DURHAM CASTLE, DH1 3LE
Postcode: DH1 3LE
Lat/Long: 54.774815N 1.576076W
Notes: The castle is a prominent landmark over Durham and is well sign-posted. Car parking in the immediate vicinity of the castle is not possible but ample town centre facilities nearby.
WHAT IS THERE TO SEE?
Durham Castle is currently used as student and staff accommodation for the University. Accordingly access is via guided tour only and even then much of the interior is not accessible. Nevertheless the tour route includes two fabulous Norman arches, a Norman church, the Tudor-era church and the Great Hall (now student dining facilities!).
1. The name Durham derives from the latin, Dunelm, which became Dun Holm under the Danes and then Duresme under the Normans.
Keep. Although built on the foundations of much earlier structures, the Keep is actually the newest part of the castle. It was built in 1840 specifically to provide accommodation for students!
Norman Arches. The Norman arch from the original gatehouse was preserved when the structure was rebuilt in the sixteenth century. The more elaborate entrance to the Great Hall can be seen on the castle tour.
Great Hall. The Great Hall was built in the thirteenth century to replace an earlier facility. The building has been heavily stylised since its original construction. Today it is the student dining hall.
The lynchpin in England’s border defence against Scotland, Durham Castle was the primary seat of the Prince-Bishops. These powerful men, appointed by the King and granted extensive powers, were charged with ensuring any Scottish incursion was defeated. The castle was never taken by force and from the nineteenth century became a University.
HISTORY OF DURHAM CASTLE
Although some form of settlement had probably existed at Durham since at least the Iron Age, the first known community was established in AD 995 by monks from Lindisfarne. Situated on a peninsula of land surrounded by a loop in the River Wear, it offered a secure site for them to establish a religious order around the remains of St Cuthbert. It is possible they raised some form of fortification to augment the natural defences.
The first known fortification at Durham was raised in 1072 by Waltheof, Earl of Huntingdon. Of English-Danish descent, he was a survivor of the pre-Norman regime. Following the invasion he had quickly made his peace within William I and had been allowed to keep his Earldom. Durham meanwhile had passed through a number of Earls of Northumbria before being settled on Robert de Comines. He went north with a force of around 700 men but was instantly rejected by the populace; he and his whole force was massacred in just one night. This prompted wide scale revolt against the Normans across Yorkshire and Northumberland. In York, the capital in the north, the Norman Governor was murdered and the castles besieged. Over the subsequent year William violently suppressed the rebellion in what is now known as the 'Harrowing of the North'. Wide scale devastation was inflicted across much of Northumberland and Yorkshire although Durham itself, as a major settlement of some value, was left unharmed. Two years later Waltheof, who had married William I's niece, was installed as the new Earl and he commenced construction of the castle probably under the orders of William.
The initial fortification was probably an earth and timber motte-and-bailey although archaeological evidence suggests it was quickly rebuilt in stone. It was built across the neck of land that allowed access to peninsula enabling the religious site to benefit from the castle's protection. The site must also been seen in context - Durham was the primary town in the North East for Newcastle was not yet a major settlement - accordingly it was the key eastern defence against Scottish invasion.
Waltheof was arrested for treason in 1076, having been associated with an attempted rebellion against William, and was executed on 31 May 1076 at Winchester. The Earldom of Northumbria was then purchased by William Walcher, who had held the post of Bishop of Durham since 1071. He became the first of the Prince-Bishops; appointed directly by the King (not the Pope) and treated as the equivalent of a senior Earl; the position had secular powers in excess of a Marcher Lord with authority to raise armies, levy taxes, dispense justice and even mint coins. These magnates became responsible for the defence of northern England with authority over the secular Earls to provide a singular authority for mustering forces as was seen at key battles such as Alnwick (1093 and 1174), Northallerton (1138) and Neville's Cross (1346).
The Earldom of Northumbria/Northumberland and Bishopric of Durham became separate entities when Walcher was murdered in 1080. However the position and secular power of the Prince-Bishops remained undiminished. Durham Cathedral was started in 1093 - a potent symbol of their wealth and influence - whilst modifications were made to the castle. The Norman chapel was built at this time.
The castle was extensively modified throughout the medieval period as subsequent Prince-Bishops sought to ensure the residence was strong enough to repel the Scots yet grand enough to match their status. Furthermore major rebuilding was required in the 1150s following a devastating (accidental) fire whilst the primary building material - soft local sandstone - required significant upkeep. Of note the (current) Great Hall was added in 1283 and the Gatehouse was rebuilt in the early fifteenth century (keeping the original Norman arch).
The wealth of Durham saw it targeted by the Commissioners of Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries. The cathedral was raided in 1537 and the riches around the shrine of St Cuthbet were re-allocated to Royal coffers. The monastery itself was suppressed in December 1539 and the future for the church looked bleak. However Prince-Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall dutifully accepted Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church of England and the break with Rome; this undoubtedly saved much of his wealth and the evidence of this remains to this day for, despite the pressures, the Tudor church was built during this troubled period. The cathedral was re-founded in 1541 with Tunstall successfully ensuring the clergy consisted of the earlier monastic community. Tunstall was later arrested and deprived of his Bishopric upon the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558.
During the Civil War Durham was held for the King but saw no action. The religious policies of the Commonwealth however, which saw the castle confiscated and sold to the Lord Mayor of London as well as the abolition of the Bishopric, caused the town severe economic hardship. The fabric of both castle and cathedral suffered from looting and dilapidation during this time. However the Restoration saw a new Prince-Bishop appointed, John Cosin, who commenced repair of both facilities as well as adding his own upgrades; the Black Staircase dates from this time. Modifications, all now focused on grandeur and style rather than defence, continued to be made during the eighteenth century including some Gothic stylisation. In particular Prince-Bishop Shute Barrington commissioned architect James Wyatt to remodel parts of the site and he rebuilt the Gatehouse into its current form between 1791 and 1826.
The secular powers of the Prince-Bishops were revoked with the Durham (County Palatine) Act (1836). The last man to hold the post was William Van Mildert and he was key in supporting the foundation of the University. The reduced powers of the Bishop of Durham meant the castle was no longer needed - nearby Auckland Castle met the accommodation needs for the religious post holders - so William granted Durham Castle to the newly formed University. From this point the castle became a residence for those studying and working there; the Keep was built, in Gothic style, over the remains of the earlier tower in 1840 to provide sufficient accommodation. The castle has remained in use by the University ever since and in 1986, together with the cathedral, was designated a World Heritage Site.