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Durham Cathedral - a medieval document in stone


Durham Cathedral was completed nearly 900 years ago, after 40 years of construction. Inevitably it has suffered from the effects of time: physical erosion, from the weather and increasing pollution on stone that was never of the best quality, and cultural erosion, the impact of secular and religious changes – not least the depredations of clerics, improvers, and administrators. Nevertheless, it remains: the stones speak and provide the story of themselves.

The heavy stone vault webs of the late 11th - early 12th century cathedral of Durham are supported by ribs, thin skeins of joined stones, some running crosswise - transversely – with others forming a diagonal mesh. A number spring upwards from the great columns which dominate the building while others, like climbers on a precarious rock-face, cling to small stone fittings jutting out from the walls - corbels - a word fittingly derived from the word for a crow or raven. There are in the nave and transepts thirty-four of these, and the majority are ‘grotesques’, contorted humanoid faces (there being no animals), nevertheless they do fall into several clearly definable groups; there are 20 grotesques, 7 personalised (i.e. with identifiable, normal faces), 4 damaged beyond interpretation, and 3 adapted, clearly cut from stones that once served other purposes. In one or two cases these categories could be challenged, but as none are likely to have been replaced (with the conceivable exception of one or two of the ‘adapted’ ones), we are undoubtedly left with a Norman conundrum, indisputably falling before 1133 the accepted date for the completion of the Norman building.

But what do we have here? Each has been photographed (thankfully before ’improvements’ to the lighting made this nearly impossible); each has been described, tabulated, and considered, and…then…we inevitably move towards possible interpretations. Meaning? Have they a religious significance? It appears not! Yet they sit high up in the cathedral interior. At this juncture heated debate and dogmatic opinion must appear for there can be no certainties, as neither masons nor monks have left us explanations. In the grotesques we are faced with flaring nostrils, bulbous staring eyes, great teeth and tongues protruding or balled (Surely ‘Yah! Boo!’?), small, pointed cat-like ears, with hair stylised as a ripple along the upper edges of the stones. The philtrum, that space between the nose and the upper lip, is often drawn into the design, exaggerated, and with nostrils blending with the prominent cheekbones. These are indeed the faces of nightmares, and yet they remain human, or at least have a humanoid aspect.

Perhaps it is the ‘personalised’ faces that give clues; two are of the same old man, one almost smiling and set at location within the south transept of the building and looking towards a curiously abnormal column - the ‘hybrid column’ – while a second … surely angry and displeased … placed above the nave, looks towards part of its structure dated after about 1120. They resemble formidable cartoons! In fact, both may occupy critical junctions in the build, and while it can never be proven this ‘Archbishop Tutu’ face (the parallels are striking), full of deep humanity, could conceivably be Prior Turgot, who along with Bishop William de St. Calais, was the mentor of the great building before moving to the see of St. Andrews, Scotland between about 1107-9. After fraught experiences there he returned, to die in Durham in 1115. Are we seeing here more of a story than historians normally dare to tell from such tenuous and insubstantial evidence?

Three more of the personalised faces stand out: they are certainly not grotesques but clear representations of human reality; the first is an older man, with a strong face and a stiff ‘Amish’ style beard, lacking a moustache; a second is similar, but is enhanced by a moustache, while the third is of a young man, with no beard and a neat small moustache, a face that would grace any film villain - ‘lock up your daughters’! Placed in the nave and on no interpretable order, these are people, and we can only guess that either we have a master mason and two of his apprentices, or more probably the master mason, his son and grandson. It must be stressed that at this remote time - over 900 years ago - we have no evidence that could stand up in court, but this is a reasonable interpretation.

There is a little more: trace evidence, not least the similarity of stonework details and decoration shows that some Durham masons moved into Scotland to work on the royal church of Dunfermline abbey, and a document of about 1154 refers to land granted by king Malcolm IV to the abbey, land held by Ælric a ‘master mason’. It is probable that this records an earlier grant, probably by Alexander I, who was generous enough to do something that Durham did not do, gifting to Ælric a substantial piece of land for his services.

The technicalities of all this are not for a short account, for the holding was in a form of tenure known as elemoisina, at this early stage a grant made in charity. By the early 13th century termed ‘Masterton’, i.e. ‘the estate of the master mason’, and has persisted to appear as a suburb of Dunfermline city to this day. The original grant probably took place in or soon after about 1107, when Turgot, Durham’s Prior (head of the Durham monastery and archdeacon) was made Bishop of St. Andrews, and Ælric may have been induced (assuredly by the promise of land) to move north at about that date to begin the construction of the new abbey church while leaving the work in Durham in the capable hands of his son and/or grandson.

The latter, whichever, introduced the powerful chevroned detailing of the vault ribs in Durham, and eventually brought striking chevroned work to Dunfermline, taking possession of the royal lands gifted to his father…and establishing the Masterton family, elements of which are still to be found in the town. This fact offers support for a family relationship between the stone faces. While, as has been stressed, absolute proof cannot be forthcoming, the argument is sustained by both the fabric of the two buildings and in documents recorded in the monastic cartulary of Holy Trinity at Dunfermline. In this context the three personalised faces assume meaning, for it was Ælric, surely the older of the three, who must have been the mason of the earliest phase of the work at Durham.

By Brian Roberts

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