The Monks' Dormitory
Completed in around 1404, the Monks' Dormitory was originally built as sleeping quarters for the Durham Priory monks.
Over the centuries its use has changed many times. Today it is home to the Cathedral Library and part of Durham Cathedral Museum.
Where is this space?
The Monks' Dormitory is on the first floor on the west side of the Cloister.
How is it used today?
Today the Monks' Dormitory is part of Durham Cathedral Museum. It is also home to the Cathedral Library.
Building the Monks' Dormitory
Between 1360 and 1430, the monks at Durham replaced most of the buildings around the Cloister. This included the Dormitory, where the monks slept, which had been moved to its present position in the 1100s. Before this time it had been on the opposite (East) side of the Cloister, but between about 1133 and 1140 the Chapter House, also on that side, was heightened and extended, and so the Dormitory needed to be moved.
In 1398 stonemason John de Middleton was employed to rebuild the Dormitory: taking off the roof, heightening the walls, and adding windows and doors to light both it and the Undercroft below. For some reason John was unable to complete the work, and in 1402 the job was taken over by another mason, Peter Dryng. The building work cost over £420 (about £200,000 today), and half of this was paid by Walter Skirlaw, then Bishop of Durham.
A remarkable roof
Working alongside both John and Peter was the carpenter Ellis Harpour. Ellis was responsible for building the Dormitory’s magnificent wooden roof. The 21 beams supporting it are made from massive oak tree-trunks. It is so well designed that the weight of the roof puts very little pressure on these beams. Very few medieval timber roofs of this scale and quality survive today and Durham’s is probably the best preserved large monastic dormitory in England.
How the Dormitory was used
The Dormitory was divided by wooden screens into two rows of cubicles, one at each side of the room, with a central corridor. Every monk had a cubicle to himself, lit by its own window, with room for a bed and a small desk. Novice monks had cubicles at the end of the Dormitory furthest from the Cathedral, which were colder, less comfortable, and did not have individual windows. The floor was tiled with stone, and at night a lamp was lit at each end of the central corridor.
From the Reformation to today
When the monastery at Durham was closed after the Reformation, there was no need for a dormitory as there were no longer any monks. However, the Cathedral continued to find uses for this building - probably one of the reasons it is so well preserved.
In the late 1600s a two-storey house was built inside the Dormitory for one of the Cathedral Canons (priests) and his family to live in. Traces of wallpaper and plaster from this house can still be seen on some of the roof beams.
By the 1840s this house was no longer in use, but a new home was needed for the Cathedral Library. During the 1800s, nearly 20,000 new printed books were added to the Cathedral collection, and it needed more room to grow. Designs were drawn up, the house was demolished, and new bookcases installed in the Dormitory space. The new Library opened on 20th July 1856. The Cathedral’s first museum was also in the Dormitory, with Saint Cuthbert’s coffin on display.
The museum later moved into the Undercroft below the Dormitory, where it remained until 2012. A new museum was opened in 2016 as part of the ‘Open Treasure’ project, including the Dormitory, a new Collections Gallery and the Great Kitchen. Today, the Dormitory is one of the permanent exhibition areas of Durham Cathedral Museum, exploring the early history of Christianity in the region and the story of the Cathedral. It is also still home to the Cathedral Library.
Wheelchair users and visitors with limited mobility
The Monks’ Dormitory is fully accessible. There is ramped or level access throughout Durham Cathedral Museum and access platforms link the ground and first floors.
There is seating for visitors throughout the Museum.
There is an accessible toilet with baby-changing facilities on the ground floor of the Museum, next to the Great Kitchen.
Visitors with a hearing impairment
Information within the Monks’ Dormitory is provided by printed labels and booklets. Video displays are subtitled.
Some of the displays in the Dormitory play music.
At busy times the Dormitory can get very noisy and crowded.
Blind and partially sighted visitors
Large-print label booklets are available. Museum staff and volunteers are also able to read out printed interpretation for visitors.
There are many things to touch and feel in the Dormitory, including replicas of museum objects, scale models and furniture.