The order for the construction of Durham Castle was given in 1072. The new castle would protect the Norman rulers from the rebellious local population and potential invasions from Scotland. Opposition to the Norman rule was a real threat, and even whilst the castle was being constructed, rebellion was close at hand. Waltheof, the Earl of Northumbria who was tasked with building Durham Castle, rebelled and was later executed.
The need to establish and maintain order in the North was crucial. William granted additional powers to the Bishop of Durham, giving them greater authority in return for their loyalty. This was an interesting political tactic that took power away from the local ruling elite and gave it to a representative of the king. They ruled what was effectively a state within a state. Holding the title of Prince Bishop, these powerful leaders could levy taxes, mint their own coins, have their own courts, raise an army and had responsibility for protecting the northern frontier. These were not just men of the church; they were powerful politicians and rulers who were often embroiled with the politics, threats, rebellions and scandals of the day. . . . As Norman rule became more established, the 13th and 14th centuries were relatively calm, allowing the Prince Bishops to enhance their wealth, status and power. The substantial income of the Bishops saw the beginnings of the castle’s evolution into a palatial residence, frequently remodelled to reflect changes in taste and fashion.
Durham Castle (Durham University)
The construction took place under the supervision of the Earl of Northumberland, Waltheof, until he rebelled against William and was executed in 1076. The castle then came under the control of the Bishop of Durham, Walcher, who purchased the earldom and thus became the first of the Prince-Bishops of Durham, a title that was to remain until the 19th century, and was to give Durham a unique status in England. It was under Walcher that many of the Castle’s first buildings were constructed. As was typical of Norman castles, it consisted of a motte (mound) and an inner and outer bailey (fenced or walled area). Whether the motte and inner bailey were built first is unknown. There is also debate about whether or not Durham Castle was originally a stone or a wooden structure. Historic sources mention that its keep (fortified tower) was built of wood, but there is enough archaeological evidence to indicate that even in the late 11th century when it was first built, it had numerous stone buildings.
Durham World Heritage Listing
Durham Cathedral was built between the late 11th and early 12th century to house the bodies of St. Cuthbert (634-687 AD) (the evangeliser of Northumbria) and the Venerable Bede (672/3-735 AD). It attests to the importance of the early Benedictine monastic community and is the largest and finest example of Norman architecture in England. The innovative audacity of its vaulting foreshadowed Gothic architecture. The Cathedral lies within the precinct of Durham Castle, first constructed in the late eleventh century under the orders of William the Conqueror.
The Castle was the stronghold and residence of the Prince-Bishops of Durham, who were given virtual autonomy in return for protecting the northern boundaries of England, and thus held both religious and secular power. Within the Castle precinct are later buildings of the Durham Palatinate, reflecting the Prince-Bishops’ civic responsibilities and privileges. These include the Bishop’s Court (now a library), almshouses, and schools. Palace Green, a large open space connecting the various buildings of the site once provided the Prince Bishops with a venue for processions and gatherings befitting their status, and is now still a forum for public events.
UNESCO World Heritage listing
Plan of Durham Castle, 1892, from Wikimedia Commons
In a volume of the publications of the Surtees Society, Mr. James Raine, the worthy son of a distinguished sire, has given to the archæological world a very curious poem, now first printed, entitled “Dialogi Laurentii Dunelmensis Monachi ac Prioris,” a work of the time, and which records the intrusion of William Cumin into the see of Durham. This was a period of extreme interest in that important see, once including the city of Carlisle and the territory of Teviotdale, and at the date of the poem [c.1149] still holding the Castles of Durham and Norham, fortresses of the first rank, even in a district which contained Bamborough.
