Durham: three stories

I cannot come to terms with Durham Cathedral.

Scientists struggle to get a good picture of the blue whale, the largest mammal on earth, because those enormous creatures of course exist only in the water, and if you get far enough away to frame the entire thing in your shot, the ocean obscures the image. If you’re close enough to get a clear image, you’re only going to capture a portion of the whole—and the awesome immensity of the whole whale is of course one of the reasons why you’re drawn to it in the first place.

Alas, I’ll have to try using words. 

Here, too, frames fail. I’ll need more than one. 

Two stories

In our coursework, we’ve repeatedly observed that places gain meaning from the narratives that frame them, and here are two historical narratives—both factually true—that have given meaning to Durham Cathedral:

Narrative #1. Saint Cuthbert’s bones. Saint Cuthbert, the spiritual superhero of medieval Britain, died in 683, and his relics became a serious draw for pilgrims to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Although Cuthbert himself was revered for his simplicity, humility, and generosity, his cult brought considerable wealth and fame to Lindisfarne—which made it a prime target for invading Vikings in the following century. Fearing that the invaders would capture Cuthbert’s bones, the monks of Lindisfarne fled Holy Island and spent over a century moving them throughout northeast England, finally settling, in 995, in Durham: a safe spot high on a cliff formed by a hairpin turn in the River Wear. They built a small wooden church, and then a somewhat larger stone one, over his bones, which still lie in Durham.

As we were walking along the river to the cathedral, the student next to me said, “I like it here. It feels safe.” I was surprised, because that one word named exactly one feeling I’ve always had in the area, but I’d never really articulated. It must have been what the monks felt when they finally stopped here with Cuthbert’s bones.

So there’s that.

Narrative #2. Norman power. In 1066, William the Conqueror took control of England, but the northern regions—further removed from his power base in the south—gave him considerable trouble. William responded with “the Harrying of the North,” a grim military initiative that he himself regretted on his deathbed, and for which he is still hated by many in northeast England. William’s troops killed men. They killed women. They killed children. They demolished villages, slaughtered livestock, and burned the farmland. And shortly thereafter, they built a castle in Durham. It is a beautiful castle, but also preposterous, built as it is on top of an impossible cliff. It’s like building a skyscraper on top of a mountain: a deliberate statement of shock and awe.

And shortly after they began the castle, the Normans built the cathedral, replacing the one built by the monks for the shrine of Cuthbert. The bones of the saint were, and are, safer than they had ever been. But the Normans had now literally surrounded them in heavy stone, co-opting the myth and legend of this Anglo-Saxon saint in their own statement of prominence and power.

Realizing that he would need a strong presence in the north (not only to keep the northern English in check, but also as a defense against those menacing Scots), William gave the Bishop of Durham unprecedented power. The Prince Bishops, as they came to be known, could call their own parliaments, enforce their own laws, collect their own taxes, raise their own armies. Church and state effectively merged, and many observed that there were in fact two kings in England: the King of England and the Bishop of Durham, whose seat—by definition—is in Durham Cathedral.

So there’s that, too.

What is this place?

The problem, for me, is not in choosing between these two narratives; it’s the way in which the first one overpowers the second. Durham Cathedral seems much more like a shrine to Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede (whose remains lie at the opposite end of the building) than it seems like an architectural statement of colonialist aggression—which it undeniably was. Despite the superior physical and political power of the Normans, the narrative power of Cuthbert proves stronger still. How can this be?

It’s not because the Norman narrative has simply been forgotten. One of the novels we read before going to Durham was Frederick Buechner’s Godric, a 1981 retelling of the life of Godric of Finchale, an Anglo-Saxon hermit who was born the year before the Norman invasion. At one point in the novel, the old anchorite visits the newly finished cathedral, and his description of it—despite being written by a twentieth-century American—well captures an Anglo-Saxon’s view of this grand colonial architectural statement:

The aisles are vaulted now. The nave is done. Thick Norman columns stout enough to hold the welkin up support the high, dim vaulting in the roof. The columns have been carved around with deep-cut lines like garlands, serpents, crooked vines, each different from the rest. Behind the altar there’s a shrine to shelter Cuthbert’s bones they carted here, with many stoppings over many years along the way, from Lindisfarne.

Even the flames of many candles can’t light up this awesome dark, nor all the gathered throng of priests and monks and lords and common folk fill up this emptiness. The hooded monks chant psalms as we wend slowly down, but all their voices raised at once are but the rustle of the wind through trees, the call of owls, in this vast wood of stone. The towns the Conqueror razed when he came harrying the north, the crops he burned, the beasts he felled, the Saxon folk he slew, all haunt these Norman shadows. The silence is the sum of all their voices stilled. As long as these stones stand and this great roof keeps out the rain, Durham’s cathedral will be dark with death.

I invited students to revisit that passage after they’ve been to the cathedral. We’ll see what they make of it. Suffice it to say that this postcolonial reading of the building was readily available to all of us.

When I myself enter that space, though, the above passage from Godric is not the first that comes to mind. It’s Psalm 90, which our group reads aloud together every week. “You, O Lord, have been our dwelling place in all generations.” As one student observed early on, there are a lot of metaphors for God; it’s kind of weird to think of God as a house. But if I had to imagine a physical space that embodies that opening line of the psalm, a place sturdy and strong and holy and old—generations old—it would be the nave of Durham Cathedral.

I don’t know what it is. When I enter that space, my soul somehow settles down. I feel at home.

