Durham Castle and Cathedral

The fortress-like structures of the bishops of Durham in north-east England are enthroned over the River Wear. According to areacodesexplorer, the Norman castle and the three-storey cathedral with a 2 m thick arcade wall from the 11th century form an outstanding ensemble at the transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic. The castle complex was intended as a protective wall against the Scots and became the center of a Benedictine monastery settlement and later a bishop’s residence.

Durham Castle and Cathedral: Facts

Official title: Durham Castle and Cathedral
Cultural monument: three-storey Anglo-Norman cathedral with 2 m thick arcaded wall and Norman castle complex, later the seat of the bishops of Durham
Continent: Europe
Country: United Kingdom, Durham
Location: Durham, above the River Wear, south of Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Appointment: 1986
Meaning: Inestimable evidence of early monastery life and Norman church building in connection with the Norman style castle and residence of the Prince-Bishop of Durham

Durham Castle and Cathedral: History

673-735 Beda Venerabilis, first known English historian, tomb in Durham Cathedral
10th century Lindisfarne monks settled in »Dunholm« (»Island with a Hill«), which later became Durham
1006 and 1038 Attacks by the Scots on the English
1071/72 Construction of Durham Castle, initially in the form of fortified entrenchments, against further attacks from the north
1080 Construction of the Norman chapel in the castle complex
1093 Start of construction on the cathedral
1133 Completion of the central nave
1217-26 Construction of the west towers
1242-80 Construction of the east choir and the “Chapel of the Nine Altars” for the relics of St. Cuthbert
14th century First lay burial in the cathedral, tomb of the Neville family
early 15th century Construction of the crossing tower and the cloister
1622 Construction of the Renaissance staircase at Durham Castle
1650 after the Battle of Dunbar 3,000 prisoners were billeted in the cathedral
1657 Foundation of the university
1724-26 Publication of Daniel Defoe’s “A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain” with a description of Durham
since 1832 Durham Castle part of University College Durham

“Half church of God, half bulwark against the Scots”

On a hill above a wooded gorge on a narrow peninsula formed by a loop of the Wear, the bishop’s castle and the Norman cathedral are enthroned – a truly breathtaking architectural ensemble. The proud church building is regarded worldwide as the most outstanding example of Norman architecture, which, according to the English writer Daniel Defoe, who became famous through the “Adventures of Robinson Crusoe”, dominates “the small, extremely neat little town”.

The proximity of the hilltop castle to the cathedral is a reminder that the Prince-Bishop of Durham was not only spiritual leader, but also secular ruler for eight centuries, whose job it was to protect the reliquary of St. Cuthbert. The Scottish novelist and creator of “Ivanhoe”, Sir Walter Scott, aptly described Durham: “Half Church of God, half bulwark against the Scots.” City walls, which were reinforced in the course of the 12th century and are largely preserved to this day, supplemented the natural protection given by the location.

Legend has it that monks from the island of Lindisfarne brought their particularly precious relic, the remains of St. Cuthbert, out of fear of the incursion of bloodthirsty Danes on the English mainland. After many wrong turns, the pious men were finally escorted to safe Durham by a peasant woman who was looking for her lost cow; the bas-relief of a cow on the north wall of the cathedral recalls this legend. Saint Cuthbert was a well-known churchman in the 7th century, whose body remained completely intact even after his death. This miracle spread across the country at lightning speed, and immediately the crowds of pilgrims increased to the shrine of the holy man.

The first Norman bishop, William of St. Carilef, laid the foundation stone for today’s cathedral, which was to house the shrine of St. Cuthbert. Within four decades, in a very short time for the time, the main works of the church building were completed. This short construction period also results in the cathedral’s unique stylistic unity. The early Gothic rib vault, a marvel of architecture at the time, is particularly worthy of note.

The north portal with a bronze door knocker from the 12th century is one of the fascinating design elements of the church building. The grotesque grotesque face on the head of the knocker leaves a lasting impression: a lion’s mane and erect cat ears, a long human nose, protruding cheeks and threatening rows of teeth. Eyes made of colored fused glass once underlined the terrifying character. As soon as he enters, it seems, the believer should shudder to feel the omnipotence of the Church and the prospect of eternal damnation.

The bones of the scholar Beda Venerabilis, the author canonized in 1899 of “Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum”, the most important source for the study of early English history, rest in the Galilee Chapel. Even if the shrine of St. Cuthbert was destroyed during the Reformation, the oak coffin of the saint, which has now found its place in the monastery museum, was preserved.

The castle, forbidding and massive, was built under William the Conqueror and secures the neck of the peninsula north of the cathedral. Intended as a bulwark against the incursion of Scots and Danes, it served over time as the residence of the prince-bishops, who for centuries had their own armed forces, jurisdiction and the right to mint in the city-state of Durham they ruled. The eye-catcher is the 14th century castle keep, even if the castle chapel, built in the Norman-Romanesque style, and the 17th century renaissance staircase are more important in terms of architectural history.

Durham Castle and Cathedral