The King Cnut era

Dunholm : The Birth of Durham 990 to 1031

The rising power of Wessex weakened the North of England in the last decade of the first millennium and left the region vulnerable to the attacks of Danes and Scots. The Community of St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street, a remnant of Northumbria’s greater days, fled to Ripon in 995 to escape one such raid. The monks returned north in the same year, but chose Durham as their new home where their visitors would include King Cnut.

Durham Cathedral
Durham’s Norman Cathedral stands on the site of an earlier Saxon minster © David Simpson

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990 – Aldhun last Bishop of Conecaster

Aldhun becomes the last Bishop of Conecaster (Chester-le-Street).

993 – New Vikings attack North

A new wave of Vikings under Olaf and Swein Forkbeard attack Bamburgh, the coastal stronghold of the Eadulfsons who are rulers of Bernicia.

Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh Castle © David Simpson

995 – Scots try to seize North East

Kenneth of Scotland is defeated in an invasion of the North-East by Uhtred Eadulfson, son of the Earl of Bamburgh. The monks in the Community of St Cuthbert have fled Chester-le-Street with St Cuthbert’s body to escape the Scots and, accompanied by Bishop Aldhun, they settle for a short time at Ripon.

995 – City of Durham founded

St Cuthbert’s Community has returned north to settle at Dunholm (Durham). The site is naturally defended like an island, formed by the horse-shoe gorge of the River Wear. The Scandinavian word ‘holm’ means ‘island’ (often in the form of a river meander). Dun means ‘hill’ – often a fortified place. Monks are said to have been guided by a vision, but it is more likely to have been a deliberate political decision given the site’s well-defended location. The monks construct a minster of wood called the ‘White Church’ for St Cuthbert’s remains at Durham. Uhtred Eadulfson of Bamburgh employed labour from the Coquet to the Tees to fortify the site. Aldhun is the first Bishop of Durham and is Uhtred’s father-in-law.

Durham Castle and Cathedral
Durham © David Simpson

999 – Stone minster at Durham

A new ‘White Church’ minster is built at Durham but this time of stone for the shrine of Cuthbert.

1000 – New millennium

The Christian world enters a new millennium. It is thought to be 1,000 years since the birth of Jesus Christ, according to the reckoning of a dating system that was to a significant respect established and popularised by Northumbrian scholar, the Venerable Bede.

1000 – Danes attack England

England is subjected to continuous raiding by the Danes. A major Danish army based in northern France where they are active for around a year is a major threat to the south of England.

1000 – Brian Boru

Brian Boru becomes the High King of Ireland. He will reign until 1014.

1003 – Darlington given to Bishop

Darlington receives its first mention in history. It has been given to the Bishop of Durham by Styr, son of Ulphus, at a ceremony in York. In those days, the region’s ruling elite were very closely connected: Styr’s daughter, Sigen, is the third wife of Uhtred of Northumbria and one of Uhtred’s previous marriages was to the daughter of Aldhun, Durham’s first bishop. Styr also presents land at Coniscliffe, Cockerton, Normanby and Seaton.

Historic view of Darlington and the River Skerne

1006 – Scots massacred at Durham

The Scots under King Malcolm have been heavily defeated once again by Uhtred during an attack on Durham City. Malcolm was attempting to seize the North-East. Heads of the best-looking Scottish soldiers were displayed around the city walls after Durham wo men had washed their faces and combed their hair (the women were presented with the gift of a cow for their work).

Durham Castle from the cathedral tower
Durham Castle on the site of an earlier Saxon fort © David Simpson

1006 – Æthelred appoints Uhtred of York

Æthelred the Unready, King of England, has appointed Uhtred of Bamburgh as Earl of York which means Uhtred now effectively rules all Northumbria for the king.


Swein Forkbeard, King of Denmark, invades England with an army and becomes King of England. Entering the Humber and sailing up the Trent, the Danes encamp at Gainsborough. Swein forces Uhtred, Earl of Northumbria to submit. After capturing London Swein seizes the English throne. King Æthelred the Unready of Wessex escapes to Normandy.

Feb 1014 – KING CNUT

Swein Forkbeard dies at York. His son Cnut is elected King of England by the Danish army and people of the English Danelaw, most notably in north Lincolnshire (Lindsey). Nobles in the south invite Æthelred the Unready to return as king and Æthelred successfully returns with an army assisted by Norwegians causing Cnut to flee from England to Denmark.

