The Bishop’s Fort
Durham Castle was the ancient palace of the Prince Bishops of Durham and lies at the northern end of Palace Green opposite the Durham 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 Northumbria undertook the work of building the castle for William though it is likely there was an earlier Anglo-Saxon fortification. Over the years a succession of Prince Bishops have added important sections to the great building.
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 time of Bishop Tunstall (1530-1559) and Bishop Shute Barrington (1791-1826).
Hall and Kitchen
Passing through the castle gatehouse into the courtyard, the imposing keep is seen to the right while to the left is the thirteenth and fourteenth century Great Hall of the west wing 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.
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 Tunstall 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.
Palace Green then contained a mass of wooden houses huddled together until Flambard cleared them all to remove the potential fire hazard which threatened both castle and cathedral. The area thus became an open green as it it is today.
Today the green is flanked on its eastern and western sides by a number of historic buildings now forming part of Durham University but historically connected with the jurisdiction of the County Palatine of Durham – the territory of the Prince Bishops.
Palace Green is linked to the town centre and market place via a street called Owengate – which leads into Saddler Street. The meaning of the street-name Owengate is unknown, it may be a corruption of ‘Ovengate’, perhaps named from the site of medieval ovens.
The Nevilles, who were Earls of Westmorland but in fact the most senior of the medieval barons of County Durham owned a house in Owengate. There was also a palace associated with this family in the corner of the market place near the Guildhall and St Nicholas church.
In the nineteenth century Owengate was known as Queen Street and according to a legend the street is haunted by the ghost of a university don who threw himself down the castle stairs.
On the east side of the green near Owengate there is an attractive Victorian post box alongside small buildings designed by the Durham architect Anthony Salvin.
Next, is the huge Georgian house called Bishop Cosin’s Hall. This eighteenth century house was once called Archdeacon’s Inn and was the residence of the Archdeacon of Northumberland – a county that was part of the Bishop of Durham’s diocese until the 1890s. In the nineteenth century the hall became a part of Durham University.
Next door to Bishop Cosin’s Hall is Bishop Cosin’s Almshouses, which unlike the hall actually date to the time of Bishop Cosin. The almshouses date to 1666, the same year as the Great Fire of London and cared for the poor, accommodating four men and four women.
Next is the Pemberton Building of 1931, which hosts the university lecture rooms and built on the site of an earlier coach house. The last building, next to Dun Cow Lane near the east end of the cathedral is the eighteenth century Abbey House. Now part of the University’s Department of Theology it was once a hostel for female students.
Dun Cow Lane which links Palace Green to the North Bailey was once the cathedral’s ‘lychgate’ where bodies were brought to the cathedral’s cemetery. The present name is from the carving of the Dun Cow on the cathedral nearby.
The Dun Cow was part of the foundation legend of Durham (see the origins of Durham). Here, the cathedral faces out onto Palace Green with the great door entrance and sanctuary knocker to the west.
Returning to the buildings on Palace Green. On the west side nearest the cathedral’s western towers is a former grammar school founded by Bishop Cosin in 1661 which now houses a music department.
It is reputedly haunted by a young pupil who suffered a fatal punishment from one of his masters who is said to have thrown him from a balcony in a fit of anger.
A narrow vennel or alley called Windy Gap runs alongside this building down to the river bank. The vennel stands on the site of a medieval side entrance called the Windishole Postern.
Next door are the buildings of Durham University’s Palace Green Library with Bishop Cosin’s Library, founded in 1669 and entrusted to the University in 1935.
Durham castle, the nearest building to the castle gateway being the former Exchequer and Chancery of the Palatinate that was built for Bishop Neville (1438-1457).
Windy Gap leads to the wooded river bank and the famous Fulling Mill that features in so many photographs of Durham Cathedral and the River Wear. Once the property of the Priors of Durham, the mill was known historically as the Jesus Mill.
Until relatively recent times it was home to the university’s excellent museum of archaeology but the mill is now closed to the public and the museum is relocated to Palace Green Library which houses relics of the region’s Anglo-Saxon and Roman past and where there is, admittedly, a great deal more space.
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 actually lay within the castle walls.
Just enclosed within the castle walls on the eastern side was the castle bailey which took the form of a street. This street still exists, part is called the South Bailey and the other part the North Bailey.
The North and South Baileys are among the most historic and most attractive streets in Durham City, 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 great 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.
Residents included the Earls of Strathmore, (the Bowes Family) who were ancestors of the present Royal family. Others included the Coal owning Liddell family whose relatives included Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland.
Other former residents of the Bailey included a certain Captain Boulby who fought at Waterloo and Sir Robert Kerr Porter (who was born in Bow Lane), an artist to the Tsar who later married a Russian princess.
The North Bailey
Historically the North Bailey (and Owengate) were entered from Saddler Street via the Great North Gate which was the most impressive of a number of gateways that protected the heart of Durham City. It was located at a point close to the ‘Georgian Window’ shop near the top of Saddler Street.
First built around 1072 and adjoining the castle to the west, the Great North Gate played an 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 accommodate the city gaol. For the next four-hundred years it served a joint purpose of gate and prison. In the later 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.
As we enter the North Bailey from South Street on the left (east side) we see a house called Queens Court and on the right is Owengate leading up to Palace Green, the castle and cathedral.
