Durham Cathedral is one of the most famous churches in England outside of London. It is also one of the most seen cathedrals of all time, though most people don’t realize that they have seen it. Both the interior and exterior were used for shooting scenes of Hogwart’s Castle in various Harry Potter movies. Architecturally, it is considered one of the finest, if not the finest, surviving examples of Norman church architecture. Religiously, of course, it is the site of the tomb of Bede the Venerable, arguably England’s greatest home-grown theologian, as well as that of his fellow saints, Cuthbert and Oswald of Northumbria. Durham Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bede the Venerable is a Doctor of the Catholic Church, the only native-born Englishman to be so designated. He is arguably one of the most secular-oriented of the Church’s major theologians, and one of the most prolific writers of the early Middle Ages. Born sometime around 672, evidence suggests that he was from a noble family, or at least a wealthy one, and was raised in a monastery. He became a deacon of the Church at a very early age, and by his late twenties he was apparently very well educated in both theology and secular studies. It is possible that he was married around this time.
Bede’s phenomenal writing career spanned most of the second half of his life. He authored approximately sixty books, including works on everything from history to literature to music. A number of early translations of Greek and Latin works into English are attributed to him. Although he did write religious commentaries, most of these were based on earlier works or translations. His major theological contribution was actually in the writing of Christian histories, in particular his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. In addition to being hailed as the Father of English History, his works inspired other authors across Europe to prepare historical texts of the faith.
Aside from his popularity and importance as an author, Bede’s life appears to have been sedate. His death at the age of sixty-two was not particularly venerable, as his nickname would suggest. His contemporary, Cuthbert, who also went on to become a saint, was with him when he died. His body was buried in Jarrow, and that might have been the end of Bede’s story, but at sometime in the ensuing centuries his writings began to take on epic proportions among the monks of Northern and Central England. By the Late Middle Ages Bede had taken on a nearly mythical aura as a great scholar of the Church, and he was eventually canonized. According to tradition, Bede became such a popular figure that in the 11th century his remains were stolen from Jarrow by pious thieves who were seeking a relic for their own church.
Durham Cathedral, one of the most magnificent in Northern England was constructed by monks in the 10th century to house the relic of St. Cuthbert. It was rebuilt by the Normans in the decades after their conquest of England. At some point during or after its completion the remains of Bede were placed therein. The cathedral’s subsequent history is fascinating. It survived the dissolution of the abbeys and the purges under Henry VIII; it was used as a prison during the English Civil Wars, when nearly two thousand Scotsman starved to death inside; and over the last two decades it has become a popular site for shooting period-piece movies.
During the Middle Ages, thousands of pilgrims came to Durham Cathedral to venerate the tombs of Bede and Cuthbert. Now, after a long hiatus, the visitors are returning. Thanks to Hollywood, Durham Cathedral is quickly becoming one of Northern England’s most popular tourist destinations among Harry Potter enthusiasts. It also draws countless architectural coineseurs, who come to gape at what is probably the world’s best preserved Norman era church. Essentially an early version of a Romanesque cathedral, Durham features a strange double-cross floorplan, with the chapels of Bede and Cuthbert forming the second cross-section. Great belltowers flank the façade, while the central tower over the transept dominates the city skyline.
The interior is in nearly pristine condition, and few other churches evoke images of the Middle Ages so well, which is perhaps why it is popular as a filming location. There are a few restorations, however, including an 18th century rose window that was added after part of the abbey was demolished. The oak benches date from after the English Civil War, as the Scottish prisoners burned the earlier ones in order to keep warm. The bodies of Bede and Cuthbert lie in plain but elegant sarcophagi at the east end of the cathedral.
Durham Cathedral is located in the heart of Durham, one of England’s finest preserved cathedral towns, approximately 260 miles north of London. It is open Mondays through Saturdays from 7:30am-6:00pm and Sundays from 7:45am-5:30pm. The charge for admission is voluntary donation. Web: www.durhamcathedral.co.uk (official website)
Durham Cathedral is by far the city’s most popular religious site, if not the most popular church in Northern England outside of York. However, there is also St. Giles Church, and for those who want to enjoy Bede’s and Cuthbert’s more secular legacy, there is always a stroll around the churches of the University of Durham.