Frosterley Marble: calcite in fancy dress.

There can be little doubt that Durham Cathedral is the greatest, as well as the best loved, Norman building in Britain. The construction of the major part of the present cathedral began at the end of the 11th century. It shows the characteristic Norman (Romanesque) features of round arches, small windows with semi-circular heads, massively thick walls, and round masonry piers. The elevations show a triple arrangement: nave & aisles, triforium and clerestory. Norman cathedrals were designed to end with a semicircular apse but at the east end of Durham is now the beautiful Chapel of the Nine Altars which was a 13th century addition. It was built in the Early English Gothic style and the additional altars may have have been for the convenience of the large numbers of pilgrims visiting the city and wishing to attend mass, or a large number of priests who needed to celebrate mass. The cathedral authorities are not keen to allow photography so I have done my best with a postcard looking up the nave to the Decorated Gothic west window.

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The Early English Gothic style was introduced around AD 1200 and is unique to the UK. Its features are: sharp pointed arches, thinner and stronger walls, stone vaulted roofs, and walls supported with buttresses. Apses were no longer fashionable and Early English cathedrals may end squarely, or with a Lady Chapel. A final feature of this style is the use of elegant thin columns constructed of a decorative limestone. In the south of England this is commonly Purbeck stone but at Durham, and elsewhere in the north, such columns are frequently made of black Frosterley marble. This is not a true marble, which is a metamorphic rock, but a dark-grey, fossil-containing, limestone which takes a fine polish. It was mined at Rogerley Quarry at Frosterley, near Durham where outcrops of the rock are still visible in a local stream bed.


After many centuries active quarrying has now ceased but many ordinary limestone quarries can also be found in the district. This image of the polished stone is from the Bishop’s Castle at Bishop Aukland.


Frosterley marble may famously hve been used in medieval columns at Durham but it can also be seen as flooring at Ripon Cathedral, Norwich Cathedral, York Minster, and elsewhere. The fossils are mostly of a large solitary coral called Dibunophyllum bipartitum. It is said that there may also be shell fragments, brachiopods, crinoids, bryozoans, foraminifera and tree or leaf fragments, but I have not seen anything else but corals in the samples I have examined. The southern equivalent is Purbeck ‘marble’ which was the product of a former industry on the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset. Purbeck marble was a muddy limestone containing fossils of the freshwater snail Viviparus. Seams could be found and exploited between layers of marine mudstones. Frosterley stone is always dark grey or black but the variable iron content of Purbeck stone produced red, brown and green varieties. The stone is found in many southern cathedrals including Lincoln, Norwich & Salisbury.

Purbeck Marble

You will not be surprised to learn that the above account is a great over-simplification. There are, in fact, a great many English fossil-containing limestones which take a polish and are called ‘marble’. I have noted half a dozen from Derbyshire alone, many of which originated on the Chatsworth Estates of the Duke of Devonshire. Perhaps the best known is ‘Cockleshell’ marble, examples of which can be seen at Bolsover Castle. What has me puzzled at present are the crinoidal decorative limestones. When I visited Auckland Castle in Durham I wanted to photograph its Frosterley marble columns. When examining the results later I saw that I had taken pictures of flooring made of alternating black and pale limestone of an entirely different type. These contained large numbers of shattered fragments of fossil crinoids, or sea lilies.


To identify the origin of the stone it would be very helpful to know their date, a fact which I cannot now supply. This type of stone, occurring in black and grey forms, was quarried around Dent, Sedbergh and Garsdale in Cumbria. It is generally believed the discovery that these limestones could be polished for ornamental use was made around 1760-1770. The period of greatest use was in the mid-19th century. They are found in churches local to the quarries but were also also used by the Midland Railway Company and exported to Darlington & Newcastle. If I understand correctly Egglestone Marble from Teesdale, and Nidderdale Marble, both resembled Frosterley marble but again contained crinoid fossils instead of corals. But the trade in these stones was basically a medieval one. Egglestone Marble could be quarried in large lumps and understandably is found in the north-east of England. Nidderdale Marble is a Yoredale Series limestone which I gather was used at Fountains Abbey.

Totally black floor tiles, with no veins or fossils, may be St Anne’s marble from Belgium. The quarry was at Dinant in Wallonia. The peak of this trade was post-medieval, around the 17th century. Many churches were conserved and altered in the 19th century. I think that the black fossil-containing limestone then used on chequered ecclesiastical floors is probably Kilkenny Black marble from Ireland. I don’t know exactly what fossil it contains but it is different from all the above examples. Again I believe that the Kilkenny quarries were definitely a post-medieval operation, perhaps 17th -19th century. These samples of Kilkenny marble and Derbyshire Cockleshell marble are from the excellent collection at Cliffe Castle Museum, Keighley.

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One thought on “Frosterley Marble: calcite in fancy dress.

  1. Really enjoyed this piece. Love Durham Cathedral, inside and out; also interested in archaeology and geology so you’ve combined them all. Good photos too.


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