Durham Castle

The Bishop’s Fort

Durham Castle is the ancient palace of the Prince Bishops of Durham and lies at the northern end of Palace Green opposite the cathedral. It is situated on the site of a fortress built to the orders of William the Conqueror on his return from Scotland in 1072. Waltheof, the Saxon Earl of Northumberland undertook the work of building the castle for William but over the years a succession of Prince Bishops have added important sections to the great building.

Durham Castle Gatehouse
Durham Castle gatehouse : © David Simpson

The present castle is dominated by the keep which although the most imposing part of the castle is in fact the least historic. In the tradition of the Norman Motte and Bailey castles the keep is situated on a mound and was first erected in the fourteenth century during the episcopacy of Bishop Thomas Hatfield. Over the centuries the keep fell into a ruinous state but was rebuilt in the 1840s as a sleeping quarters for students when the castle became Durham’s University College.

The older and greater part of the castle is situated around a courtyard to the west of the keep. The courtyard is entered from the gatehouse near to the site of the castle moat. The moat was crossed by means of a draw bridge just outside the Gatehouse. Primarily the work of Bishop Pudsey (1153-1195), the Gatehouse underwent some alterations during the episcopacies of Bishop Tunstal (1530-1559) and Bishop Shute Barrington (1791-1826).

Hall and Kitchen

Passing through the castle gatehouse into the courtyard, the imposing Keep may be seen to the right while to the left is the thirteenth and fourteenth century Great Hall built by Bishop Anthony Bek (1284-1311) and Bishop Thomas Hatfield (1345-1381). The nearest part of this building includes a five hundred year old Kitchen built by Bishop Fox around 1500. Fox’s coat of arms can be seen in the Tudor style woodwork of the adjacent hatch in the Buttery and depict a Pelican piercing its breast to feed its young. Coats of Arms associated with various other Prince Bishops of Durham can be seen throughout the castle.Most of the Great Hall building is occupied by the impressive Dining Hall of Bishop Bek which is about 100 feet long and 45 feet high. It serves as the Dining Hall for University College Durham and compares very well with those of Christchurch, Oxford and Trinity College, Cambridge.

Durham Castle
Durham Castle keep photographed by © David Simpson

Inside, the western and northern wings of the castle are adjoined by the Black Staircase of Bishop Cosin. Dating from 1662 it is one of the most impressive staircases of its time in England. The castle’s North wing was the site of a hall built by Bishop Pudsey but a number of alterations were made by successive bishops and this part of the castle now includes the Bishop’s suite, the Bishop’s Dining Room, the Tunstal Gallery and the Senate Room.

Palace Green

separates the castle from the cathedral which lies at the southern end of the green. Until the twelfth century during the time of Bishop Flambard this area was the centre of Durham and the site of the old market place. It contained a mass of wooden houses huddled together between the castle and the cathedral until Flambard cleared them all to remove the potential fire hazard which threatened the castle and cathedral. The area thus became an open area as it it is today. Today the green is flanked on its east and west sides by a number of historic buildings dating mainly from the eighteenth century. Most of these now belong to Durham University. They include a former Grammar School on the western side near the cathedral towers. It is reputedly haunted by a young pupil who suffered a fatal punsihment from one of his masters who apparently threw him from a balcony in a fit of anger.

Fulling Mill and Prebends Bridge

From the western side of Palace Green a narrow lane called Windy Gap leads to the wooded river bank and the famous Fulling Mill. Once the property of the Priors of Durham, the Fulling Mill was known historically as the Jesus Mill. Today it is the home of the University Museum of Archaeology which houses relics of the region’s Anglo-Saxon and Roman past.A little to the south of the Fulling Mill is the Prebends Bridge of 1777 from where the best known view of Durham Cathedral can be obtained with the Cathedral’s Western Towers majestically overlooking the wooded river bank and Fulling Mill below (see picture).

