Durham (locally ) is a city in North East England. It is within the County Durham local government district, and is the county town of the larger ceremonial county. The city sits on the River Wear, to the south of Newcastle upon Tyne and to the north of Darlington. Durham is well known for its Norman cathedral and 11th century castle, both designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986. The castle has been the home of Durham University since 1832. HM Prison Durham is also located close to the city centre.
Archeological evidence suggests a history of settlement in the area since roughly 2000 BC. The present city can clearly be traced back to AD 995, when a group of monks from Lindisfarne chose the strategic high peninsula as a place to settle with the body of Saint Cuthbert, that had previously lain in Chester-le-Street, founding a church there.
Legend of the Dun Cow and city origins
Local legend states that the city was founded in A.D. 995 by divine intervention. The 12th century chronicler, Symeon of Durham, recounts that after wandering in the north, Saint Cuthbert’s bier miraculously came to a halt at the hill of Warden Law and, despite the effort of the congregation, would not move. Aldhun, Bishop of Chester-le-Street and leader of the order, decreed a holy fast of three days, accompanied by prayers to the saint. Saint Bede recounts that during this fast, Saint Cuthbert appeared to the monk Eadmer with instructions that the coffin should be taken to Dun Holm.
After Eadmer’s revelation, Aldhun found that he was able to move the bier, but did not know where Dun Holm was. By chance later that day, the monks came across a milkmaid at Mount Joy (southeast of present-day Durham). She stated that she was seeking her lost dun cow, which she had last seen at Dun Holm. The monks, realising that this was a sign from the saint, followed her. They settled at a "wooded hill-island formed by a tight gorge-like meander of the River Wear." After arriving at their destination, they erected the vestiges of Durham Cathedral, which was a "modest building." Symeon states that this was the first building in the city and, unfortunately, does not remain today having been supplanted by the Norman structure.
The legend is interpreted by a Victorian relief stone carving on the south face of the cathedral and, more recently, by the bronze sculpture 'Durham Cow' (1997, Andrew Burton), which reclines by the River Wear in view of the cathedral.
During the medieval period the city gained spiritual prominence because it was the final resting place of Saint Cuthbert and Saint Bede the Venerable. The shrine of Saint Cuthbert, situated behind the High Altar of Durham Cathedral, was the most important religious site in England until the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury.
Saint Cuthbert was famed for two reasons: Firstly, the miraculous healing powers he had displayed in life extended into death with many stories of those visiting the saint’s shrine being cured of all manner of diseases. This led to him being known as the "wonder worker of England". Secondly, after the first translation of his relics in 698 AD, his body was found to be incorruptible. Despite a brief translation back to Holy Island during the Norman Invasion the saint's relics remain enshrined to the present day. Saint Bede's bones are also entombed in the cathedral, and these also drew the mediaeval pilgrim to the city.
Durham’s geographical position has always given it an important place in the defence of England against the Scots. The city has played an important part in the defence of the north and Durham Castle is the only Norman castle keep never to have suffered a breach. The Battle of Neville's Cross which took place near the city on 17 October 1346 between the English and Scots is the most famous battle of the age.
The city suffered from plague outbreaks in 1544, 1589 and 1598.
Owing to divine providence of the city’s founding, the Bishop of Durham has always enjoyed the title “Bishop by Divine Providence” opposed to other bishops who are "Bishop by Divine Permission". However, as the north east was so far from Westminster the bishops of Durham enjoyed extraordinary powers such as the ability to hold their own parliament, raise their own armies, appoint their own sheriffs and Justices, administer their own laws, levy taxes and customs duties, create fairs and markets, issue charters, salvage shipwrecks, collect revenue from mines, administer the forests and mint their own coins. So far reaching were the bishop’s powers that the steward of Bishop Antony Bek commented in 1299 AD: “There are two kings in England, namely the Lord King of England, wearing a crown in sign of his regality and the Lord Bishop of Durham wearing a mitre in place of a crown, in sign of his regality in the diocese of Durham” All this activity was administrated from the castle and buildings surrounding the Palace Green. Many of the original buildings associated with these functions of the county palatine are still to be found on the peninsula.