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The castle still retains many of the features and some of the buildings described in the poem. The ditch which cut off the fortress from the cathedral is, it is true, filled up, and the pasture ward to the east is built over and obscured, but the south gate, though rebuilt, stands on the old site, and is still the main entrance; and34 the wall on the right on entering still extends towards the keep. The keep itself is a late work; but the mound upon which it stands is a part of the original fortress, and the masonry is laid on the old lines, and in outline the tower no doubt represents pretty clearly the work of Flambard. A strong wall still connects the keep with the lodgings of the castle, and forms the front towards the river. The chapel also remains but little altered, and the walls and arches of the dormitory are original. The well is still seen in the open court, and is, or was recently, in use. Notwithstanding various repairs, rebuildings, and additions, there can be but little doubt that the Castle of Durham resembles in its general aspect the fortress of the Conqueror and of Flambard;
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Queen-like the castle sits sublime, and frowns
O’er all she sees, and deems the whole her own.
Straight from the gate the gloomy wall ascends
The mound, and thus the stately keep attains.
A close-built citadel, piercing the clear air,
Outside and inside strong, well fitted to its use.
Its base, of heaped-up earth three cubits raised,
Solid and firm, the floor does thus support;
On which firm base the supereminent keep
Rises, unrivalled in its glittering sheen.
On twice two timbers stayed, are seen to rest
The buildings there, for each main angle one:
While round each half circumference are wings,
Each ending in a formidable wall.
Springing from these a bridge, by easy steps,
To the high battlements an access forms,
Where the broad wall all round gives ample path,
And thus the summit of the keep is gained.
Stately that keep! a circle in its form,
Splendid and strong by art, and by position fair.
Thence, downward to the castle, leads the bridge,
And offers easy access to and fro;
For broad its path with many a shallow step,
The base attaining by a gradual slope.
Hard by, the wall, thrown backwards from the keep,
Faces the west towards th’ encircling stream,
On whose high bank continued, it enfolds
With a bold sweep an ample pasture there;
From parching northern blasts protected thus,
And so curves round to the stern keep again.
Nor does the space within the wall embraced
Stand without buildings: such there are, and good.
Two porches to two palaces belong,
Of which the work to th’ artist brings no shame.
Here, too, a chapel fair six columns boasts,
Nor large, nor small, but fitted to its needs.
Here beds lie near to beds, and halls to halls,
Each for its province suitably disposed:
Robes here, bright vessels there, here glittering arms,
Here bread, there flesh, and tempting coin concealed,
And corn and wine laid down, and barley beer,
And the clear flour here finds its proper bin.
Thus on one side house joins to house, and hall
To hall. The other too is occupied.
The court alone is free, and there is seen
The well, full deep, with water well supplied.
The original church, which was reared over St. Cuthbert’s grave in 999, was standing when the Conqueror ordered the rebuilding, in 1072, of the palace of the Saxon bishops of Durham, which had been burnt down two or three years before. This edifice did not perhaps suit the taste or requirements of the proud and wealthy prelates who came after, and in 1174 Bishop Pudsey rebuilt the whole, with great additions, in the best late Norman style of military architecture.
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It is built on a high rocky hill of horse-shoe shape, round which the river Wear flows, under steep cliffs, 80 or 100 feet below, serving as a moat to the fortress. The line of walls, with their five gates, extended round that side of the hill not occupied by the cathedral, enclosing the courtyard or bailey. The great N. gate, which flanked the keep to the E., and the space leading down to the town commanded the most important approach, and was rebuilt and much strengthened by Bishop Langley in 1417 ; it had double gates towards the bailey, and one towards the city, with portcullis and battlements. The old gate had a postern and a round tower at the end of the ditch, still existing. The second gate, called the King’s Gate, commanded a ford on the river, but has disappeared. Two others stood where are now Queen Street and Duncow Lane ;and the fifth, or water gate, being that of the outer court, stood in its ancient form until of late years. The mount on which the keep stands is 44 feet high, and was vaulted beneath. The tower was an irregular octagon 63J feet across, and four storeys high, with an entrance on the W.; the eight angles were supported by buttresses, and a battlemented parapet ran round the summit. Nothing, however, remains of this edifice but the mount, the vaults, and the outer shell ;it was probably the work of Bishop Hatfield in the middle of the fourteenth century, who also built the great hall.
The Castles of England: their story and structure, Vol. II, 1897