The Origins of Durham City

Durham City, like many of the cities throughout England, is laden with rich history and a cast of historical characters that have made the city what it is today.

With Durham City, the origin begins with the seventh century saint St. Cuthbert, and his unique gift for working miracles. Cuthbert was appointed to the position of Bishop of Lindisfarne and spent many of his years spreading the Christian gospel throughout, before retiring to a life of semi-solitude on the island of Inner Farne. When Cuthbert died in the year 687 A.D., his body was returned to Lindisfarne for burial and would remain there for some time. However, a few years after Cuthbert’s death, his body was exhumed only to discover that his body had not yet decayed!

Those who witnessed this remarkable event declared it a miracle, and Cuthbert was proclaimed a saint; henceforth known as St. Cuthbert. And once news of the event spread, people came from all around to visit Lindisfarne and see the body of Cuthbert. Though not everyone believed this to be a miracle. There were some that theorized that Cuthbert’s “miracle” was just that his body had been embalmed, with the long term hope to bring more tourists to the island. Unfortunately, the news of this miracle (and the good fortune surrounding it) reached the Vikings and they raided the island in the 793 A.D. The Vikings raid made it necessary for the monks to flee rather quickly, taking with them the coffin of St. Cuthbert and other famous relics of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Throughout the next century, the monks carried the coffin and relics throughout the north of England.
In 995 A.D. the monks were wandering through an area known as Warden Law, when the St. Cuthbert’s coffin came to a sudden and complete halt. No matter what the monks tried to do, there was nothing that could be done to get the coffin to move. It wasn’t until their leader, Aldun Bishop of Chester-le-Street, had the monks pray and fast for three days (to learn of a reason for the stoppage) that their answer came to them. A monk named Eadmer had a vision in which St. Cuthbert came to him asking the group to take his coffin to a place called Dunholm. Dunholm meaning “Hill on an Island”, is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word dun meaning “hill” and the Scandinavian word holm meaning “island”. Throughout time the name has evolved, becoming Duresme by the Normans, Dunelm in Latin, and the finally (over many, many years) Durham.
Once the monks had the name of the place they were looking for, finding it was an entirely different story, because try as they might no one had heard of Dun Holm. That was until the monks happened upon Mt. Joya (or as it’s known today), and overheard a milkmaid who had unfortunately lost her dun cow. The milkmaid in whom she was speaking with responded in turn that she had seen the cow near Dun Holm. The monks, with the help of the milk maid, found the site of “Dunholm” and the finding was forever immortalized in the 18th century carving (featured on the north wall of Durham Cathedral) of the milk maid and her dun cow.
During the early years of Durham the town was attacked by the Scots in 1006 and 1038 A.D., but nothing came of the invasion as the town’s people were able to drive them out. However, when William the Conqueror sent his men into Durham in 1069 A.D. it resulted in such a panic that many of the monks who had been tasked with looking after Cuthbert’s body fled. It wasn’t until around 1070 A.D. that they eventually returned to Durham and it was during this medieval era that the town Durham truly began to take shape.
A castle was built by the Normans in the year 1072 as they found it a necessity to help control the people and in 1083 a Benedictine priory was founded to replace the small community that still cared after Cuthbert’s body. 1093 saw the beginnings of building a cathedral in Durham, a project which was brought to task by the Norman Bishop of Durham, William of Calais. Though the cathedral project was not completed until 1133, Cuthbert’s body was finally laid to rest in the cathedral in 1104.
The Middle Ages saw the center of Durham as being on the peninsula (formed by a bend in the river), and in this area stood the great cathedral, castle, and priory. To the west was an area called the Old Borough, a great indication that Durham was still growing. The 12th century saw the area known as Bishops Borough be built north of the peninsula, Borough of Elvet founded east of town, and St Giles borough in the northeast. A hospital was founded in 1112, named St. Giles Hospital (as it was in the St. Giles borough), and two bridges, Framwell bridge and Elvet Bridge, were founded in 1120 and 1160. Throughout Medieval Durham there were also plenty of watermills for producing flour and also for help with the “fulling” process; though it’s most important industry was that of leather. During the year 1356, the first town hall was built and by the 14th century a school named Almoners school was built near the priory. By the early 15th century two other schools were founded on the Palace Green, a hospital dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, and a leper hospital dedicated to St. Leonard (which was north of town).
It was during King Henry VIII’s reign that Durham received a damaging blow to the town (both to tourism and economics), when the kings men destroyed the shrine to St. Cuthbert (1538). However the grammar school, which had been founded in 1414 remained, and in 1661 it was rebuilt into a famous public school. The 16th century also brought outbreaks of plague through much of Europe, and Durham, like many other towns, suffered outbreaks in 1544, 1589, and 1598.
Durham during the 18th century saw an introduction to a “blue coat charity school” opened in 1718 and the first theater which opened in 1722. The early 18th century also saw the start of a mustard making industry come to Durham, and through the middle of the century the population was growing exceptionally. Actually by the mid- 18th century, Durham, whose population was between 4,000 and 5,000 was considered a large town. However in the 1771 there was a large flood in the town that also ended up damaging the Elvet Bridge; and yet the town continued to move forward, with its first infirmary opening its doors in 1787.
By the time the 19th century came about, the population of Durham had reached about 7,500 people, and the town was now know for the production of organ making, carpet making, brewing, and paper mills. By the mid-19th century the town’s population had reached roughly 14,000, but would only grow slowly through the rest of the century. The 19th century brought many advances to the town of Durham the building of the Durham Prison (1820) and the first police force in 1836. Gas light became a new technology in Durham in 1824 and by the late-19th century under town sewers and piped water supply had been created.
In 1832 Durham University was founded, and by 1837/1840 the castle had been given to the college and renovated to be able to house students. An observatory was added to Durham in the 1841, and the railway had reached Durham by 1844. In terms of medical advancements: Durham County Hospital was first built in 1860, with an isolation hospital for those with infectious diseases opening around 1893.
20th century Durham saw the population of the town soar to roughly 16,000; and throughout the rest of the century the population would continue to grow and thrive. Science laboratories also came to Durham in the 1920s, and the Durham University expanded throughout the 20th century. By the end of the century Durham University came to include: St. Mary’s College (1952), School of Oriental Studies (1960), Grey College (1961), St. Aiden’s College (1965), Van Mildert College (1966), Trevelyan College (1967), and Collingwood College (1973). By 1961, the National Savings Office had been opened and by 1964, the Magistrates Court. The Museum of Durham Light Infantry followed in the year 1969, and by 1970 the University Botanic Gardens had opened as well. Land and structural developments continued throughout the 20th century, with the Kingsgate Bridge being built in 1963, and Leazes Road in 1967. By 1975 a new Elvet Bridge had been built, replacing the one that had been damaged in the 18th century. By the year 1987, Durham Castle and Durham Cathedral had been made world heritage sites.
As we have entered the 21st century Durham has continued to develop, and the population has risen to even greater numbers; today being around 42,000. The year 2002 brought the openings of the Gala Theater and also the Clayport Library. However, 2008 brought the erection of the statue of St. Cuthbert in the Millenium Square in Durham, thus bringing Durham back full circle.

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