A History of Durham

By Tim Lambert

Anglo-Saxon Durham

Durham was founded by monks. A man named Cuthbert was once Bishop of Lindisfarne. After he died in 687 people claimed that miracles took place at his grave (people believed that dead bodies could work miracles). In 698 his body was exhumed and they discovered that it had not decomposed. Afterward, many people came to visit the body.

However, in the 10th century, the Vikings raided the coast of England. So in 985, the monks who kept Cuthbert’s body decided to move from Lindisfarne to a safer location. For 10 years they wandered from place to place but eventually, they settled at Durham.

The name Durham means hill on an island. It’s derived from the words dun meaning hill and holmr meaning island. The body of Cuthbert still attracted visitors and a town grew up around it. It was a good location for a town as it was easy to defend. It also had an important attraction for visitors.

The Scots attacked Durham twice, in 1006 and 1038 but both times they were driven away.

Medieval Durham

In 1069 William the Conqueror sent 700 men to Durham. However the next day the native Anglo-Saxons marched into the town and massacred the Normans. Afterward, the North of England rebelled against William. He took terrible revenge. His men killed peasants and burned their crops and homes. They also killed livestock. 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 control the people. In 1083 they founded a Benedictine priory (a small abbey) to replace the community who looked after Cuthbert’s body. Then in 1093, the Norman bishop of Durham, William of Calais began building a cathedral in Durham. Cuthbert’s body was finally buried there in 1104. Durham Cathedral was finished in 1133.

In 1076 the new Norman bishop was made the Earl of Bamburgh and was given the castle for his home. In 1091 King William Rufus gave the Bishop special powers. From then on the Bishop had the right to mint coins, raise an army, and create barons. He could also raise taxes. He was called the Prince Bishop. In the Middle Ages, the Bishop controlled the town of Durham. However, his powers were later reduced and they were abolished in the early 19th century.

In the Middle Ages, the centre of Durham was on the peninsula formed by a bend in the river. On it stood Durham Cathedral, the castle, and the priory. West of the peninsula was an area called the Old Borough. In the 12th century, new areas were added to the town. Northeast of the peninsula St Giles borough grew up around St Giles hospital which was founded in 1112.

Meanwhile, early in the 12th century, Bishop Flambard built an area called Bishops Borough north of the peninsula. He also built the 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 Medieval Durham, there were watermills grinding grain into flour. Mills were also used for fulling. After the 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 wool was pounded by wooden hammers worked by a water mill. The whole process was called fulling.

Apart from making wool, the most important industry in Medieval Durham was leather and there were many tanners in the town. n 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 by a stone wall. However, in 1312 Robert the Bruce attacked Durham and burned the suburbs. Afterward, a new wall was built north of St Nicholas’s Church.

In Durham in the Middle Ages, there was a hospital dedicated to St Giles. There was also a hospital dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. Durham also had 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 other schools were founded to teach music and grammar at Palace Green.

Durham in the 16th century and 17th century

In 1538 Henry VIII’s men destroyed the shrine of St Cuthbert. This was a serious blow to Durham. The shrine drew large numbers of pilgrims to the town and they spent money there. That was all lost. Fortunately, Durham Grammar School which had been founded in 1414 remained. In 1661 it was rebuilt and became a famous public school.

In 1536 Henry VIII removed some of the Bishop of Durham’s powers. Nevertheless, the Bishop retained the title Prince Bishop and he still controlled Durham. In 1565 the bishop created a corporation of a mayor and aldermen but they had little power. Like all 16th century towns, Durham suffered outbreaks of plague. It struck in 1544, 1589, and 1598.

Then in 1640, the Scots rebelled when Charles I tried to force them to accept bishops (the Church of Scotland does not have bishops). The Scots occupied Durham but the townspeople were, generally, sympathetic to them.

In 1642 civil war started between the king and parliament and in 1644 the Scots joined in on the side of Parliament. In 1644 they occupied Durham again. Also that year there was an outbreak of plague in the town. Later the English Parliament and the Scots argued and they fought the battle of Dunbar. Afterward, 4,000 Scottish prisoners were held in Durham Castle.

At the end of the century, a writer called Celia Fiennes described Durham: ‘Durham city stands on a great hill. The cathedral and the castle (which is the bishop’s palace) with the college are built of stone and are encompassed by 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’.

Durham in the 18th century

During the 18th century life in Durham gradually became more comfortable. A blue coat charity school was opened in Durham in 1718. (It got its name from the color of the school uniforms). In the early 18th century a mustard-making industry started in Durham. The first theatre in Durham opened in 1722 on Saddler Street. Then in 1729, a statue of Neptune was erected in Market Place.

By the middle of the 18th century, Durham probably had a population of around 4,000 to 5,000 and it was growing rapidly. By 18th-century standards, Durham was quite a large town.

