Durham and Lindisfarne

The records of the foundation of many of our earliest monastic houses, as well as of the faith to the cultivation and dissemination of which they were devoted, exhibit, as we have already partly seen, ample store of miracles on the part of the teachers, responded to by a most unbounded credulity on the part of those who were taught. But all the wonders of all the other religious establishments of England put together, hardly equal those which Durham was once accustomed to boast of, and which were received with implicit credence; for any important event in its early history to have happened in a simply natural manner seems to have been the exception: the supernatural was the mode—and the rule. Our readers must not, therefore, be surprised to find that an intrinsically serious and solemn subject has, in the lapse of ages, and through the growth of an intelligent scepticism as to these continual aberrations from all the ordinary laws of nature, become surrounded with many amusing and ludicrous associations. Fortunately the commencement of the history of Durham, which is also the commencement of the history of the introduction of Christianity into that part of the island, has not been impaired by such derogatory influences. Ethelfrith, King of Northumberland, at his death left a widow and seven sons, who were obliged to fly into Scotland, to escape the hands of the usurper Edwin, the boys’ uncle. Donald IV. then reigned in Scotland, and being a convert to Christianity, instilled its principles into the minds of the youthful exiles. The eldest son ultimately obtained a portion of his inheritance, after the usurper’s death, but relapsed into heathenism, and was murdered by Cadwallon, King of Cumberland, who overran the whole country. It was to do battle with this monarch that Oswald, a second son, then set out from Scotland, and placed himself at the head of the miserable Northumbrians. The utmost force he could collect, however, was so small in comparison with that commanded by Cadwallon, that but for his reliance on the Power so recently made known to him, he must have resigned the contest for his kingdom in despair. Undismayed, he prepared for the bloody fight, and causing a cross to be brought to him in front of the army, he held it with his own hands in an upright posture, while his attendants, animated by his enthusiasm into a similar conviction that they were to be aided by more than mortal influences, heaped up the earth around, and made it fast. Then addressing the men, he said:—“Let us fall down on our knees, and beseech the Almighty, the living and true God, to defend us against this proud and cruel enemy;” and they obeyed him. After devotions, he led on his little band toward the enemy, the whole actuated by a spirit that was irresistible: a complete victory was obtained. Full of gratitude, Oswald sent to Scotland for some holy man, who might assist in the conversion of the inhabitants of his newly gained dominions, and one was sent whose austere manners proved so little to the taste of the Northumbrians, that Oswald was fain to send him back. He was replaced by Aidan, who seems to have been all that was desired, and who, having successfully looked for the most suitable spot, at last fixed upon the island of Lindisfarne, where he established a monastery and a bishopric. Of the sanctity of the lives of these primitive Christians of Northumbria we have a kind of testimony in the name subsequently given to the place—Holy Island. But a more direct and interesting evidence is to be found in Bede’s charming picture of the lives of the monks during the period that the Scottish bishops continued to fill the office of Abbot. One could almost fancy Chaucer must have had it in view when, at a later period, he drew his inimitable portrait of the “poure parson.” “Their frugality and simplicity of life, and parsimony, appeared in the place of their residence, in which there was nothing superfluous, or unnecessary for the humblest life. In the church only magnificence was permitted. Their possessions consisted chiefly in cattle, for money was only retained till fit opportunity offered to distribute it to the poor. Places of entertainment and reception were unnecessary, for the religious were visited solely for their doctrines and the holy offices of the church. When the king came thither, he was attended only by five or six persons, and had no other object in view than to partake of the rites of religion, departing immediately after the service; if perchance they took refreshment, it was of the common fare of the monks. The attention of those pastors was confined to spiritual matters only; temporary affairs were deemed derogatory to the holy appointment; and thence proceeded the profound veneration which was paid by all ranks of people to the religious habit. When any ecclesiastic went from the monastery, it was to preach the word of salvation, and he was everywhere received with joy, as a messenger of the divinity; on the road the passengers bowed the head to receive the holy benediction and sign of the cross, with pious reverence treasuring up the good man’s precepts as documents of the most salutary import. The churches were crowded with a decent audience; and when a monk was seen entering a village in his travels, the inhabitants flocked about him, entreating admonition and prayers. On their visitation, donations and riches were not their pursuit, and when any religious society received an augmentation to the revenues of the house, as an offering of Christianity by the donor, they accepted it as an additional store with which they were intrusted for the benefit of the poor.” The humble fishermen of Galilee might have recognised kindred spirits in these monks of Lindisfarne.

