When Danish raids during the latter part of the 9th century forced the community of monks to leave Lindisfarne, they dutifully placed the body of St Cuthbert in a wooden coffin and took him with them. In 995 they eventually settled on the steep outcrop in a bend of the River Wear and built a shrine for the saints body in 'the White Church'. The Saxon church was destroyed in 1092 when the Norman bishop, William of St Calais, refounded a monastery for Benedictine monks on the same site. He laid the foundations of the new cathedral the following year, and the splendid Gothic building was substantially complete by 1133. Nearly nine centuries later the appearance of Durham Cathedral has changed little.
Beginning at the west end of the church in the Galilee Chapel there are fragments of 12th century wall paintings to be seen but, perhaps more importantly, it is here that the bones of the Venerable Bede were placed in 1370. An imposing Romanesque nave, dominated by strikingly decorated cylindrical piers of enormous dimensions, is further enhanced with slender rib-vaulting along the entire length. At the east end of Durham Cathedral is a finely carved, 14th century Caen stone altar screen that originally contained 107 alabaster figures. But behind this masterpiece of craftsmanship, and still resting on the site of the original Saxon shrine, lies the tomb of St Cuthbert. There is a strong belief that had it not been for this well-loved saint of the north east of England, no cathedral would ever have been built at Durham. Beyond the tomb, at the extreme east end of the church, is the Chapel of the Nine Altars, a graceful structure comprising slender marble shafts built during the 13th century to replace the original Norman apses.
Unlike many of the medieval cathedrals, Durhams monastic buildings have been extremely well preserved. Although heavily restored throughout the 18th/19th centuries, the cloister arcades remain complete, and the usual buildings to be found along the claustral ranges still stand. Dating from 1140 the Chapter House incorporates a faithful 19th century restoration to the original plan. Along the western range the old monks' dormitory has survived with its original timber roof, but it currently houses the cathedral library. Beneath the library is the treasury, displaying many artefacts that have played a part in the long history of Durham Cathedral, including the priceless relics associated with St Cuthbert.
At the Dissolution of the monasteries, Durham was reconstituted as a cathedral, the monks being replaced by canons, and little destruction was suffered initially. Towards the end of the 16th century, however, Durham Cathedral was severely vandalised and again in 1650 when Cromwell imprisoned some 4,000 Scots here. Peace eventually returned and many repairs were put in hand over the next three hundred years to bring Durham Cathedral back to life. Even today restoration work is on-going to ensure that the fabric of this wonderful building remains in good order.
The unforgettable view of Durham Cathedral rising majestically above the densely wooded banks of the River Wear is best seen from across the river itself. However, to fully appreciate its unique architecture, and understand the origins of the monastery, it is essential to discover the treasured relics contained within this magnificent church. An eternal bond has been forged at Durham between the cathedral and two of the most famous names in religious history, and this only serves to emphasise the importance and sanctity of this most beautiful place.