Historian Nicholas Orme, who has written a social history of England's cathedrals, explains how Durham Cathedral survived Henry VIII, the Puritans and revolutionary zeal

When we look at a cathedral like Durham, we seem to see a work of giants, destined to stand for ever. ‘Half church of God, half castle ’gainst the Scot’. In fact, alongside strength our cathedrals embody the opposite: vulnerability. They have great powers of survival, but they undergo wear and tear. They face periodic crises. The more we study them, the more remarkable it is that we have them at all.

Durham Cathedral is itself the result of a crisis. Previously the cathedral and its great saint, Cuthbert, were based at Lindisfarne. Then the Vikings arrived, sacked Lindisfarne, and in the end, as everybody knows, the cathedral moved to Chester-le-Street and then to Durham. It may be unfair to blame this on the Vikings; the cathedral clergy may have moved for other reasons. But the cathedral was certainly born in times of trouble, not of peace and prosperity.

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At first it was staffed by clergy called canons, as it is today. Then in 1083 the bishop removed them – another crisis for them – and introduced monks. For the next five centuries Durham was a monastery. That worked until 1539 when Henry VIII decided to dispense with monks throughout England and they were forced to surrender their churches and properties to him. What would happen to the cathedral then?

There was no obvious need to have cathedrals in Tudor England. Henry could easily have closed them all down, taken their possessions, and used them to increase his revenues. But Henry actively liked cathedrals. He enjoyed their services (which were similar to those in his own chapel), so he kept Durham and seven other cathedrals formerly run by monks, and re-staffed them with canons or, as we often say, deans and chapters. He also created five new cathedrals out of monasteries at places like Chester and Gloucester.

So cathedrals survived another crisis – but a third one lay ahead. Many people in England saw them as old-fashioned remnants of the Catholic Church, doing only harm in what was now a Protestant Church. These people were known as Puritans. In the 1640s they fell out with Charles I and the Civil Wars began. The Puritans won the wars, executed the king, and abolished all the cathedrals in 1649. Durham had already been damaged by being used as a prison for Scots and it largely ceased to function for the next eleven years.

But yet again it was saved. By 1660, English people were sick of military rule and radical politics, and enthusiastically welcomed Charles II as king. All that had been done in the 1640s and 1650s was reversed, and the cathedrals came back not so much because people liked them, but because everything from the past came back. Durham become a cathedral again and recovered its lands and importance.

During the 18th Century, cathedrals went through a long period of peace. But soon after 1800, dangers arose again. When Britain’s long wars with France ended in 1815, people began to demand reforms: of Parliament, local government, and the Church. Cathedrals seemed over-rich and under-performing. Durham was especially rich, because by now there were coal mines on its lands. "Why do we need cathedrals?" people said. "Close them down and use their wealth to build churches and pay clergy in the new industrial towns."

This worried the canons of Durham, and in 1832 they decided to forestall such actions by giving up part of their property to found the university of Durham. But that did not protect them from reform. In 1840, an Act of Parliament removed much of the property of all the cathedrals, leaving them only enough to maintain a dean and a handful of canons. The property seized became a central fund to use for the benefit of the whole Church.

This made cathedrals more dependent than before on people’s goodwill. They began to provide more services for the general public and to be more welcoming to visitors. In 1869, Durham instituted the ‘Miners’ Service’, with local communities walking to the cathedral with bands and banners. Other cathedrals developed musical festivals and links with local regiments.

Even the 20th Century was by no means free of problems for cathedrals. All were affected by the two World Wars and six suffered bombing in the 1940s, with Coventry wholly destroyed. When peace came, there were other challenges: the financing and upkeep of buildings. Cathedrals have always needed maintenance, but in recent times costs have risen. Workers are better paid. Buildings must be carefully conserved, made safe, and insured.

For those who run cathedrals, finance has become an ever present problem. Since 1990, the government has made some grants for maintenance, but all cathedrals depend greatly on voluntary giving by congregations, leagues of Friends, and visitors. Should cathedrals charge for admission? They used to do so long ago, but left off doing so to make themselves more friendly. Now ten have reintroduced charges and it is a difficult decision – unpopular to do, perhaps unavoidable not to do. Durham has so far resisted.

So, do not take cathedrals for granted. We are lucky to have them, and it is a matter of luck that we have them at all, given all the crises that they have come through. If we can keep them, we keep many precious things: worship, music, art, education, history – and peace. Just to be in a cathedral, watching the light change, hearing distant steps or voices, being where others have been for hundreds of years, is something quite unique and marvellous.

  • Nicholas Orme’s book The History of England’s Cathedrals (Impress Books, hardback £30, ISBN 9781907605987; paperback £20, ISBN 9781907605925.