History of Durham 101


Coming to Durham for the first time is a multi-sensory experience for anyone. You don’t have be a historian or an archaeologist to be moved by your maiden sighting of the cathedral when arriving by train. First of all, as your train blasts its way through the last tunnel, bold, dark and brooding towers are thrown up before you. Distant initially, but as the train hurtles around the city’s outskirts, more detail can be seen. Spikey pinnacles sit atop the four corners of the west towers whilst large glass expanses glisten in the sun (only if you’re arriving on a sunny day that is!) framed by cliffs of moody northern stone. Then, as the train is about to pull into station, the cathedral moves aside to reveal its smaller companion, the castle, which rests on the opposite side of the vast volcanic rock that is Durham. Similar prospects can be seen by car but coming by train is always better for those seeking dramatic views (in my opinion!)

You’re not the first person, nor will you be the last, to be wowed by all that Durham has to offer.

You’re not the first person, nor will you be the last, to be wowed by all that Durham has to offer visually and historically. The thrilling sight of cathedral and castle looming over a city of cobbled streets, Georgian and Victorian houses and vennels, all looped by the silently flowing River Wear, has attracted many before you. Not least, Turner (1775- 1851), the famous landscape painter, who set up his easel multiple times to capture in paint the visual cacophony of Durham. He visited, for instance, once in c. 1830 to eternalise an early 19th century view of the cathedral from one of the many medieval bridges that connect the peninsula with the ‘mainland’. And wherever artists are, poets tend to follow; or vice versa! The visual chaos that drew Turner, also pulled in Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) before him.

This Scottish Romantic poet and novelist came down from his northern home in 1817 to memorialise the emotional impact of Durham. You can picture his imaginative pen scribbling excitingly as he wrote of Durham’s ‘grey towers’ with ‘mix’d and massive piles’ which was ‘half church of God, half castle ‘gainst the Scott’. He did ‘long to roam’ the cathedral’s ‘venerable aisles’ with their ‘records (…) of deeds long since forgot’. Appreciating the beauty of Durham’s historic vistas and melodramatic views is one thing, but this experience can be enhanced if we seek to understand where this place came from, why it is here and what role Durham has played in shaping the North East of England.

Most stories tend to start at the beginning, it’s quite common practice actually. However, the beginning of Durham before the Norman Conquest (1066 and all that) is as murky as a muddy puddle. There are many written records, archaeological evidence and extensive historiography (debates between historians) on the topic. But, beyond some confirmed facts, we don’t really know much. What we do know is that Durham developed as an important centre from around 995, when a group of Anglo-Saxon monks bearing the body of a holy man, who went by the name of Saint Cuthbert, decided that the volcanic peninsula was a good place to re-establish their monastic community.

There is a story about a lost cow and a girl searching for it (called the story of the Dun Cow if you want to look it up) but there are probably more practical reasons as to why a community of monks who had been on the move for the last century chose the site. These monks had been expelled from their home on Lindisfarne, an island in the North Sea, by Norse raiders, and most likely chose Durham as the site was easily defensible.

From this initial foundation of Durham, the cult of St Cuthbert, as it became known, gained considerable political as well as ecclesiastical importance. So much so that when the Normans invaded in 1066, they sought to control the site of Durham as a key power base in the North East.

‘When the Normans invaded in 1066, they sought to control the site of Durham as a key power base in the North East.’

As part of this, they rebuilt the Anglo-Saxon cathedral, constructing the stonking great building (with some later modifications) that we see now. As head of this cathedral and this vastly important city was installed a Bishop who not only led the regional church but also had the right to raise an army, mint his own coins and build his own castles.

Many of the buildings around the county, as well as the city, bear the markings of these ‘Prince Bishops’. Although the bishopric was stripped of its powers in the early 19th century, the legacy of the bishops lives on in the university they founded in 1832.

So, as you walk around following your arrival, take a moment to step into the cathedral or to walk around the river bends and soak in the atmosphere. This place has a tale to tell and it’s perhaps in these quiet moments that, like Turner or Scott, you can be inspired to memorialise, in more ways than pen or painting, the historic beauty of Durham.


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