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18 June 2014
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The Keep
© Durham University
A castle of your own.

A castle of your own.

Durham Castle, so often eclipsed by its World Heritage-status partner, Durham Cathedral, is situated on a hill above the River Wear, and has seen a dramatic change of function since originally being built as a fortress. Today, it is the prestigious home of the University of Durham.

Hear the Master of the Castle explain why Durham Castle is a World Heritage Site.

There has been a castle on the site since 1072. William the Conqueror initially built it, after returning from an expedition to Scotland. It was to be a fortified stronghold for the Bishop of Durham as a status symbol in defiance against the Scots and Northumbrian landowners.

Door knocker
© Durham University
The castle has been threatened only once from a strong force by William Wallace in 1297. However, its military function faded after the union of the English and Scottish crowns in 1603.

There were two early attempts to transform the castle into an educational establishment. After his systematic seizing of religious properties, Henry VIII proposed creating a college on the site. However, his plan was never implemented.

Oliver Cromwell also tried to establish a college during his reign as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, but his son Richard, decided not to risk offending the eminent institutions of Oxford and Cambridge who had expressed disapproval.

Castle walls
© Durham University
The bishops themselves have had a significant influence on the evolution of the castle. This culminated in the establishment of the University of Durham by Bishop van Mildert and the Chapter of the Cathedral in the early 1830s. Their aim was to create "an institution which should secure to its inhabitants the advantage of a sound yet not expensive academic education", for the north of England.

Hear the Master of the Castle explain why Durham Castle was the Home of the Bishops and why it was a northern stronghold for the rulers in London.

However, their motives were not entirely selfless. The 19th Century government disliked the wealth of the Church, so the establishment of a university at the castle site suited the bishops. The State would be unable to confiscate the land, allowing the Church to retain some degree of influence. It would also provide a much-needed new space in which to train the clergy. So the University of Durham was born.

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