Durham Cathedral: History and Architecture

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Durham Cathedral is amongst the oldest manifestations of Romanesque architecture in England. While its construction was finalised in the early 12th century, several alterations were made to the cathedral across different eras after its initial completion, resulting in the amalgamation of various architectural styles throughout. An example of such styles is Gothic architecture, which, according to Robert Scott’s The Gothic Enterprise, was heavily influenced by Romanesque architecture. As such, a significant characteristic of the cathedral is its vast history of architectural transformations. [1: Robert A. Scott, The Gothic enterprise: a guide to understanding the Medieval cathedral (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2003)]

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Starting out as a Norman building constructed in the Romanesque style that later incorporated Gothic architectural elements, the cathedral was completed in four main stages. The nave, transept and the choir were each constructed in 1093-1133. The nave is the main body of the church while the transept is the transverse area that lies in a perpendicular fashion across the nave to form a cross shaped structure that makes up the cathedral. The choir provides seating area for the clergy and the church choir. The Galilee Chapel was constructed in 1173-1189. Originally, the chapel was intended to be an extension at the east end of the cathedral. However, due to the shift in the bedrock level, the walls kept cracking during construction and so the extension was decided against. This was considered to be a mark of divine intervention and so the chapel was instead built in the west end of the cathedral. The Chapel of the Nine Altars, built to increase the space inside the cathedral, was constructed in 1242-1274 and the central tower was rebuilt a number of times between 1429 and 1490. The central tower was initially a small smaller structure meant to be built upon and expanded following the completion of the main structure of the cathedral. However, after its first extension in the 13th century, the tower was struck by lightning in 1429 and again around 1459, which eventually led to the formation of a new central tower altogether. The details featured within the central tower’s design seem to lean towards Gothic architecture as opposed to the cathedral’s predominantly Romanesque style. [2: T. Francis Bumpus, The cathedrals of England and Wales (New York, Barnes & Noble, 2011)]


While it is a Norman cathedral featuring elements of Gothic architecture, the cathedral’s overall architecture is described as Romanesque, a vastly adopted architectural style throughout Western Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Merging elements of Byzantine architecture[footnoteRef:3] and ancient Rome, this form of architecture, within both secular and pastoral buildings, is known to communicate a sense of sheer strength and solidity. Such vigour is emphasised by Durham Cathedral’s use of robust pillars as well as its large magnitude. Further elements of Romanesque architecture featured in the cathedral are exhibited in the choir with thick walls perforated with small arched windows. In Norberg-Schulz’s Meaning in Western Architecture, it is said that Romanesque architecture is ‘the creation of a man who wanted to bring God to the world. This is emphasised by the integration of strong horizontal and vertical directions that permeate the cathedral, signifying not only a relationship with fellow worshippers in the cathedral but also a relationship with God that no longer seems like a distant goal and is continuously present in the vertical directions. [3: Rene Huyghe, (1963). Larousse encyclopaedia of Byzantine and medieval art (New York, Prometheus Press, 1963)] [4: Christian Norberg-Schulz, Meaning in western architecture (New York, Rizzoli, 1993)]

Although Durham Cathedral was constructed in the Romanesque style, it is considered to be a Norman building due to the circumstances in which it was erected. The Norman Conquest of 1066 was a significant moment in British history, impacting not only the cultural landscape of England but also its architecture. Following the reign of William the Conqueror, Norman architectural practices moved swiftly through England and the first prominent example of this was Durham Cathedral, built to house the shrine of St Cuthbert. Despite most English churches being made partially from wood, Durham Cathedral was to be constructed entirely from stone. This was an especially ambitious assignment as stone architecture was not a skill many people had acquired since the fall of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the craftsmen utilised a nearby sandstone quarry but were still faced with the issue of ensuring the cathedral was spacious rather than confined as Romanesque buildings were, due to the weight of the stone roof being supported by the thick and heavy structure[footnoteRef:5]. Rather than continue using this form of structural support, the engineers built columns opposite each other that extended into pointed arches to create a long corridor. Thought to be the one of the earliest examples in England as well as a significant feature of Gothic architecture, the engineers had created a rib vault. This form of vault was revolutionary as it drastically opened up interior space due to the weight of the roof being supported by columns. Because this meant structural support was no longer solely reliant on thick walls, it allowed for more windows to allow light to enter the cathedral and further emphasise its spacious nature. [5: Banister Fletcher, Sir Banister Fletcher’s a history of architecture. (Oxford, Architectural Press, 1996)]


While Durham Cathedral experienced a series of changes that incorporated various architectural styles from different eras, it could be argued that doing so has allowed the cathedral to accumulate a rich and eventful history. The modifications to elements of the building not only demonstrate the architectural importance of the cathedral but also provide an insightful glimpse into the historical events that surrounded its construction. However, others may argue that the alterations within the cathedral could arguably be described as erasing valuable elements of its history. In doing so, it raises the question of whether it is permissible to modify such historic structures to suit contemporary architectural styles or if there is a responsibility for architects to continue its foundational style through any renovations.


  1. Scott, Robert A., The Gothic enterprise: a guide to understanding the Medieval cathedral (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2003)
  2. Bumpus, T. Francis, The cathedrals of England and Wales (New York, Barnes & Noble, 2011)
  3. Huyghe, Rene, (1963). Larousse encyclopaedia of Byzantine and medieval art (New York, Prometheus Press, 1963)
  4. Norberg-Schulz, Christian, Meaning in western architecture (New York, Rizzoli, 1993)
  5. Fletcher, Banister, Sir Banister Fletcher’s a history of architecture. (Oxford, Architectural Press, 1996)

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