Durham Castle, Palace Green and The Baileys

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 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.

Castle gateway
Castle gateway. Photo © David Simpson 2017

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 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 erected in the fourteenth century during the episcopacy of Bishop Thomas Hatfield.

Castle keep Durham.
Castle keep Durham. Photo © David Simpson 2017

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 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.

West wing, Durham Castle
West wing, Durham Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2017

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 north wing
Durham Castle north wing. Photo 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 Tunstall Gallery and the Senate Room.

Durham Cathedral, Palace Green
Durham Cathedral, Palace Green Photo © David Simpson

Palace Green

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.

Inscription Bishop Cosin's Almshouses
Inscription Bishop Cosin’s Almshouses, Palace Green. Photo © David Simpson

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 here. In the nineteenth century Owengate was known as Queen Street. According to a legend the street is haunted by the ghost of a university don who threw himself down the castle stairs.

Palace Green postbox.
Palace Green postbox. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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.

Palace Green, Durham
Looking to the east side of Palace Green, Durham © David Simpson 2021

Next, is the huge Georgian house called Bishop Cosin’s Hall. This 18th century house was once called Archdeacon’s Inn, 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.

Bishop Cosins Hall
Bishop Cosin’s Hall. Photo © David Simpson

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.

Cosins Almshouses, Durham
Bishop Cosin’s Almshouses, Palace Green. Photo © David Simpson

Next is the Pemberton Building of 1931, which are university lecture rooms 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.

Abbey House, Durham
Abbey House, Palace Green. Photo © David Simpson

Dun Cow Lane 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.

Bishop Cosin's Library
Bishop Cosin’s Library, Palace Green © David Simpson 2021

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).

Former Exchequer and Chancery of the Palatinate of Durham
Former Exchequer and Chancery of the Palatinate of Durham © David Simpson 2021

Fulling Mill and Prebends Bridge

Windy Gap leads to the wooded river bank and the famous Fulling Mill. Once the property of the Priors of Durham, the mill was known historically as the Jesus Mill.

Until recent times it was home to the university’s museum of archaeology but the mill is now closed to the public and the museum relocated to Palace Green which houses relics of the region’s Anglo-Saxon and Roman past.

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 and Fulling Mill below.

Prebends Brudge, Durham
Prebends Brudge, Durham. Photo © John Simpson

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 deeeds long since forgot’

Durham Cathedral from Prebends Bridge
Durham Cathedral from Prebends Bridge. Photo © John Simpson

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 said to be the old home of a tiny Polish ‘Count’ called Joseph Borruwlaski.

The Counts House, Durham
The Counts House, Durham.Photo © David Simpson

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 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, 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 extreme importance as they were held by military tenants employed to defend the city of Durham from attack.

The Bailey, Durham
The North Bailey, Durham.Photo © David Simpson 2017

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.

The South Bailey, Durham
The South Bailey, Durham © David Simpson 2021

Other former residents of the Bailey included a certain Captain Boulby who fought at Waterloo and Sir Robert Kerr Porter, an artist to the Tsar who later married a Russian princess. The most famous resident was perhaps the little 3ft 3 inch tall Polish ‘Count’ called Joseph Borruwlaski. He 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.

Count Joseph Boruwlaski
Count Joseph Boruwlaski

Another famous nineteenth century resident of the Bailey was John Gully who also 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’.

John Gully
John Gully

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.

Today most of the North and South Bailey is occupied by buildings that form part of Durham University. These include St Johns’s College of 1909 and the associated Cranmer Hall in the South Bailey and St Chad’s College in the North Bailey.

St Johns College, Durham
St Johns College, Durham © David Simpson 2021

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 the 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.

St Mary le Bow Durham
St Mary le Bow church in the Bailey, Durham with Dun Cow Lane to the left.Photo © David Simpson 2017

Bow Lane leads down towards the river and Ove Arup’s 1960s Kingsgate footbridge with Durham University’s Hatfield College nearby. Hatfield College is set back from the North Bailey and was established in 1846 but occupies what was previously a grand coaching inn that was called the Red Lion.

Hatfield College, Durham
Hatfield College, Durham Photo © David Simpson

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 that 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 an important part in controlling the movement of traffic into the peninsula area.

The Great North Gate
The Great North Gate

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.

Durham City Origins | Durham Cathedral 

Durham Castle and The Baileys | Durham Market Place

Durham : Elvet | Durham : Gilesgate 

Durham : Framwellgate to Finchale

Bishop Auckland 


North East England History and Culture