A History Of Durham City

Durham City flag, white-bordered red cross on a black background. In the public domain. The City of Durham is famous for its cathedral and the University of Durham and its colleges, but the impressive city seen today, with its narrow alley ways and steep hills, started more humbly, with evidence of settlement on the peninsula suggesting Durham was inhabited as early as 2000BCE. A more permanent settlement seemed to have began around the time of the death of St Cuthbert (after who a ‘college’ of the university, St Cuthbert’s Society, was named), in about 995CE.

The Foundation Of Durham – Dun Cow

According to folk lore, these monks, who moved St Cuthbert’s remains from Chester-le-Street, were led by a milk maid who had lost her dun (grey/brown) cow, and established Durham where the cow was eventually found.

St Cuthbert

Durham Cathedral, © Durham Uni Students 2007.
Whilst it is more likely that the steep peninsula surrounded on three sides by the River Wear afforded the monks excellent protection from Viking raids at the time, the legend of Durham’s foundation is still very much in memory, with scenes of it depicted in the walls of the cathedral (pictured) itself. The Durham Cathedral visible today was started in 1093CE, with a hastily-constructed building made from wood was erected around St Cuthbert’s remains before then.

The ‘Venerable’ Bede

Durham is also the home of the remains of the Venerable Bede, who many see as the ‘father of modern history’, author or ‘Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum‘ – ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ – a book of some 400 pages and 5 volumes regarding the history of England from the time of Caesar to around 730CE. Bede wrote many works intrepreting both the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, as well as scientific and historical documents.

The Middle Ages & Durham

Map of Durham City, from about 1610AD, showing the castle and cathedral, and the Durham peninsula Durham maintained its importance during the Middle Ages, important to the royalty and governments of England as a barrier against the Scots. Ruled by ‘Prince Bishops’ until the reign of Queen Victoria, Durham’s justice was served by the Prince Bishops themselves, with their immense power giving them the right to punish as they saw fit in their own lands – the governments over time had given them almost ultimate power in their area, even allowing them to mint their own coins!

Queen Victoria to Present Day Durham

By the reign of Queen Victoria, in 1832, the Prince Bishops’ reign over Durham and the surrounding region was halted under the Great Reform Act During the reign of Victoria and the following ‘industrial revolution’, Durham and the surrounding region become a large source of coal, with coal mining becoming an incredibly large portion of the region’s wealth, and whilst the age of mining in the area has passed, the Durham Miners’ Gala, started in the 1800s, remains an annual event. There are over 500 estimated listed buildings in Durham itself, including the castle and cathedral, which can lead to Durham feeling almost surreally stuck in the past, and certain areas of the city (such as along the river and Prebends Bridge), do not feel like they belong in a city at all.

Durham University

Durham University (previously the University of Durham, and still the university’s official name) was officially founded in 1832CE, despite Durham’s origins of academia starting in the reign of Henry VIII, held back by objections from Oxford University and Cambridge University. Now home to some 15000 students, Durham is truly blessed and cursed by the university, with ‘town and gown’ (ie the ‘native’ population of Durham and the students) sometimes becoming strained.

Durham Today

The population of Durham today is around 40000 (with a further 20000 or so living in the immediate surrounding area), and university buildings and departments are spread throughout the city, as are the 17 colleges of the university.

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