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Sunday, 10 June 2012





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Durham Cathedral- the Norman shrine of St. Cuthbert

Dating back to 1093, the Shrine of St. Cuthbert in the town of Durham in County Durham is venerated by Christians the world over this spring.

A living monument of tribute towards Norman Romanesque architecture in England, the Durham Cathedral, as it is popularly known, is steeped in legend and history and is simultaneously of scholarly and ecclesiastical merit.

A research-related stay at the Durham University took me inevitably to its illustrious neighbour and hours were spent there as the Chaplain and guides to the Cathedral unravelled its history for the benefit of the visitors.

It has been established that the original shrine was built by the Prince Bishop William of St. Carilef (Calais) appointed by William the Conqueror, following the Norman Conquest of 1066. The original foundation for the Cathedral laid by Bishop William and the Normans is still visible, along with its lead markings (see picture). The relics of St. Cuthbert were enshrined in the Cathedral in 1104, having been removed from the White Church in the same precincts where they had been laid to rest earlier.

The body of St. Cuthbert had been made secure by the Monks of the Lindisfarne Monastery (or the Community of St. Cuthbert) since his death in 687 in several locations amidst numerous Danish invasions. Legend has it that after many wanderings, the monks had finally arrived in the peninsula in the loop formed by the River Wear in Durham.

There they had met a milkmaid searching for her lost dun (light-brown) cow, and followed her to the site of the present shrine. When the bier of St. Cuthbert's coffin was placed on the ground here it had become immovable, indicating that the Saint wished his body be interred at the location in a new structure.

The route taken by the Monks who followed the milkmaid is seen to this day as the Dun Cow Lane, perhaps the oldest of its kind in Durham. A work of sculpture on the outer wall of the Cathedral depicts this legend (see picture).

If the devout reach the Durham Cathedral in veneration of St. Cuthbert, scholars and students identify with it in terms of the life and work of the eighth century scholar St. Bede, whose body too rests within the same precincts.

St. Bede is well known for his work on the life of St. Cuthbert and his 'The Ecclesiastical History of the English People' (Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum). St. Bede's contribution to English life is seen in the form of translations from Greek and Latin that made more reading on the doctrine available to the common people.

The Cathedral also finds a place in the military history of England, as the temporal powers of the Prince Bishops of Durham involved defence of the land and its people. During times of war or civil strife, the 217 ft. Cathedral Tower with its 325 steps served as a watch-tower and the entire premises were used for military purposes.

It was also a sanctuary for fugitives. The main entrance to the Cathedral had at one time displayed a knocker (a replica is still seen, with the original found among the Cathedral's museum collection), to be used by fugitives who sought refuge. They were given a few days to sort out their affairs or to surrender to the law enforcement authorities.

Visitors also see Prior Castell's clock, dating back to the 16th century and still in chime, a magnificent pipe organ and rare manuscripts deposited in the Library of the Cathedral where research on ecclesiastical history and Medieval England is often in progress.


The Durham University, the third oldest in England, had been founded by Van Mildert the Bishop of Durham and the Cathedral Chapter in 1832. A few years later, Bishop Mildert's Castle next to the Cathedral had been vested in the university following his demise; it now houses Durham undergraduates.

Audiences in Sri Lanka and the world over have seen segments of the magnificent structure of the Durham Cathedral during the past few years on the big and small screens - Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley find their Hogwarts within its cloister in several film versions of the series; the game of quidditch is often seen practised in the Cathedral's quadrangle!

Foundation with lead works COL grave Steps to Cathedral Tower


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