Durham University History

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Durham University History

After the Dark Ages in Europe, the 7th Century saw a flowering of thought and culture in the North East of England. Bede – poet, scientist, historian and the greatest European scholar of the 7th century – is buried in Durham, as is St Cuthbert, who established ‘English’ Christianity from its Celtic and Roman roots.

The Lindisfarne Gospels, ‘one of the great landmarks of human cultural achievement’, were produced nearby and resided in Durham with the body of St Cuthbert until the 16th century when they were removed to London – our ‘Gospel Book’ is returning to Durham in 2013. The ‘Cuthbert Community’ became one of the richest in Europe, with lands extending from the Tyne to the Tees and beyond. This scholarly, monastic community was a precursor of the modern University tradition which spread across Europe and around the world.

Durham’s 11th century Norman Cathedral was built between 1096 and 1130 and is one of the world’s truly great buildings. Durham Castle, now part of the University, dates from 1072 and was the seat of the all-powerful Prince-Bishops who wielded secular and religious power over much of the North of England, with their own armies, system of taxation and coinage – until the end of the Prince-Bishopric in 1832 Durham was effectively a state within a state.

Durham became one of England’s leading centres of medieval scholarship, along with Oxford and Cambridge. Indeed, three Colleges – now part of Oxford University – were founded from Durham (University College and Balliol College, and in 1286 Durham College was run from Durham to train scholars for Durham for 300 years until it became incorporated into the University of Oxford as Trinity College).

Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell’s attempts to formally establish a University for the North in Durham were subsumed by politics and North-South rivalries, and it was not until 1832, as the Prince-Bishopric declined lost his powers, was Durham finally endowed with the Castle and lands and granted degree awarding powers by the king as England’s third University. Durham University is the inheritor of a continuous line of learning and scholarship dating from Bede and Cuthbert to the present day.