The History of Durham
By Tim Lambert
Durham was founded by a group of monks. A man
named St Cuthbert was bishop of Lindisfarne. St Cuthbert died
in 687 and soon people began to claim that miracles happened
near his grave (in those days people believed that dead bodies
could work miracles). In 698 his body was exhumed and it was
found that it had not decayed. As a result a cult began around
the body of St Cuthbert and many people came to visit it.
In the 10th century the Vikings raided the coast
of England. In 985 the monks who looked after Cuthbert's body
decided to move from Lindisfarne to somewhere safer. For 10
years they wandered from place to place until eventually they
settled at Durham. The name Durham means hill on an island.
It comes from the old English words dun meaning hill and holmr
meaning island. A church was built for the monks. The body
of Cuthbert continued to act as a magnet for visitors. Soon
a town grew up on the site. It was an ideal site for a town
as it was easy to defend and it had a major 'tourist attraction'.
The Scots attacked Durham, twice, in 1006 and 1038 but both
times they were driven off.
THE MIDDLE AGES
In 1069 William the conqueror sent 700 men to
Durham. The next day the native Saxons marched into the town
and took the Normans by suprise. They were massacred. Rebellion
spread across the North of England. William retaliated by
the 'harrying of the North'. Peasants were killed, crops and
houses were burned and livestock slaughtered. The monks who
looked after Cuthbert's body fled from Durham in 1069 but
they returned in 1070.
In 1072 the Normans built a castle in Durham
to keep the inhabitants in order In 1083 they founded a Benedictine
priory (a small abbey) to replace the community who looked
after Cuthberts body. In 1093 the Norman bishop of Durham,
William of Calais began a cathedral. Cuthberts body was finally
laid to rest there in 1104. The cathedral was completed in
In 1076 the new Norman bishop was made the Earl
of Bamburgh and was given the castle for his residence. In
1091 William Rufus gave the bishop royal powers. He had the
right to mint coins, raise an army and create barons. He could
also levy taxes. He was called the Prince-Bishop. He kept
this title until 1836. In the Middle Ages the Bishop controlled
the town. During the 17th and 18th centuries his powers were
eroded and they were abolished in the early 19th century.
In the Middle Ages the centre of Durham was
the peninsula formed by the bend in the river. In it was the
cathedral, the castle and the priory. West of the peninsula
was an area called the Old Borough. In the 12th century new
areas were built. Northeast of the peninsula St Giles borough
grew up around St Giles hospital which was founded in 1112.
Also early in the 12th century an area called Bishops Borough
was built north of the peninsula by bishop Flambard. He also
built Framwell bridge in 1120. Later in the century The Borough
of Elvet was founded east of the town. Elvet bridge was built
In the town there were mills grinding grain
into flour. Mills were also used for fulling. After wool was
woven it was cleaned and thickened. This was done by pounding
it in a mixture of water and special clay called fullers earth.
The pounding was done by wooden hammers worked by a water
mill. Apart from the manufacture of wool the main industry
in Durham was leather and there were many tanners.
Before the Norman conquest there was probably
an earth rampart around Durham with a wooden palisade on top.
In the early 12th century it was replaced with a stone wall.
In 1312 Robert the Bruce attacked Durham and burned the suburbs.
After that a new wall was built north of St Nicholas church.
As well as the hospital of St Giles there was
also a hospital dedicated to St Mary Magdalene in Gilesgate.
There was also a leper hostel, dedicated to St Leonard, north
of the town. The first town hall in Durham was built in 1356.
By the mid 14th century a school called the
Almoners school existed by the priory. By the early 15th century
the monks of the priory had also founded a choir school. Two
more schools were founded for teaching music and grammar on
THE 16th AND 17th CENTURIES
In 1538 Henry VIII's men smashed the shrine
of St Cuthbert. This was a severe blow to Durham. The shrine
had drawn many pilgrims to the town who would of course spend
money there. In 1539 Henry closed the priory. Fortunately
the grammar school founded in 1414 continued to function.
In 1661 it was rebuilt and became a well known public school.
In 1536 Henry VII deprived the Bishop of some
of his powers. The king feared that the Prince Bishop was
a rival to his power. Nevertheless the Bishop retained the
title Prince Bishop and he still controlled Durham. In 1565
the bishop formed a corporation of a mayor and aldermen but
they were definitely subservient to him.
Like all Tudor towns Durham suffered outbreaks
of plague. There were outbreaks in 1544, 1589 and 1598. In
1640 the Scots rebelled when Charles I tried to impose bishops
on them (the Church of Scotland does not have bishops). The
Scots occupied Durham but the townspeople were, usually, sympathetic.
