Though most of its citizens are doubtless unaware of this, Durham has a pretty special history. There was probably an earlier settlement here, but the place was really put on the map when the monks of Lindisfarne arrived with the bones of St Cuthbert (hermit of the Farne Islands) 300 years after his death to keep him safe from Viking raiders. I say bones, but one of the features of Cuthbert’s body was that is was supposedly incorruptible.
Durham was England’s greatest pilgrimage site until the murder of St Thomas a Becket gave Canterbury a claim to fame (and an easier journey from the capital for the pilgrims). Nevertheless Durham continued to draw in the crowds until the monastery was stripped by our old friend Henry VIII.
But let’s rewind a little. When the Normans invaded, they placed great importance on Cuthbert’s shrine and built the great cathedral that houses his bones and those of St Bede. Two saints for the price of one and two of the figures that made Northumbria the century of European culture in the dark ages. Given its distance from London, and the unruly nature of the north they made the bishop a very powerful man, second only to the King. Thus Durham became the land of the Prince Bishops – a title that into the 19th Century, and a castle was built alongside the cathedral to house the potentate.
I tend to undervalue the castle and for a couple of reasons:
- It’s difficult to view it all in one go, therefore difficult to envisage its size unless you resort to a drone (or the view from the cathedral tower)
- From the Palace Green, where the gatehouse stands, the keep atop its hill (motte to be accurate) seems insignificant when you have the towering mass of the great church to your back.
From the riverside it has a more imposing aspect, given greater prominence by the hill on which it stands (Durham has seven like Rome), and some streets do their bit in blocking out the larger neighbour, but from most places there’s no getting away from the fact that the castle is the junior partner in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Which is a pity, because the building embodies some rich architectural heritage; inevitable given that it was home to a series of princes. The original builders were Anglo-Saxon and so there are traces of Anglian styling. Romanesque arches imported by the Normans are topped with characteristically English Gothic windows. The courtyard beyond the gatehouse feels like an Elizabethan palace, and the Great Hall, built in the 14th century, was Britain’s largest until shortened towards the end of the 15th!
Another claim to fame; it is the only Norman castle in England not to have been breeched in combat. A Scottish invasion in 1346 was routed at the nearby Battle of Neville’s Cross and the Scots King David II was captured, apparently after the divine intervention of Cuthbert.
When the Bishops decamped to a new home in Bishop Auckland, Durham Castle became home to students of the university, who have been in residence ever since. Consequently access to the interior is limited and on the day I visited not allowed. It seems the young from the around the world are the new princes. And princesses.