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Durham Cathedral

Durham, Durham

Location Guide

"A part of the World Heritage Site - Durham Castle and Cathedral"

Durham cathedral, picture by Tom Pennington

If this looks familiar it may be that you have seen pictures of it before or that you have seen it in other representations. Durham Cathedral has been featured in the Harry Potter films as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where it had a spire digitally added onto the top of the famous towers.

Durham Cathedral or by its formal name The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham, is one of the finest examples of a Norman cathedral in Europe and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with nearby Durham Castle, which faces it across Palace Green, high above the River Wear. It is perhaps not as old as some cathedrals but has an interesting history.

The Bishops of Durham were also territorial Prince Bishops, with the extraordinary secular rank of Earl palatine, for it was their duty not only to be head of the large diocese, but also to help protect the Kingdom against the Scottish threat from the north. The title survived the union of England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707 until 1836.

The bishops of Durham were very powerful prince-bishops up to the mid-nineteenth century. The seat of Bishop of Durham is still the fourth most significant in the Church of England hierarchy, and he stands at the right hand of the monarch at coronations. Signposts for the modern day County Durham are nowadays subtitled "Land of the Prince Bishops."

You can find out more about prince bishops and princes of the church, from the other website links below. In Britain a number of Bishops have similar rank and sit as members of the House of Lords.

The Cathedral houses the shrine and related treasures of Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, a seventh century saint, and these are on public view. It is also home to the head of St Oswald of Northumbria and the remains of the Venerable Bede. One can also climb the 325 steps to the top of the 217 feet (66 m) tall tower to enjoy an outstanding view of Durham and the surrounding area.

Getting to Durham
The see of Durham takes its origins from the Diocese of Lindisfarne, set up by Saint Aidan at the behest of Oswald of Northumbria around AD 635. The see lasted until AD 664, at which point it was translated to York. The see was then reinstated in AD 678 by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The community at Lindisfarne Priory produced many saints, of which Saint Cuthbert is central to the development of Durham Cathedral.

After repeated Viking raids the monks fled Lindisfarne in AD 875, carrying St Cuthbert's relics with them. The diocese of Lindisfarne remained itinerant until 882, when a community was re-established in Chester-le-Street. The see had its seat here until 995, when further incursions once again caused the monks to move with the relics. According to local legend, the monks followed two milk maids who were searching for a dun (i.e. brown) cow and were led into a peninsula formed by a loop in the River Wear. At this point Cuthbert's coffin became immovable and this was taken as a sign that the new shrine should be built here. A more prosaic set of reasons for the selection of the peninsula is its highly defensible position, and that a community established here would enjoy the protection of the Earl of Northumberland, as the bishop at this time, Aldhun, had strong family links with the earls. Nevertheless, the street leading from The Bailey past the Cathedral's eastern towers up to Palace Green is named Dun Cow Lane.

Picture by Robin Widdison

Initially, a very simple temporary structure was built from nearby timber to house the relics of Cuthbert. The shrine was then transferred to a sturdier, probably wooden, building known as the White Church. This church was itself replaced three years later in 998 by a stone building also known as the White Church, by 1018 only the west tower was unfinished. Durham soon became a site of pilgrimage, encouraged by the growing cult of Saint Cuthbert. King Canute was one early pilgrim, granting many privileges and much land to the Durham community. The defendable position, flow of money from pilgrims and power embodied in the church at Durham ensured that a town formed around the cathedral, establishing the early core of the modern city.

Click on smaller images too see a larger version

The Cathedrals Development

The present cathedral was initially designed and built under the first prince-bishop, William of St. Carilef. Construction began in 1093, although William died before completion of this phase in 1135, passing responsibility to his successor Ranulf Flambard.  The building is notable for the ribbed vault of the nave roof, with pointed transverse arches supported on relatively slender composite piers alternated with massive drum columns, and flying buttresses or lateral abutments concealed within the triforium over the aisles. These features appear to be precursors of the Gothic architecture of Northern France a few decades later, doubtless due to the Norman stonemasons responsible, although the building is considered Romanesque overall. It was the skilled use of the pointed arch and ribbed vault which made it possible to cover far more elaborate and complicated ground plans than hitherto. The buttressing made it possible both to build taller buildings and to open up the intervening wall spaces to create larger windows.
Picture of main naive by Trevor Rickard, digitally edited to show more detail, click here to see original

Saint Cuthbert's tomb lies at the East and was once an elaborate monument of cream marble and gold.

