Here to return to
ROBERT HEGGE, a Durham man, and Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, who wrote “The Legend of St. Cuthbert” in the time of James I, invented the most clever gibes that have been directed against the legends of St. Cuthbert, and the most beautiful phrases that have been used to describe Durham. Speaking of the promontory, where the congregation of St. Cuthbert finally settled with the body of their saint, he says: “The topographie of Dunholme at that tyme was, that it was more beholding to Nature for Fortification than Fertilitie: where thick Woods both hindred the Starres from viewing the Earth, and the Earth from the prospect of Heaven.” But the trees were cut down, and upon a plateau protected on three sides by a horseshoe bend in the River Wear grew up the cathedral, the castle, and between them, the original town of Durham.
Writing a little sadly perhaps of his own day, Hegge remarks: “he that hath seene the situation of this Citty, hath seene the Map of Sion, and may save a journey to Jerusalem. She is girded almost around with the renowned River of Weer in which, as in a Glasse of Crystall, shee might once have beheld the beauty but now the ruine of her Walls.” Durham, with her double crown of cathedral and castle was described by Scott as “half church of God, half castle ‘gainst the Scot,” and Hegge, speaking in a more practical idiom of the subterranean galleries supposed to connect the cathedral with the citadel, expressed the same idea: “by those caverns it is certain, that the abbey and the castle shake hands under ground.”
That was, possibly, a confused simile, but Durham’s historical origins made it necessary that the religious and the military elements should shake hands. Primarily the place was a refuge from marauding pagans, and no doubt a town grew up as soon as the neck of the promontory was fortified with a stockade. At least twice before the Conquest — in 1018 and again in 1038 — the citizens successfully beat off the kings and the hosts of Scotland. After Hastings they only submitted to William when Sweyn of Denmark failed to send the assistance he had promised; but soon after their submission the people of Durham set upon Robert Cumin whom the Conqueror had made Earl of Northumberland. The Earl was murdered, seven hundred of his soldiers were massacred, and a large part of the city including, it is thought, the Bishop’s palace, was burnt to the ground. Then William laid waste the North, and in 1072, returning from an expedition against Malcolm of Scotland, he ordered a castle to be built at Durham.
Thereafter the histories of monastery and castle were more closely linked together. Durham became even more obviously a place where the lion lay down with the lamb, for the bishopric was erected into a palatinate, and the palatine bishop had temporal as well as spiritual jurisdiction, with his own mint, his own courts, and every power that did not override his homage to the sovereign. He was “rex atque sacerdos,” the ruler of a district which was supposed to be a buffer state between England and Scotland. His position was expressed on many of the episcopal seals: the obverse represented a bishop, seated, in the act of blessing, and the reverse depicted a mounted warrior with drawn sword, wearing a mitre encircled by a crown.
The episcopal power was also shown in Durham Castle, where princely magnificence was not overshadowed by military necessity. Neither the Tower of London nor Richmond combined to a greater degree pomp with power. By 1075 the castle was already defensible, for, on the approach of Danish raiders, the Archbishop of York warned Bishop Walcher of Durham to provide his stronghold with necessities for a siege. And when, a few years later, Walcher was murdered by a mob, the castle successfully sustained a four days’ siege by his murderers. His successor, William de St. Carileph, in rebellion against William Rufus, defied his sovereign’s threats in the riverside fastness. Then Ralph Flambard was appointed to the bishopric, but, although a great builder, his only work at Durham was to restore the walls and to build the wall between the choir of the cathedral and the keep.
Quite the most extraordinary of Durham’s rulers was William Cumin, a clerk in the episcopal household, who intruded himself into the see on the death of Galfrid Rufus in 1140. During four years neither anathema nor siegecraft could dislodge him, assisted as he was by an unscrupulous character and political advantages. David of Scotland and Matilda were on his side, the majority of the chapter which might elect a bishop canonically were in his custody and all the palatine barons, except one, supported his usurpation. In addition, he procured a Cistercian monk of his own kidney who solemnly arrived with forged letters of congratulation from the Pope. Then Cumin sent his emissary to Scotland, where David was duly impressed by the documents, but an astute and sceptical Abbot of Melrose Abbey exposed the fraud. At length William de St. Barbara was elected at York, Henry II lending him aid for the recovery of his see, and when a concourse of barons and bishops appeared before Durham, Cumin suddenly capitulated. A shivering penitent, he craved absolution before William de St. Barbara and the Archbishop of York, and was thenceforward hidden from historians in a penitential obscurity.