Slightly further along to the west is Alington House, a community centre named from Hester Alington the wife of a Dean of Durham, Cyril Alington who was Dean of from 1933 to 1951.
Next door and still on the eastern side is the first of a number of decorative doorways in the Baileys that are reminders of the street’s historic prestige.
Next on the east side at number 7 is a house of more modern origin on the site of an earlier one that was the house of nineteenth century resident 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 (for Pontefract) and a very successful horse owner who won the Derby on two occasions. In County Durham he invested his winnings in collieries including those at Trimdon, 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.
Hatfield College, Bow Lane, St Chad’s
The next point of interest in the North Bailey, once again on the east side is the stone chapel of Hatfield College and set back from the street within its own courtyard below Hatfield College itself. Established in 1846, it occupies what was previously a grand coaching inn called the Red Lion that occupied an earlier mansion.
Opposite the forecourt of Hatfield College and neighbouring houses on the west side of the North Bailey are the old Assembly Rooms which have seen recent modifications.
Further along on the right (west) side Durham Cathedral’s Chapel of the Nine Altars comes into view along with Dun Cow Lane, the former lychgate leading to Palace Green.
Roughly facing the Nine Altars chapel, on the east side of the North Bailey is Bow Lane which heads down towards the river and then across Ove Arup’s 1960s Kingsgate footbridge near the rear of Hatfield College where the River Wear is crossed into Elvet. Bow Lane was historically called Kingsgate and reputedly the course along which William the Conqueror fled from Durham on horseback (see Durham origins).
On the corner of North Bailey and Bow Lane is the historic church of St Mary Le Bow (much rebuilt in the seventeenth century), which is thought to take its name from the site of a nearby arch in a long-lost defensive gateway called the Bow Church Gate.
St Mary-le-Bow church was the parish church for the North Bailey but is now the Durham Heritage Centre, a small museum dedicated to the history of Durham City.
Still in the North Bailey and once again on the east side is St Chad’s College, established in 1904 as a college for Church of England clergy. It was affiliated to a hostel called St Chad’s Hall established at Hooton Pagnell near Doncaster in 1902.
Initially St Chad’s College was situated at number 1 South Bailey nearby (now part of St John’s College) but soon became focused in the North Bailey. The college was recognised as part of Durham University from 1918.
Continuing along the North Bailey past the North Bailey Club and on towards the gate to the cathedral close, a house on the east side of the North Bailey commemorates the Durham antiquarian, William Greenwell who was a member of a noted family from the Lanchester area. He was a keen angler and the inventor of the famed Greenwell’s Glory fishing fly.
North Bailey (left) and South Bailey (right) © David Simpson 2017
North Bailey becomes South Bailey opposite the medieval archway of ‘College Gate’ which leads into ‘the College’ or cathedral close of Durham Cathedral.
The ‘College’ (see Durham Cathedral) is situated around a green and is one of the most beautiful parts of Durham and a home to houses associated with the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral.
One of the first buildings of note in the South Bailey is St. John’s College, a Durham University college established in 1909. Buildings of the college include the associated Cranmer Hall and Bowes House, once the home for members the coal-owning Bowes family who were ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II.
A blue plaque on Bowes House unveiled by HRH The Prince of Wales in 2018 commemorates one time resident Dame Elizabeth Bowes (1651-1736) who is buried in the nearby church.
On the west sides we move closer to the tip of the Durham river peninsula is the church of St Mary the Less, historically the church of the South Bailey.
St Mary-the-Less rebuilt from an earlier church in the mid nineteenth century and later became the chapel of St John’s College in 1919.
The final University college of note as we reach the end of the peninsula in the South Bailey is St Cuthbert’s Society. This was founded in 1888, initially for students who were not affiliated to one of the Durham University colleges. Although is a officially a college today it retains its original title.
The terminus of the South Bailey is situated near the western side of the tip of the Durham river peninsula at a simple stone gateway called the Watergate where a path leads down to Prebends Bridge on the River Wear.
A little to the south of the Fulling Mill is Prebends Bridge of 1777 from where there are great views of Durham Cathedral with the cathedral’s western towers majestically overlooking the wooded river bank with the Fulling Mill below and South Street Mill across the river on the opposite of the Wear and weir.
It was the view that prompted Sir Walter Scott to write:
‘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 deeds long since forgot’
The name of Prebends’ Bridge derives from the office of a Prebendary which is an honorary canon but the name pre-bend could easily be applied to its location, being situated just before the River Wear bends to form the southern tip of the Durham river peninsula.
This area is known as ‘Count’s Corner’ and is so named from the proximity of a little Grecian building nearby called the Count’s House which is (mistakenly) said to be the old home of a tiny Polish ‘Count’ called Joseph Borruwlaski.
Boruwlaski, a 3ft 3 inch tall Polish ‘Count’ had spent much of his early life entertaining the courts of Europe but retired to Durham and lived here to the age of 97. Items associated with Boruwlaski can be seen in Durham Town hall see our page about the market place for more about his life.
In fact Boruwlaski lived in a house, since demolished, off the South Bailey not far from Prebends Bridge and not far from the folly that commemorates his title, though despite his courtly history, he was not in fact officially a count.