Durham (Dunholm)

Features in: Sworn Sword.

“The city is famous throughout Britain
Set on steep slopes and marvellously built
With rocks all around. A strongly running river
Flows past enclosed by weirs, and therein dwell
All kinds of fishes in the seething waters.
And there a splendid forest has grown up.
Many wild creatures live in those places
And countless beasts inhabit the deep dales.”


So begins the last extant poem written in the Old English language, known to modern scholars simply as Durham. It was composed in the early years of the twelfth century, possibly to celebrate the translation of the relics of St Cuthbert to the new Norman cathedral in 1104, and provides one of the earliest and fullest – if perhaps somewhat romanticised – descriptions of the medieval town.

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral, standing on the promontory above the River Wear. Construction of the Norman cathedral began in 1093 and was largely completed by the 1130s.

Known to the Anglo-Saxons as Dunholm (from Old English dun meaning “hill” and Old Norse holmr meaning “island” or “promontory”), Durham’s naturally defensible position, situated atop steep bluffs and ringed on three sides by water, might give the impression that it must have been occupied from an early date, but this doesn’t seem to have been the case.

Indeed little is known about the place in the pre-Conquest period. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of our principal sources for the period, contains only one passing reference to it before 1066. Burch, the Old English word translated rather grandly as “city” in the passage above, can have a number of meanings, including a walled town or simply a “castle” or “fort”. It’s therefore hard to be sure about the size of the settlement c.1066, although it’s worthwhile remembering that Durham was still a relatively young town at the time of the Norman Conquest, certainly compared with the great cities of England such as London and York.

It is only after 995 that Durham begins to feature prominently in the historical record. In that year it was settled by the community of St Cuthbert, the seventh-century monk, hermit and bishop of Lindisfarne (684-6), who was one of the principal saints of Anglo-Saxon England and was particularly revered in the North. For more than a century the monks of Lindisfarne who guarded his relics had been trying to find a more secure place to establish his shrine, after repeated Viking raids had forced them to abandon their old home in 875. Having come to Durham and chosen it as the site of their new monastery, the monks constructed a building known as the White Church, originally a timber edifice but within a few years rebuilt in stone.


View over the centre of the modern city of Durham, from the west, with the 19th-century St Godric’s Church in the foreground to the left of the image, and the castle just visible in the middle distance on the right.

St Cuthbert’s shrine attracted pilgrims from all over England, including no less than King Cnut (1016-35). According to the chronicler Symeon of Durham, Cnut visited sometime in the 1030s, making a barefoot pilgrimage from Garmondsway five miles away to the church, and granting land to the monks. Not long before, in 1022, a monk called Alfred had brought the remains of the famous Anglo-Saxon historian and scholar Bede from Jarrow to Durham, to be buried alongside Cuthbert. Both events show that already within a generation or so of its foundation, Durham was quickly growing in prestige and becoming one of the foremost religious sites in Britain.

Durham continued to flourish after the Conquest as a town and as a centre for learning, although not before enduring some turbulent times. Like the majority of the province of Northumbria, Durham was not directly affected at first by the Norman invasion of southern England. In January 1069, however, a Norman expeditionary force under the command of Robert de Commines, the newly appointed Earl of Northumbria, was sent north by William the Conqueror in order to bring the north firmly under his control.

On 28 January, the Normans entered Durham, but that night they were ambushed by a Northumbrian army, who cut them down in the streets and slaughtered them almost to a man. Earl Robert himself was killed during the battle. It was the first defeat that the Normans had suffered in a large-scale engagement since arriving on English shores more than two years earlier. (This episode and its aftermath are, of course, the subject of Sworn Sword, the first instalment in Tancred’s saga.)

In 1072, in the wake of the English rebellions, a motte-and-bailey castle was established on the promontory, possibly on the site of an earlier Anglo-Saxon fortification of some sort. A great hall was established not long afterwards by Bishop Walcher (1071-80), who was appointed to the see of Durham by King William and who, in 1075, also took over the office of earl, although his tenure was marked by (and ended in) violence.

Durham Cathedral

View of the tower and north transept of Durham Cathedral.

The castle’s Norman chapel, built in stone c.1080 – that is to say either during or shortly after Walcher’s time – remarkably still survives. Construction of Durham Cathedral began in 1093 under the supervision of Walcher’s successor as bishop, William de St-Calais. It was completed during the 1130s, although it was much added to over the following centuries, and it continues to dominate the city’s skyline to this day.

For those interested in exploring the city’s medieval past in more detail, a wealth of information can be found on the website of the Durham World Heritage Site. You can also read my report from my visit to the Durham Book Festival in October 2011, during which time I was given special access to the Norman chapel – normally off-limits to the public.


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