Durham Castle and Cathedral: Pioneering English Architecture

Name: Durham Castle and Cathedral.
Location: in northeastern England, in Durham county, near the border with Scotland.

Castle and cathedral: the two great symbols of medieval Europe form in Durham a harmonious complex, accentuated by its splendid placement on a rocky spur that dominates the water of River Wear. For centuries, these buildings incarnated the spiritual and temporary power of the prince bishops who governed in the border with Scotland on behalf of the English Crown; nowadays, they represent the most notable sample of the Anglo-Norman style that England used to challenge the Romanesque one.

Durham Castle and Cathedral




June 8, 793 is a tragic date for Europe. On this date, started the Viking incursions, which for many centuries terrorized the coastal towns from the Faroe Islands to Sicily. Their first prey was a small but prosperous monastery located on the Island of Lindisfarne, next to Northumbria's coast in Great Britain. The chronicles of the time provide a detailed description of the assault, more terrible due to the unexpectedness: murdered monks, stolen treasures, the great library set on fire... Although the monastery was rebuilt, the growing insecurity finally forced the monks to abandon it in 875. For 7 years, they roamed throughout the Northumbria Kingdom, always far from the coast, seeking a safe place for their most precious treasures: the admired relics of Saint Cuthbert, hermit and former prior of the monastery, and the skull of the pious King Oswald of Northumbria, who had protected the foundations of the monastery of Lindisfarne.

At The Border

The new monastery, located in Chester-le-Street, survived for more than a hundred years. Circa 982, it was destroyed by one of the last Danish raids, as at that time the Viking danger started to vanish, and the old predators were starting to become colonists at different locations in Europe. The monks emigrated once again, this time to Durham, next to the southern border of the Kingdom. There, on a rocky hill surrounded by the course of the River Wear, they built in 995 the monastery where the relics of Saint Cuthbert would ultimately rest, and later on, the ones of Bede The Venerable brought in 1022 from Jarrow.

In the 11th century, just next to the monastery, it was constructed the castle of the Count Waltheof of Northumbria, as a fortress against the always present threat of the Scottish rebels. The dichotomy castle/church was, from the beginning, inherent to the history of the place, despite acquiring later different features. Northumbria was one of the most affected territories during the Norman conquest. The recurrent violent rebellions of their counts against William the Conqueror culminated with the cold and systematic devastation of the region that, in order to avoid future revolts was divided into counties, all of them ruled by the Norman lords.

Durham was one of these new-founded counties, with the singularity that it was not ruled by any count, but instead was under the control of a bishop, representative of the royal authority both in the secular and religious lives, closely linked with the Norman England. The first bishops of Durham, William Walcher and William de St-Calais strived for adapting their headquarters to this new concept of the religion, impregnated with European feudalism.  Their management was an example of what was happening in England in those days: the replacement of the primitive Celtic monasticism, of austere and contemplative life, for the powerful French-originated orders, especially the Benedictines.

The First Vaults

It was William de St-Calais the actual promoter of the large complex of Durham as we know it today. In 1083, from the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, arrived in Durham 23 Benedictine monks who developed the core of the new foundations, whose works, however, were started 10 years later, following the demolishment of the old Anglo-Saxon monastery. Once started, the cathedral was built very fast; in 1104 could be carried out the relocation of the relics of St. Cuthbert, and in 1133 the transferring of the throne took place, finishing the construction of the temple, just being left the refinement of the towers. This small lapse of time made of the complex a building with an unusual style, considering the large dimensions of it. Practically, the entire complex can be ascribed to the Anglo-Norman style, insular variant of the Romanesque style characterized for a greater decorative richness. It presents a Greek cross floor plan, with 3 naves separated by arches held by Composed and circular columns. The column shafts are decorated with engravings of diamond-stretch-zigzag patterns.

The same pioneering attitude is expressed in other elements of the temple, such as the blind arches that decorate the walls of the lateral naves of continental origin but which have never been used in Great Britain. It is especially remarkable that the Durham Cathedral was the first building in Europe which was entirely covered by ogival vaults, and one of the first ones which used pointed arches, two elements that were decisive in the ulterior development of Gothic art.

The Castle of the Prince Bishops

After its consecration, the Cathedral suffered few modifications. Between 1170 and 1175 it was erected the Galilee Chapel, which contains the remains of Beda the Venerable. Continuing with the Romanesque style, the foundation problems caused by the rugged hill of the River Wear forced constructors to give it an atypical position, forming a kind of portico in front of the main entrance. In the mid 13th century, the Romanesque apse that contained the St. Cuthbert's tomb was replaced by the spacious Gothic chapel known as the Chapel of the Nine Altars, aimed to facilitate the circulation of the peregrines around the sepulcher. Thanks to the multiple altars that give the Chapel its name, it also made possible for different monks to say Mass simultaneously, as the monastery counted with a large number of monks.

This fact gives us an idea of the prosperity that the Abady reached, reflected in the successive enlargements of the monastic dependencies, located in the south of the Cathedral and which mostly survived, despite containing few primitive elements due to this required expansion.

The Abady disappeared as a result of the suppression of the monastic orders in 1538. The episcopal see of Durham and its bishops, however, managed to survive, becoming Prince Bishops of the English Church. They continued occupying the old castle of count Waltheof and defending from its walls the border with Scotland as they had been doing since William the Conqueror entrusted his custody to Bishop William Walcher. Actually, the same castle had little changed since those times, although in the mid 12th century was considerably enlarged by Bishop Hugh de Puiset, the first bishop to use it as an episcopal residence.

From the Norman occupation, we have the tiny chapel, built circa 1080 with a 3-vaulted-nave plan. Its 6 capitals, decorated with vegetation, monsters, and heads' engravings, constitute a fundamental milestone in Romanesque sculpture in England, especially taking into consideration the early date when they were constructed.

Once its military function disappeared in the 17th century, the castle acquired a more residential nature, accentuated by its ascription to Durham University in the 19th century. Thus, the long history of the feudal bishops of Durham, who knew how to defend the walls of their castle and the prestige of their cathedral, placing their remote spot next to the bank of River Wear on a par with the greatest European artworks, was finally ended.

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