Medieval Durham: The Epicenter of Power and Faith

Medieval Durham: A Historic Cathedral City in England

Durham is a city located in the County Durham District of England, situated on the banks of the River Wear. The city has a rich history and is known for its prominent landmarks such as the Durham Cathedral, Durham Castle, and HM Prison Durham.

The Final Resting Place of St Cuthbert

Durham is built on the final resting place of St Cuthbert, a patron saint of Northern England. The city has a long-standing history of religious significance, and the Durham Cathedral is a testament to its importance as a centre of pilgrimage in medieval England.

Durham Cathedral and Castle

The Durham Cathedral and Castle were built in the 11th century and are now designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The Cathedral is a magnificent example of Norman architecture, while the Castle has been home to Durham University since 1837. Both these buildings are iconic landmarks of Durham, attracting tourists from all over the world.

HM Prison Durham

HM Prison Durham is also located close to the city centre and was built in 1816. The prison has a significant historical value and is now a popular tourist attraction. Visitors can learn about the prison’s history, see the cells, and even experience life inside the prison through interactive exhibits.

Historical, Topographical and Descriptive Guide to Durham: City, Cathedral, Castle, and Environs by George H. Procter
Historical, Topographical and Descriptive Guide to Durham: City, Cathedral, Castle, and Environs by George H. Procter

The Origins of Durham's Name

Durham’s name has an interesting etymology, as it combines elements from different languages and historical periods. The following sections explore the main theories and legends behind the city’s name.

Hill Fort and Island: Dun and Holme

According to one theory, Durham’s name comes from the Brythonic word “dun,” which means hill fort or fortified hill, and the Old Norse word “holme,” which means island. This combination reflects the city’s location on a strategic hill overlooking the River Wear, which forms a natural island-like loop around the peninsula. The fusion of these two elements resulted in the original Nordic name Dun Holm, which was later modified by the Normans into Duresme, and by the Latinized as Dunelm.

Legend of the Dun Cow

Another explanation for Durham’s name is linked to a local legend involving a milkmaid and a sacred cow. According to this tale, a Dun Cow led the monks of Lindisfarne, who were carrying the body of Saint Cuthbert, to the site of Durham in 995 AD. The cow was said to have lain down at the spot where the city’s cathedral was eventually built, indicating that this was the chosen place of the saint’s burial. The Dun Cow became a symbol of Durham’s spiritual and cultural heritage, and the story inspired the name of Dun Cow Lane, a historic street near the cathedral.

Name Changes and Uncertainties

Durham’s name has undergone several modifications over time, reflecting the influences of different languages and rulers. The city was known as Dun Holm in the Nordic period, Duresme in the Norman era, and Dunelm in the Latin tradition. The modern form Durham emerged later, but the exact date of this transition is unknown. The historian Robert Surtees chronicled the name changes in his book, but he acknowledged that it is difficult to trace the origins of the city’s present name.

The Meaning of Durham in Brittonic

Durham’s name also has a possible origin in the ancient Brittonic language, which was spoken in the area before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. According to some scholars, Durham’s name derives from the Brittonic phrase “Gaer Weir,” which means “an enclosed, defensible site” and is related to the Welsh term “caer,” meaning fortress or stronghold. This interpretation reflects the strategic importance of Durham’s location on a hill overlooking the River Wear, which provided natural protection and access to resources. The Wear River itself may have contributed to the name, as it has a Celtic origin and means “water” or “stream.” The combination of Gaer Weir and Wear would have resulted in a name similar to Durham, although the spelling and pronunciation would have varied over time and across dialects.

The History and Legend of Durham City's Founding

Archaeological evidence suggests that the area where Durham City now stands has been settled since around 2000 BC. However, the present city can be traced back to AD 995 when a group of monks from Lindisfarne settled on a strategic high peninsula with the body of Saint Cuthbert. This founding of the city is shrouded in legend, which has been passed down through the centuries.

The Legend of Divine Intervention

Local legend states that the city was founded by divine intervention in AD 995. According to 12th-century chronicler Symeon of Durham, Saint Cuthbert’s bier miraculously came to a halt at the hill of Warden Law, where the monks had been searching for a place to settle. The bier would not move despite the congregation’s efforts, and Aldhun, Bishop of Chester-le-Street, decreed a holy fast of three days accompanied by prayers to the saint.

The Revelation of Saint Cuthbert

During the fast, Saint Cuthbert appeared to a monk named Eadmer and instructed that the coffin should be taken to Dun Holm. After Eadmer’s revelation, Aldhun found that he was able to move the bier, but he did not know where Dun Holm was located.

The Legend of the Dun Cow

The legend of the Dun Cow, which was first documented in The Rites of Durham, builds on Symeon’s account. The legend states that later that day, the monks came across a milkmaid at Mount Joy who was searching for her lost dun cow, which she had last seen at Dun Holm. The monks followed her and settled on a wooded “hill-island” surrounded on three sides by the River Wear, where they erected a shelter for the relics. Symeon claimed that a modest wooden building erected there shortly thereafter was the first building in the city.

The Building of Durham Cathedral

Bishop Aldhun subsequently had a stone church built, which was dedicated in September 998. This building no longer remains, having been replaced by the Norman structure. The legend is commemorated by a Victorian relief stone carving on the north face of Durham Cathedral and a bronze sculpture called ‘Durham Cow,’ which reclines by the River Wear in view of the cathedral, created by Andrew Burton in 1997.

Durham's Spiritual Importance and Medieval Pilgrimage

A map of the city from 1610

A map of the city from 1610

During the medieval period, Durham gained spiritual significance as the final resting place of two important saints, Saint Cuthbert and Saint Bede the Venerable. The shrine of Saint Cuthbert, located behind the High Altar of Durham Cathedral, was the most important religious site in England until the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury in 1170.

