County Durham in the Middle Ages
It was from the consolidation of his rule after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 that King William I gained the title Conqueror. A national revolt broke out in 1068 when the advent of the fleet of Sweyn of Denmark in the river Humber encouraged Edgar the Aetheling, had taken who refuge in the court of King Malcolm III of Scotland, to invade Northumbria. In 1069 the Conqueror sent Robert Cumin with 700 men northward to take control of Northumbria. The cruelty of Cumin was well-known and on 31 January the local population fell upon him and his men billeted in Durham City. Cumin was burned to death in his lodgings and only one of his followers escaped to tell the tale. King William’s vengeance was swift and the demise of the last Saxon bishop of Durham, Aethelwin, saw the election of Walcher of Lorraine as the first Norman bishop in 1071. The building of the King’s castle at Durham commenced, first the motte and then the keep. After the execution of Waltheof in 1076, Bishop Walcher was given the title of Earl of Northumbria.
In 1093 a new cathedral of locally-quarried sandstone, to replace the Saxon ‘White Church’, was begun by the second Norman bishop, William of St Calais. Even more than the castle, the cathedral was a massive show of Norman imperial power – ‘half castle ‘gainst the Scot’, in Sir Walter Scott’s memorable phrase. Its construction was also architecturally significant in that it incorporated for the first time in Europe high‑ribbed vaulting for its roof, supported by concealed buttresses. The building’s prime function was to house the shrine of St Cuthbert, in whose name the cathedral was dedicated. The pace of building was impressive.
Between 24 and 29 August 1 104 the new basilica received the body of the patron St Cuthbert in the presence of Turgot the prior, Bishop Rannulph Flambard and a great assembly. Simeon the Chronicler records that the brethren asserted the body of St Cuthbert still to be incorrupt, so, perhaps understandably, there was a demand that this should be generally proved. Therefore the shrine and coffin were opened and the abbot of Séez was entrusted to show that the body of the hermit‑saint was whole. The abbot moved the limbs and apparently convinced those present. So the remains of the saint were settled behind the high altar in the cathedral to be a focus for the affection of the inhabitants of County Durham. The shrine became a centre of pilgrimage in England rivalling that of St Thomas a Becket in Canterbury.
William of St Calais was responsible not only for having planned and set in motion the construction of a mighty cathedral. A transfer of sovereign power, justifying or consolidating the term ‘prince bishop’, can also be attributed to him, for in 1093 St Calais was granted a charter by William Rufus allowing him to hold in free alms all those lands in England for which he had previously owed military service to the crown. St Calais, a frequent advisor to the king, was certainly one of the most eminent personages in both Church and State in Norman England.
Durham became a frontier county against the Scots when, in 1136, King David I of Scotland invaded England in support of his niece, the Empress Maud, pretender to the English throne. King David took Norham Castle in Northumberland and progressed with his army as far as Durham. When King Stephen came to Durham in February 1 137 he forced the Scottish king to retire to Newcastle and Norham was given up to the English under peace terms. There was a renewed assault from Scotland in 1138 and Norham was besieged. Geoffrey Rufus, bishop of Durham, remained loyal to King Stephen and unavailable to the blandishments of the Scottish king who, failing to capture Wark, advanced south with his army. Although supported by Eustace FitzJohn, King David was defeated at the Battle of the Standard at Northallerton by Thurston, archbishop of York, and his forces on 22 August. A peace was concluded in which Henry, son of King David, was granted the earldom of Northumberland, though without any claim to the territory of St Cuthbert.
In 1141 King David took advantage of the mortal illness of Bishop Geoffrey to further the cause of his chancellor, William Cumin, to be elected bishop of Durham. The monastic electors proved intractable and on 14 March 1 143 William of St Barbara was elected. Cumin conducted himself as if he were bishop, with all accompanying ecclesiastical and secular authority, and it was not until 18 October 1 144 that Bishop William of St Barbara, with the help of the local barons, Roger Conyers, Geoffrey Escolland and Bertram Bulmer, was able to confirm his position. The intervening period was occupied by secular and warlike manoeuvres.
The consolidation of the powers and extent of the County Palatine was effected by Hugh of Le Puiset whose election as bishop of Durham in February 1153 kindled the resentment of the archdiocese of York. Hugh, in his mid-twenties and already much honoured, was King Stephen’s nephew. He had been chosen by the monastic electors of Durham Abbey without the consent of the Metropolitan, Henry Murdac.
Geoffrey of Coldingham, the medieval chronicler, charged Hugh with being a dissembler and a hypocrite, but it is significant that King Henry II, on his accession in 1154, did not attempt to compel the dismantling of County Durham’s fortified castles which had been a source of tumult in the previous reign. Rather he confirmed the liberties and privileges of the Palatinate: ‘Deo et Sancto Cuthberto et ecclesiae Duneim. et Hugoni epo. et omnibus successoribus suis quietas et liberas et imperpetuum’. (For God and St Cuthbert and the continued peace and freedom of the Church at Durham and Bishop Hugh and all his successors.)