Civil war followed in 1642 and in 1644 the Scots joined in
on the side of Parliament. In 1644 they again occupied Durham.
Again that year there was an outbreak of plague. Later the
English Parliament and the Scots fell out and they fought
the battle of Dunbar. Afterwards 4,000 Scottish prisoners
were held in Durham castle.
At the end of the century a writer called Celia
Fiennes described Durham: (I have edited her words to make
them easier to read). 'Durham city stands on a great hill.
The cathedral and the castle (which is the bishops palace)
with the college are built of stone and are encompassed with
a wall full of battlements. There is a steep descent into
the rest of the town where is the market place which is a
spacious place. There is a very fair town hall on stone pillars
and a very large conduit (to bring water from the river to
the townspeople). She also said that Durham had 'clean and
THE 18th CENTURY
A blue coat charity school was opened in Durham
in 1718. (It gots its name because of the colour of the school
uniforms). In the early 18th century a mustard making industry
began in Durham. Durham's first theatre opened in 1722 in
Saddler Street. In 1729 a statue of Neptune was erected in
the Market Place. By the middle of the 18th century Durham
probably had a population of about 4,00-5,000. Growth spread
outwards to reach the hamlets around the town. In 1771 Durham
suffered a severe flood which damaged Elvet bridge. In 1787
Durham infirmary was founded. In 1790 an act of parliament
was passed setting up a body of men to pave and light the
streets (with oil lamps).
THE 19th CENTURY
At the time of the first census in 1801 Durham
had a population of about 7,500. The industrial revolution
largely passed Durham by, although, in the 19th century Durham
was famous for organ making and carpet making. Other industries
were brewing and paper mills. Although there was little, if
any, industrialization in Durham the population rose significantly
in the early 19th century. By 1821 it was 9,800. By the mid
19th century it had reached 14,000. Growth then slowed dramatically.
Durham prison was built in 1820. In 1824 Durham
was given gas street lighting. We take street lights for granted
but in the early 19th century a writer said that among 'the
comforts of this age' one of the most important was gas street
lighting. Later in the 19th century sewers were dug and a
piped water supply began. In 1836 Durham gained its first
Durham university was founded as Britains 3rd
university in 1832. The bishop gave the castle to the university
to use as a college in 1837. The castle keep was rebuilt to
house students in 1840. An observatory was built in 1841.
Women were first admitted in 1896
The railway reached Durham in 1844. A railway
viaduct was built in 1857. The town hall was rebuilt in 1851.
It was paid for with money raised by public subscription.
Also in 1851 a covered market opened.
In the mid 19th century Durham was described
as: 'an ancient city situated on 7 hills, in a beautiful winding
of the river Wear along the banks of which are pleasant walks,
covered with woods and edged with lofty crags. Here are woollen
factories and iron works. The cathedral is a fine building
and the castle is a curious relic of antiquity'
County hospital was first built in 1860. In
1861 a statue of the Marquess of Londonderry was erected in
the Market Place. In 1871 the first miners gala was held in
Durham for miners from the Durham coalfield. In 1893 an isolation
hospital for people with infectious diseases was built in
THE 20th CENTURY
In 1901 the population of Durham was about 16,000.
In the 1920s science laboratories were built
in South Road. In the 1930s slum clearance went ahead in Millburngate
and Framwellgate. To rehouse the slum dwellers a new estate
was built at Sherburn Road. Slum clearance also took place
in Old Elvet. In the 1920s and 1930s private houses were built
North End, Gilesgate Moor and Whinney Hill.In 1952 the chapel
of the castle was opened for religious use after a gap of
The university was expanded. St Marys college
was built in 1952. In 1960 the school of oriental studies
opened. Grey college followed in 1961. Then came St Aidans
college in 1965. Then Van Mildert college in 1966, Trevelyan
college in 1967 and Collingwood college in 1973.
The national savings office opened in Durham
in 1961. The new county hall was built in 1963. The magistrates
court was built in 1964. In 1969 a museum of the Durham Light
Infantry opened. The university botanic gardens opened in
1970. By then the population of Durham had risen to around
24,000. Kingsgate bridge was built in 1963. Leazes Road was
built in 1967. In 1975 a new Elvet bridge was built. Cathedral
car park was built in 1975. The Millburngate shopping centre
was built 1976 in and enlarged in 1987. The castle and cathedral
were declared a world heritage site in 1987. In 1999 the Prince
Bishops shopping centre was opened.
THE 21st CENTURY
At the present time a millennium project is
being built. It includes a millennium hall and a millennium
square. In 2002 Radio 4's Today programme asked people to
vote for their favourite building. Durham
cathedral was the winner. Today the population of Durham
a picture tour of Durham >>
The history of Durham, by Tim Lambert.
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