Walking the Tightrope Across Durham Cathedral


"Cathedral towers - geograph.org.uk - 228809" by John Illingworth - From geograph.org.uk. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

“Cathedral towers – geograph.org.uk – 228809” by John Illingworth – From geograph.org.uk. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

The Records of Early English Drama North -East project presents its latest “Flower of the Month” – an intriguing find from the archives of the region. This month’s “Flower” explores the story of a medieval tightrope walker who may have fallen to his death when crossing between the two towers of Durham Cathedral.

he ought to be rejected as a murderer, because when a certain performer in his churchyard climbed onto a cord stretched from one tower to another according to the wish of the said prior, he fell down and was killed

The document in question concerns the King Henry III’s objections to the election of of a new bishop. It seems the the monks had elected their prior, Thomas Melsonby, as Bishop, while the King was determined to impose a candidate of his own. To this end, allegations swirled that the irresponsible Melsonby had ordered a tightrope walker to cross between Durham’s towers, from where he fell to his death. Some of the King’s objections are palpably unjust (for example, he cites the fact that Melsonby has done homage for the cell of Coldingham to the King of Scots – as every prior of Durham had to do, since it is in Scotland – as evidence that he is a traitor). So, the accusation here cannot therefore be accepted uncritically, but there must be a grain of truth in it. Otherwise such a distinctive and unusual accusation would not have been made.

More modern local tradition has revived the story of the unfortunate tightrope walker, supplying him with the name “Hob of Pelaw,” for which there is no medieval evidence. Legend has it he was buried under a stone slab near the north door of the cathedral (although this is unlikely!).

For more about this mystery, and to read a transcript of the document in which it was recorded, head over to the Records of Early English Drama North East blog.

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