Hugh manipulated the intermittent strife between Scotland and England to his own advantage and the enhancement of his authority, permitting the Scots army under King William the Lion to pass through the county after the failure of the siege of Wark Castle in 1173. As great offices of state came to him, he achieved increasing secular authority and provided a large contingent to assist King Richard I in the Crusade of 1189. His preparations for the expedition were splendid; he had levied funds and had taken the cross as the sign of his intention to conquer the infidel. But his pride was disturbed when the king appointed him a regent to stay at home and maintain the realm, appropriating the collected taxes which were more use than Hugh’s personal service in the conflict ahead.
These circumstances, though, provided an opportunity for Hugh to purchase the wapentake (an area similar to a hundred in the southern counties) of Sadberge on the north bank of the river Tees for £11,000. Included in the bargain were the Lordships of Hartlepool and Barnard Castle, together with – for Hugh’s lifetime – the earldom of Northumberland. It is from this event that the unusual addition of peer’s coronet to the armorials of the See of Durham derives. The See already had the region north to the river Tyne and west to the river Derwent. It was a great estate.
To consolidate his property rights, and in so doing to fill a large gap in national records, Hugh ordered an account to be made of his estate in about 1180. The King’s Commissioners, who had compiled Domesday Book 100 years previously, had not assessed Durham and Northumberland for tax obligations. The new survey listed, by holding, customary dues of money and labour owed to the bishop as a temporal lord of the see of St Cuthbert. The text gives the date 1183 and the first substantial entry is for the settlement of Boldon (just south ofJarrow). Hence the survey’s familiar title, Boldon Book. Boldon was stated to contain 22 villeins, each having 30 acres (enough land to use two plough teams of eight oxen each year) and owing labour to the bishop of three days a week. Further dues of eggs, poultry, grain and wood were imposed, with four days’ work at harvest for the whole household except the wife. Pairs of villeins also had to build a booth at St Cuthbert’s Fair in Durham City. The entry for Boldon provided a model for other communities – ‘sicut villani de Boldon’ often occurs – and a clockwise perambulation of settlements in County Durham was observed before the survey entered Northumberland.
The Boldon Book gives a good impression of the early economy of the Bishopric. To the north a mixed economy of grain and cattle farming prevailed, with grain in the south-east. King Stephen had given permission for Bishop Hugh to mine lead in Weardale allowing him also to extract any silver therefrom. Iron and coal were mined in the west, timber cut and venison obtained in the Forest ofWeardale. High quality coal was being won for the bishop by the end of the 14th century from Whickham and Gateshead which, being on the river Tyne, provided ease of transportation.
Estates held by the cathedral priory of Durham were not included in the survey. In 1083 the community which had grown and established itself around the shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham was replaced, at the behest of Bishop William of St Calais and with papal permission, by monks from the recently (1074) refounded Benedictine house atJarrow. The prior and convent of Durham grew apart in power and authority from their titular abbot, the bishop. By the end of the 13th century the monastic income was over £2,000, and the Benedictine Community had over 100 brethren including those at the dependent houses at Jarrow, Wearmouth and Holy Island.
The establishment of a great monastic house at Durham and the power of the bishop throughout the county set the whole area apart, separate even from central government. The bishop was a great feudal and temporal lord who had courts of his own and his own chancellor to initiate actions therein. (The Chancery court of the County Palatine of Durham was only abolished in 1975, though by that time it was a purely secular jurisdiction with which bishops were no longer associated.)
Anthony Bek, bishop of Durham (1284-1310), Lord (Dominus) of (the Isle of) Man and Patriarch of Jerusalem, strengthened and increased the princely power claimed by his predecessors. A soldier and officer of state, he supported the campaign of King Edward I in 1296 when John Balliol, Edward’s vassal King of Scotland, forfeited his throne for refusing to attend the parliament at Newcastle, and in 1 298 he led a wing of the English army at the Battle of Falkirk, where William Wallace was defeated. Any pretensions of the archbishop of York to a right of visitation were disputed continually by Bek, and he had greedy eyes on the estates and privileges of the prior and convent of Durham. Bek was also a bold politician, and when Ralph Neville and John Marmaduke contested the right of the king to call on men of the Palatinate to do military service outside its borders, the bishop supported them against Edward. Later, he was not slow, however, to invest himself with the forfeited estates of Barnard Castle, Hart and Hartlepool.
The bishops meanwhile proceeded to fund collegiate churches at St Andrew, Auckland (South Church), Norton, Darlington, Lanchester and Chester-le-Street, which provided lucrative incomes for prebendaries (or canons) there as well as opportunities for scholarly work. A further collegiate church was founded in 1410 by the Neville family at Staindrop where Lord Barnard is still lay rector. Bishop Richard de Bury is probably the best-known scholar bishop of the Middle Ages; his tract, Philobiblon, ‘On the Love of Books’, has a timeless charm. The monastic regime at Durham included scholarship, writing and teaching. A monastic college was established at Oxford – Durham College, which after the dissolution was refounded as Trinity College. The cathedral’s own teaching of novice monks and the opportunity provided for the chaplains of the 15th-century chantry of Bishop Thomas Langley to teach poor children has been continued in Durham School and Durham Chorister School.
