I am in Durham today and, as usual when visiting, I find myself in the majestic cathedral that dominates the skyline of this beautiful city. Durham Cathedral is a very special place.
This Norman style cathedral was begun in 1093, replacing the Saxon ‘White Church’, and was the first cathedral in England to have its roof vaulted in stone. In 1986 it was designated a World Heritage site.
It’s well worth a visit and has so many stories to tell. For example, The Sanctuary Ring or Knocker is an impressive adornment to the front entrance and offered temporary refuge to those who had committed a crime. Outlaws on the run who could reach the cathedral and touch the ring were afforded 37 days protection inside from the law and could choose, at the end of that period, to go into exile or face trial.
Inside the cathedral look out for The Rose Window, an eighteenth century replica of the original medieval piece, The Chapel of the Nine Alters and the Shrine of St Cuthbert himself. I particularly love The Galilee Chapel and the tomb of St Bede. Bede is known as “The Father of English History”, was born about 673 and was a poet, theologian, biographer and scientist as well as being a historian.
The cathedral is home to many treasures and has visiting exhibitions throughout the year, but is most well-known for its links to St Cuthbert. Cuthbert was born in the early seventh century, about forty years before Bede and was called to his religious life early following a vision. He was already performing miracles in his teens. He joined the monastery at old Melrose before being sent to Ripon and from there transferred to Lindisfarne as Prior.
After about ten years at Lindisfarne, Cuthbert felt that God wanted him to become a hermit and withdraw from monastic life. He settled on Inner Farne, a tiny remote island where he lived for the next decade. Unfortunately the stories of his powers of healing and helping people meant that he still received visitors on a regular basis, and in 684 to his further dismay, he was elected Bishop of Lindisfarne. He refused the post at first but was eventually persuaded when King Egfrid begged him in person. In 686, realising his life was ending, he asked to return to Inner Farne and he died in March 687.
Although he would have liked to have been buried on his island, the monks returned Cuthbert’s body to Lindisfarne where he was buried in an ornate coffin. Eleven years later, when the monks opened his coffin and found his body to be whole and without decay, (a sign of sainthood) Cuthbert was canonised. His tomb became a place much visited by pilgrims and many miracles were said to have been performed there.
During the following century, Lindisfarne became the target of numerous Viking raids and the monks entrusted with protecting the tomb realised that Cuthbert’s remains were no longer safe. In 873 the monks left Lindisfarne with Cuthbert’s coffin and wandered for 7 years carrying his remains looking for a safe resting place for him. A beautiful wooden sculpture by Dr Fenwick Lawson called The Journey is on display in the church on Lindisfarne depicting their quest. ( Lindisfarne, also known as The Holy Isle, is another place on the ‘must visit’ list. I love it so much I spent my 50th birthday there!)
After 7 years, the story goes that the monks, tired of wandering with their heavy burden, were travelling near Chester Le Street. The coffin was on a cart and suddenly the cart stopped and, no matter what the monks did, they could not get it to move. The leader of the monks had a vision that Cuthbert was speaking to him saying that he wanted his final resting place to be at ‘Dunholme’ but the monks were confused as they didn’t know where that was. As they discussed the problem, a cow girl passed by, and asked another young woman if she had seen a lost dun (brown) cow. The second woman said she had seen the cow heading for Dunholme, and pointed out the way. The monks overheard the conversation and followed the cowgirl, finding to their amazement that the cart was now easily movable. Dunholme, of course, later became Durham. This lovely story is even depicted in stone on one side of the cathedral.
In order to house Cuthbert’s remains, a new stone ‘White Church’ was built, the predecessor of the present cathedral. St Cuthbert was moved a number of times over the next few centuries and at various points the tomb was opened to inspect the body. It was said to remain in a non decayed state each time!
The Treasures of St Cuthbert have been a focus for prayer and pilgrimage for centuries and they are on display currently in what was the kitchen area in the 14th century cathedral. Cuthbert’s coffin is particularly impressive and remarkably well preserved. The large fragments that are on display were recovered from his tomb in 1847 and the display is such that it depicts how it would have looked whole in 687. Made of solid oak, it is carved with pictures of Christ, the Virgin, the Apostles and the Archangels.
My favourite “treasure” is the stunning Pectoral Cross. This was found hidden in Cuthbert’s robes and is made of gold and set with garnets. I love the fact that it was hidden – there is a story there for sure! His personal comb is also on display, as is his portable alter, now in 2 pieces, which was buried with him.
“Perhaps a half measure of wine every day should suffice for each member of the community” Rule of Benedict, chapter 40.
If you are ever in Durham, visit the Cathedral (and St. Cuthbert’s Treasures) for a couple of hours. It’s certainly breathtaking in its grandeur and while the stories and art are fascinating, its also a place of incredible calm and peace.