The cow and its maid, Durham Cathedral

The cow and its maid, Durham Cathedral

A recent trip to Durham has caused me to spend more brain cells than I ought mulling over cows and maids. I grew up near Queenston Heights, which was deep in the War of 1812 battleground. Well before a Laura Secord chocolate ever crossed my lips, I knew about the brave woman who walked some 20 miles/32 kilometres from her house in Queenston to a soldier’s base in Thorold to warn them that the Americans were planning an attack. The details were foggy: I didn’t know how she found out or why she had to be the one to walk. But this one thing I knew: she took her cow with her as a cover. Because the only good explanation for a woman out walking the fields (and woods and swamps) was that she was fetching her wandering cow home. Right? And that explains why Laura Secord the company makes ice cream, right?
Well, maybe. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia Laura Secord entry, the cow is part of the mythologizing of Laura Secord. It gives other details, such as the heat of the day, a niece coming along part of the way, and the hasty military report confirming that she did indeed show up to warn them. I checked out other sites (see below) that give different details, throwing in a milking pail and bare feet – but none of them answer me this: did Laura then have to turn around and walk home again? Did she milk her cow when she got to the military camp?

What does Laura Secord have to do with the cathedral in Durham? One is not allowed to photograph the interior of this 900 year old edifice, so I took lots of outdoor photos. And there on the front of Durham Cathedral, high up, I spied a carving of a maid with a cow. Further investigation revealed that a maid and her cow are responsible for the placement of the shrine of St Cuthbert and therefore for Durham itself. Again, the various stories give different details, and they all start with Cuthbert, the monk from Lindisfarne who became, after his death, a wandering saint. Under threat of yet another Viking attack, his brothers in religion dug him up and took him with them across northern England. For a hundred years they settled in Chester-le-Street, and fearing those Vikings yet again, took him to Ripon. Returning home, they got bogged down: St Cuthbert refused to go any further. After some fasting and praying, one of the monks understood that St Cuthbert didn’t want to go home. The website England’s North East explains that his preferred destination was Dun Holm (hill island). But no one knew where this was. Just then they heard a passing milk maid asking another if she’d seen her cow. The other replied that she’d seen it Dun Holm way. So off the maid went in search of her cow, leading the monks behind her (wittingly or not no one says).
Interestingly, an 1812 guide book to York Minster makes no mention of any maid or any cow. Nor does Douglas Pocock’s essay “St Cuthbert and his Church,” which does tell of the immovable saint and the fasting (in St Cuthbert and Durham Cathedral A Celebration, ed. Douglas Pocock, Durham: City of Durham Trust 1993/95).
I can say that if I fasted for three days I’d follow a maid about to milk her cow, too, and I’d vote for the nearby Dun Holm as a resting spot for the saint and his treasures —- who would have the strength to carry it all the way back to Chester-le-Street?

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral

The Anglo-Saxon masons hired by the Normans to work on Durham cathedral made some interesting carvings. But the maid and her cow were not among them, according to England’s North East, which dates it to the 18th century. That is, the story was set in stone only after it had been around long enough to have the substance of a myth.
Laura Secord and her niece, the maid and her friend, a wandering cow.
This has the feel of a very old story. Can it be that elements of Laura Secord’s myth came from Durham?
And then there’s this mash up. Artist Gloria Parkin (Grotesques from Durham Cathedral, Durham: Gilesgate Studio 1989), discussing her drawing of an imp sculpture, wrote that she at first thought it was “a cow with the crumpled horn (the dun cow), so well known from the story of the foundation of the monastic settlement in Durham in AD950.” (p.8) Wait, what? No one mentioned that the cow had a crumpled horn. Could she be fusing one story with another? The forlorn maid and her cow with the crumpled horn in “This is the House that Jack Built,” which also features a priest all shaven and shorn.


DSC_0209At least the Durham cow only went up the hill, and not to the moon.: “Hey diddle diddle the cat and the fiddle the cow jumped over the moon.”

Or maybe the monks were pursuing the maid for altogether a different reason:

“Little maid, pretty maid, whither goest thou?”
“Down in the forest to milk my cow.”
“Shall I go with thee?” “No, not now,
When I send for thee, then come thou.” (pg. 44)
Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes edited by L. Edna Walter, Illus. Charles Folkard, A&C Black Ltd, Soho Square, London, 1919.


  • Durham Cathedral
  • England’s Northeast
  • Laura Secord as imagined by Historica Canada
  • The site for the Laura Secord Homestead run by Niagara Parks Commission explains a link between Secord and the Laura Secord Candy Company: “restored and furnished with original furniture by the Laura Secord Candy Company in 1971 and gifted to The Niagara Parks Commission in 1998”.
  • The Laura Secord Candy Company website says they bought the Laura Secord homestead in 1960 and opened it as a tourist attraction. The company was founded in 1913, and so named in admiration of her bravery.
  • The Company changed hands many times, going south of the border at one point, (isn’t that ok, as Loyalist Laura Secord was born in Massachusetts) but is now owned by two brothers based in Quebec City, according to this CBC article.

    vaulting in cafe of Durham Cathedral

    vaulting in cafe of Durham Cathedral

Posted by martens0cwa

author, editor


  1. Cows and myth! Who knew they were so entangled! A cow gives a myth just the right touch of earthy reality, maybe that is why they are so frequently employed.



    1. Must be their eyes.



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