Place of mysteries and sanctuary

AIR OF MYSTERY: An unusual view of Durham Cathedral, during the Lumiere festival 2013

AIR OF MYSTERY: An unusual view of Durham Cathedral, during the Lumiere festival 2013

First published in Weekend by

DURHAM Cathedral is one of the most imposing buildings in Britain, and it is instantly recognisable by its famous towers on their hilltop site.

Railway passengers can enjoy the view as they travel, and visitors approaching by road can also be guided by the unmistakeable outline of this mighty church.

It is said to be the greatest Norman church in England, its construction beginning in 1093, with completion in 1133. However, there were later additions such as the Galilee Chapel (c1170), the Chapel of Nine Altars (c1242) and the massive Central Tower, around 1465, with further additions to the tower around 1490.

To relate the long and troubled history of Durham Cathedral would require a full-length book but, suffice to say it survived the Reformation although during the Civil Wars the Puritans used it as a stronghold to incarcerate Scottish prisoners.

Not surprisingly, it conceals many secrets, one of which was opened to the public some 30 years ago. It is the tiny windowless Norman chapel in the undercroft which is approached by a spiral staircase and was unused for centuries after the Reformation.

Other ongoing secrets are whether or not this is truly the resting place of both the Venerable Bede and St Cuthbert. Bede, born in Jarrow, spent most of his life in the North East. He wrote his renowned History of the English Church and People along with other books and pamphlets.

He died at Jarrow in 735, and it is said he dictated his final words only seconds before he died. His death occurred while sitting on the floor of his cell working on his final book and, as late as 1899, he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII. It was a church council at Aachen in 836 that declared him “Venerable.”

St Cuthbert was born c634 and died on the Farne Islands in 687. A solitary, hermit-like figure, he was described as a holy man with an extraordinary charm along with a strong practical ability. When he died, his death was signalled by torches being waved from the cliff tops on Lindisfarne where he was buried.

When the Viking raids began, however, his remains were exhumed to avoid desecration and so began a period of seven years when his body was transported by a team of seven monks around the North of England to safeguard it. It is said that places where his remains rested later became part of the Palatine County of Durham. One of those places was the village of Crayke, near Easingwold, which remained part of County Durham until 1844 – and the pub is The Durham Ox.

Cuthbert’s final resting place on that journey was Chester-le-Street, where his remains stayed for about a century. They were re-examined in 1104 when the body continued to be in perfect condition. This was during construction of the cathedral at Durham so it was decided to bury him within the new church.

But there was no rest for Cuthbert.

Henry VIII’s commissioners came to Durham in 1537 as part of his destruction of the Catholic monasteries and Cuthbert’s tomb was opened yet again. There were no signs of decay on the body and it was placed in an inner vestry until the King’s wishes were known. It is said Cuthbert was re-buried under the site of the present shrine.

But would his fellow monks have risked Cuthbert’s remains by placing them under the control of such a ruthless reforming King? There is a long tradition that Cuthbert’s true burial place is elsewhere and, when his coffin was once again re-opened in 1827, the remains had decayed, although vestments and other relics were in the coffin.

There has long been a suggestion that those remains were of a substituted body and that the secret of Cuthbert’s true place of burial is known only to three Roman Catholic Benedictine monks. As each faces his own death, he will reveal the secret to a Benedictine successor.

Another fascinating relic at Durham Cathedral is the famous 12th century brass door knocker known as the Sanctuary Knocker.

Felons, an old name for criminals, would arouse someone inside the building to gain admission as they sought the sanctuary of the mighty church and the hospitality of its brethren. The precise rules about seeking sanctuary varied.

A place of sanctuary could be anything owned by the church such as a school, abbey, hospital, mint or even an open space. As long ago as AD 887, during the reign of Alfred the Great, it was possible for criminals to seek sanctuary from the law.

The general rule was that once sanctuary was reached, the criminal was allowed 30 days in which to confess his crimes and he could be freed if he promised, on oath, to behave himself and “bear no poynted wepen, dagger of knyfe, ne none other wepen against the King’s peace.”

Once a felon had gained sanctuary inside a church, it was the duty of the faithful and brethren to feed, protect and entertain him during those 30 days, although it seems many disappeared in the darkness of night, having gained a brief respite from the manhunt.

Some fleeing sanctuary seekers could be recognised by the letter A that was branded on their thumbs. This was a sign that the criminal had promised to “Abjure the Realm.”To abjure the realm meant swearing to leave the country by the first available means and never to return, but, in fact, a lot of them never reached a port and became outlaws.

Another place of sanctuary in the North East was Beverley Minster, but its system differed slightly from Durham’s. The minster used a Frith Stool, alternatively known as the Chair of Peace. It remains in the minster and is a large stone seat upon which criminals would sit to guarantee safety from their pursuers.

The Peace of St John of Beverley extended for one mile in all directions around the minster and fugitives would strive to reach the stool before they were caught. Once upon it, they were granted 30 days’ grace during which the canons of the minster tried to make peace between the criminal and his hunters. If that failed, the because they are pestered to brush them properly day and night, and it was only me who incurred the dentist’s wrath.

I don’t say wrath lightly. He was clearly very disappointed that his previous advice to floss prisoners were taken for trial.

Another link between Beverley and this region is the statute of a rabbit in St Mary’s Church which is sometimes mistaken for the minster. St Mary’s dates from Norman times and was once a chapel-of-ease to Beverley Minster. Over the following three centuries, it was rebuilt three times with the present nave and tower dating from 1520.

The rabbit itself is a mystery because no record remains of its carving or its purpose, neither do we know the name of its sculptor – he or she left no mark or signature. Although the rabbit is a puzzle, it inspired the youthful Lewis Carroll, formerly of Croft-on-Tees, to later include a white rabbit in his famous story Alice in Wonderland.

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