By Hannah Matis

Many years ago, I used to complain to Saint Cuthbert that this was all his fault. I was working on a master’s degree in medieval history at the time, and when I was not spending all my hours in Durham Cathedral, at Cuthbert’s shrine or in the cathedral close, I was wading through the complexities of Cuthbert’s vita, his hagiographical tradition, and an identity poised between Irish, Northumbrian, Roman, and Frankish worlds. The Northumbrian Renaissance, as it is sometimes called, acquired its particular character and brilliance as a result of being the confluence of several different kinds of cultural encounter. One did not necessarily have to travel oneself to benefit.

Also preserved in the Galilee Chapel at the west end of Durham Cathedral are the relics of the Venerable Bede, who entered the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow on the Tyne to the north when he was probably around eight or nine years old, and who is thought to be the boy survivor of the plague he describes, chanting the psalms alone with his abbot. Bede’s abbot, the magnificent Benedict Biscop, certainly traveled, most famously, several times to Rome, bringing back the best Vulgate text of the Bible that would be available in early medieval England; Bede kept his Benedictine stability. How, then, someone who by rights might well have been halting or as quirky in his Latin grammar as most of his peers, should write with the limpid clarity of Bede is one of the most fascinating puzzles of the period. Patriotic Bede most certainly was; provincial, never.

Durham Cathedral is one of the most loved buildings in Britain, its place cemented in the hearts of a new generation by its use in the Harry Potter films. When I was a student there fifteen years ago, Warner Brothers were still renting the cathedral clerestory, and pieces of the set of Hogwarts still stood around in case of the need to reshoot something.

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Early Romanesque and therefore monumentally massive, Durham was as much a political as a religious statement by William the Conqueror that the Normans were here to stay and would establish godly monastic living while they were at it. The oldest part of the present Durham Castle is the crypt, whose pillars depict a wonderful and utterly mysterious and strange set of grotesque carvings, no doubt by local craftsmen.

William almost certainly visited here. He couldn’t stay, however, and in subsequent centuries Durham was the main military bulwark against Scottish invasion. The bishops of Durham, therefore, acquired a necessary but disproportionate degree of independence in relation to their peers, and could, for example, mint their own money in case of military need. County Durham, therefore, likes to call itself on its signage “the land of the prince-bishops,” and like much of the border territory, retains a sense of its ferocious local history, even when that history is distant or distinctly grander than the present.

As a graduate student I lived in a former pit terrace outside of town. I could see the tower of the cathedral from outside my house; in the countryside immediately behind was a village with a Norse name whose houses were still arrayed stockade-fashion around a central green, with a tiny local church whose Norman dog-tooth pattern over its west door veered wildly in places. There was a Regency manor-house as well, and dairy had replaced coal as the local industry, but the more recent local history lay without question in the mines. As gentrification took over Durham itself, many of the old street names had been gently sanitized, but the major civic event of the year was still the miners’ gala.

Towns in County Durham that did not have the luck to be both a world heritage site and the location of a major university have not always fared so well. One of those until recently had been Bishop Auckland. As the name implies, the town was home to the principal palace of the bishops of Durham, but it has rather been searching for a raison d’être in the present day. This has now been provided, with magnificent generosity, by a native son of the area, the former London financier Jonathan Ruffer, who has poured his personal fortune into The Auckland Project, a charity which has raised some 150 million pounds in the interests of restoring the history of the town.

For Ruffer, an evangelical Christian, philanthropy of this sort has a striking personal spiritual dimension, a desire not to be captured or enslaved by money. Evangelical or not, what has impressed me most about the Auckland Project is the multi-pronged approach it has taken to addressing the complexities of the town’s past history and identity, a significant piece of which is its connection to the prince-bishops of Durham, and the capaciousness with which it celebrates that history.

On the one hand, we have Kynren, a crowd-pleasing extravaganza of a live show staffed by local people and volunteers. Kynren, whose title simply means “family,” sends a boy, by the magic of Merlin, through a pageant of astonishing scene changes through the country’s history, from its Anglo-Saxon past through the medieval world to the Tudors, its Georgian farming grandeur, Victoria, the British Empire, and the mines, and two world wars. There is jousting, farm animals galore, lots of children on set, and a fireworks display, and I could happily have watched the show’s collection of Andalusian horses for another three hours. For anyone going to County Durham in August or September, it is an unparalleled family treat and a wonderful way to make local history interesting, accessible, and exciting. And it’s very much a local project, with the goodwill and warmth of a county fair.

Kynren takes place on a re-sculpted hillside deliberately oriented so that one looks over the stage beyond to the famous windows, the “seven arches,” of the bishops’ palace. As the sun sets behind the risers it shines directly on the glass, and the palace glows like a nightlight from within as darkness falls. In addition to the show, within the town itself, the Auckland Project has refurbished a former bank branch (an increasingly endangered species in rural England) into a miners’ museum. And most recently, the charity has completed the grand refurbishment of the bishops’ palace itself, including the cycle of paintings by the Spanish master, Francisco de Zurbarán, of Jacob and his twelve sons, purchased by Bishop Trevor in 1756. Strikingly and unusually, the paintings explicitly depict Jacob and his sons as Jewish.  In an age of increasingly alarming outbreaks of anti-Semitism, in the United States and in Europe, it is an important piece of history for Christians today to remember and to celebrate.

The rest of the palace, including the chapel, has been restored to its former glory — which in this case is James Wyatt’s flamboyant Strawberry gothic in pink and purple. For anyone interested in the history of the Church of England and of the bishops of Durham in particular, a visit to the new museum, which just opened this November, is a must. Within the palace, there will be a small “museum of faith” housing important artifacts of Northumbria’s religious history; in an era in which the Museum of the Bible in my part of the world has attracted a range of reactions from laypeople to academics, I for one will be curious how this will be received politically.

For an increasingly secular Britain, this is an important and generous way to introduce people the role in their local history played by the church and the unique religious heritage of the north of England. It is an important and necessary reminder of religious, cultural, and artistic stories outside of Zone One of the London Underground. It is also a cautionary tale, in many ways, about how easily such histories can slip away beyond our reach. What would have happened to Bishop Auckland, the town, the old palace, or the religious history it represented, without Ruffer’s intervention?  If the paintings hung neutrally in a museum exhibition hall, would their message countering anti-Semitism, then and now, be also neutralized? It was not nothing, either, then or now in the age of Brexit, to purchase  such a cycle from a Spanish Catholic painter and hang it in the heart of the Geordie North. But I feel it should also make us question a system in which Ruffer is the exception rather than the rule, and when, more often than not, the millionaires remain in Zone One and the smaller towns wither on the vine.

Hannah W. Matis is assistant professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary.

About The Author

Hannah W. Matis is an associate professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary. She is a graduate of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of The Song of Songs in the Early Middle Ages. She is an avid amateur singer, particularly of early music, and can be relied upon to promote the causes of good Latin, good literature, good food, and good company.

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