top of page

Portfolio > North East England 3 > Durham Cathedral 2                                                              Click on an image below to reveal enlarged version

Durham Cathedral, Tyne & Wear, UK

The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham, commonly known as Durham Cathedral and home of the Shrine of St Cuthbert, is a cathedral in the city of Durham, England. It is the seat of the Bishop of Durham, the fourth-ranked bishop in the Church of England hierarchy. The present Norman era cathedral had started to be built in 1093, replacing the city's previous 'White Church'. In 1986 the cathedral and Durham Castle were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Durham Cathedral's relics include: Saint Cuthbert's, transported to Durham by Lindisfarne monks in the 800s; Saint Oswald's head and the Venerable Bede's remains. The Durham Dean and Chapter Library contains: sets of early printed books, some of the most complete in England; the pre-Dissolution monastic accounts and three copies of Magna Carta. From 1080 until 1836, the Bishop of Durham held the powers of an Earl Palatine. In order to protect the Anglo-Scottish border, powers of an earl included exercising military, civil, and religious leadership. The cathedral walls formed part of Durham Castle, the chief seat of the Bishop of Durham. There are daily Church of England services at the cathedral, Durham Cathedral Choir sing daily except Mondays and holidays, receiving 727,367 visitors in 2019.

21st Century

At the beginning of this century two of the altars in the Nine Altars Chapel at the east end of the cathedral were re-dedicated to Saint Hild of Whitby and Saint Margaret of Scotland: a striking painting of Margaret (with her son, the future king David) by Paula Rego was dedicated in 2004. Nearby a plaque, first installed in 2011 and rededicated in 2017, commemorates the Scottish soldiers who died as prisoners in the cathedral after the Battle of Dunbar in 1650. The remains of some of these prisoners have now been identified in a mass grave uncoverered during building works in 2013 just outside the cathedral precinct near Palace Green. 


In 2004 two wooden sculptures by Fenwick Lawson, Pietà and Tomb of Christ, were placed in the Nine Altars Chapel, and in 2010 a new stained glass window of the Transfiguration by Tom Denny was dedicated in memory of Michael Ramsey, former Bishop of Durham and Archbishop of Canterbury. In 2016 former monastic buildings around the cloister, including the Monks' Dormitory and Prior's Kitchen, were re-opened to the public as Open Treasure, an extensive exhibition displaying the cathedral's history and possessions. In November 2009 the cathedral featured in the Lumiere festival whose highlight was the "Crown of Light" illumination of the North Front of the cathedral with a 15-minute presentation that told the story of Lindisfarne and the foundation of cathedral, using illustrations and text from the Lindisfarne Gospels. The Lumiere festival was repeated in 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017. Durham Priory held many manuscripts; in the 21st century, steps were under way to digitise the books, originating from the 6th to the 16th century. The project was being undertaken in a partnership by Durham University and Durham Cathedral. The cathedral church and the cloister is open to visitors during certain hours each day, unless it is closed for a special event. In 2017 a new "Open Treasure" exhibition area opened featuring the 8th-century wooden coffin of Saint Cuthbert, his gold and garnet pectoral cross, a portable altar and an ivory comb. This exhibition was continuing as of October 2019. In that month, a new exhibit was added, Mapping the World, featuring books, maps and drawings and from the archives, scheduled to run until 18 January 2020.


There is some evidence that the aisle of the choir had the earliest rib vaults in England, as was argued by John Bilson, English architect, at the end of the nineteenth century. Since then it has been argued that other buildings like Lessay Abbey in northwest France provided the early experimental ribs that created the high technical level shown in Durham. There is evidence in the clerestory walls of the choir that the high vault had ribs. There is controversy between John James and Malcolm Thurlby on whether these rib vaults were four-part or six-part, which remains unresolved. The building is notable for the ribbed vault of the nave, with some of the earliest transverse pointed arches supported on relatively slender composite piers alternated with massive drum columns, and lateral abutments concealed within the triforium over the aisles. These features appear to be precursors of the Gothic architecture of Northern France, possibly due to the Norman stonemasons responsible, although the building is considered Romanesque overall. The skilled use of the pointed arch and ribbed vault made it possible to cover far more elaborate and complicated ground plans than before. Buttressing made it possible to build taller buildings and open up the intervening wall spaces to create larger windows.


The UNESCO World Heritage Site description makes this comment about the architectural style:

Though some wrongly considered Durham Cathedral to be the first ‘Gothic’ monument (the relationship between it and the churches built in the Île-de-France region in the 12th century is not obvious), this building, owing to the innovative audacity of its vaulting, constitutes, as do Spire [Speyer] and Cluny, a type of experimental model which was far ahead of its time.

Another United Nations web site states that.


"the use of stone ‘ribs’ forming pointed arches to support the ceiling of the nave was an important achievement, and Durham Cathedral is the earliest known example" [and] The nave vault of Durham Cathedral is the most significant architectural element ... because it marks a turning point in the history of architecture. The pointed arch was successfully used as a structural element for the first time here in this building. Semi-circular arches were the type used prior to the adoption of the structural pointed arch — the limitations of which is that their height must be proportionate to their width".

Saint Cuthbert's tomb lies at the east in the Feretory and was once an elaborate monument of cream marble and gold. It remains a place of pilgrimage. The fragments of St Cuthbert's coffin are exhibited at the cathedral.


bottom of page