Durham cathedral: Historical survey

A History of the County of Durham: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1928.

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'Durham cathedral: Historical survey', A History of the County of Durham: Volume 3, (London, 1928), pp. 93-95. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/durham/vol3/pp93-95 [accessed 13 June 2024].

. "Durham cathedral: Historical survey", in A History of the County of Durham: Volume 3, (London, 1928) 93-95. British History Online, accessed June 13, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/durham/vol3/pp93-95.

. "Durham cathedral: Historical survey", A History of the County of Durham: Volume 3, (London, 1928). 93-95. British History Online. Web. 13 June 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/durham/vol3/pp93-95.

In this section



Durham Cathedral stands on a rocky height bounded on the east, south, and west by a bend of the river Wear. To the north and south of the cathedral the level space is considerable, but the building occupies the whole extent of the level ground from east to west, the buttresses of the westernmost portion actually descending the face of the cliff some forty feet, whence the thickly wooded slope descends rapidly to the river. The position is one of the most commanding of any in England, and the view of the cathedral from the west and south-west is extremely impressive.

The site has been continuously occupied by a church from 995, when the body of St. Cuthbert was brought hither after many wanderings, and a temporary structure was erected over it. This was superseded by a church of stone begun by Bishop Aldhun in 996, and known as the White Church. Aldhun's church was standing at the time of the Conquest, but excavation has failed to reveal any trace of it. That it had a western tower is evident from the account (fn. 1) of Reginald the monk, and that, after the fashion of the larger churches of the time, it was cruciform with a second tower over the crossing.

Certain crossheads of late style, taken from below the chapter house, must be relics of the period between 995 and the Norman Conquest and may have commemorated members of the community of secular priests who served the church from the time of Aldhun to that of William of St. Calais. The discovery in 1874, below the graves of the bishops Ranulf Flambard, Geoffrey Rufus and William of St. Barbe, of the skeletons of men, women and children, and of an iron spear head with a gold-plated socket, believed by some to be attributable to this period, probably points to a pre-Christian settlement of considerably earlier date. (fn. 2)

The church which stands to-day was begun, as Simeon of Durham tells us, in 1093 by Bishop William of St. Calais (1080–1096). During his lifetime an agreement was in force between the bishop and the monks, by which the former undertook to bear the cost of building the church, and the latter that of the monastic buildings. There are indications that the replacement of the Saxon buildings other than the church had already been taken in hand before this time, the east and south ranges of the cloister having been worked upon during the time of Walcher (1071–1080), and doubtless in the first thirteen years of William's episcopate, before he was in a position to start work on the new church. It is possible that the site of the earlier church was a little to the south of the present building and that Walcher's work, of which mention will be made in the description of the monastic buildings, was joined directly to the south side of Aldhun's church.

With regard to the church of William of St. Calais, it may be said that if the Chapel of the Nine Altars at the east and the Galilee Chapel at the west end be imagined absent, and if for the former be substituted a termination consisting of a great central apse semicircular both inside and out, and two side apses with a square external termination, one at each of the ends of the quire aisles, the present building follows the lines of the plan laid down in 1093.

Comparatively little, however, of this great design was actually completed in the lifetime of its originator; yet, even so, the rapidity of the work must have been remarkable.

The death of Bishop William in 1096 did not interrupt the work, which was carried on continuously but more slowly, and we are told that the monks devoted themselves to the church, leaving for the time their work on the monastic buildings. The see was vacant till 1099, and in this time the work of the church was carried on usque navem. Ranulf Flambard, on his appointment as bishop in that year, did not continue the arrangement made by his predecessor, but used the funds arising from the oblations altaris et cemiterii, and carried on the building of the church as the money came in, 'so that at one time little was done and at another much.' (fn. 3) This went on till Flambard's death in 1128, when the see again remained vacant, this time for five years. The nave, we are told, was complete up to the vault in 1128, and by 1133 the monks had finished the nave vault.

