Are you studying Durham Cathedral as part of the AQA Norman England Unit?

Last week we were lucky enough to be joined by research Assistant Dr. John Jenkins from York University for an hour session on the Normans and Durham Cathedral. Here is a brief transcript of what he told us.  Please share with any colleagues studying Durham Cathedral for their Historic Environment.

  1. Durham is unique in that it combines the role of Church and warrior bishop. The Earls of Northumbria had not been successful in ruling over the people. Tostig had been replaced by Harold, Copsi had been given the role by William but lasted only 5 weeks in the job until he was burnt out of his church and beheaded. He was killed by Oswulf, grandson of Uchtred, who installed himself as Earl. Oswulf was killed in the autumn by bandits after less than six months as Earl. The role then passed to Gospatric who later joined a rebellion with Edgar Atheling and the Danes. As a result of this rebellion William stripped him of his title and placed Waltheof in the role. In 1075 Waltheof is caught up in another rebellion against William, and, despite confessing he is executed by William.

Clearly the Earldom of Northumbria was causing major problems for any English King.


John explained you need to understand that the people of Northumbria felt they owed their allegiance to a higher authority than a King. They were the ‘people of St. Cuthbert’. St Cuthbert had been a monk at Lindisfarne and Melrose in the 7th Century and had been given the status of Saint. His remains had been moved across the North of England in reaction to various Viking invasions but by the 10th Century he was firmly established at Durham Cathedral. The people of Northumbria identified themselves as ‘waliwerfolc’ – essentially People of the Saint. This means that St. Cuthbert was their protector. In the Harrying of the North, Simeon reports that the Normans turn back at Northallerton because Cuthbert has sent down a mist.

Durham was not any use in the strategic sense. Instead the Normans build Newcastle as this is a much more useful strategic position.  However Durham has significance as a religious site. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, William visits Durham and goes to the shrine of St. Cuthbert. Here he confirms all the liberties and lands of the cathedral and gives gold and vestments.

Simeon gives an alternative story in which William doubts whether Cuthbert is really in the tomb and tries to open the coffin. At the moment he does he is stricken with fever and rides away in terror. He then sends gold.

John points out that it really doesn’t matter which was true, it was an idea that was believed by the people of Northumbria. William had realised that in order to control this region he had to respect their Saint.

The Normans decide to launch a new style of Earl/Bishop for a variety of reasons

  1. Bishops have no children as they are celibate so they can be easily removed without hereditary issues
  2. To make the job attractive there needed to be significant reward
  3. The Earls needed to use the powers of St Cuthbert to be able to govern
  4. The Earls needed considerable power – could offer rewards of monastic life to the sons of families who obeyed their laws.

William St Calais is the first of these new Bishop Earls

The Cathedral at Durham is rebuilt alongside the existing Anglo- Saxon one (called the White Church). Cuthbert’s remains are transferred in 1104. They also build a new monastery.

The new cathedral would have been built by a team of Norman stone masons and used the newest fashion for ceiling vaulting. The zig zag motive represents continuity with the old Anglo-Saxon style of decoration. (The Normans decorated much more figuratively). It was exactly the same length as St Peters in Rome. It would have been painted red, blue and green inside and probably white outside.

12 monks looked after Cuthbert and some could trace their lineage back to the 7th century Lindisfarne. (Monks at this point were not celibate)

William St Calais comes from a monastery in Normandy and he models Durham on this experience. William brings in Benedictine monks who are stricter and observe the rules of celibacy. In this way he takes over control over Cuthbert’s staff. Future monks have to observe celibacy.

Before 1083 women could also pray at the shrine of St. Cuthbert. William brings in strict rules based on his former monastery’s practise of denying women access to the shrine. Women end up pressing offerings into the walls or having to give them to the monks in an attempt to get close to the saint. Teachers could link this to wider changes in the diminishing status of women in the Norman period?

Durham Castle – it was small and never really used in battle. Not much of the original castle remains now. It was built in 1070 as the Bishop’s Palace and like all castles was largely symbolic. It would have been a simple motte and bailey and a curtain wall. John pointed out that the AQA pack showed photos of the later parts of the cathedral and castle. You will need to get students to cross out lots of the visible outline to give a true impression of how the castle  and cathedral would have looked in Medieval times.





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