Durham Castle - The Palace of The Prince Bishops

The year is 1072, only six years after the Norman conquests, and William the Conqueror had moved the Normans northwards requiring a castle where Durham Castle now stands.

The main aim to defend from the Scottish but increasingly also, a place to govern from with a rebellious peoples of North England.

When was Durham Castle built?

Construction began in 1076 under the Earl of Northumberland, Waltheof, but alas he rebelled against the King and was executed. What came next was a complete change of the way the area was governed, specific to the area.

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County Durham has numerous signs saying the ‘Land of The Prince Bishops’. So, during this visit there I wanted to learn more why, how powerful they were and how Durham Castle was at the centre of it all.

Durham castle from the centre green

The guide arrived and ushered us through the stone gateway into the middle of Durham Castle as it stands now. Calm, peaceful and the City has changed all around it. In 1076, North England was a different prospect to the new Norman rulers, plus the ever present threat of invasion from Scotland. Geographically too, the power of the King based down South was diluted this far North.

Prince Bishops

So, King William gave special powers to the Bishop of Durham, the title of Prince Bishop and a lot of power to go with it, a King of the area in all but name.

He could rule autonomously, mint his own coinage, raise his own taxes, and all however in return for being the protector of the North for the King.

entrance to durham castle

The first Prince Bishop was thus Walcher, who was the Bishop of Durham at the time. The castle was built, some of the original Norman building is incorporated into what you see today.

This became not only the Prince Bishops fortress but you can imagine the wealth that came with the job, a desirable post indeed, it grew into the Prince Bishop’s Palace.

The changing castle

In those first days it would have been a more typical Norman Castle. A motte, and inner and outer bailey. Of course though, as the money came rolling in, down the Centuries the Prince Bishops modified and modernised all the time, adding more and more grandeur.

durham castle clock

The title of Prince Bishop of course not only meant wealth but responsibility for the North for the King of the time. This meant personalities were created throughout history in the post. Here are a couple of examples.

Notable Prince Bishops

Let’s take a look at some of the Durham Prince Bishops that have made a mark in the history books.

Bishop Flambard (1099 – 1128)

One of the earliest Prince Bishops, was given the title by King William Rufus (William II), William I’s son. responsible for much of the fortification of the Durham Peninsular.

A fiery character by all accounts he was involved in much before becoming Bishop of Durham. He was heavily involved in the financial control of the Kingdom.

He had supervised the first ever stone bridge in London, plus the construction of King’s Hall, Westminster. However, when the King died, Henry I, the new King had him locked up in the Tower of London as a scapegoat with money corruption of the previous reign.

He couldn’t be stopped, he became the first person to ever escape the Tower of London and eventually regained his office from exile in Normandy.

Bishop Hatfield (1345 – 1381)

Here in the 14th Century, Bishop Hatfield had the castle keep built as well as made more formal the far reaching powers of the Prince Bishop. He obviously had big ideas of grandeur.

If you have ever been to Durham Cathedral you may have seen the Bishop’s throne he had built, purposely designed to be higher than the Pope’s.

He also had an issue with the Archbishop of York. Basically, the Archbishop of York felt he could visit Durham anytime he wished.

Hatfield did not like this and stated that an invitation was required first. It went to the King to decide, who sided with Hatfield, thus the Durham Bishop was formally of higher rank than York.

Antony Bek (1285 – 1311)

Another notable Prince Bishop of Durham. Showed off his wealth enormously and famously had 140 knights! Helped the King defeat William Wallace.

tower and clock of Durham Castle

Durham Castle In The Middle ages

Throughout the middle ages the Castle became grander and grander with modifications as tastes came and went of course.

After the reformation, Bishop John Cosin made some more huge changes. Yes, a land of protection in the North was not so important anymore, but the Prince Bishop of Durham still wanted entitlement it seems.

Throughout the building as you tour around today you will see many coat of arms plaques. This is because the castle passed from person to person in a way unlike many other castles, within the families.

John Cosin extended extra buildings and made sure his mark was all over it…

coat of arms Durham Castle

It became a university building

All changed in 1837 when Durham Castle was donated to the University College, Durham. Inside, especially the keep was transformed to accommodate students and staff.

It is still home to around 100 students and during the tour you will see how it is all incorporated. The students have their meals in what was once the Great hall.

student seating area outside Durham Castle

You will note that in this post that there are no photos of inside, either the chapel or much of the many interesting rooms visited. If you wish to visit for photo purposes please note there are no photos allowed inside.

Our guide (a current student) stated that this is because some the building is a living space, so a blanket ban is in force everywhere, inside. you will have to visit and see and sense with your own eyes.

steps at the main entrance to Durham Castle
castle window

A weekend break in Durham would have been missing a big piece without seeing and learning more about the castle that sits above the City. It is situated literally across from the entrance to the Cathedral.

Is Durham Castle free entry?

There is a fee to enter Durham Castle on a tour basis. The current cost is £5 for adults.

What has been filmed at Durham Castle?

Not in Durham Castle itself but next to the Castle Is Durham Cathedral where scenes from the Harry Potter films were filmed. For instance in the cloisters is where he set Hedwig the Owl on flight from his hands.

Is Durham Castle worth a visit?

Yes. It is one of the top things to visit in Durham and within these walls you can learn so much of the history of not just the castle but also the City’s history.

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