Although the building of the fabric was one continuous work, occupying a period of forty years from 1093, there was a slight break about 1110 when the work had been carried from the east end of the church usque navem. The whole was brought to completion, except for the upper stories of the western towers, in 1133. The scale and magnificence of the design would alone set Durham in the first rank of the great Romanesque churches of the north, but an exceptional value is added to it by the complete structural evidence of the intention to cover the whole building with stone rib-vaults as part of the original scheme. There is no surviving church in Normandy which can show so early a use of this construction, but that it is of Norman origin is equally certain. So much of the building energy of the Normans was transferred to English soil after the Conquest that an advance in development on this side of the Channel is not a matter for surprise. Certain features, however, which do not occur in Normandy at this date, must be noted. The long eastern arm of four bays, as at St. Albans, has no existing counterpart in Normandy, where a presbytery of two bays is normal, and the cushion capital, practically unknown in Normandy, is used everywhere in Durham to the exclusion of the Norman volute capital, so that it may be said that the Norman designer of Durham Cathedral did not come direct from Normandy to Durham, but had had previous experience of building in England.

It is not possible to say exactly how far the work had advanced between August 1093 and Bishop William's death in January 1096, but the first design continues unaltered through the eastern arm and as far as the top of the triforium on the east side of both transepts. The west walls of the transepts are of simpler character and suggest that lack of funds after the bishop's death may have affected this part of the design, but a more impressive witness to a modification of the original scheme is seen in the temporary abandonment of the intention to vault the transepts. The clearstory of the south transept, with its continuous arcade of tall arches, is clearly designed for a wooden ceiling, and since no hesitation was shown in vaulting the eastern arm, it is reasonable to conclude that this alteration was due to lack of funds.

A landmark in the progress of the work is made by the record of the translation of St. Cuthbert to his shrine in 1104; the details of the story make it clear that the stone vault over the eastern arm was finished by this date, and it may be suggested that the south transept with a wooden ceiling was completed by that time. The two eastern bays of the main arcade of the nave, and of its aisles, together with one bay of the triforium, belong, with certain small modifications, to the earlier work of the church, and it is reasonable to suppose that the north transept was finished and its stone vault built as part of this work. The limit of date may be c. 1110. At the continuation of the building of the nave a new feature appears, namely the cheveron ornament, introduced in the arcade arches and the ribs of the aisle vaults. It also occurs in the vaults of the south transept, which must have been undertaken while the continuation of the nave was in progress. It must be assumed that the lack of funds which followed on Bishop William's death had been overcome, and possibly the translation of 1104 brought a new era of prosperity.

The last stage of the work, the building of the stone vault over the nave, falls within the five years 1128–1133, and it is a matter of much interest to note, as a landmark in the story of vault construction, that the springing stones of the great transverse arches are designed for a semicircular curve. The weakness which by then may have been evident in the presbytery vault, owing to the flatness at the crown of the diagonal ribs, must have suggested the use of a higher trajectory in the nave, and the substitution of pointed transverse arches for the semicircular arches was the result.

Geoffrey Rufus (1130–40), then, found the cathedral church practically complete, together with the greater part of the monastic buildings. The slype between the south transept and the chapter house, with its barrel vault, had been built in the time of William, or in the interval between his death and the appointment of Flambard, but the chapter house was still incomplete, though there can be no doubt that its plan had long been settled, and probably the walls had been set out to the level of the string below the wall arcading. Rufus completed the chapter house, with a very rich doorway in whose capitals the centaur occurs, together with mermaids and other monsters carved in spirited fashion.

Hugh Pudsey (1153–1195) began to build a Lady Chapel at the east end of the church, but, taking the failure of his work as the result of divine prohibition, abandoned it and built the Galilee Chapel at the west end, c. 1175. He also enriched the exterior of the south-east doorway of the nave. His work, which can be identified in many places throughout the diocese, is always characterised by boldness and originality.

Richard de Marisco (1217–1226) probably completed the western towers.

Richard Poore was translated from Salisbury in 1229, and by 1235 the serious condition of the quire vault seems to have decided him to substitute for the then existing triapsidal eastern termination of the church a building which is now represented by the Chapel of the Nine Altars. The work was not actually begun till 1242, (fn. 4) under the direction of Prior Melsonby (1233–1244), but there can be no doubt that the ground plan was influenced by Bishop Poore, whose connexion with the building of Salisbury testifies to his interest in the task. There is evidence that the design was altered in several details more than once during the progress of the building, especially in the earlier stages, and an interesting feature of these changes is a departure from and subsequent return to the original design for the use of detached marble shafts on the piers, which are built on the arc of the former apse. A change in the design of the feretory platform of St. Cuthbert between these piers is also to be suspected. The chapel was not finished until 1280, and here again the problems of vaulting seem to have occasioned difficulty and delay, and possibly more than one accident. The work was probably continuous, and the south-east corner appears to have been the point of completion, for there are indications here that the southernmost pier in the east wall had been standing unroofed for some time, and needed repair before the vault was built.

