The history and architecture of a remarkable building
Durham Cathedral is surely the greatest example of Romanesque architecture, certainly in England and probably the world. Begun in 1093 and completed in its essentials only 40 years later (later additions included the towers and cloisters) it is a remarkable survival of the years when Norman kings ruled England some 900 years ago.
The history of Durham Cathedral began in the year 995 when a group of monks sought a safe resting place for the remains of St Cuthbert who had died in 687. The saint’s bones had first been taken from their original place of burial on Lindisfarne in 875 and been kept in various places in the meantime. There is a legend that the monks were led to the site at Durham by following a wandering cow which stopped when it reached a bend in the River Wear where the cathedral now stands. Be that as it may, this site was ideal for the purpose as it stands high above the river on an easily protected promontory.
The first shrine on the site was known as the White Church, which was replaced by the current Cathedral. The bones of St Cuthbert were moved to the new building in 1104, long before it was complete.
As was often the case with medieval cathedrals, building began at the eastern (choir) end and it would have been usable by 1128 before the nave was complete. There is some evidence that the vaulting of the choir presented problems, which is presumably why the nave vault was constructed as it was, with every precaution taken against collapse.
The Galilee Chapel at the west end of the nave was built later in the 12th century, and the Chapel of the Nine Altars, next to the Shrine of St Cuthbert at the eastern end, dates from the 13th century.
Early medieval cathedrals were much more concerned about interiors than exteriors, so were often built without those features that people today associate with great cathedrals, namely high towers and spires. The three towers of Durham Cathedral, which now seem so iconic and architecturally correct, were an afterthought, with the two western towers, although begun in the Romanesque style, being completed in 1226 in the Gothic style that was then current. The central tower was built in the late 15th century, replacing an earlier construction, and some of the finishing on the towers dates from Victorian times.
The bulk of the cathedral as seen today, at least from the inside, is Norman-Romanesque. The impression as one enters is of solidity and yet great beauty at the same time.
One of the most striking features of the interior of Durham Cathedral is the massive piers that line the nave, choir and transepts. These alternate between pairs of circular and composite piers as one walks along. The composite piers (as if composed of vast bunches of sticks) sweep upwards without interruption and the circular piers are incised with geometrical patterns including spirals and chevrons. It is possible that the incisions were once filled with metal but they are now bare.
The stone vaulting of the nave is particularly fine, and is the earliest example in England of a vault that uses a pointed arch. Transverse arches cross between the composite piers but between the round piers the ribs are formed as St Andrew’s crosses. The transverse arches take off from quite low down on the triforium level (the middle of the three rows of arches in a typical cathedral nave); this may be objected to from an aesthetic viewpoint but it has the advantage of adding strength to the ceiling construction and reducing the stresses on the uppermost clerestory level.
Just to be on the safe side, the architect also included flying buttresses to prevent the weight of the roof from causing the walls to bulge outwards. These are not visible from the outside of the building because they are hidden by the roofs of the side aisles.
Taken together, the massive piers, the ingenious stone vaulting and the flying buttresses have certainly stood the test of time. Despite not having the advantages of modern technology to calculate all the stresses involved in a building of this size, its designers would doubtless be delighted to learn that, some 900 years later, their work is still in place.
Another architectural feature of interest at Durham is the Galilee Chapel at the west end. This is the cathedral’s Lady Chapel, which in every other English cathedral would be found at the east end, typically behind the high altar. However, the legend has it that St Cuthbert was a well-known hater of women and his spirit could not abide the presence of an altar to the Virgin Mary so close to his own shrine, especially as this was the only part of a monastic church that women were permitted to enter. He therefore, so it is said, caused the foundations of the chapel to collapse when efforts were made to build it in the 1170s, hence its positioning at the opposite end of the cathedral. When the Chapel of the Nine Altars was later built at the eastern end it suffered from none of the earlier problems, presumably having St Cuthbert’s blessing.
Be that as it may, the Galilee Chapel is a low projection set against the west front of the cathedral, right against the edge of the drop to the river. The restorer James Wyatt, working in the late 18th century, proposed to demolish the Galilee Chapel to enable a roadway to be opened across the front of the cathedral but was fortunately dissuaded from this act of vandalism.
The architect who designed the Galilee Chapel must have visited Moorish Spain at some time and been impressed by the Islamic building styles that were in evidence there. Durham’s Galilee Chapel therefore imitates the Great Mosque of Cordoba with its slender pillars and arches. At Durham the space is divided into five aisles and the round arches are decorated with a zigzag pattern that recollects the chevron incisions on the pillars in the main cathedral. This chapel is the resting place of the Venerable Bede, whose remains were originally brought to the cathedral in 1020.
Durham Cathedral is a very satisfying building to visit because it retains its Romanesque integrity throughout with little subsequent mucking about to disturb the grand design. The interior and exterior of the cathedral need to be considered quite separately, because the exterior features, which relate so closely to the cathedral’s dramatic setting, are only partly derived from the original concept.
Despite its early origins, Durham Cathedral pointed the way forward to later developments in English cathedral building, not least the pointed vault arches and the invention of flying buttresses. Students of Gothic cathedral architecture would do well to start their investigations at Durham.