It was this view that prompted Sir Walter Scott to write the famous lines ‘Grey towers of Durham- yet well I love thy mixed and massive piles- half church of God; half castle ‘gainst the Scot; And long to roam those venerable aisles, with records of deeeds long since forgot’The name of Prebends Bridge derives from the office of a Prebendary which is an honourary canon but the name pre-bend could be applied to its situation at the point where the River Wear bends to form the tip of the Durham peninsula. This area is known as `Count’s Corner and is so named from the proximity of a little Grecian building nearby called The County’s House which is said to be the old home of a tiny Polish Count called Joseph Borruwlawski.

The Baileys

In days gone by the fifty-eight acre Durham river peninsula was surrounded by the defensive city walls linked to the castle. Throughout the Middle ages the whole peninsula was known as `the castle’ so that the cathedral arguably lay within the castle !.Just enclosed within the castle walls on the eastern side was the castle bailey which took the form of a street. The street still exists – part is called the South Bailey, the other part the North Bailey.The North and South Baileys are among the most historic and most attractive streets of Durham City and are described by the architectural historian Sir Nicholas Pevsner as the best streets in Durham. In Early times the houses in the North and South Bailey were of extreme importance as they were held by military tenants employed to defend the city of Durham from attack.

Most of the present houses of the North and South Bailey are of Georgian origin as in the eighteenth century these two streets were very fashionable town houses for County Durham’s wealthiest landowners. The residents included the Earls of Strahmore, (The Bowes Family) who were ancestors of the present Royal family and the Coal owning Liddell family whose relatives included Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in WonderlandOther former residents of the Bailey included a certain Captain Boulby who fought at Waterloo, Sir Robert Kerr Porter, an artist to the Tsar who later married a Russian princess and the little Polish Count called Joseph Borruwlaski.

One famous nineteenth century resident of the Bailey was John Gully who settled at Durham in the later part of his life. A one time champion pugilist of all England, Gully learned to fight during a period of imprisonment for debt at Bristol. He had the good fortune to be bought out of prison by a group of wealthy sportsmen on condition that he agreed to box against a notorious undefeated champion fighter called Henry the `Game Chicken’ Pearce. Gully was defeated in the match against Pearce but only after the fight had gone a staggering fifty-nine rounds on October 8th 1805. It was not long afterward that Pearce retired and Gully went on to become the champion of all England by defeating another great boxer called `The Lancashire Giant’.During his eventful life Gully not only established himself as a great boxer but was for a time a member of Parliament and was also a very successful horse owner, winning the Derby on two occasions. In County Durham he invested his winnings in collieries at Trimdon, Hetton and Thornley. It was in 1863 at his house at number 7 the North Bailey, that Gully finally died at the age of 80. He left behind him twenty-four children from two successive marriages.

In times gone by the North Bailey was divided from the South Bailey by a defensive wall through which the road passed by means of a gateway called Bow Church Gate This was situated close to the church of St Mary Le Bow which takes its name from the archway of the old gate. The church is now the Durham Heritage Centre.

Bow Church Gate was one of a number of gates that pierced the old city walls of Durham but the most impressive of them all was The Great North Gate which stood at the top of the North Bailey where it joined Saddler Street. First built around 1072 and adjoining the castle to the west, it played a very important part in controlling the movement of traffic into the peninsula area.

In the early fifteenth century the building was largely rebuilt by Bishop Langley to accomodate the city gaol. For the next four-hundred years it served a joint purpose of gate and prison. In the latter days of its life it was known as the `Gaol Gates’. John Howard, a prison reformer visited this gaol in 1774 and described its conditions; “The men are put at night into dungeons,one seven feet square for three prisoners – another the `Great Hole’ has only a little window. In this I saw six prisoners most of them transports chained to the floor – in that situation they had been for many weeks and were very sick”In 1819 the prisoners were moved to a new Prison built at Elvet and in the following year the Great North Gate was removed because of the difficulties it presented to coaches passing into the bailey.

durham origins | cathedral | castle

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