Originally built as a monastic cathedral for a community of Benedictine monks, Durham Cathedral boasts some of the most intact surviving monastic buildings in England.
The Cathedral holds an annual Benedictine Week when there is an opportunity to explore in more depth the historical and living tradition of St Benedict, focusing on its expression at Durham Cathedral in the past and present.
The Cathedral also served a political and military function by reinforcing the authority of the prince-bishops over England’s northern border.
The Prince Bishops effectively ruled the Diocese of Durham from 1080 until 1836 when the Palatinate of Durham was abolished.
The Reformation brought the dissolution of the Priory and its monastic community.
The monastery was surrendered to the Crown in December 1539, thus ending hundreds of years of monastic life at the Cathedral.
In May 1541 the Cathedral was re-founded, the last Prior became the first Dean, and twelve former monks became the first Canons.
Despite the continuity of some of the personnel, this period must have been very traumatic in the life of the Cathedral as medieval worship and monastic life gave way to the new Book of Common Prayer.
There was much regrettable destruction of historic furnishings and artefacts in the later sixteenth century as the reforms were zealously upheld.
Much valuable information about life in the Cathedral in the period immediately prior to the dissolution can be found in a 1591 work, ‘The Rites of Durham’ which it is presumed was written by a former member of the monastic community and is available in the Cathedral.
Durham Cathedral witnessed further turbulence during the Civil War.
In 1650 the Cathedral was closed and used by Cromwell to incarcerate 3,000 Scottish prisoners.
With the Restoration in 1660, the new bishop of Durham – John Cosin, a former Canon – set about refurbishing the church and his work can be seen in the quire with its richly carved woodwork.