Many English medieval cathedrals, originally built in the Norman style, were eventually rebuilt (owing to fire, earthquake, or just the generosity of some fashion loving bishop) in later more light and airy styles like Decorated or Perpendicular. Not so for large chunks of Durham, which retain their Norman weightiness. Some would call it gloom—the Normans had not yet mastered the building technology that allowed for large windows—but I love it. There is an ancient feel to Durhams massive columns and rounded arches that exceeds the soaring gothic masterpieces of later centuries.
The Normans knew a little something about choosing a location for a cathedral, and Durham is perfectly sited on a high peninsula formed by a great loop in the River Wear. Just across a wide green from the south side of the cathedral is Durham castle. The site and the juxtaposition of cathedral and castle—so typical of the Normans who built in defensible spots, inspired the story of how my fictional Barchester Cathedral survives the Norman invasion of 1066 in The Lost Book of the Grail.
Two of my favorite English saints are enshrined at Durham, and one of them isn’t technically even a saint—he’s just venerable. He, of course, is the Venerable Bede—one of the first authors to use the language that eventually became English, rather than writing in Latin. Bede did not live in Durham, but nearby in a monastery just outside Newcastle, and here he wrote many works, including The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which he finished in about 731 and which remains a standard text on early English history. When I took a six-week pilgrimage in 2000 tracing the early roots of the church in England, Bede’s work served as my guidebook. I was thrilled to be able to attend a service at Durham on his feast day—a service we began in the choir, before processing down the nave and into the chapel at the far west end of the cathedral where we clustered around Bede’s tomb. Bede rests in Durham not because he was associated with the monastery there, but because a group of medieval monks, visiting the monastery at Jarrow, where Bede was originally buried, snuck out of town with the great scholar’s relics and re-interred them in Durham, where they have been ever since.
The other shrine in Durham is to St. Cuthbert, one of the most popular saints of the north. Cuthbert was Bishop of Lindisfarne (an island monastery off the coast of England) beginning in 685. He spent much of his time as a hermit on an island near Lindisfarne. I visited both islands during my pilgrimage and I commend them to you. Bede writes about Cuthbert at length, attributing many miracles to him. In the eighth century, Lindisfarne was victim of the very first Viking attack in the British Isles (the details of this come into The Lost Book of the Grail). Eventually, the monks left the island with the bones of their saint and other treasures (including the magnificent Lindisfarne gospels, one of the great illuminated manuscripts of the period, now on display in the British Library). They wandered for about 200 years before settling in Durham. Cuthbert once had a great shrine, but now his tomb is a simple black slab—moving in its own right and very much in keeping with the surrounding Norman cathedral.
The stories of early church leaders and scholars like Bede and Cuthbert, the stories of ancient monasteries like Lindisfarne and Jarrow and Durham, the stories of the shrines the flourished in the middle ages and were pillaged during the Reformation—all these were part of the inspiration for The Lost Book of the Grail. I chose to set my book in a fictional cathedral town (Barchester) so that I could take all these stories and weave a fictional history for my cathedral that used strands of history from many different monasteries, saints, and cathedrals. The result has been a chance for me to relive much of that history that I discovered in years of visiting English cathedrals, and especially during that pilgrimage of 2000. I haven’t been back to Durham since, but I think it’s about time.