Every Bishop of Durham from 1071 to 1836 was a Prince Bishop except for the first Norman-appointed Bishop Walcher who was styled an Earl-Bishop. Although the term prince bishop has been used as a helpful tool in the understanding the functions of the Bishops of Durham it is not a title they would have recognised. The last Prince Bishop of Durham Bishop William Van Mildert credited with the foundation of Durham University. Henry VIII curtailed some of the Prince-Bishop's powers and, in 1538, ordered the destruction of the shrine of Saint Cuthbert.
The Prince Bishops also had their own court system, most notably the Court of Chancery of the County Palatine of Durham and Sadberge. The county also had its own attorney general, whose authority to bring an indictment for criminal matters was tested by central government in the case of R v Mary Ann Cotton (1873). Certain courts and judicial posts for the county were abolished by the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1873. Others were abolished by section 2 of the Durham (County Palatine) Act 1836 and section 41 of the Courts Act 1971.
Civil War and Commonwealth (1640 to 1660)
The city remained loyal to King Charles I throughout the English Civil War. Charles I came to Durham twice during his reign. Firstly, he came to the cathedral for a majestic service in which he was entertained by the Chapter and Bishop at great expense at the start of his reign. His second visitation to the city came towards the end of the civil war, escaping from the city as Oliver Cromwell’s forces got closer. Local legend stated he escaped down the Bailey and through Old Elvet. Another local legend has it that Cromwell stayed in a room in the present Royal County Hotel on Old Elvet during the civil war. The room is reputed to be haunted by his ghost. Durham suffered greatly during the civil war and Commonwealth. This was not due to direct assault by Cromwell but the abolition of the Church of England and the closure of religious institutions pertaining to it. The city has always relied upon the Dean and Chapter and cathedral as an economic force.
The castle suffered considerable damage and dilapidation during the Commonwealth due to the abolition of the office of bishop whose residence it was. Cromwell confiscated the castle and sold it to the Mayor of London shortly after taking it from the bishop. A similar fate befell the cathedral, it being closed in 1650 and used to incarcerate 3,000 Scottish prisoners. Graffiti left by them can still be seen today etched into the interior stone.
At the Restoration in 1660, John Cosin (a former canon) was appointed bishop and set about a major restoration project. This included the commissioning of the famous elaborate woodwork in the cathedral choir, the font cover and the Black Staircase in the castle. Other renovations were carried out to both the city and cathedral by his successor Bishop Lord Nathaniel Crewe.
In 1720 it was proposed that Durham could become a sea port by digging a canal north to join the River Team, a tributary of the River Tyne near Gateshead. Nothing came of the plan, but the statue of Neptune in the Market Place was a constant reminder of Durham's maritime possibilities.
The thought of ships docking at the Sands or Millburngate remained fresh in the minds of Durham businessmen. In 1759, a new proposal hoped to make the Wear navigable from Durham to Sunderland by altering the river's course, but the increasing size of ships made this impractical. This was further compounded by the fact Sunderland had grown as the north east's main port and centre for shipping.
The 18th century also saw the rise of the trade union movement in the city.
The Great Reform Act 1832 saw the removal of the Prince Bishop’s powers, although he still has the right to a seat in the House of Lords and is regarded as the fourth most senior bishop in the Church of England. The Court of Claims of 1953 granted the traditional right of the bishop to accompany the sovereign at the coronation, reflecting his seniority.
The first census, conducted in 1801, states that Durham City had a population of 7,100. The Industrial Revolution mostly passed the city by. However, the city was well known for carpet making and weaving. Although most of the mediaeval weavers who thrived in the city had left by the 19th century, the city was the home of Hugh MacKay Carpets’ factory, which produced the famous brands of axminster and tufted carpets until the factory was forced into administration in April 2005. Other important industries were the manufacture of mustard and coal extraction.
The Industrial Revolution also placed the city at the heart of the coalfields, the county’s main industry until the 1970s. Practically every village around the city boasted a coal mine and, although these have since disappeared as part of the regional decline in heavy industry, the proud traditions, heritage and community spirit are still evident. The city also saw the creation of the world’s first passenger railway in 1825.
The 19th century also saw the founding of Durham University thanks to the benevolence of Bishop William Van Mildert and the Chapter in 1832. Durham Castle became the first college (University College, Durham) and the Bishop moved to Auckland Castle as his only residence in the county.