Durham: Ancient Cathedral and Fortress

By Richard Oliver O.S.B.


Cathedral Town, County Durham, UK

[Church of Christ and Blessed Mary the Virgin]

At Eastertide in 1985 I arrived in Durham, England, to begin service as the director of the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library's (HMML) first on-site microfilming of a British collection. Frs. Godfrey Diekmann OSB and Wilfred Theisen OSB had previously visited Durham to prepare the way on behalf of HMML. The medieval collection of books at Durham that had attracted them is especially noteworthy because it is one of the few monastic libraries in England to have survived the Reformation substantially intact.

Monastic Durham

Durham was one of the fourteen cathedrals that also served as the church of a great monastery. In addition, Durham was one of eight monastic cathedrals that had been seats of bishops for centuries before the dissolution of the monasteries. In 1540, the monks of the Durham Chapter escaped total suppression through "alteration," the secularization and endurance of the cathedral chapter as a chapter of secular canons under a dean. The monastic library became the root of today's Dean and Chapter Library.

The see of Durham is the lineal continuation of the Anglo-Saxon see of Lindisfarne, founded by Saint Aidan in 635. He built his monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, now Holy Island, off Northumbria. [Cuthbert/Bede tombs]Saint Cuthbert became bishop of Lindisfarne in 685, but died two years later. When, fleeing Viking attacks, the monks left the island of Lindisfarne in the eighth century, they took Cuthbert's incorrupt (desiccated) body on their wanderings. These lasted until 995 when they set up a temporary shrine on a rocky promontory all but surrounded by the River Wear. Early in the eleventh century the relics of the scholarly Venerable Bede were stolen from Jarrow under cover of darkness and laid in Cuthbert's great shrine.

Norman Durham: 1092-1133

William de St. Carlief, second Norman bishop of Durham -- the first had been murdered by the independent Northerners -- began the present cathedral in 1092. He also replaced the cathedral clergy with Benedictine monks from Jarrow and Wearmouth. The main body of the cathedral was completed in 1133. Few churches occupy so magnificent and commanding a site. The Norman Romanesque architecture of the structure is one of the finest examples ever built. Durham Cathedral is also noted in the history of architecture for its Gothic rib-groined vaulting, the earliest surviving example.

Even before the Conquest the bishops of Durham held large tracts of land known as the patrimony of Saint Cuthbert that allowed them almost complete immunity from the power of the king and the earl of Northumbria. The see's extensive rights were strengthened by the fact that the bishops frequently had to repel Scottish invasions that fostered both military and financial independence. The bishop headed the civil government, maintained courts of both common and canon law, and stamped his initials on the backs of his own mint's coinage. A mitred prior attended the monastic community.

Dean and Chapter Durham

Durham arms Needless to say, it was a singular delight for me to work every day at the cathedral library that now occupies the former monastic refectory and dormitory. Canon Coppin, chapter librarian, opined I was probably the first Benedictine monk to use the refectory daily since 1540. Since the refectory is usually closed to visitors, the camera for filming the five hundred medieval manuscripts was set up there at the far end. Mr. Michael Gunn, Academic Microforms, Scotland, specializes in document micro-photography. From September through January, Mrs. Jane Gunn, welcome and good-natured colleague, assisted with the documentation.

Catholic Durham

Besides the three hundred seventy or so manuscripts in the Dean and Chapter Library, about ninety manuscripts from the Durham University Library and forty manuscripts from Ushaw College were filmed. In addition to its medieval treasures, The Dean and Chapter Library is especially rich in music manuscripts.

Historic Ushaw College, situated in the countryside about four miles northwest of Durham City, is the Roman Catholic seminary directly descended from the English College founded by Cardinal Allen at Douai in 1568. I lived there from April through June enjoying especially the good food and company of the "Parlour" (faculty dining room). I lived among the philosophers and theologians preparing for ordination.

Some of the chilly and overcast days on the moor were brightened that spring by Freddie Mercury's popular, upbeat hit, "I Was Born to Love You" (RealAudio file) that appears on Queen's final album, Made in Heaven (1995). When filming began in July, I moved from Ushaw to The Castle, University College, near the cathedral.

Castle Durham

U.C. armsUniversity College dates from the foundation of the University in 1832 when Earl Grey's Reform Bill stripped the bishop of his temporal powers. The College is housed primarily in historic Durham Castle, built soon after the Norman Conquest. It served, until the first half of the nineteenth century, as the bishop's palace.

Today the Great Hall is used daily by University College for dining, the Undercroft for the junior common room and bar, and the old Servants' Hall for the College library. The Castle, taken together with the Cathedral at the other end of Palace Green, has been included in UNESCO's World Heritage list. No college has a more distinctive setting. Potential visitors to Britain should note that bed and breakfast accommodation is available at the Castle out of term.

Bibliographic Durham

Dr. A. I. Doyle, author, scholar, sometime librarian, Honorary Reader in Bibliography, and doyen of the Castle, graciously arranged for me to enjoy the generous hospitality of the Senior Common Room (SCR) and the attendant privileges of its members. This dispensation allowed my guests and me to dine regularly and well at high table with the dons. In return I gladly participated as appropriate in the public activities of Castle, Cathedral, and University.

Among the undergraduates, the cream of club and college assembled for the [Debating] Soc's spring dinner that featured in 1985 the popular novelist and entertaining Conservative speaker, Jeffrey Archer, before his rise to Lordship and the later disgrace that lead to jail. The HMML Durham microfilming project also included the University's pre-1600 manuscripts thanks to the friendly cooperation of head librarian, Beth Rainey.

Farewell, Durham

Understandably, knowing that all the manuscripts had been filmed and returned to their sturdy vault, the camera had been dismantled and shipped to London, Adieu! had already been shared with new and dear friends, I recognized powerful emotions astir in my heart.

On the day of departure, I watched the dawn's rain bead on my luggage as I waited for a taxi, alone, by the broad, usually busy, public expanse of Palace Green. In prayer-filled, chill, February silence, I reluctantly took my leave of Town and County Durham, "half Church of God, half fortress 'gainst the Scot" (Sir Walter Scott).

This article appeared originally in
Saint John's Abbey Quarterly 4:2 (April 1986) 6-7.



Bro. Richard OSB
Saint John's Abbey


Rev. 6.apr.2000 / http://richoliver.us/durham/