That most terrible of scourges that was perhaps ever inflicted upon an unfortunate people, a neighbouring nation of pirates, ultimately caused (in connection with another matter, to which we shall refer presently) the removal of the bishopric from Lindisfarne. Again and again the merciless and insatiable Dane burst down upon the island, so Holy to all but him, and destroyed and slaughtered what he could not carry away or make captive; and at last the monks in despair ceased for a time their exertions to make the place retain its original importance. After the Conquest, however, a new Priory was erected, holding the position of a cell only to the former bishopric. The remains of that edifice (shown in Fig. 572) are singularly beautiful in their ruin. Scott has described the whole as forming

A solemn, huge, and dark red pile,

Placed on the margin of the Isle;

and which, it is to be feared, will be lost to the next generation, notwithstanding the care that is said to have been of late years bestowed on them: the material is a soft red freestone, which wastes rapidly under the action of the elements. About one hundred yards distant from the mainland, with which Lindisfarne itself is connected at low water, and facing the Priory, there stands, on a low detached piece of rock, the foundations of a building upon which most persons look with even deeper interest than on those stately neighbouring ruins. In some parts the walls yet rise a foot or two above the ground; these walls and foundations belonged to a small chapel, dedicated to the saint who was the immediate cause of the removal of the bishopric—St. Cuthbert, himself one of the early prelates. His remains were buried at Lindisfarne. But, having taken up the body about the year 875, and conveyed it away from Lindisfarne, to avoid the attacks of the Danes, the Bishop Eandulf and the Abbot Eadred, and all the monastic household, were kept marching to and fro, now alarmed by rumours that the Danes were coming this way, and the monks consequently going that; then again stopped by fresh intelligence, and compelled to diverge into new tracks. No wonder that the good bishop at last felt heartily tired of these incessant and somewhat unseemly manoeuvres, and resolved to put an end to them by going over to Ireland. Accordingly the party, which included a great number of the more zealous and attached Christian people, proceeded to the mouth of the Derwent, and took ship; but they had scarcely got out to sea, before a violent storm arose, and drove the vessel back to the spot from whence they had departed. To minds accustomed to look upon all such events as bearing some spiritual meaning, it was considered certain that God thus signified his will that they should not quit England. Food now grew scarce, and the people, driven away by hunger, gradually disappeared, until there were left only the Bishop, the Abbot, and seven other persons to take care of the saintly corpse. In the midst of their distress, one of the number, Hunred, had a vision which greatly comforted the wanderers; they were told, through him, by a celestial voice, to repair to the sea, where they would find a book of the Gospels they had lost out of. the ship during the storm, and which appears to have been greatly valued, for it was adorned with gold and precious stones. The message then continued, that they would next find a bridle hanging on a tree, which was to be placed on a horse that would come to them, and the horse was to be attached to a car that they would also meet with, and thus the body might be carried with greater ease and comfort. Everything happened as foretold; and again the party moved on, following the horse wherever it led. We must not forget to mention, as a very interesting evidence in favour of the truth of all the more natural parts of the story, that at the time of Symeon of Dunelmensis, the ancient historian of the see, from whom this part of our narration is derived, the book was still preserved in the library at Durham, and it is supposed that one of the most valued treasures of the British Museum is this ancient copy of the Gospels. When our travellers had thus spent seven years in incessant motion, Halfdane, the great Danish leader, was seized with a loathsome disorder, which made his presence so unendurable to his fellow-men, that he suddenly went out to sea with three ships, and there perished. And thus, peace at last blessed the troubled ecclesiastics of Lindisfarne. They went first to the monastery of Cree, where they were “lovingly entertained,” and where they stayed for some months. The country at that time was in a terrible state of anarchy; and it is to the credit of the monks that they set to work to reduce the whole into order. It was now the Abbot’s turn to have a vision; in which St. Cuthbert appeared to him, and enjoined Eadred to repair to the Danish camp, and there inquire for a youth called Guthred, the son of Hardecnut, who had been sold into slavery; him he was to redeem, and proclaim king. It was a bold manoeuvre, for if it succeeded, Guthred must be ungrateful indeed not to remember who placed him on the throne. It did succeed; the slave became a monarch; both Danes and Northumbrians, wearied with their perpetual contests and the misery thence produced, acknowledging him at Oswiesdune. And now was seen the ecclesiastical importance of that lucky vision of the Abbot’s; the see was formally translated from Lindisfarne to Cunecasestre (Chester-le-street), and the Bishop Eandulf made the first prelate there; whilst the whole of the land between the Weir and the Tyne was bestowed by Guthred on St. Cuthbert, or, in other words, on the Bishop of Durham, and thus became the foundation of their palatine jurisdiction.

