Life in a Medieval Monastery: The Monks of Durham Cathedral

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Durham Cathedral holds the relics of Saint Cuthbert , transported to Durham by Lindisfarne monks in the ninth century, the head of Saint Oswald of Northumbria , and the remains of the Venerable Bede. In addition, its library contains one of the most complete sets of early printed books in England, the pre-Dissolution monastic accounts, and three copies of Magna Carta. From until the Bishop of Durham held the powers of an Earl Palatine , exercising military and civil leadership as well as religious leadership, in order to protect the English Border with Scotland.


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The cathedral walls formed part of Durham Castle , the chief seat of the Bishop of Durham. There are daily Church of England services at the cathedral, with the Durham Cathedral Choir singing daily except Mondays and when the choir is on holiday. It is a major tourist attraction and received , visitors in The See of Durham takes its origins from the Diocese of Lindisfarne , founded by Saint Aidan at the behest of Oswald of Northumbria in about , which was translated to York in The see was reinstated at Lindisfarne in by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Among the many saints who originated at Lindisfarne Priory , the greatest was Saint Cuthbert , Bishop of Lindisfarne from until his death in , who is central to the development of Durham Cathedral. After repeated Viking raids, the monks fled from Lindisfarne in , carrying Saint Cuthbert's relics with them.

The diocese of Lindisfarne remained itinerant until , when the monks resettled at Chester-le-Street , 60 miles south of Lindisfarne and 6 miles north of Durham. The see remained at Chester-le-Street until , when further Viking incursions once again caused the monks to move with their relics. According to the local legend of the Dun Cow and the Saint's hagiography , the monks followed two milk maids who were searching for a dun -coloured cow and found themselves on a peninsula formed by a loop in the River Wear.

Thereupon Cuthbert's coffin became immovable, which was taken as a sign that the new shrine should be built on that spot, which became the City of Durham. A more prosaic set of reasons for the selection of the peninsula is its highly defensible position, and that a community established there would enjoy the protection of the Earl of Northumbria , with whom the bishop at this time, Aldhun , had strong family connections.

Today the street leading from The Bailey past the Cathedral's eastern towers up to Palace Green is named Dun Cow Lane due to the miniature dun cows which used to graze in the pastures nearby.

Initially, a very simple temporary structure was built from local timber to house the relics of Saint Cuthbert. The shrine was then transferred to a sturdier, probably still in wooden, building known as the White Church. This church was itself replaced three years later in by a stone building also known as the White Church, which in was complete except for its tower. Durham soon became a site of pilgrimage, encouraged by the growing cult of Saint Cuthbert. King Canute was one of the early pilgrims, and granted many privileges and estates to the Durham monks.

The present cathedral was designed and built under William of St.

Carilef or William of St. Cuthbert at Durham and having ejected the secular canons and their wives and children who had been in charge of the church and shrine of St Cuthbert there, replaced them with monks from the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow. The extensive lands of the church he divided between his own bishopric and the new Priory.

Bishop William of St. Calais demolished the old Saxon church, and on 11 August , together with Prior Turgot Aldwin's successor , he laid the foundation stone of the great new cathedral. Calais in January the Chapter House was ready enough to be used as his burial place. In the remains of St. Cuthbert were translated with great ceremony to the new shrine in the new cathedral.

The monks continued to look after the Shrine of St Cuthbert until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Since that time many major additions and reconstructions of parts of the building have been made, but the greater part of the structure remains the original Norman structure.

Construction of the cathedral began in , at the eastern end.

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It’s a Monk’s Life

The choir was completed by and work proceeded on the nave, the walls of which were finished by , and the high vault by The chapter house was built between and [17] partially demolished in the 18th century. William of St. Carilef died in before the building was complete and passed responsibility to his successor, Ranulf Flambard , who also built Framwellgate Bridge, the earliest crossing of the River Wear from the town.

Three bishops, William of St.

The Church

Carilef , Ranulf Flambard and Hugh de Puiset , are all buried in the now rebuilt chapter house. In the s Hugh de Puiset, after a false start at the eastern end where subsidence and cracking prevented work from continuing, added the Galilee Chapel at the west end of the cathedral. The door is now blocked by the tomb of Bishop Thomas Langley.

