Durham City Origins

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The Story of Durham

The story of Durham begins with St Cuthbert , a seventh century Northumbrian saint who at the age of seventeen entered the monastery of Melrose near the River Tweed to become a monk. His outstanding qualities – a fair and placid manner, a remarkable talent for athletics and a reputed gift for working miracles are certain to have attracted attention and not surprisingly Cuthbert quickly gained promotion. Ultimately he was appointed to the post of Bishop on the island of Lindisfarne , just off the Northumberland coast.

Durham Cathedral View
Durham Cathedral view : Photo © David Simpson

As a bishop Cuthbert travelled widely throughout the north and played an important part in encouraging people to follow the Christian faith which had only recently been introduced to Northumbria. Later in his life Cuthbert retired from the post of bishop to pursue life as a hermit on the remote island of Inner Farne one of a group of small islands to the south east of Lindisfarne.

Here Cuthbert was visited by many pilgrims but for most of the time he was occupied by prayer having only the sea birds and seals for company. It was here on Inner Farne in the year 687 A.D that Cuthbert finally died in the fifty second year of his life.In accordance with an agreement made by Cuthbert during his life, his body was removed from Inner Farne and taken to Lindisfarne for burial.

There it remained for a few years until the monks decided to remove the coffin for inspection. On removal of the body, the monks were astonished to find the corpse in a totally incorrupt state – it had not decayed. This remarkable discovery was seen as a miracle and Cuthbert was proclaimed a saint.When the news of the miracle spread, huge numbers of pilgrims travelled from far and wide to visit Lindisfarne.

This made the monastery on the island extremely wealthy from gifts bestowed by the visitors who were in effect the tourists of their time, indeed it is possible to speculate that St Cuthbert’s body had been embalmed and that the miracle had been proclaimed with the sole intention of encouraging `tourists’ to visit the island. If this was the case, we cannot be too critical of the monks for wishing to sustain their livelihood through `tourism’.

Sadly, the increasing wealth of the Lindisfarne monastery ultimately attracted visitors of a most unwelcome kind in the form of the Vikings who came to raid and plunder the island for its riches in 793 A.D. But what, you may ask, has this got to do with the origins of Durham City ? Well the answer is this – as the Viking raids on Lindisfarne continued throughout the following century, the monks of the Holy Island were forced to flee to the mainland.

They took with them the coffin of St Cuthbert and other valuable relics like the famous Lindisfarne Gospels. For over a century, the monks and their successors carried the coffin around the north of England , settling for a time at Norham-on-Tweed, at Chester-le-Street and at Ripon before settling at Durham in the year 995 AD. The story behind their settlement at Durham is related in the legend of the Dun Cow.

Warden Law to Dun Holm

In 995 A.D after years of wandering the north, the carriers of St Cuthbert’s coffin came to a halt at a site usually identified as Warden Law, the location of an Iron Age fort near Houghton-le-Spring to the east of Durham. At alternative suggestion is that the site was at Wardley near Gateshead. Wherever it was, the vehicle on which the coffin was transported came to stand still and despite the efforts of the whole congregation of followers who tried to push, the coffin would not move. Aldhun Bishop of Chester-le-Street, the leader of the congregation, committed the monks to three days of fasting and prayer in order to learn the reason why the coffin would not move.

After a period of intense meditation their prayers were finally answered when St Cuthbert appeared in a vision to a monk called Eadmer. St Cuthbert instructed Eadmer that the coffin should be taken to a place called Dunholm. The monks had not heard of Dun Holm, but may have been aware that its name meant Hill Island. Dun was an Anglo-Saxon word meaning `hill’, Holm meaning island is a word of Scandinavian origin. Dun Holm was later called DURESME by the Normans and was known in Latin as Dunelm. Over the years the name has been simplified to the modern form – Durham.

Legend of the Dun Cow

On learning the name of their destination the monks found that they were now able to move the coffin. Proceeding west through some well wooded countryside they asked a number of local people where they could find the Dun Holm but unfortunately no-one had heard of such a place. Luckily by chance in an area later known as Mount Joya milkmaid was overheard asking another milkmaid if she had seen her dun cow – a grey coloured beast that had wandered off on its own. The other maid answered that she had seen the cow roaming about near Dun Holm.


When the monks heard mention of Dun Holm they were filled with joy and followed the footsteps of the milk maid as she searched for her cow. By this stroke of luck or Divine Providence, they were able to find the site of Dunholm – a wooded `Hill – Island’ peninsula formed by a tight gorge-like meander of the River Wear. The legend of how Durham was first discovered is remembered in an eighteenth century carving on the north wall of Durham Cathedral, which depicts the milk maid and her Dun Cow.

