Castle of the Week 24 – Durham Castle

Durham Castle was begun in 1072 and has been continuously occupied ever since. It began its life as a border defence against Scotland, later became the palace for the Prince Bishops of Durham and, since Victorian times, has been part of University College at Durham University.

The castle was built on top of a steep and narrow gorge above the River Wear by the Earl of Northumberland to help subjugate the Anglo Saxons after the Norman invsion and to guard the newly built cathedral which contained the remains of St Cuthbert and St Bede from Scottish incursions. Shortly afterwards, William the Conqueror gave the completed castle to the Prince Bishop of Durham and it remained the Bishops’ home for the next 750 years. It was built to a motte and bailey design but only the Norman Chapel and part of the Great Hall remain from this first castle. A new large hall was built in the mid 12th century and quite a bit of this remains. In the 13th and 14th centuries the present Great Hall was built and the octagonal keep was rebuilt. During this time the castle was frequently under attack by the Scots but there are no records of its being taken.

The Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346 is the most famous battle to have taken place at the castle. It started when Edward III & his son, the Black Prince, defeated the French at the Battle of Crecy. Philip VI of France appealed to his friend David II of Scotland (son of Robert the Bruce) to launch an attack on northern England to relieve the pressure on him. David led an army of over 12,000 men towards Durham. A small English army of 5,000 moved north from Yorkshire to reinforce the castle. Legend has it that David had a dream when he was warned not to approach St Cuthbert’s holy ground at Durham, but he ignored this.

The Scots waited on a ridge just outside the city where they could look down on the castle and cathedral that they hoped would be theirs. They could also see the English army waiting. Because of his vast superiority of numbers, David ordered his soldiers to advance. The west flank of his soldiers found straight away that to advance would involve descending into a steep sided valley & then up the other side. The English had a large force of longbowmen waiting. A third of the Scots army was decimated and retreated in complete confusion. The eastern flank of the Scottish army was doing better. It made an English division retreat, but this exposed them to the English reserve. Being attacked from two sides at once, they started to retreat too. This left the central division led by the king himself under attack from three sides. David was wounded and his standard bearer killed so the remainder of the Scots army turned round and ran.

King David managed to escape, however legend says that whilst hiding under a nearby bridge, some English soldiers saw his reflection in the river. He was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London where he remained for 11 years until ransomed for the equivalent of £15 million.

By the 15th century, the castle was beginning to be more of a residence than a fortress and the Great Hall was reduced in size and new kitchens and a chapel were built. In 1603, England and Scotland were united and the castle was no longer needed as a fortress against the Scots. From then on, much repair work and additional building took place so that the castle was worthy of the high status and wealth of the office of Bishop of Durham. It is easy to see which Bishop built what as each placed his personal coat of arms on the part he rebuilt.

When Durham University was founded in the early 1830s, the first idea was to demolish the castle and replace it with new buildings. Luckily it was decided to adapt the castle instead. The keep, long unused and dilapidated, was rebuilt and, although University College has greatly expanded so that most of the students live outside, there are still 80 or so living in the castle together with all the administration offices for the College.

It still bears a resemblance to the original castle, with a gatehouse leading to an irregularly shaped three-sided courtyard (the original inner bailey) and is now a World Heritage Site along with the Cathedral.

Write-up provided by GillB. Pictures by permission of Robin Widdison of the Durham University Castle & Cathedral site.


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