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History and Haunting of Durham

Updated on February 8, 2015


There is evidence of settlement around Durham dating back to 2000BC, but the city as is today has been known since AD995. This was when a group of monks from Lindisfarne selected its strategic site as a place to settle. They had with them the body of St Cuthbert, which has previously lain in a church in nearby Chester le Street.

The legend of the city’s founding, given by Symeon of Durham in a 12th century chronicle, says that St Cuthbert’s bier miraculously stopped at the hill of Warden Law and would not move. Aldhun, the Bishop of Chester le Street and head of the order, decreed a fast for three days offering prayers to the saint. One of the monks had a vision from the saint, telling him to take the coffin to Dun Holm. But the monks had no idea where this was. The following day they happened across a milkmaid, just south of where the city is today, and she said she was looking for her lost dun cow which had last been seen at Dun Holm. The monks followed her and settled on a wooded hill-island in a meander of the river. Their settling saw the first building constructed where the cathedral now stands.

Durham Cathedral


Medieval Times

The city rose to prominence due to its connections with St Cuthbert, added to when St Bede the Venerable was also interred there. until the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket, the shrine of St Cuthbert was the most important religious site in the country.

The city was also important due to its strategic importance in defending against the Scots. Durham Castle holds the record of being the only Norman castle keep never to have suffered a breach. Nearby was the Battle of Neville’s Cross which took place in 1346 between the English and Scottish and was the most famous battle of it’s time.

Map of Durham

Durham Cathedral, Durham:
Durham Cathedral, Durham University, The College, Durham, County Durham DH1 3EH, UK

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Crook Hall, Durham:
Crook Hall, Sidegate, Durham, County Durham DH1 5SZ, UK

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Finchale Priory, Durham:
The Bungalows Finchale Abbey F, Durham, County Durham DH1 5SG, UK

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Nevilles Cross, Durham:
Neville's Cross, Durham, County Durham DH1, UK

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Durham Castle


Prince Bishops

Due to its method of founding, the Bishop of Durham had the title of ‘Bishop by Divine Providence’, as opposed to most bishops who are ‘Bishop by Divine Permission’. The Bishops of Durham also enjoyed a large amount of power due to their distance from London and could have their own parliament, raise armies, appoint sheriffs and justices, administer laws, create fairs and markets and many more powers. All of this power was wielded from the castle and the buildings around the cathedral, which is called Palace Green.

From 1071 to 1836, each bishop was a Prince Bishop, though this was not a title they knew in their time. This privilege lasted until 1538 when Henry VIII reduced their powers and ordered the destruction of the shrine of St Cuthbert.

Durham Cathedral from a Distance


Durham Cathedral

Civil War

During the English Civil War, Durham stayed on the side of Charles I and the king visited the city twice during his time on the throne. His first visit was a prestigious one but the second a little less so. He was fleeing the forces of Oliver Cromwell and legend says he hid for a night in the Royal County Hotel on Old Elvet, which is said to be haunted by his ghost.

Under the country’s rule by Cromwell, the city suffered but more because of the abolition of the Church of England and closure of religious institutions relating to it. The cathedral and its Dean and Chapter has always been a major economic force in the city. The castle also saw damage during this time through neglect and Cromwell actually sold it to the Mayor of London. The cathedral was closed in 1650 and used to keep 3000 Scottish prisoners, graffiti from whom can still be seen on stones inside.

After the Restoration in 1660, John Cosin was appointed bishop and undertook a major restoration project including the elaborate woodwork in the cathedral choir, font cover and the Black Staircase. Further work was carried out by his successor, Bishop Lord Nathaniel Crewe.

River Wear


19th Century

The 1832 Great Reform Act saw the end of the Prince Bishop’s powers, though he retained a seat in the House of Lords and is still the 4th most senior bishop in the Church of England.

The first census of the city of Durham in 1801 saw a population of 7,100. The Industrial Revolution had little effect on the city though it was a centre of carpet making and weaving, including famous brands such as Axminster, until 2005.

The founding of the University of Durham came in 1832 due to Bishop William Van Mildert, at which time the bishop’s home was moved to nearby Auckland Castle.

Crook Hall


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Crook Hall

Crook Hall is a 13th century, grade I listed medieval hall surrounded by gardens just outside the city. It combines three periods of architecture in one building; a medieval hall dating from 1208, a Jacobean mansion added in 1671 and a Georgian house added in 1720. The whole property was restored in the 1980s with a circular turret adding to allow an original wooden staircase to stay in place.

This staircase is said to be haunted by a woman in white, who has been seen in other areas of the hall. Legend says she is the niece of a former owner named Cuthbert Billington, who inherited the property in 1615.

Durham Castle

As befits a place with as much history as Durham Castle, there are a few spooky stories attached to it. The Black Staircase is said to be haunted by the ghost of a wife of a Bishop of Durham from the 19th century, said to be Isabella Van Mildert. She was said to have fallen to her death from the top of the staircase and haunts the site of her death since.

Another ghostly story of the castle involves a former student names Frederick Coleman, who was said to have thrown himself from the top of the cathedral after failing his exams. There are legends of a connection with Room 21, though whether this is the room so numbered now or not, is a mystery. Phantom footsteps are said to be heard in his old room as well as poltergeist activity reported by a paranormal group conducting an investigation.

Jimmy Allen’s Nightclub

Jimmy Allen’s was named for a pipe player of note from Northumbria, who became the official piper of the Duchess of Northumberland. He was also a thief and was arrested for stealing a horse in Gateshead and sentenced to death. It was reduced to life imprisonment and spent the last seven years of his life in a cell under Elvet Bridge. He died in 1810 at the age of 1877, a few days before he received a pardon.

The spot where his cell was is now a nightclub and is named for the piper. It is also said that he still visits regularly and after closing time, the eerie sound of pipes is often heard around the building.

Finchale Priory

Finchale Priory is a 13th century Benedictine priory four miles outside Durham but still by the River Wear. The remains of the 12th century stone chapel on the site was the burial place of Godric of Finchale with the monastic complex being added the next century. Godric came to the site and created a hermitage dedicated to St John the Baptist and proceeded to live an ascetic life there for 50 years.

The spooky side of the story comes from the tale of the secret passage which is said to run to Durham Cathedral. The tunnel is said to be haunted by something so terrifying that no-one has survived the journey. Above ground, the priory is haunted by a woman who was murdered with her small child, who she still holds close to her.


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Heckuva good job. I sure apeaicprte it.

    • Angela Tempest profile imageAUTHOR

      Angela Tempest 

      4 years ago from Lanchester, Durham, United Kingdom


    • bearnmom profile image

      Laura L Scotty 

      4 years ago from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

      Although I'm not fond of historical publications, I am interested in old England and the legends that surround the various areas. This one is particularly interesting because of the inclusion of the ghost stories. Voted up and interesting.

    • Angela Tempest profile imageAUTHOR

      Angela Tempest 

      4 years ago from Lanchester, Durham, United Kingdom

      Thanks I love a good ghost story, especially with a bit of history!

    • brutishspoon profile image


      4 years ago from Darlington, England

      Another great and interesting Hub. Durham is a lovely City which I need to get round to visiting again sometime soon. I love your addition of Ghost stories to your hubs as they are a great way to interest people in the places mentioned.


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