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Cuthbert and the Dun Cow : The magnificent cathedral at Durham owes its existence to a missing cow.
Cuthbert and the Dun Cow

Based on The Memorials of Old Durham edited by Henry Leighton (1910), and originally from Simeon of Durham’s ‘Origins and Progress of this Church of Durham’ (12th century).

Durham Cathedral is founded on the shrine of St Cuthbert, an Anglo-Saxon saint who was Bishop of Lindisfarne in the 7th century. How he came to his last resting place in Durham at the turn of the 11th century, after over a century of wandering, is told in the story of the Dun Cow.

THE monks who cared for the coffin and body of St Cuthbert decided (this was in 995, during the reign of Ethelred the Unready) that they would take the saint back from Ripon to Chester-le-Street, where he had rested through much of the previous century.

They had reached Warden Law, not six miles from home, when their waggon suddenly stopped, and defied every effort to move it. Abbot Aldhun urged them to prayer and fasting for three days, and they were rewarded with the revelation that the coffin must be carried to Dunholm.*

Unfortunately, none of the monks had ever heard of it.

They decided to strike a westward path. After some miles, they heard a dairy-maid tell a neighbour that her cow had wandered off, and the neighbour reply that a loose cow had been seen in Dunholm. So Aldhun and his companions followed the dairy-maid to Dunholm, where they built the White Church as a new home for their beloved saint.

* Dunholm is made up of ‘dūn’, an Old English word meaning a wide-topped, low hill, related to ‘dune’ and ‘down’ (as in the Sussex Downs); and ‘holmr’, an Old Scandinavian word for an island or promontory. Durham Cathedral stands on just such a low hill within a bend of the River Wear. ‘Dun’ in the phrase ‘dun cow’ is a different Old English word, meaning ‘dull brown’.

Based on The Memorials of Old Durham edited by Henry Leighton (1910), and originally from Simeon of Durham’s ‘Origins and Progress of this Church of Durham’ (12th century).

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Picture: © Mick Garratt, Geograph. Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0. View original
Durham Cathedral dominates the skyline now, in the place where Aldhun and his fellow-monks built a church in honour of St Cuthbert, and where his body still lies. This picture was taken from Mount Joy to the south east, which is where the monks came across the milk-maid who had lost her cow.
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Based on the ‘Historia de Sancto Cuthberto’
(11th century)

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