Which structure was dubbed by Sir Walter Scott ‘half church of God, half castle ’gainst the Scot’, and was voted in a 2001 BBC poll the nation’s favourite building? Geoffrey Moorhouse’s highly readable and often surprising book is a kind of historical love-letter to Durham Cathedral, tracing the history of the institution from the earliest times, with an epilogue providing an amusing (and at times moving) fly-on-the-wall account of the reactions of contemporary tourists and worshippers to this most extraordinary of churches. But at the heart of the story is the event that falls almost exactly halfway between the laying of Durham’s foundation stone in the late eleventh century and our own day: the dissolution of Durham Priory by Henry VIII’s commissioners in the last days of 1539.
One of the peculiarities of the English Church in the Middle Ages was that around half of its cathedrals were simultaneously monastic churches, ruled by a prior and home to a community of Benedictine monks. For much of its history, Durham Cathedral led a double life as Durham Priory. In