The White Church

Dun Holm provided an ideally defended site for the resting place of St Cuthbert. It was on high ground protected on three sides by the steep wooded gorge of the River Wear. Firstly however the site had to be cleared of its thick woodland and the wood provided ideal building material for the first houses in the newly born City of Durham. A small temporary church was built from the boughs of the trees to house St Cuthbert’s coffin and this building is said to have occupied the site of the present church of St Mary lew Bow. The church of boughs was replaced a few days later by a white-washed wooden building called The White Church or Alba Ecclesia built in the centre of the Dun Holm peninsula. The White Church remained in use until September 4th 998 A.D when it was replaced by a second `White Church’ an Anglo-Saxon minster, built of stone.

The people who constructed the new minster came from all parts of Northumbria from the Coquet to the River Tees and were employed by Uchtred, a powerful Anglo-Saxon earl who ruled the whole region. The minster was presided over by the Bishop called Aldhun who was Uchted’s Father-in-Law. Aldhun was the first Bishop of Durham but had previously been the Bishop of nearby Chester-le-Street where he was still an important landowner.

Keeping the Scots out

The ancient area called Northumbria included Durham and was a troublesome region that withstood many invasions. The Vikings for example had captured lands in southern Northumbria to form the great Viking kingdom centred upon York which occupied the whole Yorkshire area. By the time the monks had settled at Durham the Vikings were not so great an enemy as the Scots, who were to pose a threat to the wealthy shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham for many years to come. Durham’s defensive position was clearly going to be of importance.

The advantages of Durham’s defensive position were fully realised in 1006 when the Scots made their first attack on the small city. Fortunately the Scots were quickly repelled and many of the invaders lost their heads to an army of English comprised of Northumbrians and Yorkshiremen. The captured Scottish heads were displayed around the Durham City walls as a menacing warning against further attack. Four of the city’s women were each presented with the generous gift of a cow for washing the heads and combing the hair of the best looking Scots which were displayed around the city.

A Place of Pilgrimage

As well as being an important defensive site Durham was also an important place of pilgrimage. The early cathedral and shrine at Durham were visited by hundreds of pilgrims who came to visit Durham in the same way as the pilgrims who had visited Lindisfarne a century before. Among the visitors to Durham was King Canute the Dane (1017 – 1035), who as a mark of respect, walked six milesbare footed to the site from Garmondsway, which is now a deserted medieval village situated near Coxhoe. As a gift King Canute returned some of the land that had been taken from the Bishops of Durham by his Viking ancestors. The land included the la rge estate owned by King Canute in the Tees valley, centred upon Staindrop and Gainford, near Darlington.

The Conqueror’s visit

When the Normans invaded Britain in 1066 under William the Conqueror they may have been aware of the fatal defeat of the Scots at Durham years before but were not deterred in their aim to take control of the city. In fact William the Conqueror is said to have visited Durham with the intention of viewing the uncorrupted body of St Cuthbert. William ordered his men to expose St Cuthberts’ body from its tomb and warned that he would put to death all Durham churchmen of senior rank if it were found that the saint’s body was not in an incorrupt state. Mysteriously before the king had even looked at the saint’s coffin he found himself breathless and panic stricken by a sudden burning fever.

Thinking himself to be possessed by some strange force associated with Saint Cuthbert he quickly fled from Durham and would not dismount his horse until he had crossed the River Tees into Yorkshire which was seemingly outside the limits of St Cuthbert’s mysterious powers. The lane by which the king made his hasty retreat from Durham acquired the name of `King’s Ride’ or Kingsgate. In those days the lane led to a ford across the River Wear. Today called Bow Lane it leads across the River Wear by means of the Kingsgate Footbridge.


King William had good reason to fear Durham as the people of the city had little love for the Norman invaders. This was proved when a Norman army of seven-hundred men stormed into the City on the January 30th 1069 under the command of an aggressive Norman earl by the name of Robert Comine. His men had distributed themselves throughout the narrow streets of the city and were confident they could take control of the place despite strong warnings from the Bishop of Durham called Aegelwine, who predicted their defeat.

The following morning the Bishop’s prediction proved true as the Norman occupants of the city were set upon by the Durham people aided by a large Northumbrian army from the north who broke open all gates of the town and stormed through the narrow streets of the city, slaughtering the Normans as they went. Some of the Normans, including Comine fled for safety to the bishop’s palace but this was set alight causing a fierce blaze which posed a threat to the western tower of Durham’s early stone minster. This caused the local people to fall to their knees;

“with eyes filled with tears and elevated hands, petitioning heaven, that by some assistance of the holy saint the structure might be saved from damage.”

Miraculously the wind changed direction and diverted the flames away from the minster’s tower.Comine and the occupants of the bishop’s palace were burnt to death and the snow covered streets of the city, filled with the carcasses of dead soldiers are said to have ran with Norman blood. All but one of the Norman occupants lost their lives in the massacre.King William was extremely angered by the event and sent north a second, even greater army to burn and plunder the land between York and Durham. This was known as the Harrying of the North. It demonstrated the might of the Norman army to the people of northern England and forced them to recognise Norman control.

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