The junction of the chapel and the quire was certainly completed in one design with the rest of the chapel, the whole of this work being finished between 1242 and 1255, but the details of the vaulting, both of the chapel and the quire, are distinctly later in character, and were probably not considered until, at the earliest, 1270. The vault of the chapel, especially, displays a remarkable series of ingenious makeshifts of construction. The interval of delay may be traceable to the impoverishment of the see by the alleged wrongful reservation of certain lands by Nicholas de Farnham after his resignation in 1249 and the seizure by the king of the rest of the temporalities. The latter were probably restored on the consecration of Walter de Kirkham at the end of the same year, but Nicholas de Farnham lived till 1275, retaining the reserved lands. As one of the first acts of Walter de Kirkham was an attempt to have the reservation set aside, it seems likely that the money was needed for building, for, as the pope pointed out, he had no case for recovery whatsoever. (fn. 5) It is very likely, therefore, that the vaulting was not begun till the bishopric of Robert of Holy Island (1274), though the main lines of the design were probably earlier.

The work of the fourteenth century includes no structural additions except the cloister, which was begun about 1390, but was not finished until 1418. The Jesse window in the west wall of the nave and the window of the Four Doctors in the north transept were inserted about the middle of the century by Prior John Fossor, who also built the fine kitchen of the monastery in 1365–70. In the episcopate of Bishop Hatfield the altar-screen or 'French peir' (fn. 6) was erected by John Lord Neville, and the Bishop's throne, which incorporates in its design the chantry tomb of this bishop, was set up by him c. 1375.

Walter de Skirlaw (1388–1406) contributed largely to the work in the cloister, and the woodwork of the roof near the chapter house is of his time, and contains his arms. He also built the dormitory at the west of the cloister.

In the fifteenth century Thomas Langley (1406–1437) made the two doorways from the nave aisles to the Galilee Chapel, erected the Lady Altar in the old west doorway of the nave, with his own tomb before it, and also buttressed the west wall of the Galilee Chapel, inserting new windows, adding a new roof, and supplementing the twin columns of the arcades by additional shafts (c. 1420). The Te Deum window in the south transept is of c. 1430.

About 1470 the rebuilding of the central tower, which had been long failing, was undertaken and the lower gallery of the lantern and the arcade above it were completed in the time of Bishop Laurence Booth, the belfry being added about 1490, under the direction of Prior Auckland.

From this time no additions were made, and the church was fearfully despoiled at the Reformation. Bishop Cosin (1660–72), however, erected the stalls and tabernacle work of the quire, and the font-tabernacle is his work, as were also the destroyed quire screen and a fine screen about the feretory, now removed.

The church suffered much from the devastations of Wyatt, at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century, when the Galilee Chapel was only saved from destruction by the vigorous intervention of Lord Cornwallis, then newly appointed Dean, who was too late to save the chapter house, which was pulled down, except its most westerly portion, in 1796. The exterior of the building was most horribly scraped, reducing the Norman mouldings to mere shadows, and a ridiculous 'restoration' of the north porch was carried out. The great 'rose' window in the east wall of the Chapel of the Nine Altars is Wyatt's work, and is perhaps less disastrous than the rest of his meddling, which actually included the destruction of the old stained glass of the eastern windows.

In 1859 the central tower was restored by Sir Gilbert Scott, who also supervised a restoration (1870–76) in the course of which the quire screen and pulpit were inserted, and the quire stalls replaced. In 1895 the chapter house was rebuilt as a memorial to Bishop Lightfoot, unfortunately departing, in the vaulting of the apse, from its original design, although record of the latter had been preserved.


  • 1. Reginaldi Mon. Dunelm. (Surtees Soc.), cap. xvi, p. 29.
  • 2. The evidence of the cranial indices, though inconclusive, is on the whole unfavourable to such a hypothesis.
  • 3. 'Circa opus ecclesiae modo intentius, modo remissius agebatur.' Simeon of Durham (Rolls Ser.), i, 139.
  • 4. Hist. Dun. Script. Tres (Surtees Soc.), p. 41.
  • 5. Matt. Paris, Chron. Maj. ed. Wats, 1684, pp. 658, 666, 701.
  • 6. The dedication of the high altar in 1380 probably marks the completion of the 'French peir.'