Tuesday, 25 December 2012

St.Cuthbert’s Final Resting Place? (NZ273421)

Via Wikipedia (public domain)

As we all know, the mortal remains of St.Cuthbert lie in Durham Cathedral, right? Well, probably. The picture above tells us the official story, but a legend has persisted for centuries that the great saint’s bones actually rest elsewhere – and that the secret location has been passed down to a select handful of clerics still living today.

The history of St.Cuthbert’s remains and all the various relics that went with him is a lengthy one. To cut this very long story down to a manageable size, after his death in 687AD he was shipped from pillar to post for several centuries until he was finally laid to permanent rest within the walls of the newly-built cathedral around the turn of the twelfth century.

He has been disturbed at least thrice since. Once in 1541 when the Dissolution targeted the city, then in 1827 and 1899. The sum of the various investigations carried out at these times seemed to confirm the traditional story of the various shenanigans surrounding his post-mortem adventures – yet a curious rumour persists. Was, in fact, the body switched at some point, and the real remains hidden elsewhere?

The story goes that when Henry VIII and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell turned their eyes to Durham Cathedral in the dying days of the Dissolution, the monks panicked and substituted Cuthbert’s remains for some other nobody – probably a quick body switch during an overnight stay in the desecration process. As it happens, the ‘sacred remains’ – whether genuine or not – were reburied in due course, and remain where you will find them today, duly marked by a dirty big tombstone. Another version has Cuthbert’s genuine remains being desecrated, re-buried, then subsequently switched during 1542-58 for fear the royal commissioners should return for another poke at the same.

If the true remains were ever secreted away – to another spot in the cathedral, or elsewhere – nobody knows. Well, apart from a long, thin line of trusted clerics through which the secret has passed these past 450 years. 

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Durham Cathedral & the Dunbar Martyrs (NZ273421)

For all its Norman grandeur, Durham Cathedral was the scene of one of the most heinous war crimes in British history. The story of the Dunbar Martyrs is hardly a secret as such, but over the years the harsh facts of the sorry episode have certainly been conveniently and repeatedly skirted around.

It all began with Oliver Cromwell’s defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar in September 1650. Thereafter, the English leader, not in the best of moods, proceeded to ransack much of Scotland whilst sending 5,000 prisoners on a forced march south, where they were bolted up in Durham Cathedral. During their journey they covered 120 miles in eight days with no food or water (except whatever they could quickly scavenge) – and almost half the soldiers died en route, with the remaining 3,000 being crammed into the cavernous cathedral building and castle on 11th September.

And there they were kept until 31st October, with virtually no food or water – or indeed heating. They helped themselves to much of the woodwork within in an attempt to keep warm, but illness and disease quickly gripped the prisoners, with dozens dying every day. One of the few items to escape the captives’ makeshift fires was a clock embossed with a Scottish thistle – an item which survives to this day.

Of the 3,000 who began the ordeal, around 1,400 survived – and most of these were promptly sold as slave labour to the new English colonies in the Americas. About 500 were pressed into lengthy military service overseas.

During maintenance work in the 1940s a mass grave was allegedly discovered to the north of the cathedral, it being (it was assumed) the Scottish burial pit. Subsequent investigations have, however, failed to confirm the theory.

A campaign is currently underway to erect a memorial to the victims of this appalling episode.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Ode to Durham (NZ271418)

Cast in stone on Prebends’ Bridge, Durham City:

Grey towers of Durham
Yet well I love thy mixed and massive piles
Half church of God, half castle 'gainst the Scot
And long to roam those venerable aisles
With records stored of deeds long since forgot.

[From Sir Walter Scott’s Harold the Dauntless, published 1817]

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The Roman Empire’s Most Northerly Farm? (NZ288419)

A little to the east of Durham City sits a spot on the map which goes by the name of Old Durham. It is aptly named, as here was said to sit what is thought to have been the most northerly farm in Roman Britain. Well, of those that have so far been found, anyway.

Sand quarrying led to the accidental discovery of promising-looking relics there in the late 1930s, so the site was properly examined, archaeologically, in 1940. Broken Roman tiles seemed to indicate the former presence of a Roman bath house. It was speculated that a Romano-British villa-farm may have occupied the spot – but subsequent quarrying activities destroyed what was left of the aging bits and bobs.

Circumstantial evidence has since backed up the original archaeologists’ claims, and Old Durham is now generally regarded as the best candidate for the most northerly farmstead-villa of the old Roman Empire. It is known that a Roman way, Cade’s Road, passed nearby, for one thing – and ancient bridge footings have also been found a matter of yards away, suggesting it was may have been a busy little place. The site was probably active from the second to the fourth centuries, with the bath house added late in the day.

Much of the area is today taken up by Old Durham Gardens (see here), the recently revitalised grounds of an originally 17th century manor house. Though the building was demolished within decades of its construction, the grounds continued to be used during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries as a place of public recreation. Following a period of decline after WWII, the site has been brought back to life by the local council in recent years.