The Miraculous Saint Cuthbert

Saint Cuthbert was famous for his miraculous healing powers, which continued even after his death. Pilgrims visiting his shrine were said to be cured of various diseases, leading to him being known as the “wonder worker of England.” Additionally, his body was found to be incorruptible, further cementing his status as a revered saint. Saint Bede’s bones are also entombed in the cathedral, attracting medieval pilgrims to the city.

Durham’s Role in English Defense

Durham’s geographic location played an important role in the defense of England against Scottish invaders. The city was a crucial part of the north’s defense, and Durham Castle is the only Norman castle keep that has never suffered a breach. In 1314, the Bishopric of Durham paid a significant amount to the Scots to prevent them from burning Durham.

The Battle of Neville's Cross

Battle of Neville's Cross from a 15th-century manuscript

Battle of Neville’s Cross from a 15th-century manuscript

Background and Context

The 14th century was a time of conflict and tension between England and Scotland. In 1337, King Edward III of England claimed the French throne, sparking the Hundred Years’ War. This put England’s northern border with Scotland at risk of attack, and tensions between the two countries escalated.

The Scottish Invasion of England

In 1346, King David II of Scotland launched a surprise invasion of England. He hoped to take advantage of the English army being away fighting in France. His army of around 12,000 men marched south and raided towns and villages along the way.

The Battle of Neville’s Cross

The Scottish army reached Durham on October 16, 1346, and camped outside the city walls. The next day, they were confronted by an English army of around 6,000 men led by Ralph Neville, the Bishop of Durham. The two sides clashed in the Battle of Neville’s Cross.

Disastrous Loss for the Scots

The battle was a disaster for the Scots. The English army was well-prepared and heavily armed, while the Scottish army was exhausted from their long march and ill-equipped for battle. The Scots suffered heavy losses, with many killed or taken prisoner, including King David II, who was captured and held in England for eleven years.

Aftermath and Significance

The Battle of Neville’s Cross was a decisive English victory and marked the end of the Scottish invasion of England. It also helped to cement the power and influence of the Bishop of Durham, who played a crucial role in the battle. The victory was celebrated in England, and the day of the battle, October 17, became known as “Neville’s Cross Day.”

Durham's Plague Outbreaks

The bubonic plague, commonly known as the Black Death, swept across Europe in the 14th century, killing millions of people. Durham was not immune to this deadly disease, and it suffered from several plague outbreaks during its history.

The 1544 Plague Outbreak

In 1544, Durham was hit by a severe outbreak of the plague. It is estimated that one-third of the city’s population perished during this epidemic. The disease was spread through fleas that lived on rats, and it was transmitted to humans through bites. The symptoms of the disease included fever, chills, and the appearance of painful boils.

The 1589 Plague Outbreak

Another devastating outbreak occurred in 1589, which resulted in the deaths of over 1,500 people in Durham. The authorities attempted to contain the spread of the disease by imposing a quarantine on infected households. However, this proved to be ineffective, and the disease continued to spread rapidly throughout the city.

The 1598 Plague Outbreak

A third outbreak occurred in 1598, which was the last major plague outbreak to affect Durham. The disease was brought to the city by a group of travelers who had visited infected areas in the south of England. The authorities responded quickly by imposing strict quarantine measures and burning infected clothing and bedding. Despite these measures, the outbreak resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 people in Durham.

Legacy of the Plague Outbreaks

The plague outbreaks left a lasting impact on Durham’s history and population. The loss of so many lives had a significant social and economic impact on the city. The epidemics also led to the development of new medical practices and the establishment of quarantine measures to prevent the spread of diseases. Today, Durham remembers the victims of the plague outbreaks through its historic cemeteries and monuments, and the legacy of these tragic events continues to be felt in the city’s culture and society.

The Ecclesiastical Authority of Durham's Bishops

Legendary Founding and Divine Providence

Durham city’s founding is steeped in divine providence, which has granted its bishops extraordinary ecclesiastical authority. While other bishops are “Bishop by Divine Permission,” the Bishop of Durham is “Bishop by Divine Providence.”

Unprecedented Powers

Being far from Westminster has given the Bishops of Durham extraordinary powers. They have the ability to hold their own parliament, raise their own armies, appoint their own sheriffs and justices, administer their own laws, levy taxes and customs duties, create fairs and markets, issue charters, salvage shipwrecks, collect revenue from mines, administer forests, and mint their own coins.

Regal Status of the Bishop

The extent of the bishop’s power was so great that the steward of Bishop Antony Bek remarked that there were two kings in England: the Lord King of England and the Lord Bishop of Durham, who wore a mitre in place of a crown to signify his regality in the diocese. The bishop’s seat of power was the castle and surrounding buildings on Palace Green, where many of the original structures still stand.

Prince Bishops and Durham University

From 1071 to 1836, every Bishop of Durham except the first Norman appointment, Bishop Walcher, was a Prince Bishop. Although they wouldn’t have recognized the term, it’s a helpful tool to understand its functions. The last Prince Bishop, Bishop William Van Mildert, founded Durham University in 1832. Henry VIII curtailed some of the Prince-Bishop’s powers and ordered the destruction of the shrine of Saint Cuthbert in 1538.

Discover the Timeless Charm of Durham

The Kingslodge Inn Durham
The Kingslodge Inn Durham
Hotel Indigo Durham
Hotel Indigo Durham
Delta Hotels by Marriott Durham Royal County
Delta Hotels by Marriott Durham Royal County


  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, April 29). Durham, England. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation.,_England

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, February 5). Battle of Neville’s Cross. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation.

  • The Battlefields Hub → Medieval → Neville’s Cross Campaign 1346 → The Battle of Battle of Neville’s Cross. (2023).

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