Durham Cathedral, built principally between 1093 and 1133 to house the relics of the Northumbrian evangelist St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and the Venerable Bede, is the finest example of Early Norman architecture in England. Its significance in the development of Western architecture lies in the use of rib-and-panel vaulting, the pointed arch, and flying buttresses in the gallery roofs—all prophetic of the elegant structural system that we now know as the Gothic.
The cathedral stands in a hairpin bend of the River Wear in County Durham. William I (the Conqueror) selected the naturally defensive site, and by 1072 a castle was commenced on the neck of the steep-sided peninsula to defend the northern region of Norman Britain against the Scots. In 1091 an earlier Saxon church was demolished, and two years later work commenced upon the great building dedicated to Christ and the Virgin Mary. It was to form part of the Benedictine monastery that had been started about a decade before, and the whole precinct soon became the seat of the powerful feudal prince-bishops of Durham. Early in the twelfth century the peninsula was encircled by a wall, much of which survives.
Serious attempts to build “in the Roman manner,” with semicircular stone arches, vaults, and domes—its architecture has been categorized as Romanesque—date from the second half of the eleventh century. The earliest examples saw barrel (or wagon) vaults used in such churches as Santiago de Compostela, Spain (begun 1078), and St. Sernin, Toulouse (begun 1080). These roofs exerted continuous sideways thrust on the side walls, creating the need to build those walls thicker (to prevent overturning); windows were small, in case they diminished the strength of the walls. Sometimes the walls were braced with arches above their piers. Experiments were also made with the Roman cross or groin vault, in which the church was divided into square bays, each of which was covered with a ceiling made by intersecting two barrel vaults at right angles. Although the groin vault transmitted the loads to the walls at equidistant points (thus allowing for thinner side walls with more and larger openings, braced at intervals with massive piers), most of the stress in the vault itself was at its weakest part: the groin. The system can be seen in parts of Durham and in Speyer Cathedral, Germany (originally 1030–1065).
Instead of groin vaults, the nave and choir (ca. 1104) of Durham Cathedral are covered using a revolutionary technique: the bays are framed by lateral, transverse, and diagonal beams or “ribs”—forerunner of the steel- or concrete-framed buildings of modern times—with panels of stone spanning the much smaller areas between them. The most exciting innovation among several at Durham, these are the first known examples of pointed ribbed vaults. The ribs carry their own weight and that of the stone roof to collection points above the piers, and the complex dynamic nature of the loads is thus cleverly resolved. It seems that the northern Italian clerics behind the development of Norman Christianity knew something of ribbed-vault construction, which the invaders took to England. Some sources believe that Lombard experiments may—and only may—have been as early as 1080, but there are certainly no examples on such a large scale as Durham, which therefore preempts by almost a century the key to the dramatic Gothic constructional system.
The church consists of a western galilee, or Lady Chapel; an aisled nave with two western towers; transepts flanking a taller tower above the crossing; and an aisled chancel (which was reduced in length during the thirteenth century). The eight bays of the nave are divided by piers disguised as clusters of columns, alternating with massive circular columns. The same articulation can be found in the choir and transepts. On the face of each pier is a tall shaft rising from the floor that appears to carry the slightly pointed transverse arches that support the vault, nearly 80 feet (24 meters) above. At the triforium (second level), each arch of the arcade is subdivided into two, and on the clerestory (the highest level), arches are supported by a pair of freestanding columns. The nave vault is laterally braced by quadrant arches—heralding the flying buttress of Gothic architecture—concealed in the triforium galleries. The substructures of the 218-foot-high (65.4-meter) central tower and much of the transepts were begun before 1096. The 155-foot-high (47-meter) vault of the crossing, not completed until the fifteenth century, is carried by four huge arches. The original roof of the choir was replaced by the present vault around 1250.
Like many medieval churches, Durham Cathedral has undergone alterations and additions (and, on occasion, what passed for restoration) through almost nine centuries. None has diminished the first impression of overwhelming power and stability experienced by the modern visitor when entering this “fortress of God” at the frontier of the Normans’ domain.