It’s said to be the nation’s favourite building. I’m lucky enough to live a brisk walk away from it, and to wander past it or through it at least once a week. It also has a part to play in the novel I’m currently writing.
That’s Durham cathedral, of course— only not, as it is now, a focus for worship, a haven for tourists, echoing with beautiful music, glowing with candles; but as it was in that strange period between the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, and the mid-seventeenth century, when Bishop Cosin adorned it with wonderful carving and brought ritual back into its worship.
By the period when my novel is set, in the early years of the reign of James I, St Cuthbert’s remains had been reinterred following the desecration of his shrine in 1539, but beneath a modest stone in what had become a neglected corner of the cathedral. All the decoration, all the fine ornaments and jewels that had decorated the shrine had gone. The alabaster statues of the saints that had filled the niches in the Neville Screen behind the high altar had been torn down and taken away, along with the Lindisfarne Gospels – though unlike the latter, the statues were never seen again.
Even after the calmer years under Elizabeth I, the Church of England was still torn between those who thought the Reformation had all gone quite far enough, who might even have welcomed a modest restoration of colour and ritual; and those who thought it had not gone anywhere near as far as it ought and wanted every trace of Popery torn down, a full Calvinistic austerity put in its place. At the time of my novel, the Dean and Chapter were on the whole of the latter point of view. There would have been daily worship in the cathedral, but of a sober kind, with a heavy emphasis on preaching. I think in many ways it would have seemed a very bleak place, especially to those few who remembered the old days.
But there was one change for the better that I imagine the Reformation must have brought to Durham. Surely by then the long prohibition – said, on dubious authority, to be St Cuthbert’s wish – against women approaching any further into the cathedral than the very rear of the nave, must have vanished with the monastery. By this time, I imagine that women would at last have been allowed to walk between those amazing pillars, to venture even as far as the Feretory, where St Cuthbert’s shrine had stood and his remains now lay buried.
Though the days when women would preach from the pulpit and lead the worship from the high altar were still a very long way off, at the far side of many more turbulent times.