new university to be founded in England after Oxford and Cambridge.

Town walls, which were strengthened in the 12th century, augmented the natural defences from an early date and have been largely preserved. The Palace Green lies between the Cathedral and the Castle, and is surrounded by buildings once closely associated with the civil and ecclesiastical functions of the Prince Bishops. Modern Durham, reflecting it's history, remains an important religious and educational centre.




A Christian Heritage: Essays to Honour the 900th Anniversary of Durham Cathedral
A Christian Heritage: Essays to Honour the 900th Anniversary of Durham Cathedral