In the twelfth century, Bishop Hugh de Puiset added the Galilee Chapel at the west end of the cathedral. Also known as The Lady Chapel, the Galilee Chapel holds the remains of the Venerable Bede and of Bishop Langley, whose tomb blocked the Great West Door of the cathedral.

William of St. Carilef, Ranulf Flambard, and Hugh de Puiset are all buried in the cathedral's Chapter House, which lies opposite the cloisters and dates from 1140.

The thirteenth century saw the construction of the Chapel of the Nine Altars, at the eastern end of the cathedral, beginning under Richard le Poore (1228-1237). The central tower of this time was destroyed by lightning, so the current tower dates from the fifteenth century.


Cuthbert's tomb was destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII in 1538, but survives as a modest stone affair. Two years later, in 1540, the Benedictine monastery at Durham was dissolved, although the cloisters are well preserved architecturally, and its last prior - Hugh Whitehead - became the cathedral's first dean.

Plan of Durham cathedral,
click on image to see a larger version

The Seventeenth Century
In 1650, Durham Cathedral was used by Cromwell as a makeshift prison to hold Scottish prisoners-of-war after the Battle of Dunbar of September 3, 1650. It is estimated that as many as 3,000 prisoners died in the cathedral itself, where they were kept in inhumane conditions, largely without food, water or heat. The prisoners destroyed much of the cathedral woodwork for firewood but Prior Castell's clock, featuring the Scottish thistle, was spared. Their bodies were buried in unmarked graves. The survivors were shipped as slave labour to North America. In 1946 during work to install a new central heating system at the Cathedral, a mass grave of the Scottish soldiers was uncovered. In 1993 the Scottish Covenanter's Memorials Association discussed with the Cathedral the construction of a memorial to the soldiers, however, this appears to have been inconclusive, since no memorial has yet been created. A campaign properly to respect and remember the "Dunbar Martyrs" was launched at the end of 2007, aiming as a minimum to gain a Christian blessing for the dead and a memorial at the Cathedral burial site or even possible exhumation of the remains and reburial in Scotland.

1700 - 1900
The Chapel of the Nine Altars features a large seventeenth-century rose window, rebuilt in the eighteenth century, and a statue of William Van Mildert, the last prince-bishop (1826-1836) and driving force behind the foundation of Durham University.

Cloisters, edited to show more detail, click here to see original Photo by Robin Widdison.

Location: Durham Cathedral, Durham

Grid Reference: NZ273421 Ceremonial County: Durham

Map Link: Multimap

Aerial photo: Multimap (very clear)

Getting there: Follow signs from city of Durham or refer to map above.

Website: Own

Other Useful Websites: wiki 

Prince-Bishop see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince-bishop

Prince of the Church see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_of_the_Church

Email: enquiries@durhamcathedral.co.uk
Address: The Chapter Office, The College, Durham
Postcode: DH1 3EH Telephone: 0191 386 4266
Opening Times: Opening times of the cathedral are not shown on their website, but services are, and from this you can deduce when the building is open and also when services and other events are being held. Other tourist attractions within the cathedral do have their opening times shown, see below.

Charges: No entry fee to cathedral, but there are entry fees to specific items, i.e. tower, treasury, monks dormitory, building and church exhibition, all of which have their own opening hours so see their website page for details.

Nearby Locations: Durham Castle    very near.

Other Location Pages:

List of all Anglican cathedrals and other major Anglican churches in the UK

Abbey section, including all major Christian buildings, regions orders, normal layouts and history.

World Heritage Sites      World Heritage Sites in the UK

World Heritage Sites - Further Information


There is nothing on their website that suggests any restriction on photography for your own use, but it may be wise to email them before making a visit.


They hold an event once a year to allow people to experience the way Benedictines lived, this is run in combination with a nearby college who provide the accommodation etc.

Please let us know any other information that we can add to the Further information and Planning Grids or page and any errors that you discover. Before making a long trip to any location it is always wise to double check the current information, websites like magazines may be correct at the time the information is written, but things change and it is of course impossible to double check all entries on a regular basis. If you have any good photographs that you feel would improve the illustration of this page then please let us have copies. In referring to this page it is helpful if you quote the Page Ref and classification at the bottom of the Planning Grid above. To print the planning grid select it then right click and print the selected area.

Please submit information on locations you discover so that this system continues to grow.


By: Keith Park Section: Abbey and Religious Building Section Key:
Page Ref: Durham_Cathedral Topic: Abbeys Last Updated: 07/2009

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