A new alarm, about 995, caused by Sweyn’s appearance in England, set the Bishop, and all his clergy and religious, once more on their travels with St. Cuthbert’s body. Another miraculous intervention is held to have taken place, and the wandering party were directed to Durham. The spot at that time was strong by nature, but uninhabited, and not easily made habitable—it was so thickly wooded. In the midst was a small plain, which the husbandman had reclaimed; that was the only evidence of civilization the place presented. But there were willing hearts and hands ready to flock thither from all parts, and help these memorable guardians of the most memorable of saints to set up a house and a temple in the wilderness. From the river Coquet to the Tees they came in “multitudes.” The trees were grubbed up, and there soon appeared, in the place of the little oratory of wattles first and temporarily put up, dwellings for all the people who had come with the ecclesiastics, and then a church of stone, a more honourable resting-place for the saint than the wattled building, but also intended to be but temporary; for Aldun, the bishop, of course desired to rear a structure worthy of the saint’s reputation. There seems little doubt here, also, but that we have followed the details of a true history, the more marvellous portion alone excepted; and a very striking idea they give us of the foundation of one of the most interesting cities of the kingdom. The see was again formally, and for the last time, translated, and hence the Bishopric of Durham. There is a tradition relating to one of the removals of the body, thus commemorated by Scott, in his ‘Marmion:’—

In his stone coffin forth he rides,

A ponderous bulk for river tides;

Yet light as gossamer it glides

Downward to Tillmouth cell:

and, strange to say, the tradition may be true. Not only did the coffin exist till within the last few years, perhaps does so still, but was so constructed that statical experiments have proved it to be capable of floating with a weight equal to that of a human body. It was finely shaped, ten feet long, and three and a half in diameter.

The history of the bishops of Durham forms too large a subject even to be glanced at in our pages; so we shall merely give one passage from it, of a noticeable character, and then conclude with a short account of the building around which all these historical recollections, as it were, concentrate themselves—the Cathedral. During the frightful period of the Conquest, which fell with more than its ordinary severity on the northern counties,—William, for instance, at one time wasted the whole country from York to Durham with fire and sword—the Saxon bishop Egelwin died a prisoner in the Isle of Ely, of a broken heart, and Walcher, a Norman, was appointed his successor. That ecclesiastic was by no means content to be an ecclesiastic only, no matter what the rank; he purchased the earldom of Northumberland, and thus joined in his own person, for the first time in the see, the spiritual and civil jurisdiction. His success was not at all calculated to encourage imitation. When the people saw the office they had been accustomed to venerate connected with the infliction of legal severities, they began to murmur against the man who had so lowered it, and they did not long confine themselves to murmuring only. On the 14th of May, 1080, Walcher was holding a public assembly at Gateshead in exercise of his obnoxious civil authority; and although large numbers of the people were congregated, there appeared nothing in their appearance and demeanour to excite particular alarm. But suddenly there arose the cry of “Short rede, good rede; slay ye the bishop,” which had been the watchword chosen, and at once the people drew arms from beneath their garments and rushed upon the bishop’s party, while others set fire to the church. Walcher, seeing escape hopeless, determined to die with dignity, so veiling his face with his robe, he advanced towards the assailants, one of whom instantly killed him with a lance. Of the succeeding early bishops of the see may be named Ralf Flambard, Hugh de Pudsey, and Anthony Bek, whose life gives one an extraordinary idea of the power occasionally obtained by the more eminent churchmen of the middle ages; he was at once Bishop of Durham, Patriarch of Jerusalem, Governor of the Isle of Man, and, as a military chieftain, able to send his thirty-two banners to the battle of Falkirk. Among the later bishops was Tunstall, of whom, on his return to England, Erasmus touchingly wrote:—“I seem now scarce to live, Tunstall being torn from me; I know not where I shall fly to.

