The cathedral of Durham is one of the finest Norman buildings and a World Heritage site. It stands on a rocky height above a loop in the River Wear, a perfect place defensively. At the time of its establishment it fell under the protection of the Earl of Northumberland, a kinsman of the Bishop.
History tells how the relics of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne were borne with love by his Brethren to Chester-le-Street when the raids of the Danes forced them to flee Holy Island in 875AD, taking the relics with them. A shrine was set up there to the saint, but they were obliged to leave there too in 995. Legend tells they wandered until, following two milkmaids searching for a dun cow, the coffin became immovable. This was taken as a sign that here the new church should be built. On the external walls a carving can be seen of the milkmaids and the cow… and a nearby street bears the name of the Dun Cow.
Initially a small wooden structure was raised, then enlarged to house the relics of the saint. In 1080 William of St. Carilef was installed as the first prince-bishop by William the Conqueror and it was he who caused the building of the present Cathedral, which continued after his death.
The massive pillars, carved with the distinctive Norman chevron resemble those of Dunfermline Cathedral and as there were ties between the two it is thought the same masons may have worked on both buildings.
St Cuthbert’s relics were installed in a new shrine behind the altar of the cathedral. When the tomb was opened in 1104 the tiny Gospel that belonged to the saint was removed along with the silk vestments laid there by King Æthelstan in the 10th century. The Gospel is preserved in the British Library, the vestments remain one of the finest examples of Anglo-Saxon embroidery.
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