Durham and St Cuthbert – The Cathedral

An excerpt from the book: Travels through History – North-East England

The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham is the official name of Durham Cathedral and is the seat of the Anglican Bishop of Durham. The present cathedral was founded in 1093 and was built in just 40 years, an astonishingly short amount of time compared to many others. The cathedral and precincts have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with nearby Durham Castle, which faces it across Palace Green.

The cathedral was begun by William of St Calais, who in addition to his ecclesiastical duties, served as a commissioner for the Domesday Book. He was also a councillor and advisor to both King William I and his son, King William II. In 1083, William created a new monastic order in Durham. The married monks of the existing Cuthbert Community were given the option of joining the new order, without their wives. The monks at the nearby Benedictine monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow were transferred to Durham.   

Durham Cathedral occupies a promontory high up in a loop of the River Wear. From 1080 until the 19th century the bishopric enjoyed the powers of a bishop palatine – this was the Land of Prince Bishops – who had military as well as religious leadership and power. To this day, the Bishop of Durham is the fourth most significant position in the Church of England hierarchy after the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, and the Bishop of London.

The treasures of Durham Cathedral include relics of Saint Cuthbert, 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, which can now be visited as part of the Open Treasure tour. Before describing Open Treasure, I will provide some background information on St Cuthbert, who was a much-travelled man both during his life and after his death.

St Cuthbert could be described as the patron Saint of Northumbria and the Scottish Borders. He was born in East Lothian and spent most of his life in the abbeys at Melrose and Lindisfarne. Cuthbert was made prior of Melrose in 664. He spent much time among the people, being generous to the poor, and performing miracles. After the Synod of Whitby, Cuthbert accepted the Roman customs of the church even though he’d been brought up with the Celtic customs and traditions. His old abbot, Eata, called on him to introduce the Roman customs at Lindisfarne as prior there. Cuthbert’s reputation for gifts of healing and insight led many people to consult him, gaining him the name of “Wonder Worker of Britain”. His missionary work led him to travel across northern Britain from Berwick to Dumfries to carry out pastoral work.

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