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New Medieval Books: Building Durham Cathedral

Building Durham Cathedral

By Brian K. Roberts

The History Press
ISBN: 978 1 8039 9118 4

Located in northern England, Durham Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is considered one of the finest churches from medieval Europe. This book examines how Durham Cathedral was built, focusing on its architectural elements. The story of construction is revealed in its walls, columns, stonework, and even masons’ marks – here you have the finished piece but the puzzle is how everything fits together. It also offers a chapter on the Norman-era Church of St Lawrence in Warkworth, and how that connects to the building of the cathedral.


In Durham, we must begin with the gently sloping site available for the new building. To the west, high above the Wear, runs a shelf of sandstone, dipping eastwards towards a roadway running north to south to the tip of the great triangular incised river meander loop that encloses the city on three sides. An Anglo-Saxon cathedral had stood upon this site, but an early source emphasises that before the new work began it had been cleared, probably stacking usable stone for later use as heartings, i.e. wall fill. The clearance was also correlated with the construction of the standing domestic buildings of the nascent monastery, along the east side of what is now the cloister; as will be shown when discussing the transepts, this may be an important part of the story. It is probable that the Durham master began his task by pacing the site, an essential procedure for ‘taking possession’, defining its essential length and breadth and hence its approximate area, and delimiting ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ relative to adjacent spaces.


Who is this book for?

How medieval cathedrals were built is a fascinating topic, and there are not enough books like this. Even if you are not particularly interested in architecture or church buildings, this book still offers a lot to the reader, as it gives us insights into how people from the 11th and 12th centuries responded to the challenges and options of a large-scale project. If you plan on visiting Durham Cathedral, this book is a must, as it will give you a much fuller experience – the photos and appendices at the end are seemingly included to help you as you walk around the building.

The author:

Brian K. Roberts is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Durham, where he focuses his research on rural settlements in medieval England. This feels like a work of love from him – writing about a place that he would be very familiar with as a local resident – he even notes that royalties from this book will go to the cathedral’s building fund.


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