A World of Saints: Durham

Some legends are just too downright bonkers to be categorically untrue. Imagine a group of monks, wandering lost and afraid in rural England, being guided to their destination by a milkmaid, herself in search of a lost cow. That’s just silly. But that silliness is part of the founding myth of Durham City.

Legend has it that monks were moving the bones of St Cuthbert from the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, when the cart they were moving came to a halt. Unable to move it, they set up camp. Not to eat, but to fast. It was during this fast that St Cuthbert came to a young monk with instructions. St Cuthbert was not the most helpful of saints: he said that he wanted to be buried at Dun Holme, but failed to mention where in the world Dun Holme could be found. That, or the monk passed out from fasting.

At least St Cuthbert allowed them to move his cart, or they’d be properly stuffed. The monks moved on, now in search of Dun Holme, without a clue. That is, until they met a milkmaid at Mount Joy. The milkmaid was looking for her lost brown/grey – dun – cow, which had last been seen at Dun Holme. The monks followed her, and placed the body of St Cuthbert on the spot where Durham Cathedral stands now, more than 1,000 years later. What became of the milkmaid, or her cow, is unknown.

That’s all very silly and loaded with happenstance, but that’s what makes a good yarn, not its factual accuracy. The fact that pilgrims in their scores chose to visit Durham Cathedral over the centuries, in order to visit the relics of St Cuthbert, and later the Venerable Bede, meant that the Church had a lot at stake in perpetuating this legend, and so were happy for it to be literally carved on to their walls.

St Cuthbert was a particular favourite amongst pilgrims due to his purported healing powers: in life, the Bishop of Lindisfarne was a cave dwelling hermit, albeit one with a propensity for acts of healing and the gift of insight; in death he was blessed with the power to invade the dreams of his followers and intercede on their prayers. The power of suggestion and placebo cannot be underestimated.

Cuthbert’s powers clearly included military strategy too, as the site of Dun Holme – later bastardised to Dunelm and on to Durham, although no one knows quite how – was of huge strategic importance in the ongoing quarrels against the Scots. The precipice on which Durham Castle and Cathedral grip on to would stop even the most devoted barbarian hordes. Consequently, Durham Castle is said to be the only Norman castle never to have been breached, although this assertion is steeped in myth.

Because of the imagined divinity of the city’s founding, the Bishops of Durham have been granted extra powers and titles. Although they are known today as the Prince Bishops – Durham even going so far as referring to itself as “The Land of the Prince Bishops” on its road signs – their title was, in fact, “Bishop by Divine Providence”. Catchy. The Prince Bishops parlayed this privilege in to power.

The Prince Bishops, over time, and at great remove from the capital, added numerous powers to their impressive collection; powers which were ordinarily exercised by the monarch. These included the ability to hold parliaments, raise armies, collect taxes, administer laws, salvage shipwrecks and mint their own coinage. That this led to conflict is natural; how such a situation was allowed to have persisted for more than half a millennium is a mystery. It was Henry VIII who finally clipped their wings.

The Prince Bishops ruled a colossal stretch of North-East England, including much of what is now Northumberland and North Yorkshire. As such, its power rivalled that of the King, and the Bishop of Durham was treated as a King of the North, and that would never do. Henry VIII ordered the sacking of Cuthbert’s remains, and Cromwell sold the Castle and Cathedral to the Mayor of London.

The University of Durham was founded relatively recently, in 1832. The University were bequeathed Durham Castle, as a college of the university, in 1837, at the behest of Queen Victoria. Founded as a theological school, the University eventually began teaching a variety of subjects, including sciences, languages and the arts. It also incorporated the medical school of the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

The university flourished, and spread throughout and around the city, leading to a degree of friction between some local residents and the students residing temporarily in the city. In most areas, the town and gown divide is largely invisible, however. In 1999 the University temporarily accepted this author to its ranks, but it didn’t take, and the relationship was dissolved by mutual consent in 2000.

Although Durham is a collegiate university, much like Oxford and Cambridge, its sixteen colleges are used solely for accommodation, rather than teaching, and so cannot send individual teams up to University Challenge for competition. Possibly as a consequence, The University of Durham have had a strong track record on the competition, having won outright  in 1977 and 2000. During the latter, I could clearly hear the screams from the college bar as I studied for a number of ill-fated exams.

But Durham is far more than its University or its saint. Durham is a city of twists and turns, of streets which take you round in circles, of courts and cobbled lanes. Durham is a city written in architecture, carved from Cuthbert’s mighty rock. Durham is a city to get lost in; lost among its endless tiny shops: Half of the more obscure cuts of my record collection has been mined from the streets of Durham.

Durham is a city of wining and dining: some of the nation’s finest hostelries, small and large, squeeze in to its medieval glory. A friend of mine once got so legendarily smashed in a pretty little bar that he accidentally launched himself off Old Elvet Bridge, and ended up in hospital for the rest of term. His trousers were later found in the lift of a local shopping centre. No explanation was ever given.

In the centre of Durham, away from all the ecclesiastical splendour, is the Durham of the people: the market square. Perpetually thronged, the square is a light on the life of Durham. For lunch, statues become benches for dining shoppers and office workers; come evening, it is a nexus for revellers. At all times it is home to the finest Fish and Chips. The scent of frying batter emanates from the glazed corner, and swoops down through the surrounding streets, drawing you in with its comforting luft.


2 thoughts on “A World of Saints: Durham

Comments are closed.