The see of Durham has its origins in the Diocese of Lindisfarne which was founded in 635 AD by Saint Aidan. Among the many saints of Lindesfarne, the most important was Saint Cuthbert who was bishop from 685-687 and he is the central figure in the history of Durham Cathedral. Due to Viking raids in the 9th C., the monks fled Lindisfarne with the bones of St. Cuthbert and went further inland. In 995, they found a peninsula forming a loop on the River Wear that was highly defensible and decided to stay there under the protection of the Earl of Northumberland.
The first chapel was probably built of wood. The shrine of Saint Cuthbert was then transferred to a sturdier building called The White Church. This structure was replaced by a stone church and finished in 1018. There’s a story that the bones of the Venerable Bede were stolen from their resting place in Jarrow and placed in the shrine with Cuthbert.
The shrine soon became a popular pilgrimage destination. The first prince-bishop, William of Calais, was appointed in 1080 by William the Conqueror and he designed and built the present cathedral. There have been major renovations and additions to the building but it remains true to its original Norman design. Construction was ongoing from 1093 to 1135.
The tomb of St. Cuthbert was destroyed on the orders of King Henry VIII in 1538 and the wealth of the monastery handed over to the King. When the body of the Saint was exhumed, it was found to be uncorrupted and reburied under a plain stone slab. Bede’s bones were put into a separate tomb. The monastery was dissolved in 1540.
After the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, Oliver Cromwell used the Cathedral as a prison for 3,000 Scots of which about 1,700 died due to inhumane conditions. The surviving prisoners were sent to America as slave labor. From 1080 to the 19th C. the bishop of Durham enjoyed military powers as well as religious leadership. Durham Castle was built as the residence for the Bishop of Durham. The Cathedral library holds one of the most complete collections of early printed books in England, the pre-Dissolution monastic accounts and three copies of the Magna Carta.