Durham is a historic city in North East England. It lies on the River Wear, south of Newcastle upon Tyne.
Local legend states that the city was founded in A.D. 995 by divine intervention. After wandering in the north, Saint Cuthbert’s bier miraculously came to a halt at the hill of Warden Law and, despite the effort of the congregation, would not move. During a holy fast of three days, accompanied by prayers, Saint Cuthbert appeared to a monk named Eadmer, with instructions that the coffin should be taken to Dun Holm. They were now able to move the bier, but did not know where Dun Holm was.
The legend of the Dun Cow, which is first documented in The Rites of Durham, an anonymous account about the Durham Cathedral, published in 1593, says that by chance later that day, the monks came across a milkmaid at Mount Joy. She stated that she was seeking her lost dun cow, which she had last seen at Dun Holm. The monks, realising that this was a sign from the saint, followed her. They settled at a high wooded rock surrounded on three sides by the River Wear. There they erected a shelter for the relics, on the spot where the Durham Cathedral would later stand.
The legend is interpreted by a Victorian relief stone carving on the south face of the cathedral and also by the bronze sculpture ‘Durham Cow’ (made in 1997 by Andrew Burton), which can be found by the River Wear in view of the cathedral.
During the medieval period the city gained spiritual relevance as the final resting place of Saint Cuthbert and Saint Bede the Venerable. The shrine of Saint Cuthbert, situated behind the High Altar of Durham Cathedral, was the most important religious site in England until the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury in 1170.
Saint Cuthbert became famous for two reasons. Firstly, the miraculous healing powers he had displayed in life continued after his death, with many stories of those visiting the saint’s shrine being cured of all manner of diseases. This led to him being known as the “wonder worker of England”. Secondly, after the first translation of his relics in 698 AD, his body was found to be incorruptible.
Durham’s geographical position has always given it an important place in the defence of England against the Scots. Durham Castle is the only Norman castle keep never to have suffered a breach.
The Great Reform Act 1832 saw the removal of the Prince Bishop’s powers, although he still has the right to a seat in the House of Lords and is regarded as the second most senior bishop and fourth most senior clergyman in the Church of England.
In 1801, Durham City had a population of 7000. (Now it is about 50,000). The Industrial Revolution mostly passed the city by. However, the city was well known for carpet making and weaving. Other important industries were the manufacture of mustard and coal extraction.
Durham was not bombed during World War II, though one raid on the night of 30 May 1942 gave rise to the local legend of ‘St Cuthbert’s Mist’. This states that the Luftwaffe attempted to target Durham, but was confused when Cuthbert created a mist that covered both the castle and cathedral, sparing them from bombing.
The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham, commonly referred to as Durham Cathedral was founded in its present form in AD 1093 and remains a centre for Christian worship today. It is generally regarded as one of the finest Romanesque cathedrals in Europe and the rib vaulting in the nave marks the beginning of Gothic ecclesiastical architecture.
The cathedral houses the shrine and related treasures of Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, and these are on public view. It is also home to the head of St Oswald of Northumbria and the remains of the Venerable Bede.
The castle was originally built in the 11th century as a projection of the Norman power in Northern England, as the population of England in the north remained rebellious following the disruption of the Norman Conquest in 1066. It is an excellent example of the early motte and bailey castles favoured by the Normans. The holder of the office of Bishop of Durham was appointed by the King to exercise royal authority on his behalf and the castle was the centre of his command.
Durham University was founded in 1832. It was one of the first universities to open in England for more than 600 years, and is claimed to be England’s third oldest after the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Durham Castle became the first college. During the 20th century the University expanded greatly. Durham University has an international reputation for excellence.
The cathedral and adjacent 11th-century castle were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986. Among the reasons given for the decision were Durham Cathedral being the largest and most perfect monument of Norman style architecture in England, and the cathedral’s vaulting being an early and experimental model of the gothic style.
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