Built in 1093 to house the Shrine of St Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral has been a place of pilgrimage, worship and welcome for almost a millennium.
Originally built as a monastic cathedral for a community of Benedictine monks, Durham Cathedral boasts some of the most intact surviving monastic buildings in England. The Cathedral holds an annual Benedictine Week when there is an opportunity to explore in more depth the historical and living tradition of St Benedict, focusing on its expression at Durham Cathedral in the past and present.
The Cathedral also served a political and military function by reinforcing the authority of the prince-bishops over England’s northern border. The Prince Bishops effectively ruled the Diocese of Durham from 1080 until 1836 when the Palatinate of Durham was abolished.
The Reformation brought the dissolution of the Priory and its monastic community. The monastery was surrendered to the Crown in December 1539, thus ending hundreds of years of monastic life at the Cathedral. In May 1541 the Cathedral was re-founded, the last Prior became the first Dean, and twelve former monks became the first Canons.
Despite the continuity of some of the personnel, this period must have been very traumatic in the life of the Cathedral as medieval worship and monastic life gave way to the new Book of Common Prayer. There was much regrettable destruction of historic furnishings and artefacts in the later sixteenth century as the reforms were zealously upheld.
Much valuable information about life in the Cathedral in the period immediately prior to the dissolution can be found in a 1591 work, ‘The Rites of Durham’ which it is presumed was written by a former member of the monastic community and is available in the Cathedral.
Durham Cathedral witnessed further turbulence during the Civil War, when the Church of England was supressed at the order of Parliament. During this period the Cathedral was closed for worship and used by Oliver Cromwell to incarcerate 3,000 Scottish soldiers brought to Durham following the Battle of Dunbar in 1650. Many of the soldiers died and until recently their whereabouts was unknown. In 2013 during building work at Durham University’s Palace Green Library, close to the Cathedral, two mass graves were found. Subsequent archaeological and academic research carried out by Durham University led to the conclusion that the graves are those of the soldiers. See www.durham.ac.uk/scottishsoldiers for more information.
The late eighteenth century was another sad period in the history of the Cathedral as there was much unfortunate work to the fabric of the Cathedral including the chiselling off of between 2 and 3 inches of stone from most of the exterior and the demolition of part of the Norman Chapter House. Luckily the idea of demolishing the Galilee Chapel was abandoned. The Chapter House was rebuilt to the original design in 1895.
The nineteenth century saw the introduction of much of the stained glass in the Cathedral and the Scott screen in the crossing whilst in 1832 the Bishop of Durham and the Cathedral Chapter founded Durham University.
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the emphasis has been on sensitive conservation, along with the introduction of some contemporary art. The architectural and historical importance of Durham Cathedral was recognized in 1986 when it was inscribed on the World Heritage list by UNESCO as part of the Durham World Heritage Site.
The Cathedral is also responsible for the care and upkeep of the woodlands and riverbanks which provide the stunning setting for the Cathedral when seen from the west.
Today the Cathedral thrives as a place of worship and hospitality, welcoming over 700,000 people every year. It continues to be a focal point for the community of Durham and the wider North East region offering a deep sense of place to all who come.