The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham (usually known as Durham Cathedral) is a cathedral in the city of Durham, England, the seat of the Anglican Bishop of Durham. The Bishopric dates from 995, with the present cathedral being founded in AD 1093. The cathedral is regarded as one of the finest examples of Norman architecture and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with nearby Durham Castle, which faces it across Palace Green.
The present cathedral replaced the 10th century "White Church", built as part of a monastic foundation to house the shrine of Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. The treasures of Durham Cathedral include relics of St Cuthbert, the head of St Oswald of Northumbria and the remains of the Venerable Bede. In addition, its Durham Dean and Chapter Library contains one of the most complete sets of early printed books in England, the pre-Dissolution monastic accounts, and three copies of the Magna Carta. Durham Cathedral occupies a strategic position on a promontory high above The River Wear. From 1080 until the 19th century the bishopric enjoyed the powers of a Bishop Palatine, having military as well as religious leadership and power.
Durham Castle was built as the residence for the Bishop of Durham. The seat of the Bishop of Durham is the fourth most significant in the Church of England hierarchy, and he stands at the right hand of the monarch at coronations. Signposts for the modern day County Durham are subtitled "Land of the Prince Bishops." There are daily Church of England services at the Cathedral, with the Durham Cathedral Choir singing daily except Mondays and when the choir is on holiday. The cathedral is a major tourist attraction within the region, the central tower of 217 feet (66 m) giving views of Durham and the surrounding area.
The see of Durham takes its origins from the Diocese of Lindisfarne, founded by Saint Aidan at the behest of Oswald of Northumbria around AD 635. The see lasted until AD 664, at which point it was translated to York. The see was then reinstated at Lindisfarne in AD 678 by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Among the many saints produced in the community at Lindisfarne Priory, Saint Cuthbert, who was Bishop of Lindisfarne from AD 685 until his death on Farne Island in 687, is central to the development of Durham Cathedral. After repeated Viking raids, the monks fled Lindisfarne in AD 875, carrying St Cuthbert's relics with them.
The diocese of Lindisfarne remained itinerant until 882, when a community was re-established in Chester-le-Street. The see had its seat here until AD 995, when further incursions once again caused the monks to move with the relics. In 1986, the Cathedral, together with the nearby Castle, became a World Heritage Site. The UNESCO committee classified the Cathedral under criteria C (ii) (iv) (vi), reporting, "Durham Cathedral is the largest and most perfect monument of 'Norman' style architecture in England". In 1996, the Great Western Doorway was the setting for Bill Viola's large-scale video installation The Messenger. Interior views of the Cathedral were featured in the 1998 film Elizabeth.
Cuthbert's tomb was destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII in 1538, and the monastery's wealth handed over to the king. The body of the saint was exhumed, and according to the Rites of Durham, was discovered to be uncorrupted. It was reburied under a plain stone slab, but the ancient paving around it remains intact, worn by the knees of pilgrims. Two years later, on December 31, 1540, the Benedictine monastery at Durham was dissolved, and the last prior of Durham -- Hugh Whitehead -- became the first dean of the cathedral's secular chapter.
The building is notable for the ribbed vault of the nave roof, with pointed transverse arches supported on relatively slender composite piers alternated with massive drum columns, and flying buttresses or lateral abutments concealed within the triforium over the aisles. These features appear to be precursors of the Gothic architecture of Northern France a few decades later, doubtless 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.
There is a regular choir of adult lay clerks, choral scholars and child choristers. The latter are educated at the Chorister School. Traditionally child choristers were all boys, but in November 2009 the Cathedral admitted female choristers for the first time. The girls and the boys serve alternately, not as a mixed choir, except at major festivals such as Easter, Advent and Christmas when the two "top lines" come together.
Durham is one of the great experiences of Europe to the eyes of those who appreciate architecture, and to the minds of those who understand architecture. The group of Cathedral, Castle, and Monastery on the rock can only be compared to Avignon and Prague.