Friday, July 29, 2016

Day 29 -- Durham

The old city of Durham is squeezed onto a peninsula within an oxbow bend of the River Wear. Most of the peninsula is occupied by the thousand-year-old Durham Cathedral and an equally ancient adjacent castle. A small commercial district, home to a mix of local and international stores, and government buildings pretty much fill in the remaining territory.

The castle has been owned by Durham University since 1840, and is now primarily devoted to student housing. The cathedral is a massive structure similar to other massive cathedrals of the same era, and is distinguished as being the final resting place of St. Cuthbert, the Venerable Bede, and the head of Oswald, King of Northumbria, who was killed in battle in year 642. St. Cuthbert died a few years later and was buried at Lindisfarne (Holy Island). He was so revered that 200 years after his death, when Lindisfarne was threatened by an onslaught from the Danes, his remains were removed, eventually ending up in Durham. The Durham Cathedral became his shrine.

Bishops were strong political figures as well as religious figures. It is said that the Bishop of Durham was, in effect, the King of Northumbria, because the London King had little means of controlling land so distant. With such great political power conferred upon church officials, is it any wonder that the draftsmen of the U.S. Constitution forbade both a national religion and hereditary titles?

One of the bishops of Durham was an ancestor of George Washington, and the family coat of arms appears among others on a high ceiling (too high for me to photograph). The coat of arms of the Washington family consists of alternating red and white stripes, topped by a row of six-pointed stars said to be spurs. George Washington was idolized in his time, much more than he is today in America. There are some who believe that the stars and stripes of the U.S. flag were based on the Washington family coat of arms. It’s merely a coincidence that the city bearing his name sits at the head of a peninsula between the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.