Durham Cathedral was built in the late 11th and early 12th centuries to house the relics of St Cuthbert (evangelizer of Northumbria) and the Venerable Bede. It attests to the importance of the early Benedictine monastic community and is the largest and finest example of Norman architecture in England. The innovative audacity of its vaulting foreshadowed Gothic architecture. Behind the cathedral stands the castle, an ancient Norman fortress which was the residence of the prince-bishops of Durham.
© Valerio Li Vigni
Statement of Significance
The property has exceptional architecture demonstrating architectural innovation;
The visual drama of the Cathedral and Castle on the peninsula and the associations of the site with notions of romantic beauty;
The physical expression of the spiritual and secular powers of the medieval Bishops Palatine that the defended complex provides;
The relics and material culture of the three saints buried at the site.
The continuity of use and ownership of the site over the past 1000 years as a place of religious worship, learning and residence;
The site's role as a political statement of Norman power imposed upon a subjugate nation, as one of the country's most powerful symbols of the Norman Conquest of Britain;
The importance of the site's archaeological remains, which are directly related to the site's history and continuity of use over the past 1000 years;
The cultural and religious traditions and historical memories associated with the relics of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede, and with the continuity of use and ownership of the site over the past millennium.
Criterion (ii): Durham Cathedral is the largest and most perfect monument of ‘Norman’ style architecture in England. The small castral chapel for its part marks a turning point in the evolution of 11th century Romanesque sculpture.
Criterion (iv): Though some wrongly considered Durham Cathedral to be the first ‘Gothic’ monument (the relationship between it and the churches built in the Île-de-France region in the 12th century is not obvious), this building, owing to the innovative audacity of its vaulting, constitutes, as do Spire [Speyer] and Cluny, a type of experimental model which was far ahead of its time.
Criterion (vi): Around the relics of Cuthbert and Bede, Durham crystallized the memory of the evangelising of Northumbria and of primitive Benedictine monastic life.
Located on a rocky butte overlooking a bend in the Wear River, the monumental array constituted by the cathedral and its outbuildings to the south, and by the castle which inhibits the main access to the peninsula, to the north, makes up one of the best-known cityscapes of medieval Europe.
The history of Durham is linked to that of the transfer of the body of St Cuthbert, the evangelist of Northumbria, who died in 687. In 998 the Saxon community of monks in Durham dedicated a stone 'White Church' of which there are no remains. Thus, Durham became a privileged cathedral in which the northern Christian traditions were revived thanks to a monastic community which grew out of the Benedict Biscop foundation around the relics of Cuthbert and Bede.
The present cathedral (1093-11331) constitutes one of the high points in the history of medieval architecture. The elevation of the nave, with the diminishing proportion of the ground arcades, galleries and clerestories, remains close to the Norman models and the system of decoration is revealing of traditional Romanesque aesthetics, which also marks the sober masses of the harmonious facade flanked by two towers that project slightly and were partially rebuilt during the 13th and 14th centuries.
The lantern tower was reconstructed in the 15th century and the crossing of the transept was revaulted on this occasion. The monastic buildings, grouped together to the south of the cathedral, comprise few of their pristine elements but make up a diversified and yet coherent ensemble of medieval architecture which 19th-century restoration, substantial in the cloister and the chapter house, did not denature.
The architectural evolution of the castle, taking place over eight centuries, is even more complex. Of the original Norman foundation, there remains essentially the typical layout comprising a motte to the east and a large bailey to the west. The construction was begun in 1072 by Waltheof, Earl of Northumberland. It was an effective fortress which regularly faced the onslaught of Scottish troops; in the 17th century the military role of the castle gave way to a more residential character which was further accentuated when the castle became part of Durham University in the 19th century.
The present castle is a veritable labyrinth of halls and galleries of different periods, and in its north wing it houses various vestiges of the Romanesque epoch, include the castral chapel, built in 1080.
Durham Cathedral, owing to the innovative audacity of its vaulting, constitutes a type of experimental model which was far ahead of its time. It is the largest and most perfect monument of 'Norman' style architecture in England. The small castral chapel for its part marks a turning point in the evolution of 11th-century Romanesque sculpture. Around the relics of Cuthbert and Bede, Durham crystallized the memory of the evangelizing of Northumbria and of primitive Benedictine monastic life. Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC