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Mike Vouri: Saints, Scoundrels and the Pig War: A Visit to Durham, England

  • Written by Mike Vouri

I can give a 10-minute account (or more) of San Juan Island’s famous Pig War almost anywhere, but I never thought it would be in Durham, England on the day the university of the same name held commencement. 

Durham Cathedral, resting place Saint Cuthbert’s remains and King Oswald’s skull, among other notables.
 I had spotted Durham Cathedral a couple of days before when my train from London’s King’s Cross station drew close with Newcastle, where I planned to begin my second hike on the Hadrian’s Wall path and fill in the blanks so-to-speak from my trip in 2019. 

The cathedral (its first iteration established in 1093) is notable as the place where the sacred bones of St. Cuthbert are housed. The soldier-turned-monk-turned-bishop-turned hermit (634-687) is considered the patron saint of Northumbria. So saintly, in fact, Pilgrims claimed that simply walking in the vicinity of his remains and saying a little prayer might cure whatever ailed them. 

Maybe he’d cure the ankle I blew up on the streets of Newcastle the day before.

Saint Cuthbert is said to still sustain visitors in distress who pass near his tomb in Durham  cathedral. Unfortunately the author could not enter the building and test this quality on his sprained ankle.

Also housed in the church is the Venerable Bede (672-735), another monk who gained fame by chronicling his era—one of the first historians to emerge from the medieval period. Ah…there is one more special one: St. Oswald (604-642), the high king of Bernicia (and greater Northumbria) who reportedly won a great battle along Hadrian’s Wall. Ok, only his head reposes there.  His bones were reported to be imbued with so much spiritual freight that everyone wanted a piece of him. His arm (left or right, I don’t know) was said to be especially potent, as a bird flew off with it and a tree sprang up where it fell to the ground. The arm was actually swiped by a renegade monk and is now ensconced in a rival cathedral down the tracks in Peterborough. 

King (Saint) Oswald was renowned for driving the pagans out of Northumbria. His corpse was a hot item on the medieval relic market, including a magical arm that took flight with a bird. Only the head rests in Durham.

Anyway, my plan for the day had been to take the train to Durham and hike up the hill to visit the cathedral, then have a bite of lunch and head home to Newcastle. Another check on the old bucket list. Durham is a charming place once you get past the bus stop and cab stand on Millburngate Road and cross over the River Wear. A stop on the bridge offers a timeless, medieval tableau for photographers—the church tower and castle battlements rise above the river’s verdant corridor—before ascending the cobblestones to the village square, which doubles as a market once a week. 

River Wear offers a medieval aspect below the old town, cathedral and castle.

The square is tangible evidence of the progression of English history, dominated by the 12th-century St. Nicholas Church and an equestrian statue of a Hussar cavalry officer in a bearskin hat and braided shell coat called “The Horse” by locals. I found the latter an intriguing example of how class and power shielded the few and victimized the many during the Victorian area in Britain. But you won’t see any of that written on the cenotaph.

The guy frozen in bronze is Charles William Vane Stewart, the 3rd Marquis of Londonderry. Born into an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, he had a talent for marrying women who enhanced his prospects at court, which in the end made him one of the 10 richest lords in the United Kingdom. In a page out of William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Barry Lyndon” (1844), he added his second wife’s surname to his own, as it was far more prestigious than Stewart, which probably carried a hint of Jacobite taint (viz. the long-dead Bonney Prince Charles Stewart).

You must pass the equestrian statue of Lord Londonderry on approach to Durham’s market square.

As with many of his class in Ireland, he looked down his nose on the tenants of his vast Ulster estate and was remarkably brutal during the Great Famine. One story has Londonderry donating £30 for tenant relief while spending more than £150,000 (millions today) on renovations of his Irish manor house, an act for which he was even then censored by local clerics. But this didn’t mean a whit to the Royals, who made him a Knight of the Garter before he blessedly expired the following year. 

But why a statue in Durham if he was from Ireland? Despite the sculpture’s heroic and martial aura, this  was mainly because the second marchioness was a wealthy Durham aristocrat who lobbied the Horse Guards into making him lord lieutenant of the Durham yeomanry. Her considerable pull is evidenced by the fact that Londonderry, despite having served capably in the Napoleonic Wars, was such a stinker and troublemaker that the Duke of Wellington proclaimed him a “…sad brouillon and mischief-maker.” (In English usage brouillon can mean “muddle-headed.”) No matter, the appointment was appropriate in the end because the yeomanry of the period functioned as a national guard specializing in keeping the working class under heel. The most notorious example is the 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, where 18 were killed and more than 400 wounded when the local yeomanry waded into a crowd of protesters, sabers flashing.

His commission came in handy. Once in Durham he developed coal mining in the region, which provided another opportunity to oppress the working class, including children under the age of 12. Consequently, there was considerable flap from the local citizenry when the marchioness arranged for the statue after his death, and later from the artist who complained that he was stiffed on his fee by the family. But no matter. Class and power prevailed once again and the thing was parked in front of St. Nicholas’s, despite bogus claims by detractors that Londonderry’s steed had been sculpted without a tongue. In 2008, the statue was moved to its current location, facing away from the square entrance, which is appropriate because, as one local pointed out, a horse’s ass is the first thing you see on entering the square.

I didn’t learn any of this until much later because I was intent on walking up the cobbles to the palace green, cathedral and castle. As I moved along, hyperconscious of the ankle I’d rolled a couple of days before, I found I was in competition with others of my age for the smooth strips of pavement that run through the street like tire tracks. Among those balancing on these tightropes were young women and men, draped with black capes with ermine collars and wearing their best shoes with slippery soles. I finally stopped one of them and asked what was going on. That’s when I learned it was Durham University’s graduation week, with the ultimate ceremony scheduled within the hour on the green, cathedral and castle. 

As I arrived, the latter-day yeomanry (police) were already hustling tourists out of a cordoned-off area. A docent with a handful of literature spotted me and explained that the cathedral and castle were closed to visitors. He then offered a free map and guide and the opportunity to take a free guided tour around the back of the cathedral and through the “bailey” neighborhood where rich folks such as the Londonderry’s once spent time in town. Feeling revolutionary on July 4 eve, I begged off the tour and continued on toward the church, hoping to be invisible long enough to snap a decent photograph of the edifice before I was chased off.

I’d barely snapped three views when a policeman with a crew cut, an international green vest and a strong Geordi accent made a beeline for me across the lawn like an Olympic walker. “You’re gonna have to leave ‘cause the ceremony is about to start,” he said. I complied and asked if he could direct me to his favorite pub on the hill. He replied that he didn’t live there, but there was a policeman with a long red beard just around the corner who was a proud resident.

“He’ll tell ye,” he said. “You’re all right.” That meant good-bye.

I walked around an enormous temporary party pavilion, under which a plywood floor had been laid to accommodate stand-up tables for the reception. And sure enough, directing party traffic was a diminutive man with a scraggly ginger beard and a billed cap teetering on a voluminous head of hair. I waited until he finished helping a truck laden with beer kegs back into the drive, then asked about the pub. I didn’t want a tourist place, I added.

“Oh sure,” he enthused.  “You’ll want the Shakespeare—You know, like the playwright?”

“Yes, I know,” I said, and we both started laughing, after which he directed me back down the cobbled street where I would find it on the left-hand side. 

“It’s a small place, so mind you don’t miss, you’re all right!” With that he turned to chase off another horde of senior tourists.

He was correct. I almost missed it. The front could not have been any more than 10 feet wide with flower boxes in the window, with one sign assuring patrons that there were more tables in rear of the building and another warning that if you wanted to use the toilet you had to buy a pint. I stepped across the threshold into the dim interior where a scattering of eight elderly regulars occupied a heavy plush-back bench that ran in an “L” the length of the room, which couldn’t have been more than 40 feet deep. The bartender, or landlord, looked to be in his late 20s, a marked contrast from his clientele. As I expected, the conversation stopped the minute I crossed the threshold. Definitely a local place!

The Shakespeare pub occupies a building that has served thirsty patrons dating to the 15th century.


“A policeman up the road said this was his favorite pub in town, so I thought I’d check it out,” I pronounced, as if I were addressing a lecture hall, or, well, playing Shakespeare. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

“That’s OK because most of us are retired policemen,” said a round, florid man standing at the bar. And they all laughed.

“Well then God bless all here.”

“You’re all right,” the florid man replied. That meant I was welcome to join them. I sealed the bargain by ordering a pint of the local favorite, a creamy cask ale called “Timothy Taylor’s Landlord.” While standing there waiting for the foam to subside in the glass, the landlord asked me where I was from.

“The United States.” They all laughed again.

“That much is obvious,” said another regular at the bar. “What part?”

“Washington State.”

With that the landlord jumped in. “That’s what you call the Pacific Northwest, isn’t it, with the tall trees and mountains. I’ve always wanted to go there. Do you live out in the country?”

I told him about where I live. The island, the ferries, the bald eagles and orcas, the hiking trails throughout the island and the national park where I worked as ranger for more than 20 years before retiring in 2015.

“Well then you’re one of us,” said another of them.

“Not quite,” I said. “I was a historian, and I wasn’t armed.”

“Well neither were we!” And they all laughed again.

That I was a historian peaked the landlord’s interest and he asked me about what I researched and wrote about. Mostly maritime and military subjects, I said, which recently included the great English explorer, George Vancouver. He didn’t have the slightest idea of who that was, although he had heard about a city of that name. But when I mentioned that Vancouver had sailed under Captain James Cook, he knew all about the great explorer.

This is not uncommon among the English, as Vancouver during the voyage had the misfortune of whipping a recalcitrant midshipman, who when the expedition returned to England learned he had been elevated to his uncle’s dukedom. Here is another version of the Londonderry story. You don’t whip a duke and get away with it, especially if you’ve inched up the hierarchy by merit instead of birth. 

Vancouver was disgraced and his astounding achievements were virtually overlooked until the 1992 bicentennial of his exploration of the Salish Sea in British Columbia. I then told the landlord and the others about the work for which I’m best known (for good or ill)—the Pig War—and that it wasn’t really a peculiar local history. It was a story involving international diplomacy as well as military and naval brinkmanship between our two nations that was resolved peacefully.  

To which he asked: “Who got the better of it, your side or ours?”

Always a tricky question. The standard answer is that peace prevailed, no one was killed except the pig, and Great Britain and the United States became, if not immediate fast friends, solid allies throughout the 20th century. But I knew that wasn’t good enough. What he wanted to know was that if the United States gained possession of the islands, what did the British get? 

The primary benefit, I explained, was that Britain did not become embroiled in a war on the U.S. mainland. This was made manifest by the massive military build-up (by both sides) during the American Civil War, would have drained the treasuries of both nations and set back at burgeoning economic relationship for decades. Great Britain was the number one foreign investor in the United States and its principal trading partner from the end of the Revolutionary War through recent decades.

That was way too complicated.

“Sounds like you got the better part of the deal,” the landlord said.

“Only when it doesn’t rain for weeks on end and the ferries aren’t canceled,” I replied.

“Well Happy Fourth of July, tomorrow, Yank!” said the senior-most gentleman as he shuffled for the door. Before passing through he turned and added: “…and stop burning those witches.”

Another pint magically appeared on my table…on the house.

Last modified onMonday, 18 March 2024 01:19