Durham City Origins

Old Durham

The history of Durham seems to go back to Roman times but little is known of Durham in this period. In the countryside on the south east side of the city we find Old Durham where in 1939 land near Old Durham Farm was being quarried for sand when a local man discovered Roman tiles. Further discoveries were then made that included a Roman bathhouse.

Old Durham Farm and Durham Cathedral
Old Durham Farm and Durham Cathedral Photo © David Simpson 2017

The name Old Durham, or Ald Duresme as it had been known in Norman times always suggested that this was a place of antiquity and a Roman road (called Cade’s Road) is known to have passed close to this area through neighbouring Shincliffe. The discovery suggested a civilian settlement or farm occupied by ancient Britons who had become Romanised. Perhaps it was a villa of some kind and possibly linked in some way to the pre-Roman site at nearby Maiden Castle.

By strange coincidence of name the principal interest in the excavation came from an archaeologist called Canon Thomas Romans who was the master of nearby Sherburn Hospital. He recorded the details of the site but it was subsequently obliterated by the sand quarrying. It seems to have been occupied in the second and fourth centuries but abandoned during the third century for a period.

Site of the Roman Old Durham
Looking to the site of the Roman farm or villa at Old Durham. Photo © David Simpson 2017

Roman roads point towards Durham city centre from three directions. Cade’s Road approaches from Chester-le-Street in the north and also approaches from Sedgefield, Coxhoe and Shincliffe to the south. Another Roman road from Brancepeth and Brandon that was linked to Dere Street comes in from the south west. What course these roads take through Durham’s centre is however unknown, though Roman coins and pottery were found beneath Durham Cathedral in the 1970s and 1980s. The Roman name for Old Durham is not known.

From the 1200s Old Durham belonged to the rectors of St Nicholas church in the Durham Market Place before passing to Kepier Hospital in the 1400s.

In 1569, a Londoner called John Heath purchased the land and a mansion house was built. In 1642 it passed through marriage to the Tempest family. Their mansion at Old Durham was demolished as they preferred to reside at Wynyard near Stockton-on-Tees but the terraced slope gardens remained.

Gazebo at Old Durham Gardens
Gazebo at Old Durham Gardens. Photo © David Simpson 2017

The terrace survives, along with the garden wall and a gazebo. A house nearby was once the garden house and until the 1920s served as a pub called the Pineapple Inn. The gardens were restored in the 1980s and 1990s. The Roman site stood in the fields towards Shincliffe but the excavation of sand completely destroyed the site. A colliery was operated in the Old Durham area from 1849 by the Marquess of Londonderry who through his family line of Vane Tempest owned the area.

The Story of Durham

Leaving the Romans aside, the real story of Durham as we know it today 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.

The towers of Durham Cathedral
The towers of Durham Cathedral. Photo © John 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 AD 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.

Lindisfarne or Holy Island
Lindisfarne or Holy Island Photo © David Simpson 2015

This made the monastery on the island extremely wealthy from gifts bestowed by the visitors. 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 AD. As the Viking raids on Lindisfarne continued throughout the following century, the monks of the Holy Island were forced to flee to the mainland.

Chester-le-Street church.
Chester-le-Street was the resting place of St Cuthbert for 113 years before his remains were brought to Durham. Photo © John Simpson

The monks 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 legendary story behind their settlement at Durham is related in the legend of the Dun Cow (see below).

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.

An 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.

St Cuthbert's coffin
The carriers of St Cuthbert’s coffin depicted in a painting in Chester-le-Street church

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 Dunholm, but may have been aware that its name meant ‘Hill Island’.

Dun was an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘hill’, while ‘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 well-wooded countryside they asked a number of local people where they could find Dunholm but unfortunately no-one had heard of such a place. Luckily by chance in an area later known as Mount Joy a 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 Dunholm.

The Dun Cow and milkmaids as depicted on Durham Cathedral.
The Dun Cow and milkmaids as depicted on Durham Cathedral. Photo © David Simpson 2017

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 supposedly built from the boughs of the trees to house St Cuthbert’s coffin was constructed. This building was long said to have occupied the site of the present church of St Mary le Bow but is now thought to have occupied the spot on or near to St Oswald’s church just across the river at Elvet.

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral. Photo © David Simpson

The ‘church of boughs’ was replaced a few days later by a white-washed wooden building called ‘The White Church’ or ‘Alba Ecclesia’ perhaps still at Elvet. The White Church remained in use until September 4th 998 AD when it was replaced by a second ‘White Church’ an Anglo-Saxon minster, built of stone that was the forerunner of Durham Cathedral.

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 Uchtred’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 troubled 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 as well as areas west of the Pennines.

By the time the monks had settled at Durham the Vikings were perhaps 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.

Durham from the railway station. Photo © David Simpson

Durham’s defensive advantages were fully realised in 1006 when the Scots made their first attack on the small city. The Scots were quickly repelled and many of the invaders lost their lives and then 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 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 Cnut (Canute) Dane (1017 – 1035), who as a mark of respect, walked six miles bare footed to the site from Garmondsway, which is now a deserted medieval village situated near Coxhoe. Wearing the attire of a monk out of respect for Saint Cuthbert, legend has it that he trimmed his hair and donned a cloak at the nearby village of Trimdon before making his journey from nearby Garmondsway.

Trimdon Church west side
Trimdon village, where Canute had his hair cut. Photo © David Simpson 2018

As a gift King Cnut returned some of the land that had been taken from the Bishops of Durham by his Viking ancestors. The land included the large 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 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 preserved state. Mysteriously, according to this legend, before the king had even looked at the saint’s coffin he found himself breathless and panic stricken by a sudden burning fever.

Bow Lane Durham
Bow Lane, Durham once called Kingsgate down which King William the Conqueror is supposed to have fled. Durham Photo © David Simpson 2017

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 it is called Bow Lane but 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 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 Aegelwine, the Bishop of Durham 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 the gates of the town and stormed through the narrow streets of the city, slaughtering the Normans as they went.

The castle keep, Durham
The castle keep, Durham Photo © David Simpson 2017

Some of the Normans, including Comine fled for safety to the bishop’s palace but this was set alight causing a fierce blaze that 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 would force them to recognise Norman control.

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