Sanctuary, Hellmouths and a Legendary Cross.

Durham City Aug 2, 2023
Sanctuary Knocker Durham
"The Sanctuary Knocker, a lion bold,
A warning of fate, to those who are told,
Of the Hellmouth, a gateway to sin,
A reminder of fate, to those who enter in!"
"Dee as a ya telt man, or I'll fettle ye!"

Sanctuary Knocker

The Sanctuary Knocker at Durham Cathedral is a unique and 'striking' piece of medieval history. Commissioned by the monks at Durham during the 12th century, the knocker was placed on the North Door of the cathedral and was crafted from bronze. It takes the "form of a lion, haloed by its mane, devouring a man whose legs are being eaten by snakes". This design is based on the ‘Hellmouth’, a medieval image depicting a literal entrance to hell through the gaping jaws of a beast.

The Sanctuary knocker was used by individuals seeking refuge in the Cathedral, often criminals fleeing from the law. Sanctuary was a legal right in medieval England, where people could claim protection from the church, and they would be safe from arrest within the church's grounds. The Sanctuary knocker was a symbol of this protection, and it was used to signal to the monks that someone was seeking refuge.

An interesting story about the Sanctuary knocker is that of a 'notorious criminal' named Robert de Brus (Robert The Bruce) who was a member of a powerful noble family in the "Debatable lands" of the 'Border region' (now was fluid for a while). In 1297, he had to flee from the law and sought refuge at Durham Cathedral. He used the Sanctuary knocker to signal to the monks that he was seeking protection. The story goes that he was granted sanctuary for a year and a day, during which time he had to make amends for his crimes and seek forgiveness. After that, he was allowed to leave the cathedral and return to society, a free man! The rest is history as they say.

A Potted History of Hellmouths!

Hellmouth Very Short!
"It was crafted from bronze and took the form of a lion haloed by its mane, devouring a man whose legs are being eaten by snakes." - Unknown Monk

The concept of the "Hellmouth" is a medieval image depicting a literal entrance to hell through the gaping gob of a demonic beast. This image was often used as a warning and deterrent of sin, and can be found in various forms in medieval art and architecture. They were often depicted in churches as a reminder of the consequences of one's actions and the importance of seeking redemption. Notable examples of Hellmouths can be found in the illuminated manuscripts of the 8th century and the sculpture of the Romanesque period, specifically in the 11th century.

In folklore, the Hellmouth is often associated with the idea of a gateway to the underworld or a portal to the realm of the dead. It was believed that the mouth of the beast would open during times of great sin or moral decay and swallow up the souls of the damned. Some stories tell of brave warriors or holy men who ventured into the Hellmouth to rescue the souls of the damned or to defeat the demons that guarded the entrance. These tales can be found in various written accounts of the 13th and 14th centuries.

The Sanctuary knocker at Durham Cathedral, commissioned in the 12th century, is one of the most well-known examples of a Hellmouth in architecture. It serves as a reminder of the legal right of sanctuary, the moral and spiritual implications of seeking refuge, and the skill and artistry of medieval craftsmanship. The Sanctuary knocker serves as a unique and striking reminder of the medieval perspective on sin, redemption, and the afterlife.

A few years ago now in the deep midst of time, I started messing around with the idea of combing the two elements as a kind of homage to old (auld) Northumbria. That of the sanctuary knocker and St Cuthberts cross, both powerful Northumbrian totems. Combined with the use of the blood red and gold in the flag which, can still be seen today (of sorts) in the Northumberland flag.

Northumberland Flag sew on patch.
One of the first Messings!

St Cuthbert's Cross...a little more detail.

"Cuthbert's holy life and miracles had made him renowned throughout the country."13th century writer of the "Life of St. Cuthbert"

St. Cuthbert's Cross is a medieval Christian relic that is believed to have belonged to Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, an Anglo-Saxon monk, bishop, and hermit who lived in the 7th century. The cross is said to have been made of oak and was discovered in the tomb of Saint Cuthbert in the 11th century. It is now housed in the Treasury of Durham Cathedral.

A carved representation.

The cross is considered to be a powerful relic and is said to have had a profound effect on the people of Northumbria. During the medieval period, it was believed that the cross held healing powers and many people would make pilgrimage to Durham Cathedral to see the cross and to seek healing. The cross was also seen as a symbol of hope and spiritual guidance for the people of Northumbria. The devotion to the cross was such that it was carried in processions and it was even known to be taken to the battlefield as a symbol of protection, this was the case in the Battle of Nevilles Cross in 1346, where the presence of the cross rallied the people and it was believed to have helped in the English victory over the invading Scottish army. More on this topic later but here is a little taster video I found.

The cross played a significant role not only in the history of Northumbria but also in the rest of England. It was widely regarded as a powerful relic, and its reputation for healing power attracted many people from other parts of England to make pilgrimage to Durham to see the cross and to seek blessings. It was also a symbol of power and prestige of the bishopric of Durham, and it was a powerful symbol of the Christian faith in Northumbria. The devotion to St Cuthbert's cross was such that it was even used as a rallying point in other battles of the period, as it was believed to bring good luck and protection.

THE END OF: Sanctuary, Hellmouths and a legendary cross.



Wisssht! Lads had yor gobs; An aa'll tell ye aall an aaful story