Religious Houses: Introduction

Pages 78-79

A History of the County of Durham: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.

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The great religious work carried on in the district now known as the county of Durham during the seventh and eighth centuries under the guidance of St. Aidan and his followers centred itself in the Saxon monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow, and in the smaller foundations of St. Hieu and St. Hilda. These were the homes, not only of religion, but also of culture and civilization, and their history so far as it is known is full of interest. They were, however, almost completely swept away by the Danes in their repeated invasions, and for some two hundred and fifty years the monastic life almost ceased to exist in co. Durham.

It was revived in 1073 by Aldwin, the Benedictine prior of Winchcombe; and ten years later the great Benedictine abbey of St. Cuthbert was founded at Durham. Thenceforward that house dominated the entire bishopric. As early as 1239 the Franciscans penetrated to Durham, but they never attained to any degree of power or importance either there or at Hartlepool. An attempt made at the end of the twelfth century to introduce the Austin Canons resulted merely in the endowment of a cell to Durham at Finchale; and it is doubtful whether the Austin Friars ever obtained a footing in the bishopric at all. Traces of the Dominicans are few and uncertain. The only independent houses that really flourished were the small Benedictine nunnery at Neasham, and the great hospitals under the bishop's immediate control. These latter were, considering the size of the county, very numerous, and some of them were wealthy.

The enormous power and influence exercised by the monks of Durham were no doubt largely due, at all events in the first instance, to their possession of the remains of so eminent a saint as Cuthbert. As time went on this effect might very possibly have worn off, had it not been for the curious, or as it was then thought miraculous, preservation of the revered relics. When after intervals of many years, sometimes even of centuries, the coffin was opened and the saint's body discovered to be still intact, the impression of his unusual sanctity was naturally deepened; and awe-struck worshippers hastened to pour their gifts at his shrine. So it came about that the temporal power of the monks increased until their possessions rivalled even those of the great prince-bishops themselves. It must, however, be said to their credit that they do not appear to have become nearly so worldly as the religious of some less famous houses; and their worst enemies found very few charges to bring against them as to their life and character.

The behaviour of the members of the collegiate churches was far less satisfactory. In spite of vigorous efforts at reformation on the part of Bishop Kellaw in the early fourteenth century, and of Bishop Langley a hundred years later, the canons neglected their duties, both spiritual and temporal, to a disgraceful extent. This was probably due to the fact that they were pluralists on a large scale, many of them holding five, six, or even ten ecclesiastical preferments in various parts of England.

A striking feature of religious life in the county of Durham was the number of hermits, notably in the fourteenth century, who found a home there. At first, no doubt, their existence was wild and solitary enough; but after a time it became a much more formal matter, and persons were admitted to the profession of an anchoret, and collated to their hermitages, just as in the case of any other order.

In the time of Bishop Bek the Templars held lands, rents, &c., in Barnard Castle and Summerhouse, besides various places in the bishopric, but not in the county of Durham. (fn. 1) In 1313 the pope directed an inquiry to be made as to what lands the Knights Hospitallers held in the Northern Province. The bishop of Durham replied that in his diocese they had nothing but the house of Chibburn in Northumberland. (fn. 2) The pope then commanded the bishop to hand over to the Hospitallers all possessions whatsoever lately belonging to the then dissolved order of the Templars in his diocese. (fn. 3)

Durham was rich in historians; Bede, Simeon, Reginald, Geoffrey of Coldingham, Robert of Graystanes, and William Chambre, were all inmates of one or other of her religious houses.


  • 1. Reg. Palat. Dun. (Rolls Ser.), ii, 857-8.
  • 2. Ibid. i, 387, 389.
  • 3. Close, 7 Edw. II, m. 16 Sched. This order was repeated in 1324; Close, 17 Edw. II, m. 7, 4.