However, in 1771 there was a severe flood in Durham. It damaged Elvet bridge. Nevertheless, the town continued to thrive. Durham Infirmary opened in 1787. Then in 1790, a body of men was created to pave and light the streets of Durham (using oil lamps).

Durham in the 19th century

At the time of the first census in 1801, Durham had a population of about 7,500. In the 19th century, Durham was known for organ making and carpet making. Other industries in the town were brewing and paper mills.

Meanwhile, the population of Durham rose steeply in the early 19th century. By 1821 it was 9,800. By the mid-19th century, it had reached 14,000. However, the population only grew slowly in the second half of the century.

Durham Prison was built in 1820 and in 1824 Durham gained gaslight. Later in the 19th century sewers were dug under the town and a piped water supply was created. Meanwhile, in 1836, Durham gained its first police force.

Durham University was founded in 1832. The Bishop of Durham gave the castle to the university to use as a college in 1837 and the castle’s keep was rebuilt to house students in 1840. An observatory was built in 1841. Women were admitted to Durham University in 1896.

A railway was built to Durham in 1844. A railway viaduct was built in 1857.

Meanwhile, Durham Town Hall was rebuilt in 1851. Also in 1851, a covered market opened. In the mid-19th century, a writer said Durham was: ‘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 woolen factories and ironworks. The cathedral is a fine building and the castle is a curious relic of antiquity’.

County Hospital was first built in 1860. Then in 1861, a statue of the Marquess of Londonderry was erected in 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 opened in Houghall.

Durham in the 20th century

In 1901 the population of Durham was about 16,000. It continued to grow rapidly and Durham continued to thrive. In the 1920s science laboratories were built in South Road. In the 1930s slum clearance took place in Millburngate and Framwellgate. To rehouse the people from the slums 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 in North End, Gilesgate Moor, and Whinney Hill.

Furthermore, in the 20th century, Durham University expanded. St Mary’s College was built in 1952. Then in 1960, the School of Oriental Studies opened. Grey College followed in 1961. Then came St Aidans College in 1965. Then Van Mildert College opened in 1966, Trevelyan College followed in 1967, and Collingwood College opened in 1973.

The National Savings Office opened in Durham in 1961. The new County Hall was built in 1963 and the Magistrates Court was built in 1964. In 1969 a Museum of the Durham Light Infantry opened. The University Botanic Gardens opened in 1970. Meanwhile, Kingsgate Bridge was built in 1963. Leazes Road was built in 1967 and in 1975 a new Elvet bridge was built. Also in 1975, a Cathedral car park was built.

The Millburngate Shopping Centre was built in 1976. It was enlarged in 1987. Also in 1987 Durham Castle and Cathedral became world heritage sites. In 1999 the Prince Bishops Shopping Centre opened.

Durham in the 21st century

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral

In the early 21st century Durham continued to develop. The Gala Theatre opened in 2002. Also in 2002, the Clayport Library opened. Then in 2008, a statue of St Cuthbert was erected in Millennium Square in Durham.

In 2024 the population of Durham was 43,000.

A Timeline of Durham

995 The body of St Cuthbert is buried in Durham and it draws many visitors

1006 The Scots attack Durham but they are driven off

1038 The Scots attack Durham again but they are driven off once more

1069 Normans are massacred in Durham. In retaliation, the Normans devastate the area.

1072 The Normans build a castle at Durham

1091 The Bishop of Durham is given wide powers by the king

1112 St Giles Hospital is built

1120 Framwell Bridge is built

1133 Durham Cathedral is completed

1162 Elvet Bridge is built

1312 Robert the Bruce burns the suburbs of Durham

1356 The first Town Hall is built at Durham

1538 The king’s men demolish the shrine of St Cuthbert

1544 Durham suffers an outbreak of plague

1565 Durham gains a corporation and a mayor (although the Bishop is still very powerful)

1589 Plague strikes Durham again

1598 Plague returns to Durham

1644 During the Civil War the Scots Durham

1722 The first theatre opens in Durham

1750 Durham has a population of perhaps 5,000

1771 Durham suffers a serious flood

1787 Durham Infirmary is founded

1790 A body of men is given powers to pave the streets of Durham and light them with oil lamps

1801 Durham has a population of about 7,500

1820 Durham prison is built

1824 Durham gains gas light

1832 Durham University is founded

1844 The railway reaches Durham

1851 Durham Town Hall is rebuilt

1901 The population of Durham is about 16,000

1952 St Mary’s College is founded

1960 The School of Oriental Studies opens

1963 County Hall is built. Kingsgate Bridge is built.

1964 The Magistrates Court is built

1965 St Aidan’s College opens

1969 A Museum of the Durham Light Infantry opens

1973 Collingwood College opens

1975 A new Elvet Bridge is built

1976 Millburngate Shopping Centre is built

1999 Prince Bishops Shopping Centre opens

2002 Gala Theatre and Clayport Library open