Raby Castle
Raby Castle is thought to stand on the site of an important manor house belonging to King Cnut who held land in the Staindrop area. Raby has a Viking name that means either ‘boundary village/farm’ or ‘roe deer village/farm’. Raby has long been home to a herd a deer. A Roman road runs through the site. Names ending in the typical Viking fashion ‘by’ are rare to the north of Raby © David Simpson

April 1014 – Vikings defeated near Dublin

The High King of Ireland, Brian Boru is killed at the Battle of Clontarf near Dublin. Despite his death, Boru’s army was victorious over the Viking Kingdom of Dublin which fought in alliance with the Viking Earldom of Orkney and Viking Kingdom of the (Scottish) Isles which included the Isle of Man. Also supporting the Vikings was Boru’s rival, the Irish kingdom of Leinster. The victory for Boru’s army broke Viking power in Ireland.

1015 – Cnut returns to England

Recently ousted by Æthelred the Unready, King Cnut returns to England with a large Viking army of mixed Scandinavians

April 1016 – Ironside succeeds Æthelred

Æthelred the Unready dies at London as battles with the Danes continue in England. Æthelred’s son Edmund Ironside claims the throne. Ironside is crowned as a rival king to Cnut.

1016 – Cnut outmanoeuvres Uhtred

Earl Uhtred of Northumbria, supporting Æthelred the Unready’s son, Edmund Ironside, has led an army into the West Midlands to trouble Cnut but Cnut moves up the eastern flank of the country into Lincolnshire and crosses to York.

1016 – Uhtred assassinated

Uhtred, Earl of Northumbria has been assassinated at Cnut’s court at Wighill near York by Thurbrand the Hold. He had been summoned by Cnut and arrived in the hope of making peace. He never got to see the king. Further battles continue and in an attempt to keep the peace Cnut offers Edmund Ironside the kingship of Wessex, while Cnut agrees to rule north of the Thames. However, on November 30, Edmund Ironside dies.

Nov 30, 1016 – Cnut appoints North earls

King Cnut has appointed a Norwegian called Eric Hlathir (a Norwegian) as Earl of York, and Eadulf Cudel (brother of Uhtred) of the house of Bamburgh as Earl of Northumbria north of the Tees. Cnut is dividing England into earldoms. Mercia is given to Leofric and East Anglia to Thorkell.

1017 – Cnut’s new laws

King Cnut draws up new laws for the nation which are issued at York by the York Archbishop, Wulfstan II.

1018 – Durham territory grows

The territory of the Bishops of Durham, which will develop into County of Durham, is expanding. Lands acquired by Bishop Aldhun since 995 include territory in the Tees and Wear valleys from Styr and Snaculf – the latter giving Bradbury, Mordon, Sockburn and Girsby – while Norton and Stockton have been acquired from Ulfcytel. Escomb and Aucklandshire in the Wear Valley, which belonged to an earl called Northman, also now belong to the bishop.

Escomb Anglo-Saxon church.
The Anglo-Saxon church at Escomb. By 1018 when Escomb belonged to Earl Northman, the church was already approximately 350 years old © David Simpson

1019 – Carham battle makes Tweed border

The Scots under Malcolm II have defeated the Northumbrians under Eadulf Cudel in the Battle of Carham on Tweed. Northumbrian territory from Edinburgh to the Tweed is seized by the Scots. Cnut is in Denmark. Aldhun, the Bishop of Durham, has died, heartbroken by the defeat at Carham.

Quiet scenery at Carham at one of the most exposed points on the Border
Scenery at Carham on Tweed © David Simpson

1022 – Bede’s bones pinched

The relics of Bede have been brought to Durham from Jarrow by Aelfred, a notorious collector of saint’s relics.

Church of St paul, Jarrow
Church of St Paul, Jarrow © David Simpson

1023 – York archbishop dies

Archbishop Wulfstan has died, a man of great learning and wisdom.

1027 – Cnut visits Durham

This year Cnut raided in Scotland and received homage from the Scottish king, Malcolm II. Cnut has made a visit to Durham, where he walked bare foot in a pilgrimage from Garmondsway (the via Garmundi) six miles to the south of the city, to visit St Cuthbert’s shrine.

Deserted Medieval village of Garmondsway
Ridges and bumps of the deserted medieval village of Garmondsway © David Simpson

1031 – Cnut invades North East

Cnut has invaded the North-East to quell all rebellion.

1031 – Cnut gives Staindrop to Durham

Cnut gives land around Staindrop to the bishops of Durham. Cnut is known to own a mansion in the district, probably a forerunner of the grand castle Raby.

Staindrop village
Staindrop village © David Simpson

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