History of Durham



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.


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 suprised. 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. Cuthbert’s body was finally laid to rest there in 1104. Durham Cathedral was completed in 1133. 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 1160. In Durham 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’s Church. In Durham there was hospital dedicated to St Giles. There was also a hospital dedicated to St Mary Magdelene 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 Palace Green.


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. Then 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 pleasant buildings’.


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. Durham infirmary was founded in 1787. In 1790 an act of parliament was passed setting up a body of men to pave and light the streets (with oil lamps).


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, industrialisation 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 police force.

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 Houghall.


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 400 years. 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 Aidan’s 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. Durham Castle and Cathedral were declared world heritage sites in 1987. In 1999 the Prince Bishops shopping centre was opened.


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 City is 27,000 while the population of the district is 81,000.