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 is last Bishop of Chester-le-Street

Aldhun has become the Bishop of Chester-le-Street.

993 – New Vikings attack Northumberland coast

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

Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

995 – Scots attempt 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 by Cuthbert monks

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 2022

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.

1003 – Darlington given to Bishop of Durham

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. Photo © David Simpson 2019

1006 – Athelred appoints northern earl

Athelred, King of England, has appointed Uhtred as Earl of York which means he now rules all Northumbria.

1013 – Forkbeard seizes the North

Swein Forkbeard, King of Denmark, has returned to England with an army to become King of England. Entering the Humber and encamping at Gainsborough he has forced Uhtred the Earl of Northumbria to submit. After capturing London he seized the English throne.

Feb 1014 – Cnut King of England

Swein Forkbeard dies at York. His son Cnut is elected King of England by the Danish army.

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 2021

1016 – Cnut outmanoeuvres earl

Uhtred has led an army into the West Midlands to trouble Cnut but the king moves up the eastern flank of the country into Lincolnshire and crosses to York.

1016 – Earl of the North assassinated

Uhtred has been assassinated at Cnut’s court at Wighill near York. He was visiting Cnut in the hope of making peace. He never got to see the king.

Nov 30, 1016 – Cnut appoints earls in North East and Yorkshire

King Cnut has appointed a Norwegian called Eric Hlathir as Earl of York, and Eadulf Cudel of the house of Bamburgh as the Earl of Northumbria north of the Tees. Cnut is dividing England into earldoms.

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 2018

1019 – Battle of Carham : Tweed now Scottish border

The Scots under Malcolm II have defeated the Northumbrians under Eadulf Cudel in battle at 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 2021

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 2022

1023 – York archbishop dies

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

1027 – Cnut visits Durham

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 2021

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 2021

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