Tuesday, 15 August 2017

County Durham - Home of the Prince Bishops

A few years ago I read a novel by Marilyn Durham about Ranulf Flambard, who was a minister of William Rufus and was bishop of Durham. The descriptions of the cathedral were deftly drawn and evocative, and I was delighted to find that during a recent trip away, I was near enough to Durham finally to visit the cathedral.

photo by Annie Whitehead
The building of the cathedral was begun under the supervision of William de St-Calais, bishop of Durham until his death in 1096 and who has been suggested as prime candidate for the driving force behind the Domesday survey. He was succeeded officially by Flambard in 1099. 

photo by Annie Whitehead

photo by Annie Whitehead

An image often associated with the cathedral is the famous door knocker, the Sanctuary Knocker, which those seeking refuge could sound to gain entry, and safety. The original is on display inside the cathedral; this one is a replica.

photo by Annie Whitehead

Sadly, but for good reasons, no photography is allowed inside the cathedral. Graciously, the Durham World Heritage Site allowed me to use photographs from their site. For what would a blog post about Durham be if I could not show you the exquisite Shrine of St Cuthbert and the tomb of St Bede?

Image copyright: Durham Cathedral and Jarrold Publishing
St Cuthbert is probably most associated with Lindisfarne but in fact he spent a relatively short amount of time there, at least while he was alive. He was buried at Lindisfarne, in 687, and remained there until the Viking raids on the Northumberland coast ushered in a new period of English history. In 875 the monks took the Saint's remains, and thus began his travels, via Chester-le-Street and Ripon, and finally to Durham.
My studies and research for my writing have necessitated many readings of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. I frequently write on my other blog of moments when characters from history become more 'real' to me - be it through the reading of a primary source document, or visiting a place associated with them. Standing in front of Bede's tomb had a profound effect on me, as I contemplated that here was the resting place of the man whose works, written so many centuries ago, were so familiar to me.
During this, my first visit, I looked round the Open Treasures exhibition in the monks' dormitory, where I was delighted to find Hog's Back gravestones and rare wooden coffins from the Anglo-Saxon era.  Now, a return visit has stirred my emotions: the Treasures of St Cuthbert exhibition is now open.

Passing from the monks' dormitory, still used as a working library, visitors must move through an air lock into an area with regulated temperature control. Until September, the first displays you will see are of the copies of Magna Carta, including the Charter of the Forest

Downstairs in the old kitchens, you will find the original sanctuary door knocker. For a moment, it diverts one's attention and then, you see it - St Cuthbert's coffin. I was surprised just how many fragments remain, and it is simply displayed, with a computer graphic explaining the meaning of all the carvings on the coffin.

Also on display are Cuthbert's comb, his portable altar, and his pectoral cross, shown below. This is my photograph of a postcard purchased from the Cathedral shop, since no photography is allowed. But it is enough to show the exquisite workmanship.

A short drive from Durham takes you to Bishop Auckland, site of Auckland Castle, home to the Prince Bishops of Durham since the 1600s. It is currently closed for remodelling and renovation, and will open again in 2018, with a new visitors' centre, at which time I have been invited to visit, so I will write more in another post.

photo by Annie Whitehead

Meanwhile, before you leave the area, take a short drive to Escomb, where you will find, in the most incongruous of settings, a rare example of a stone-built Anglo-Saxon church. Click on the link below to read more about this wonderful building.

photo by Annie Whitehead