Durham, like Lincoln, enjoys the inestimable architectural advantage of a truly noble site. The city, being nearly surrounded by the river Weir, forms a kind of peninsula, the centre of which rises to a considerable height, with the Cathedral at the summit, surrounded at its base by buildings and hanging gardens which descend to the river, and are there continued as it were in the delightful walks of the “Banks,” which skirt the water on both sides. The situation of the Cathedral and the other ecclesiastical buildings far surpasses any pictures we have ever seen of it—truly beautiful and grand it is. You make your way up to the eminence on which stands the cathedral, through steep and narrow lanes, which bring you into a fine open space, with the Cathedral on the south of the square. The palace, or castle (now occupied as the University of Durham), forms another side. You descend to an ancient bridge, and are now under these grand monuments of ancient magnificence. A beautiful walk leads along their base, overhanging the river at a considerable height. You cross a noble bridge of modern construction, and find a similar walk on the opposite bank. You have now, following the windings of the river, passed from the west to the south side of the Cathedral, and in continuation of it are most picturesque groups of houses rising one above another on the steep bank, embosomed in trees. The winding course of the river brings you now to the east end, and still you have the same grand view of this lordly place. Well might the old bishops feel that theirs was a princely rule, as they gave laws from such a throne.

The Cathedral was begun in the reign of Rufus, by Bishop William de Carilepho, and in part or entirely completed by the next bishop, Ralf Flambard. The structure then erected we possess in an all but perfect state. The eastern extremity, where the Nine Altars (see plan, Fig. 593) now stand, was probably in the Norman building semicircular; the Nave (Fig. 592) and the Choir were open to the timber roof, instead of being vaulted as at present; partial alterations, improvements, and some important additions have also been made; but essentially we have the true Norman building before us, when we gaze upon the noble semicircular arches, and the tall, massive, and in some instances curiously decorated pillars of Durham Cathedral. We may observe by the way that some of these pillars are twenty-three feet in circumference. The Galilee Chapel (Fig. 603), the uses of which are explained in our account of Lincoln Cathedral, was the first addition to the original structure; this was built by Hugh de Pudsey, in the latter half of the twelfth century; and we perceive in it the first of that series of architectural stages, from the Norman to the finished Gothic, which give to Durham, as to some of our other Cathedrals, so much artistical value.


Figure 590
590.—Stone Chair in the Chapter House, Durham.

The lightness and elegance of the pillars, though in every other respect genuine Norman, strike one at a glance. The Great Tower, the most important of all the additions, was finished by Richard Hotoun who became Prior in 1290; and who had also the honour of completing the chapel of the Nine Altars. The great western window was the work of Prior John Fossour, about 1350, and the altar-screen, erected at the expense of John, Lord Neville, was finished in 1380 by Prior Berrington. It is painful to have to record that such a building should ever have been allowed to be touched by incompetent and tasteless hands; need we say that they belong to the last century? which, with its predecessor, enjoys an eminence of a peculiar kind—they were, in all that concerns architectural art, the worst periods of English modern history. Durham, at the time to which we refer, underwent a thorough repair, and we suppose, in the ideas of the repairers, beautifying—“Heaven save the mark!”—and the result is in many parts but too evident. The Galilee was also repaired by Cardinal Langley at the commencement of the fifteenth century, in the exquisitely florid Gothic of the time. The dimensions of the Cathedral are four hundred and eleven feet in length, eighty in breadth, and the main tower two hundred and twelve in height. The interior, as usual, presents many objects of high interest—as the sumptuous Bishop’s Throne (Fig. 602), the stone chair (Fig. 590), and, above all, the common tomb of St. Cuthbert and of the Venerable Bede, the author of the valuable Ecclesiastical History to which we are indebted for many of the most interesting facts relating to the establishment of Christianity and Christian houses and temples in England.

[Waltham Abbey and Saint Alban’s form a page of cuts immediately following Durham. We postpone their description till we have completed our notices of the earlier Cathedrals.]