Towering above us: The story of Durham Cathedral’s tower

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After several years of waiting and the ruin of many a graduation photo, it has finally been announced that the scaffolding atop Durham Cathedral’s 218 ft (66 m) tower is to be taken down after its protective cladding was removed last December. 

Yet this is not the first time this sandstone monolith, which dominates the city huddled below, has been extensively repaired or restored. In fact, the stones of this tower have, many times before, echoed with the sound of the mason’s chisel. 

The stones of this tower have, many times before, echoed with the sound of the mason’s chisel

By squinting a little harder at the tower perched on lofty heights above us we can seek to read the story woven into its ancient masonry of how the tower was built (and re-built) and begin to interpret the meaning that those, who hauled block after block of hand-cut stone into the sky, believed their cathedral to embody.

Small Beginnings

The current cathedral, upon whose mighty back our tower rests, was begun in 1093 with construction starting at the east end. This Norman cathedral, at least by the 12th century, would have probably had a small tower above the crossing. 

This Norman cathedral, at least by the 12th century, would have probably had a small tower above the crossing

However, little remains of this original turret apart from its feet, four large stone piers and arches, that shelter under the cathedral’s roof, in the warm interior below. 

Lightning Strikes

Calculating the height of this first tower and working out by what extent it was enlarged in the intervening centuries before our own tower came into being is a considerable challenge.

But medieval documents at least allow us to hazard a guess. For example, it is known that, in the 13th century, the tower was modified twice, once between 1258 and 1272, and later between 1286 and 1290. 

This building work, ascribed to Prior Darlington, was badly damaged by a lightning strike. As a result, the tower had to be repaired in a seven-year-long building campaign between 1430 and 1437. 

The tower had to be repaired in a seven-year-long building campaign

But these earlier towers were tiny in comparison to our contemporary monolith and the most substantial building work would take place throughout the course of the 15th century.

Ambitious Heights 

From the base of the tower, where it erupts from its lead-lined girdle, the Cathedral roof, allow your sight to drift upwards to where the final stones give way to the heavens. This stone tapestry before us is essentially a story of 15th-century ambition and civic pride of the church and people of Durham. 

The tower’s lower storey, marked by two long gaping perpendicular windows on each side, was all that was originally planned when the building of a new tower was begun around 1465. This graceful medieval high rise was capped with a row of panelled crenellations and a substantial roof, still partly in place. 

Yet, for Durham, a tower this short was not enough. Between 1483 and 1490, an awkward second level was added. This stunted storey with its much shorter, less elegant windows, was evidently a medieval afterthought. But, despite its structural shortcomings, its pierced battlements provided the cathedral’s final crown.

Eternal Transience

To the medieval onlooker, the Cathedral tower was first and foremost a symbol of the power of the medieval church. In the case of Durham, it was also a blatant emblem of Norman dominance in the North-East, one of the last regions to rebel against William the Conqueror following 1066.

The cathedral tower was first and foremost a symbol of the power of the medieval church

But the constant changes that this symbol of apparent permanence underwent, with modifications being made as late as the 19th century, reveal that those things we consider permanent are as transient as our lives are and, like us, Durham’s Cathedral tower has its own story, literally in this case, of ups and downs but also of endurance.

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