St Margaret's Parish Church
ST MARGARET'S CHURCH
St Margaret’s is one of the oldest churches in the City of Durham, dating from the mid-12th century.
The first church, of c.1150, may have comprised a nave with clerestory above, south aisle, chancel and possibly a low western tower. The south aisle arcade of this church still survives.
The north aisle was added c.1195 in a much lighter and more graceful Norman architecture, anticipating the coming Gothic style, but still with many traditional 12th-century details.
The south aisle was rebuilt in 1343 and in the 15th century the church was greatly improved with a new tower, clerestory and chancel chapels.
Population increases during later centuries were accommodated in galleries, all swept away in Victorian restorations (1865 and 1877-80). Many of the early church furnishings may have disappeared at this time, although the font survives, of 12th-century date and made of Frosterley marble.
The South Arcade – i.e. the arches and columns on the south side of the Nave – formed part of the original building. Look out for the unusual carving on top of the easternmost column (above the modern statue of the Madonna & child). Is it a man… or is it a rabbit?
The North Arcade was built some forty years after its counterpart on the south, and is quite a bit taller. (St Oswald’s Church, on the other side of the city, has a very similar arcade and it is probable that they shared the same builder).
The Chancel Arch is also original. It may well have been built by Hugh du Puiset (Bishop of Durham 1153-97), whose arches were notoriously unstable. Certainly it has a rather sunken aspect, and has been strengthened and reinforced at various stages over the centuries.
Either side of the arch are squints, which give people in the aisles a clear view of the altar.
The Font is 12th-century, and may well be contemporary with the original building. It is of Frosterley marble – a local stone containing many fossils.
Two Norman Windows also survive, smaller and narrower than all the others: one on the north wall of the Chancel, the other in the south-west corner of the Nave (the County’s only remaining Norman clerestory window).
The Lady Chapel dates from the 15th century; prior to that date another chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary stood on the site, together with a chantry to St Thomas a Becket.
The Tower also dates from the fifteenth century and contains three bells, two of them mediaeval, the other 16th-century. The old wooden bell-frame is still in situ, though the bells are now fixed to a steel joist.
Furnishings and other items
In the centre of the Nave floor is an interesting slab memorial to Sir John Duck (aka “Durham’s Dick Whittington”) and his wife. Duck had arrived in the city penniless, and became a butcher’s apprentice. Over the years he rose to be a successful butcher and coal-owner; in time he married his master’s daughter, became mayor of the city and was eventually knighted by Charles II.
The Madonna and Child on the pillar by the Lady Chapel dates from the 1990s. It was sculpted by a local man, Brian Scraton, and is designed to reflect universal motherhood. The poet Gordon Jackson wrote a poem inspired by the Madonna and Child statue in St Margaret's, which has now been set to music. It can be listened to here
Most of the woodwork in the Church is Victorian though the wood of the pews is older, having been recycled from the ‘box pews’ that formerly filled the Church. The furniture in the Lady Chapel was given in memory of parishioners who fell in the Second World War.
The organ is a fine instrument by the famous Durham firm of Harrison & Harrison, built in 1917 (Arthur Harrison was Churchwarden at the time). Arthur Yockney, the then headmaster of St Margaret’s School, carved the woodwork for the case. There are 1,276 pipes in the organ.