Sunday, 10 February 2013

Durham Cathedral

Some time in the 630s, a youth from Dunbar or the Lammermuirs was fostered at Melrose Abbey. One night, whilst out tending sheep, he dreamt of St Aidan, founder of Lindisfarne Abbey. Aidan had died the same night. It was a sign. The boy, Cuthbert, entered monastic service at Melrose, eventually becoming prior in 661. Then, after the landmark Synod of Whitby, was persuaded to take charge of Lindisfarne Abbey (the main centre of Ionan practices in Northumberland) and enforce the newly agreed Roman practices.

Melrose Abbey:

He performed a number of miracles, before retiring to a hermetic life in 676, confining himself to his cell in the Farne Islands and giving audience only through an open window. He was buried at Lindisfarne, and when his coffin was reopened eleven years later his body was found undecayed. For this and other miracles, he became the most popular saint in Northumbria.

Lindisfarne Abbey:

In 793, Lindisfarne became the first place in Britain to be attacked by Vikings. The monks eventually took Cuthbert's remains and wandered around northern Britain to escape. Cuthbert's legend was popularised by the historian Bede, and Alfred of Wessex, towards the end of the 9th century, had a dream of Cuthbert before his final sucesses against the Danes. Henceforth, the House of Wessex made the veneration of Cuthbert official in the south of England as well as the north. The monks carting his remains around finally settled on an outcrop moated on three sides by a loop of the River Wear, and built a shrine over Cuthbert's body.

Durham Cathedral:

And that is how the church in Durham was founded. The present cathedral was founded a hundred years later on the same spot, in 1093, by Malcolm Canmore of Scotland.  Scots had taken Lothian and the Merse off Northumberland in 1018 and the eastern border became established on the Tweed, but it was another two hundred years before this was acknowledged in treaty. In between, this castle-cathedral complex in its superior defensive position formed a Norman bulwark against further Scottish invasion and attempts to move the border south to the Tees: Canmore himself was killed attacking Alnwick not long after attending the foundation of Durham Cathdral.

Modern Durham is a compact university town dedicated to polishing the education of the posher classes, the cathedral and castle (now a dormitory for Durham university) still dominating the centre. A winter wander around might remind you superficially of another old university town, St Andrews, though central Durham is smaller. But Durham has its own atmosphere. Japanese tourists thick on Palace Green outside the cathedral despite the season, building snowmen and taking pictures of each other. Well brought up teenagers in Durham University track suits having a snowball fight. The dark cobbled streets on a Saturday night, a floppy-haired young man unselfconsciously singing beautiful plainsong as he walks towards one of the many former churches in the part of town surrounding the cathedral. Down through a medieval gate to Prebends Bridge, snow falling in the sodium lights, the river dark with hidden ducks. And Sunday morning rowing practice from the haugh to the east of the town, young women in warm coats screaming rowing instructions to beefy lads in improbably thin boats, dozens of joggers, skeletal trees, and a distant view of figures on a slope, sledging, the cathedral towering distantly above all.


There is a tale - reminding me of tales of the true resting place of the Stone of Destiny - that Cuthbert's bones are not really interred under the shrine at Durham Cathedral, but that during Henry VIII's reformation his body was swapped with that of a dead monk and he was reinterred in a secret location, known only to 12 monks - who initiate another brother only as one of their number dies.


blueskyscotland said...

Hi Craig.
Knew the Lindisfarne side of the history but nothing about Durham.
Great photo of the river with the rowing team. Make a very good alternative Christmas card that one as you do not expect to see rowers in the snow.

Robert Craig said...

Yeah, the history of Durham is interesting. A major bulwark of the north against Scottish raids and invasions. The bishop of Durham had a great deal of secular power, and Cuthbert's bones were regularly paraded before English armies defending themselves against marauding Scots.