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The History of Durham

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Without the devotion to the memory of the former Bishop of Lindisfarne, as in the late 7th Century bishop of Lindisfarne , the most revered saint in all of Anglo-Saxon England, Cuthbert, Durham may not have existed. Sitting on the banks of the River Wear in the north-east of England, Durham came together under the threat of Viking plunder. Saint Cuthbert was interred at Lindisfarne Priory , and the monastic community grew nervous that the Scandinavian tourists might disturb the totemic saint’s remains. And worry they might; Saint Cuthbert was known as the Wonder Worker Of England, his grave was said to be the sight of many miracles. There could be few more significant figures in English Christianity. After laying at rest for almost 200 years, Saint Cuthbert’s bones were exhumed and evacuated in 875AD from Lindisfarne by the monks before resting at Chester-Le-Street in 883AD. But the Viking threat was nothing if not persistent. By the following century, Cuthbert, more nomadic in death than he had been in life, was on the move again. Such was the lore surrounding the saint’s remains, that the city of Durham’s foundations were built on the cult of Saint Cuthbert. While being transported, his carriage came to a halt at Warden Law, east of Durham. After three days of prayer and meditation Saint Cuthbert appeared in a vision to a monk by the name of Eadmer, instructing him to take his remains to Dunholm. Unknown to a now directionally rudderless but spiritually renewed funeral procession, it was by chance that the monks overheard a milk maid referring to Dunholm. It was 995AD. The town which would become known as the city of Durham was founded, not on trade but on devout belief.
Of course, the hard physical history of Durham’s inception has been held hostage to an article of faith, but what we do know is that once located, the site of Dunholm was cleared to make way for a church in which to rest Saint Cuthbert’s remains. On a bend in the River Wear, the timber White Church was constructed. Standing proud of the nascent village it rallied pilgrims from across England. Durham grew on the magnetic pull of faith. These ecclesiastical roots would soon hold great power in the years to come as the bishopric of Durham was galvinised by a sacrosanct past. As the 11th Century dawned, Durham Cathedral was a beacon of hope, built on the natural rise it was a defence against the invading Scots, who had since replaced the threat from the Scandinavians. In 1006 the Scots’ offensive was repelled. Standing firm, Durham was adorned with Caledonian heads-on-sticks – as if there was any doubt that the Scots were unwelcome. They returned in 1038, and were a common menace. But it was the Normans under William The Conqueror and not the Scots that left the greatest mark on Durham, much like William did throughout England.
After walloping Harold II at the Battle Of Hastings in 1066, King William, the first Norman king of England, set about establishing feudalism within the realm, the Domesday Book and so forth. It wasn’t hugely popular amongst the nation’s Saxon population. When the king’s men were ambushed at Durham, the North of England was mercilessly harried. Until now, Durham and its cathedral had worried about Scots and Danes, but the internecine squabbles between Normans and Anglo-Saxons ensured the cathedral needed fortification: under the Normans, that’s exactly what happened. Work started in 1093, it was finished in 1133. Standing proud over the north-east it became totem of Norman rule over the land. The cathedral served not just as the seat of Benedictine worship, or a said symbol of Norman conquest, no, there was genuine power in those walls, partially independent to the Crown.
The Prince-Bishops, lasting from 1076 to 1836, supped from the cup of both clerical and political power. The County Of Durham was semi-autonomous throughout this period, with taxes controlled by the Prince-Bishops the North-East could have been viewed as being aloof from London . Why would the King tolerate this? With irascible Scots to the north, whose raids had always unsettled the whole of Northumbria, security was a great concern: Saint Cuthbert looked after its soul, but the loyalty of Northumbria was crucial. Only Henry VIII ’s busy-body 16th Century reforming saw the Prince-Bishops lose some power. Even then, in the years following the tumult of Henry’s reign, excommunication from Rome and the dysfunctional relationship with the Scots, the Prince-Bishops held enough power to keep English kings respectful. During the Civil War , when the Divine Right Of Kings was challenged, the ‘Bishops By Divine Providence’ sided with the Stuart King. Which, as you may have guessed, didn’t make it one of Cromwell ’s most favourite corner of the Commonwealth.
He sold the castle and the cathedral. The latter was used as a makeshift correctional facility for Royalist Scots. Naturally, the town was scarred by the whole affair. The Restoration saw the city renovated. The Industrial Revolution confused it. Newcastle-Upon-Tyne was better placed. With the mining trade in Newcastle given Royal Ascent, Durham’s hammer was left on the work bench. Its stretch of riverside was good enough for paper mills and suchlike, but too shallow for the keelman: the hardest graft of the Industrial Revolution was not for Durham. In 1832, one great institution began as another ended: the Great Reform Act sucked the political muscle out of Durham, the Prince-Bishops’ era was over; while Durham University, founded by the last of the Prince-Bishops, William van Mildert, became a totem of the city’s future.

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