“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Friday, 13 February 2015

The Legend of the Durham Dun Cow

On the outside of Durham Cathedral is a sculpted panel which depicts a cow, a milkmaid and a man in monk-like robes. At first glance this seems to be a rather odd sculpture to adorn the side of a cathedral, but it was inspired by a legend about the founding of the cathedral.

The legend in question is that the location where the city of Durham and the cathedral were founded in 995 AD were selected by a band of wandering monks, following some help from a long-dead saint and a lost cow.

The story of the founding of Durham Cathedral really starts on the island of Lindisfarne in 687 AD with the death of a monk called Cuthbert. 11 years after his death, in 698 AD, Cuthbert's tomb was opened and it was discovered that his body had not been corrupted by the passage of time. This miraculous preservation of Cuthbert’s body led to his tomb becoming a place of pilgrimage, and it was not long before visiting pilgrims began to report miracles occurring during their visits to Cuthbert’s tomb. Unsurprisingly this level of fame ultimately led to Cuthbert being canonised, and the remains of Saint Cuthbert became important relics.

793 AD saw the first Viking raid on the Monastery on Lindisfarne, and over the following decades the threat of further raids was ever present. Having had enough of being under threat, in 875 AD the monks of Lindisfarne finally decided to quit the island and to find a less risky place to conduct their worship. Fleeing with their most important possessions, which included the relics of Saint Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne gospels, the monks are said to have wandered homeless for seven years until 883 AD when they settled in Chester-le-Street (7 miles due north of present day Durham). Their stay at Chester-le-Street was not to be a permanent one however, and further threats of invasion saw the monks and the remains of Saint Cuthbert on the move again, this time to Ripon. Eventually it was decided by the monks to return to Chester-le-Street, and it is during this return journey in 995 AD that the long-dead Saint Cuthbert and a lost cow conspired to steer the monks towards the location of present-day Durham.

During the monk’s passage north, back towards Chester-le-Street, it is said that Saint Cuthbert’s coffin came to a miraculous halt, and despite the best efforts of the monks it could not be made to move. During this period of immobility it is said that a monk called Eadmer had a vision in which Saint Cuthbert appeared to him and said that his remains should be taken to a place called “Dun-holm”. Following Eadmer’s vision the coffin could miraculously be moved again, however none of the monks had ever heard of a place called Dun-holm, and so had no idea where to go. As luck would have it, the monks happened across a milkmaid who was looking for her lost dun (dull brownish grey) cow, which she had apparently last seen at Dun-holm. Realising their luck, the monks accompanied this milkmaid to Dun-holm and began to create an early cathedral at the site. This early cathedral was to become the first building in the city that is now Durham.

Durham Cathedral - which is also the resting place of the Durham Dwarf

The sculpture of the dun cow from a distance.

Close up. 
Dun Cow Lane near the cathedral - note that the corner of the building has been chamfered. Presumably this is to prevent damage to the building by vehicles trying to make the tight turn.
A Durham statue showing the monks carrying St Cuthbert's remains towards the location of the cathedral.

For Lego lovers - inside the cathedral there is a fund raising project to help support the up-keep of the cathedral, which apparently costs £60,000 a week to run. This project is the construction of a replica of the Cathedral in Lego, using around 350,000 Lego bricks. For a small donation visitors get to place a Lego brick on the part of the model that is being built, and the model is slowly growing. The pictures below show the status of the model when I visited the cathedral in June 2014. It is shaping up to be an impressive build.

Pictures: County Durham (June 2014).

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