During the episcopate of Bishop Pudsey (1153-95) one of the disastrous fires not uncommon in mediæval times occurred at Durham, so that much of the Norman work at the castle must be ascribed to him. In fact, Durham possesses some of the finest examples of later Romanesque work in England. As a whole, however, the castle is a not altogether unpleasing medley of architectural effects. A succession of bishops felt it their peculiar glory to add a hall, a gallery, or a chapel, to insert a doorway, or to buttress a wall. During the Middle Ages rich and powerful prelates such as Bek, Hatfield, Langley, Fox, and Tunstall, whose names had far more than a local significance, were not unwilling, when they added some new glory, to obscure thereby the equally beautiful work of their predecessors. But during the Common wealth the English castles suffered from the mutilation and desecration which had befallen the English churches a century before. What the good Hegge says of “abbys” may, in this connection, be applied also to castles. “But Time that hath the sublunary world for her continuall banquette, hath so fed upon these ancient buildings, that some shee hath quite devoured, others pickt to the bones; and what she left for standing dishes, hostilitie hath quite eaten up and defaced.” The Commonwealth, in 1649, sold Durham Castle to Thomas Andrewes, Lord Mayor of London, for £1,267 0s. 10d., and by him it was much defaced. Cosin, the first bishop after the Restoration, declared also that the castle was spoiled and ruined by the Scots with gunpowder.
Bishop Cosin spent large sums and exercised considerable taste in restoration, but he was the last man to whom any considerable gratitude is due in that connection. The work of Barrington, in the nineteenth century, was not uniformly fortunate, and in 1833 the castle was given over to the use of Durham University. A better use for a fortress which serves no present military purpose could not be devised, but the inevitable results have been to the detriment of the buildings from an architectural viewpoint, a noticeable misfortune being the subdivision of a Norman hall into smaller rooms and corridors.
The castle as Pudsey left it was a magnificent example of Norman fortification. An artificial mound surmounted by an octagonal keep overlooked the courtyard which ran westward to the cliffs 100 feet above the River Wear. The gateway was on the southern side where the plateau upon which cathedral and castle stood gave the only easy access. The inner archways of the gateway alone show its Norman origin. It was restored by Tunstall, and unhappily modernized by Barrington a century ago, “according to the improved taste of the age,” to quote the usual phrase behind which our forefathers have so often sheltered themselves. The keep has had a similar history, but it makes no pretence to be ancient; for the original citadel was rebuilt by Hatfield in the fourteenth century, and again having suffered from decay was re-erected along the lines of the mediaeval foundations in 1849 for the incongruous purpose of housing undergraduates.
Pudsey was also primarily responsible for the range of buildings in three stories along the north curtain. As at Richmond the basement, under the hall, was used for storage, so as to preserve the open space of the enclosure for the muster of the garrison. But at the eastern end of the range is a chapel, or rather the undercroft of a chapel, which is early Norman in character and must be aboriginal. It is badly lighted by modern windows, but it possesses more than a little interest for its rough herring-bone pavement and the varied sculptures on the capitals of its slender columns. But the glory of the Norman castle must surely have been the great doorway giving access to the hall on the first floor. This has been little restored, and the arch is a deep mass of pattern carving in four orders. Unfortunately Tunstall concealed the Norman face of the building with a corridor which, despite an oriel window opposite, darkens the doorway, but on the other hand may have preserved its details from decay.
Through the archway was the great hall, and above it on the second floor, approached by a spiral stairway, was another, once known as the Constable’s Hall, and to-day, as the Norman Gallery.
In the Constable’s Hall the walls were constructed in a continuous arcade with windows in every other archway, detached shafts in couples being between the windows. The full effect of this can hardly be appreciated to-day. It is noticeable, nevertheless, how much care was lavished upon the refinements of domestic architecture, though not at the expense of the provisions for defence. At that time kings were not so nobly housed. Along the shorter western curtain Bek, at the end of the thirteenth century, raised a great hall on an earlier foundation. This is now used as the dining hall of University College, which thereby possesses a hall no less beautiful than those of many of the Oxford Colleges. It is typical of Durham that Bek’s range (very much rebuilt by his successors) has a most beautiful exterior not marred by buttresses added at a later period, and a porch erected by Cosin at the Restoration. Cosin also built the fine staircase within.
At Worcester, Rochester, Hereford, and Lincoln, castle and cathedral were also grouped together, but none of these had sites comparable in strength or beauty with that of Durham, and none of these were ruled by bishops with such powers as the palatines of Durham. These built their cathedral to the glory of the heavenly ruler, and the castle to the glory of the earthly ruler. They sat secure upon their eminence, ready to offer to good men a sanctuary and to wicked men a very stout resistance.