Two hospitals from the Middle Ages still survive as flourishing, working and charitable bodies today. Bishop Hugh of Le Puiset founded Sherburn Hospital near Durham, in about 1 181 when leprosy was prevalent in Europe, to care for 65 sufferers and also probably to care for pilgrims on their way to Durham. Bishop Robert Stichill founded Greatham Hospital in the south-east of the county in 1273 for 40 brethren – ad infirmorum etpauperum inopiisprovidendum. A further hospital had been founded in 1112 by Bishop Rannulph Flambard at Kepier (one mile north of Durham) where the gatehouse building still stands.
The bishops also improved ease of passage, particularly for pilgrims, by the provision of bridges, tolls from which could be used towards their repair. The building of Framwellgate Bridge in Durham City was traditionally associated with Bishop Flambard. Elvet Bridge took the road south from Durham and was built by Bishop Hugh of Le Puiset. Both bridges had to be restored and altered by Bishop Richard Fox in the late 15th century. Yarm, Croft and Winston bridges provided access into the county from the south. (The old tenure sword, the 14th-century Conyers Falchion was, until the middle of the 19th century, presented to a new bishop of Durham as he entered the county across the river Tees at Croft, a ceremony revived for David Jenkins in 1984.) The medieval Tyne Bridge, replacing the old Roman bridge in the mid-13th century – Matthew Paris the historian records the Newcastle upon Tyne fire of 1248— was the joint responsibility of Newcastle upon Tyne Corporation and of the bishops of Durham. The Corporation’s case to have authority over the whole was finally defeated at law in 1416 when Bishop Thomas Langley established his right to the southern third. Demarcation was indicated by two ‘St Cuthbert’s stones’ built into the bridge.
In general, community life of the county grew rapidly during this period, with improvements and maintenance of roads and bridges, although the corporate powers of the towns were kept in rein by the vigilance of the bishops. Markets prospered at Durham (charter of 117980), at Darlington, Barnard Castle, Hartlepool, Stockton, Sedgefield and Staindrop, and in Weardale at Wolsingham. Leland, though, in his itinerary of 1540, records that ‘Woulsingham market, in Weredale, is clean decayed, for none repayre thither with ware or intayle on the consuete day’. Trade was organised in Durham City through guilds: skinners (1327), grocers (1345), mercers (1393), salters (1394), weavers (1450), cordwainers (1458), barber-surgeons (1468), butchers (1520), carpenters (1530), plumbers (1532), barkers and tanners (c.1540) and drapers (1549). Eight of these guilds have survived into the 20th century.
The stability of the county and its local communities had prospered as the danger from northern incursions faded. In October 1346, however, in the early years of the Hundred Years War and a couple of months after the Battle of Crecy, the Scots army under King David II invaded, taking advantage of the absence of King Edward III in France. The result was that King David was captured and his army routed by the English under Ralph Lord Neville, his son John, and Lord Percy, and ‘by the mediation of holy St Cuthbert’. A western suburb of Durham City is named after the site of the battle – Neville’s Cross. The emblems of victory, the banners of Ralph and King David, and the Black Rood from Edinburgh (a Scots national talisman), were ceremoniously set up near St Cuthbert’s shrine in Durham Cathedral.
The Black Death, the ‘prima pestilentia’, which ravaged the Palatinate from 1 349 to 1350, during the episcopate of Thomas Hatfield, was particularly violent in south-east Durham. It left the peasants ruined and disheartened, and gave the coup de grace to the old system of serfdom and labour rents. Stewards found themselves unable to let the land at anything but a paltry rent. Often holdings were untilled and villages were abandoned. Tenants became insubordinate and, despite fines, were reluctant to accept wages at the level customary in 1347 as laid down in the statute of 135 1. The authority of the Halmote Court (landlord and tenant) was increasingly disregarded and the sense of community holding within a vill was less of a binding force.
Through the influence of the Durham branch of the Neville family, Lords of Brancepeth and Raby castles and with great possessions in the western half of the county, Durham was a Lancastrian stronghold during the Wars of the Roses. Surprisingly, during this period the county was free of conflict other than the continuing struggle to uphold the rights of the Palatinate. Thomas Langley, bishop for over thirty years, disputed the authority of a Commission from the King’s Chancery to take an inquest at Hartlepool, and the bishop’s princely rights between Tyne and Wear were confirmed by Parliament.
In 1477 Richard, Duke of Gloucester, took possession of Barnard Castle, which became one of his favourite residences. Three years later he was appointed commander-in-chief of the northern forces against the Scots, and became popular in the Palatinate, while Henry, Duke of Richmond, was appointed the king’s Lieutenant-General north of the river Trent in 1522. Thus were the seeds sown for the development of the Council of the North and the dissipation of Palatinate powers.