The relics of Cuthbert, one of northern England's most beloved saints, were brought to Durham in 995, thereby establishing it as a sacred site of great and enduring power. One would like to think that it was the status of Cuthbert which inspired Bishop William of St Calais (1081-96) to begin the construction, in 1093, of one of Europe's finest Romanesque cathedrals. It stands on a gloriously dramatic site within a loop of the River Wear, the neck of which was closed by the castle. Cathedral and castle together created a bulwark of Norman rule in the north.
Construction of the cathedral was continued by Ranulph Flambard, bishop 1099 - 1128, and the choir was completed by 1104 when the shrine of St Cuthbert was installed at the high altar. The eastern end had a central apse projecting beyond the aisle apses, as was common in Norman cathedrals. Less common, however, were the rib-vaulted roofs which originally covered the whole structure (the main vault was replaced in 1230) and are some of the earliest examples in north-western Europe.
The transepts were completed by c. 1130 and were vaulted in the same manner as the choir. The zig-zag decoration on one of the piers in the south transept and on the ribs of the vaults is a very early occurrence of a feature which was to become very common in 12th century English churches.
The nave of eight bays was completed by c. 1133. The pointed arches of the vault above the nave represent an important structural innovation, being stronger than those of the traditional semi-circular form, and are amongst the first in any Romanesque building. Strikingly original for the time also was the decoration both of the aisle walls, with blank arcades of interlocking arches, and of the arcade piers with their large incised lozenges and vertical fluting.
At the west end the lower parts of the twin towers are Norman, the remainder being late medieval. In c. 1180 Bishop Hugh le Puiset constructed a Galilee chapel to the west of these towers in the late Norman 'transitional' style. It has a nave with two aisles on each side, and is four bays long. There are column shafts of a limestone known as Purbeck marble (from Dorset) which have the waterleaf capitals fashionable at the time while the arches have copious zig-zag decoration. There was no further construction at Durham for a period of 50 years or so after which the east end was refashioned as the Chapel of the Nine Altars. The tower assumed its present form in the15th century.
The cathedral cloister originates in the early 12th century and Norman structures include the chapter house of 1133 - 41, and, in the south range, the refectory undercroft.
Crook, J., 1994. 'The architectural setting of the cult of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral (1093-1200)', in D.Rollason, M.Harvey and M.Prestwich (eds), Anglo-Norman Durham 1093-1193 (Woodbridge)
Fernie, E., 2000. The Architecture of Norman England (Oxford), 131-40
Pevsner, N. and Williamson, E., 1983. The Buildings of England; County Durham (London, Penguin), 162-206