Saxon Cathedral 883 – 995
The Lindisfarne Community brought the coffin with the incorrupt body of St. Cuthbert, the head of the Christian king Oswald and the Lindisfarne Gospels here in 883 having been involved in a ceremony to crown Guthred, Danish King of York. He granted them the ancient Roman fort of Chester le Street to be their new headquarters in southern area together with extensive lands between the rivers Tyne and Wear. The grant would later be confirmed by Alfred of Wessex and his successors. This royal foundation is still commemorated today in the wearing of red cassocks by the Church Choir.
Once established, they built a wooden shrine for their saint, a scriptorium and domestic accommodation and remained here for 112 years. During this time the Bishops of Lindisfarne at Chester le Street presided over a huge diocese stretching from Lothian in the North to Teesside in Northern England and from the west to the east coasts .
Vistors and benefactors came to the shrine drawn to it by the many legends and miracles associated with the dead saint.
For much of this period, close relations were maintained between the Community and the Kings of Wessex to offset the threat from Scandanavian kingdoms to the south of the river Tees and in 934 this link was reinforced by the visit of King Athelstan who came to request the support of St. Cuthbert in his battle with the Scots. Athelstan brought many costly gifts to the shrine and confirmed the landed possessions of the community.
A priest named Aldred produced the earliest surviving translation of the Gospels in early (Saxon) English when he added his Anglo-Saxon gloss the Lindisfarne Gospel book here in Chester-le-Street, sometime between 950 and 960.
None of the treasures brought by King Athelstan remain in the town. All of the gold and silver plate have disappeared but two items on the list, an embroidered stole and maniple made for Bishop Frithestan of Winchester are preserved and on display in Durham Cathedral treasury. The only examples of Anglo-Saxon embroidery in existence, they survived because they had been placed in St. Cuthbert’s coffin.
The Community left Chester-le-Street in 995 and eventually settled in Durham . Some years later, a magnificent stone cathedral was built and a shrine to house the body of the saint was added in 1104.
The Norman Period 1050 – 1286
During this period, the church became a rectory.
In 1054, Bishop Ethelric of Durham pulled down the old wooden shrine in order to build a stone church. A hoard of treasure (maybe Roman gold) was discovered and claimed by the Bishop who promptly resigned the see and returned to his native Peterborough to spend it.
The remains of this stone church can still be found in parts of the chancel and in the two piers between the pillars halfway down the nave arcade. These are the oldest parts of the existing church.
The church nave and the aisles were significantly altered and extended c.1267.
The later medieval period 1286 – 1547
Bishop Antony Bek changed the status of the church in 1286 when he made it collegiate (confirmed by Pope Boniface in 1332). This involved an increase of clergy to a dean, seven canons, five chaplains and three deacons. They drew their income from the Church’s endowments of tithes from land in the parish of over 80 square miles.
The anchorage (now the Anker’s House Museum) was built sometime in the latter half of the 14th century by blocking up the most westerly bay of the north aisle and it became the home of six anchorites in turn from 1380 – 1547.
In 1409 the spire was constructed and three bells installed The spire which
rises to a height of 158 feet is prominent for miles around and the eight bell peal still calls out to Christians to come to worship.
After the Reformation 1547 – 1862
As a consequence of the reformation, the Collegiate church was dissolved and the revenues taken by the crown. It became a parish church with one curate replacing the sixteen clergy and living on a stipend of £10 per year whilst administering the same size parish!
The anchorage extension was built in the mid 16th century.
In 1742, the south porch was built to replace an older structure.
The Lambton family pew and vault were added on in 1829 and an initial internal spiral staircase was replaced by an external entrance and steps.
In 1862 major alterations to the interior of the building took place. The plaster (a relic of the Reformation) was stripped from the walls and columns, the floor cemented, the gallery at the west end pulled down, the chancel arch rebuilt and the west arch reopened. The roof was restored to its original height and the wood from the old box pews was reworked into the backs of new open pews.
To the present day – 21st Century
In 1865, the church became a Rectory again and In the same year, the present organ was installed by Harrison & Co.
In 1883, the church’s millennium, further internal alterations were made in order to celebrate the event. These included those in the chancel, with the erection of a screen with return stalls so as to revive the layout of the collegiate Church. A new ring of 6 bells was installed.
In the 20th century, alterations included work in the sanctuary, the making of the war memorial chapel and, in 1964, the addition of doors to the South Porch. In 1981 this became the choir vestry. 2 more bells were added in 1908, making a peal of 8.
The Tower, Spire and Bells
The tower was built in three stages. First the square base, then the octagonal section and in 1409, the spire. At the top of the weathervane the spire reaches a height of 158 feet.
Three bells were presented to the church when the spire was added. Two became cracked, and in 1883, their metal was melted down and was incorporated in a new ring of six bells. Two further bells were added in 1908 to make a ring of eight.
The “odd ninth,” the only one left of the three 1409 originals, is still rung for the last few minutes before each service, and is dedicated to Saint Cuthbert.
The inscription on it reads, when translated from the Latin, “Master Robert Aschburn, Dean of Chester made me: This bell given is thus named Cuthbert”
A unique and famous feature of Chester-le-Street Church is the tiny two-storey anchorage beside the west door at the base of the tower.
Now the “Anker’s House Museum ”, it was from 1383 to 1547 the dwelling-place of an Anchorite, or hermit.
The Anchorite, having been approved by the Bishop, took monastic vows and was sealed in for the rest of his life.
A small window allowed limited access and the passing in of food, and an angled slit in the interior wall forms a “squint” through which the Anchorite could observe the celebration of the Mass in the side chapel of the church.
Church Opening Times
The church is open for visitors:
From November to Easter – 10 am to 12.30 pm Monday to Friday
From Easter to October – 10 am to 3.00 pm Monday to Saturday
On Thursday mornings and Sunday mornings the Church is open as usual for services.
We endeavour to have the Church open at the above times as long as stewards are available. If you intend coming some distance you might like to check with the Parish Office that the Church will be open.
Enquiries via the Church Secretary.