Durham Cathedral - History and Facts | History Hit

Durham Cathedral

Durham, England, United Kingdom

Durham Cathedral is a vast 11th century Romanesque cathedral built to house the relics of St Cuthbert.

Lily Johnson

22 Apr 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral is a stunning 11th century cathedral that has been at the centre of religious activity in the area for over 1,000 years. Today dominating the town of Durham, it offers a fascinating glimpse into medieval Britain and superb views to those willing (and able) to climb up the 300+ steps to the top of the tower!

Durham Cathedral history

Religious activity at the site of Durham Cathedral hails as far back as the 10th century when the monks of Lindisfarne Priory found themselves on the peninsula. They had spent the last hundred years fleeing constant Viking raids, and were intent on protecting the relics of St Cuthbert in their keeping.

The local legend of the Dun Cow tells that the monks followed two milk maids who were trying to locate their missing dun-coloured cow, following which the coffin of St Cuthbert became immovable from the site. The monks took this as a sign to establish a shrine on the spot, and the City of Durham was established. Soon after, the White Church was built, becoming a popular site of pilgrimage.

In 1080 following the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror appointed William de St-Calais as the first Prince-Bishop in England, and three years later a Benedictine Priory was established in Durham. The Saxon church was destroyed and a vast new cathedral was begun in 1093, designed to house the bodies of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede.

Additions were made throughout the following centuries, including the towers that were constructed in the 13th century – the central tower was struck by lightning and had to be rebuilt in the 15th century however!

During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, St Cuthbert’s shrine was ordered to be destroyed under Henry VIII and much of the Cathedral’s wealth was stripped. St Cuthbert’s body was exhumed and reburied however, beneath a plain stone slab now worn smooth by the knees of pilgrims.

Durham Cathedral today

Today Durham Cathedral remains a working centre of worship and is open to the public. Inside, its magnificent columns, stained glass, and high vaulted ceilings are a marvel, making Durham one of the most stunning Cathedrals in the country. As a reminder of what the eminent church was first built for, the tombs of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede may be viewed, as visitors contemplate hundreds of years of pilgrimage to the site.

Some of the original monastic buildings also remain, including the picturesque cloisters and the Monks Hall, which today houses the Cathedral’s vast library collection. Inside may be found thousands of manuscripts, with 360 from the medieval period alone, including copies of the Magna Carta and Norman Bible owned by Bishop Hugh le Puiset.

The Treasury Museum houses a number of fascinating relics of St Cuthbert, including his original 7th century coffin, an ivory comb, and his golden pectoral cross, while a host of unique Anglo-Saxon sculptures may also be admired.

Getting to Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral is located in Durham city centre on Palace Green, with access to the city via the A690 and parking available at the Prince Bishops Car Park, a 5-minute walk away. Durham train station is also a 15-minute walk to the site, from which the 40D ‘hop on, hop off’ bus may be taken directly to the Cathedral.

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