In 1237 Thomas Melsonby was elected Bishop by the monks of Durham. However his appointment was blocked by King Henry III. The king maintained that Melsonby was unfit for office and accused him of “breaking his vows, being an infringer of the liberties of the church, being diseased in body, and being guilty of the misuse of church funds and selling church favours”. The king also alleged that Melsonby was born out of wedlock and to cap it all he was guilty of murder.
This referred to an incident when Melsonby had arranged for a tightrope walker to exhibit his skills ‘upon a chord, suspended from two towers of the church and from a height he fell and broke his neck’. The unfortunate man was buried near the north door of the cathedral. It is said by some that the fateful fall is re-enacted in ghostly fashion. A sudden crash is heard as the man’s body hits the roof of the building. Then can be heard his slow, inexorable slide down towards his ultimate doom, faint cries of agony mingle with the dreadful sound of his fingernails desperately scratching, frantically feeling but failing to find some saving handhold. Then there is a sudden silence as the body makes its final fall to the churchyard below.
The much-eroded stone ( pictured above) covering the tightrope walkers grave can still be seen today although there is some dispute over exactly who is buried there.
For more information on Durham Cathedral go to their website.
Sheila Bull with reference to ‘The A-Z of Curious County Durham’ by Martin Dufferwell.