History of Durham, County Durham

Durham is located in the north east of England, within Country Durham. Archeological evidence indicates that the area has been a place of human habitation since around 2000 BC, however the origins of the actual city date back only to AD 995, when it was founded by a group of monks from Lindisfarne. These monks were fleeing from their temporary home of Chester-le-Street after repeated raids by Vikings. They carried with them the remains of Saint Cuthbert, the patron saint of Northumbria and whose body was said to be incorruptible. Their reasoning for choosing Durham is unknown; local legend suggests that Saint Cuthbert appeared to one of the monks in a vision, asking his body to be entombed in Dun Holm, which the monks were then guided to by a local milkmaid seeking her lost cow. A small wooden church was erected where his body lay; this was later upgraded to a more permanent structure known as the White Church. Durham Cathedral would eventually stand in the same place.

The church was set in a very defensible position on a peninsula, and that combined with the reverence many felt for Saint Cuthbert (and the regular journey of these pilgrims to see his remains) led to a small town forming around the area, with the church as its center. Cnut the Great, a Viking king of Denmark, was one of these pilgrims, and he gave much of his land in the area to help form the community. The cathedral become an even more important focus point for religious pilgrimage after the body of the Venerable Bede was stolen from its former resting place in Jarrow and placed in the same tomb as Saint Cuthbert.

The Norman conquest of England in the later half of the eleventh century was greatly opposed by the people of Durham, who killed off Norman invaders when they entered the city. William the Conqueror fought back against this and other rebellions with the Harrying of the North, a series of brutal suppressive measures which included the killing of peasants and the burning of crops and houses. It also eventually led to the creation of Durham’s famed cathedral; construction began in 1093, under William of Calais, the first prince bishop. Durham Castle was created at around this time as well, for the purpose of solidifying Norman power in the area and as the place of residence and seat of local government for the prince bishop. The prince bishops of Durham were noted even at the time for exerting an unusual amount of discretionary governmental power within their district, including the power to raise their own armies and call their own parliament, until their powers were circumscribed by Henry VIII.

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Throughout the medieval era Durham’s geographical location and its strong defenses led to its playing an important role in the battles between the English and the Scots; the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346, which took place somewhat to the west of Durham, is the most well-known of these encounters. In it, an attempted Scottish invasion of northern England was routed by the English army lying in wait. Though the city did not fall in battle, like much of England at the time it did fall three times to plague outbreaks throughout the Middle Ages.

During the English Civil War Durham remained loyal to Charles I, and although it was not directly assaulted by Cromwell’s forces it suffered during the Civil War and Commonwealth period of 1640 to 1660, due to the dissolution of the Church of England and the closure of its churches and other institutions. In 1660 the Restoration took place, and John Cosin was appointed bishop of Durham and made to oversee the rebuilding of the dilapidated religious infrastructure.

1832 was a momentous year in the history of Durham. It saw not only the Great Reform Act, which removed the prince bishop’s temporal powers (although he retained a seat in the House of Lords), but also the foundation of Durham University, England’s third oldest university. Durham Castle, formerly the bishop’s residence, became the home of the university’s college. The nineteenth century in general was a time of great change in England due to the Industrial Revolution, and Durham was no exception: trade unions were strengthened, and the city was well-known for its carpets, weaving, and coal mining. Coal mining remained Durham’s most important industry until the latter part of the twentieth century. Today, a great deal of the city is considered important for historical preservation purposes, and the castle and cathedral were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1986.

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Copyright: Jane Parr 2010