Telling (and not telling) the stories

In the museum attached to the cathedral—housed in a room that actually used to serve as the monastery’s kitchen—are several seventh-century artifacts, including Saint Cuthbert’s coffin and his pectoral cross (i.e., cross worn on the chest). The coffin is in pieces, so its fragments have been assembled around a box to retain its shape, and it’s easy to see the shattered casket as a statement that even death itself could not hold Cuthbert, whose tomb was opened years after his burial and whose body had not decayed in the slightest. The pectoral cross is small and broken and still—to me—deeply dazzling. This was a real man, with a real chest. A real heart.

So that’s one way in which Narrative #1 triumphs here: archaeological artifacts.

Still, the entire building is an archaeological artifact of Narrative #2. It’s a showy building. It towers over everything around it. So how does Narrative #2—Norman bluster—get overpowered by a crumbling casket and a teeny tiny piece of jewelry? 

Both of our tour guides interestingly evaded the shadows of Godric’s Durham. 

Our second tour guide—the one who showed us the coffin and the cross—chatted with me a bit as students explored the Chapter House (Professor McGonagall’s classroom in the Harry Potter films). She remarked in passing that there was sometimes tension when they had visitors from Jarrow, the location of the abbey where Bede had lived and worked. “They’re always suggesting that his bones ought to be there, and of course we have them here, so it’s a bit awkward, you know. It becomes a matter of how we work around that conversation.” I nodded appreciatively but couldn’t help thinking less appreciative thoughts about appropriation and the politics of dead men’s bones. That narrative is here. It’s being worked around.

Our otherwise thorough cathedral guide worked around it entirely. He told us all of Narrative #1, the journey of Cuthbert’s relics, but mostly skipped over Narrative #2, the Harrying of the North. In his telling, well, here were the Normans—no matter how—and weren’t they impressive? Whereas most cathedrals take centuries to build, they finished this one in forty years(!), which is why the building remains one of the finest examples of Norman (i.e., Romanesque) architecture anywhere. Our guide had once talked with a visitor from Normandy who, on a tour of an old cathedral in France, had been told that if we wanted to see the best, purest example of eleventh century French architecture, he’d need to go to Durham. This was clearly a point of pride for our tour guide.

He’s not wrong: those Normans were impressive. I’ve always felt that there was something, well, right and just about the place, and there’s a reason for that. The arches in the building are halves of perfect circles, no surprise there, but the round columns—I kid you not—are exactly as high as their circumference. You can measure them by the diamonds: twelve diamonds high, and twelve diamonds around.

And if you’re really analyzing one of the “diamond” columns and trace one of the diagonals, you’ll see that it ends at the top at the exact point where it begins at the base. Most of that doesn’t seem possible, but it’s undeniably true. That’s actually not a bad summary of faith itself.

From a postcolonialist point of view, however, here is how these tour guides come across. The Norman conquest is fully complete, reaching not only across eleventh and twelfth century England but also into the twenty-first, and even reaching down into the very narratives with which we define this place. The colonizer’s narrative has become the narrative; the Norman is the Normal. Alternate narratives have been appropriated into the Norman story, and if they cannot be, they have been suppressed, ignored, or (in polite British fashion) conveniently circumvented.

I think that’s truth. I’m not sure it’s the whole truth.

Narrative #3: Experience

You’re not going to really know a blue whale by seeing pictures or footage of it—from any angle. Or by reading about it. If you really want to know this thing, you’re going to have to swim with the whale.

I know the history; I mourn the history. Narrative #2 is always present in my mind when I enter Durham Cathedral. But Narrative #1 always eclipses it. Psalm 90 always eclipses Godric.

As I walked down the center aisle of the nave, I remembered that walk on my first visit, when a man in flamboyant liturgical vestments came billowing toward me. “I’m doing something wrong,” I thought. “I’ll say I’m sorry and step aside.” But just then a toddler started screaming off to my left, and his mother started desperately trying to shush him. The cleric stopped his stride, bent toward the child with a broad smile, and said, “That’s right, lad, you make a noise. This is your house, too.” That man, that lad, and that mother were with me in the cathedral yesterday.

The last time I had been in the cathedral was three years ago, with my wife and my son. I missed them. But they were present in their own way, too, and I smiled at the spot in the cloisters from which I had taken a picture of them.

It is difficult to quantify such things in heights and circumferences, but they are no less real.

What to do with all of this? How does a colonial power play become such a legitimate spiritual space—and in such a way that the power play itself becomes all but invisible?

Perhaps I’ve simply drunk the colonial Kool-Aid of the Normans. Or perhaps it’s reductive to characterize all Normans as brutal conquerors—however much they seemed so to the people they conquered. Or perhaps we might say that even selfish power plays can have inadvertently generous spiritual consequences. We have all known times in which gestures of love and kindness have had unintended effects of alienation and hurt; why might the reverse not also sometimes be true?

I cannot come to terms with Durham Cathedral.

I have now swum with this whale many times, but I cannot plumb the depths to which it swims.


I sure love these students. A couple of weeks into the program now, they’re finally showing me who they are—and they’re wonderful. They have some of the good basic qualities that every program coordinator would want: they show up on time; they keep track of each other; they’re flexible when things don’t work out. As they slowly showed up at Liverpool Lime Street Station for our train to Durham, I was honestly glad to see each and every one of them as they appeared. Every one of them is constantly on my radar, of course, but there is no one I’ve had to monitor or manage. 

But more importantly, they’re curious and thoughtful. I’ve now spent a couple of days reading their first rounds of real writing, and I’m gratified by their intelligence and insight. We talked in person about suffering and responses to it in our class a couple of nights ago—a Friday night class from 5-8!—and even at that terrible hour, they spoke with real honesty and wisdom. I took lots of notes. It’s a blessing for me to work with them.

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Happy husband since 2001, proud dad since 2010, diligent English professor since 1995. "And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche."