Durham Castle

Durham Castle in Durham City © Metaforz Photography 2013

Durham Castle sits on top of a spectacular sandstone peninsula overlooking the city of Durham. It shares its lofty perch with Durham Cathedral that overshadows it on the other side of Palace Green; together they form a UNESCO World Heritage Site that sits deep in a meander of the River Wear almost 30 metres below. For centuries the castle was a bastion against the Scots but since 1837, when the bishop of Durham relocated to Auckland Palace at nearby Bishop Auckland, the castle has been home to University College, Durham.

The Norman castle is a motte and bailey design, consisting of the keep and the inner and outer baileys. Within the inner bailey are found the following buildings:

The Keep: An irregular octagonal keep tops the steep and extremely high grassy mound. Originally it would have been a simple wooden tower which by 1144 had become a ‘shell keep’ with a stone wall surrounding the wooden tower. In the 14th century it was rebuilt entirely in stone and in 1840 – now falling rapidly into dereliction – it was remodeled by the local architect Anthony Salvin of Croxdale Hall to provide accommodation space for the university. Although the building itself is grade 1 listed, little of interest remains internally.

The Gatehouse: The gatehouse has been re-sited and was once a part of a larger barbican complex with moat and drawbridge that was built sometime around the 11th century. The moat was filled in the early 16th century and the barbican demolished completely by Bishop Cosin in the late 17th century

The West Range: The West Range consists of the buttery, servery and kitchen along with the Great Hall that they serviced. The hall was built on the orders of Bishop Antony Bek in 1284. It is 14m high and 30m long and replaced a hall commissioned by the first bishop of Durham, William Walcher. It was extended by Bishop Hatfield in the 14th century and was the largest in Britain until it was shortened by Bishop Foxe around 1500. Below the Great Hall is the original undercroft built by Walcher which is used today as a common room and bar for students.

Bishop Cosin’s Tower: The tower joins the West Range with the North Range and houses Bishop Cosin’s impressive 57-feet-high, black oak staircase added in 1662, the first landing of which provides access onto Bishop Tunstall’s gallery.

The North Range: The North Range includes Bishop Tunstall’s gallery that provides access to the chapel built for the bishop in 1540. Leading off the gallery is Bishop Pudsey’s exquisitely carved 12th century doorway; long before the gallery existed this would have linked a large hall directly with the courtyard below. On the ground floor of the North Range, off the courtyard, is the Norman chapel that was built by Bishop Walcher around 1078.  This dark, charismatic, chapel with the slightly spooky air of a crypt was made inaccessible in the 14th century when the keep was expanded which undoubtedly helped save it from undue alteration­­­­­.
Durham Castle – A Short History

A fortification has existed on the site since before the Norman invasion of Britain but when William the Conqueror saw for himself the defensive qualities of the peninsula, he ordered Waltheof, the Saxon Earl of Northumberland, to begin building a castle in 1072. Although Waltheof didn’t last long (he was executed for treason soon afterwards) the castle he had started continued to develop.

Construction continued under successive bishops of Durham for whom the castle became home (when in the diocese that is – which for many was not that frequent) and the administrative centre of the palatinate. Few contributed more significantly than Ranulf Flambard who in the period from 1099 to 1128 was responsible for building the outer curtain wall around the peninsula, creating the baileys and many other features including Framwellgate Bridge directly below the castle that was the first bridge in Durham to span the river.

During the political anarchy that marked the reign of King Stephen in the 12th century, Durham was attacked on many occasions by the Scots during their attempts to establish their border on the River Tees. In 1141 the Scottish chancellor William Cumin claimed the bishopric of Durham and occupied the castle with help from the de Brus (Bruce) and Baliol families that held lands in the bishopric and in Scotland. Eventually, after losing Scottish support, he was forced to hand the castle back.

In 1569, hundreds of rebels captured during the failed ‘Rising of the North’ rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I in support of her catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, were imprisoned in Durham Castle prior to their execution.

During the English Civil War less than a hundred years later, Durham Castle was occupied on several occasions by Scottish Covenanter forces that ‘spoiled it with gunpowder’. After the parliamentary victory the castle was confiscated and sold in 1649 to the Lord Mayor of London who had the lead stripped from the roofs to be sold for his own profit.

However hard they might have tried, the Scots were never able to threaten Durham Castle to the same extent that Mother Nature was able when in the early 20th century the NW corner of the castle along with the Great Hall threatened to slide into the river. Large scale construction and conservation works were required to stabilize it.

Although it is not generally open to the public, guided tours run every day from Palace Green Library.

Scroll to Top