Durham Castle
Durham Castle
Nestled onto the same peninsula of land overlooking the leafy River Wear as is Durham Cathedral, Durham Castle was one of the first fortified castles built by William the Conqueror during his ferocious "harrying of the north" (i.e. putting down rebellions among the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of the North.

Begun in 1072 as a part of William's plan to pacify the north of his new realm, the castle is an excellent early example of the Norman "motte and bailey" style of fortification.

Durham Castle and Cathedral
Durham Castle
and Cathedral
In plain English, that means the central tower, or keep, was built atop a high mound (the motte), and surrounded by a walled enclosure (the bailey).

During the Middle Ages the castle served as a centre of power to counter the threat from the Scots, but then it was taken over as the principle residence of the Prince Bishops of Durham - a sort of half-ecclesiastical, half-royal title given to the bishops of Durham, who ruled both the souls and the bodies of their flock.

In 1837 the castle changed hands once more, becoming part of the new University of Durham where it now serves as a residence for students and dons.

The castle itself covers three sides of a courtyard - the old inner bailey - and you can clearly trace the additions made by various bishops over time, as each bishop placed his personal coat of arms on the bit of wall he had rebuilt.Durham Castle

To the west of the Gatehouse is the Great Hall, a relic of the 13th and 14th centuries, and now serving much the same purpose as the dining hall for the University. The basement of the hall now houses the wine cellars. Opposite the Gatehouse is one of the oldest parts of the castle, built by Bishop Pudsey (1153-1195).

The gallery of the Great Hall is stuffed with military memorabilia, including relics from the Civil War and the Napoleonic Wars, and portraits of bishops past.

One of the most memorable moments of a visit to Durham Castle is your first site of The Black Staircase. Situated between the Great Hall and Bishop Pudsey's building, The Black Staircase, named for the dark oak of which it was made, reaches 57 feet high. It was originally freestanding; relying on the walls for support, but now it is braced by plain, rounded columns.

The oldest part of the castle still largely intact is the Norman Chapel, built in 1080. There is wonderful stonework here, especially in the carved capitals of the columns. Look for the fascinating scene of a hunt in progress carved upon the northwest column.

One word of caution. The castle keep is not what it seems. It is a copy, built in 1840 by Anthony Salvin to the same floor plan as the original Norman keep. So it can provide little more than a glimpse of what was once one of the most important castles in all of Britain.