Tag Archives: Durham Cathedral

Land of the Prince Bishops

12 Aug

For England’s northeastern region – in particular the counties of Northumberland and Durham – the centuries between the Roman invasion and the 1603 union of England and Scotland were a period of almost incessant turbulence. To mark the kingdom’s limit and to contain the troublesome tribes of the far north, a series of formidable coastal fortresses was built, most impressively those at Bamburgh, Alnwick, Wakworth and Durham. For arrivals to Durham, the view from the train station is one of the finest in northern England – a panoramic prospect of Durham Cathedral, its towers dominating the skyline from the top of a steep sandstone bluff within a narrow bend of the River Wear. This dramatic site has been the resting place of Saint Cuthbert since 995, when his body was moved here from nearby Chester-le-Street, over one hundred years after his fellow monks had fled from Lindisfarne in fear of the Vikings, carrying his coffin before them. Cuthbert’s hallowed remains made Durham a place of pilgrimage for both the Saxons and the Normans, who began work on the present cathedral at the end of the 11th century. In the meantime, William the Conqueror, aware of the defensive possibilities of the site, had built a castle that was to be the precursor of ever more elaborate fortifications. Subsequently, the bishops of Durham were granted extensive powers to control the troublesome northern marches of the kingdom, ruling as semi-independent Prince Bishops, with their own army, mint and courts of law. When they ceded their powers to the Crown in 1836, following a long period of decline, they also abandoned Durham Castle and transferred their old home to the fledgling University of Durham, England’s third oldest seat of learning after Oxford and Cambridge. Unsurprisingly for a place with such a long and storied history, Durham is said to be the home of a number of ghostly residents and eerie legends.

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