The Galilee Chapel also holds the remains of the Venerable Bede. The main entrance to the cathedral is on the northern side, facing the Castle. Le Poore employed the architect Richard Farnham to design an eastern terminal for the building in which many monks could say the Daily Office simultaneously. The resulting building was the Chapel of the Nine Altars. The towers also date from the early 13th century, but the central tower was damaged by lightning and replaced in two stages in the 15th century, the master masons being Thomas Barton and John Bell.

The Bishop of Durham was the temporal lord of the palatinate and competed for power with the Prior of Durham Monastery , a great landowner who held his own courts for his free tenants. An agreement dated about , known as Le Convenit was entered into to regulate the relationship between the two magnates. The Shrine of Saint Cuthbert was located in the eastern apsidal end of the cathedral.

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The location of the inner wall of the apse is marked on the pavement and Saint Cuthbert's tomb is covered by a simple slab. However, an unknown monk wrote in The body of the Saint was exhumed, and according to the Rites of Durham , was discovered to be uncorrupted. It was reburied under a plain stone slab now worn smooth by the knees of pilgrims, but the ancient paving around it remains intact. Two years later, on 31 December , the Benedictine monastery at Durham was dissolved, and the last Prior of Durham , Hugh Whitehead , became the first dean of the cathedral's secular chapter.

It is estimated that as many as 3, were imprisoned of whom 1, died in the cathedral itself, where they were kept in inhumane conditions, largely without food, water or heat. The prisoners destroyed much of the cathedral woodwork for firewood but Prior Castell's Clock , which featured the Scottish thistle , was spared. It is reputed that the prisoners' bodies were buried in unmarked graves see further, '21st century' below and the survivors were shipped as slave labour to the American Colonies.

Durham Cathedral

Bishop John Cosin in office — , previously a canon of the cathedral, set about restoring the damage and refurnishing the building with new stalls, the litany desk and the towering canopy over the font. An oak screen to carry the organ was added at this time to replace a stone screen pulled down in the 16th century. On the remains of the old refectory , Dean John Sudbury founded a library of early printed books.

During the 18th century the Deans of Durham often held another position in the south of England and after spending the statutory time in residence, would depart southward to manage their affairs. Consequently, after Cosin's refurbishment, there was little by way of restoration or rebuilding. When work commenced again on the building, it was not always of a sympathetic nature. In the architect George Nicholson, having completed Prebends' Bridge across the Wear, persuaded the dean and chapter to let him smooth off much of the outer stonework of the cathedral, thereby considerably altering its character.

In the architect James Wyatt drew up extensive plans which would have drastically transformed the building, including the demolition of the Galilee Chapel, but the Chapter changed its mind just in time to prevent this happening. Wyatt renewed the 15th-century tracery of the Rose Window, inserting plain glass to replace what had been blown out in a storm.

In the architect Anthony Salvin removed Cosin's wooden organ screen, opening up the view of the east end from the nave, [22] [23]. The Victorian restoration of the cathedral's tower in was by the architect George Gilbert Scott , working with Edward Robert Robson who went on to serve as Clerk of Works at the cathedral for six years.

Bishop William began the rebuilding of Durham Cathedral in , which is a stunning example of Norman Romanesque architecture. The new stricter Cluniac order of monks was introduced into England in , coming over from Cluny in southern France. The Cluniacs had taken over twenty-four monasteries in England by The monasteries played a vital role in the limited amount of education that was available for people in England. Latin was the written language of both Church and State, so boys who wanted to become priests or government clerks had to learn Latin - and they were taught this in Anglo-Norman, not in English.

Hamilton Thompson, Surtees Soc. The charters of endowment, inventories, and account rolls , ed.

Booth, Surtees Soc. The correspondence, inventories, account rolls, and law proceedings , ed. Britnell, Surtees Soc. Subjects Durham England : County -- Church history. Durham England : County -- Economic conditions. England -- Charters, grants, privileges. Scotland -- Charters, grants, privileges. Great Britain -- Church history. Lancashire England -- Church history. Northumberland England -- Church history. Administration of estates -- England.

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