Durham Castle is an 11th-century fortress that now hosts university students and special events. In 1987, it was designated a World Heritage Site along with nearby Durham Cathedral. Durham Castle qualifies as a site of religious interest for two reasons: (1) its long history as the home of the powerful Prince-Bishops of Durham; and (2) its two chapels, one of which is a fascinating Norman chapel with pagan-style decorations. The castle can only be visited on the regular guided tours, which are entertaining and usually led by university students.
History of Durham Castle
Durham Castle was founded by William the Conquerer in 1072, shortly after his victory at the Battle of Hastings. To this simple defensive structure, Bishop Walcher of Durham added a hall on the site of the present Great Hall, together with the Undercroft and Norman Chapel.
For centuries, the castle was the residence of the Prince-Bishopsof Durham, who were granted political sovereignty over the region by the king. Each bishop sought to leave his mark on the castle and adapt it to his own needs, and accordingly made various additions and embellishments. Bishop Bek added the Great Hall in 1284; Bishop Fox added the grand medieval kitchens in 1500.
The castle was heavily damaged during the English Civil War and Commonwealth period. The bishopric of Durham was abolished and Cromwell sold the castle to the Lord Mayor of London, who had no interest in restoring the building. After the Restoration of the monarchy, the bishops moved back in and restored the castle. Bishop Cosin made extensive restorations and additions (including the Black Staircase), as did Bishop Crewe.
When Durham University was founded in 1832, Bishop Van Mildert gave the castle to the new institution. The keep was restored and made into student rooms, which are still used today by lucky third-year students of University College (a.k.a. "Castle"). See the official website for information on its bed and breakfast accommodations during school breaks.
A variety of restorations have been carried out on the castle throughout the 20th century, including some very necessary work to prevent the northwest corner from sliding down the hill into the River Wear.
What to See at Durham Castle
Sights included on the tour are the Great Hall, now used as a college dining hall and venue for wedding receptions; a medieval kitchen, still in use; the 17th-century Black Staircase, with its dramatic slope; and two chapels.
The castle's main chapel, known as Tunstall's Chapel for the bishop who built it, dates from 1540. It is small and was extensively restored after the Civil War. The screen at the back was originally in the cathedral. The stained glass window is modern, thanks to a errant lawnmower that rolled down the steep lawn of the keep and right through the window.
Far more interesting and beautiful is the Norman Chapel, in the basement of the castle. This was added shortly after the castle's foundation in 1072 and probably employed Saxon masons. It is carved of beautiful, swirling sandstone; the pillar capitals are decorated with pre-Christian imagery featuring animals and mythical beasts. Look for the full-figured mermaid in the right aisle.
Quick Facts on Durham Castle
|Categories:||castles; World Heritage Sites|
|Dates:||1072 - 16th C|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||54.775445° N, 1.576259° W|
|Phone:||0191 334 3800|
|Hours:||Admission by guided tour only.|
During school term: Mon-Fri 2pm, 3pm, 4pm
During school holidays: Mon-Fri 10am, 11am, noon, 2pm, 3pm, 4pm, 5pm
Closed Dec 25-Jan 3 and during special events - call ahead ensure availability.
|Lodging:||View hotels near Durham Castle|
- Personal visit (August 19, 2006).
- Rough Guide England
- "History of the Castle" - University of Durham
- Photos of Durham Castle - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Durham Castle
Below is a location map and aerial view of Durham Castle. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.