History of County Durham

(See also article on County Durham)

County Durham is an historical Palatinate county and modern day county in Northern England.

After the death of Ida in the 6th century, the kingdom of Northumbria was divided into the two states of Bernicia and Deira, separated from each other by the Tees, the latter including the district afterwards known as Durham. The post-conquest palatinate arose by a process of slow growth from the grant of land made by Egfrith to St Cuthbert on his election to the see of Lindisfarne in 684. On the transference of the see to Chester-le-Street in the 9th century, Guthred the Dane endowed it with the whole district between the Tyne and the Wear, stretching west as far as Watling Street, a grant confirmed by Alfred; and when in 995 the see was finally established at Durham, the endowment was again largely enriched by various donations.

Durham continued, however, to form part of the earldorn of Northumbria, and not until after the purchase of the earldom by Bishop Walcher in 1075 did the bishops begin to exercise regal rights in their territory. The term palatinus is applied to the bishop in 1293, and from the 13th century onwards the bishops frequently claim such rights in their lands as the king enjoys in his kingdom. At the time of the Conquest the bishops possessions included nearly all the district between the Tees and the Tyne, except Sadberge, and also the outlying districts of Bedlingtonshire, Norhamshire, Islandshire and Crayke, together with Hexhamshire, the city of Carlisle, and part of Teviotdale. Henry I deprived the bishopric of the last three, but in compensation made over to it the vills of Burdon, Aycliffe and Canton, hitherto included in the earldom of Northumberland. Sadberge also formed part of the earldom of Northumberland; it was purchased for the see by Bishop Pudsey in 1189, but continued as an independent franchise, with a separate sheriff, coroner and court of pleas. In the 14th century Sadberge was included in Stockton ward and was itself divided into two wards. The division into the four wards of, Chester-le-Street, Darlington, Easington and Stockton existed in the 13th century, each ward having its own coroner and a three-weekly court corresponding to the hundred court. The diocese was divided into the archdeaconries of Durham and Northumberland. The former is mentioned in 1072, and in 1291 included the deaneries of Chester-le-Street, Auckland, Lanchester and Darlington.


Until the 15th century the most important administrative officer in the palatinate was the steward. Other officers were the sheriff, the coroners, the chamberlain and the chancellor. The palatine exchequer was organized in the 12th century. The palatine assembly represented the whole county, and dealt chiefly with fiscal questions. The bishops council, consisting of the clergy, the sheriff and the barons, regulated the judicial affairs, and later produced the Chancery and the courts of Admiralty and Marshalsea.

The prior of Durham ranked first among the bishop's barons. He had his own court, and almost exclusive jurisdiction over his men. The quo warranto proceedings of 1293 exhibit twelve lords enjoying more or less extensive franchises under the bishop. The repeated efforts of the Crown to check the powers of the palatinate bishops culminated in 1536 in the Act of Resumption, which deprived the bishop of the power to pardon offences against the law or to appoint judicial officers; indictments and legal processes were in future to run in the name of the king, and offences to be described as against the peace of the king, not against that of the bishop. In 1596 restrictions were imposed on the powers of the chancery, and in 1646 the palatinate was formally abolished. It was revived, however, after the Restoration, and continued with much the same power until the act of 1836, which provided that the palatine jurisdiction should in future be vested in the crown. There were ten palatinate barons in the 12th century, the most important being the Hiltons of Hilton Castle, the Bulmers of Brancepeth, the Conyers of Sockburne, the Hansards of Evenwood, and the Lumleys of Lumley Castle. The Nevilles owned large estates in the county; Raby Castle, their principal seat, was built by John de Neville in 1377.

Owing to its isolated position the palatinate took little part or interest in any of the great rebellions of the Norman and Plantagenet period. During the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI passed through Durham, and the novelty of a royal visit procured him an enthusiastic reception. On the outbreak of the Great Rebellion Durham inclined to support the cause of the parliament, and in 1640 the high sheriff of the palatinate guaranteed to supply the Scottish army with provisions during their stay in the county. In 1642 the earl of Newcastle formed the western counties into an association for the kings service, but in 1644 the palatinate was again overrun by the Scottish army, and after the battle of Marston Moor fell entirely into the hands of the parliament.

In 1614 a bill was introduced in parliament for securing representation to the county and city of Durham and the borough of Barnard Castle. The movement was strongly opposed by the bishop, as an infringement of his palatinate rights, and the county was first summoned to return members to parliament in 1654. After the Restoration the county and city returned two members each. By the Reform Act of 1832 the county returned two members for two divisions, and the boroughs of Gateshead, South Shields and Sunderland acquired representation. The boroughs of Darlington, Stockton and Hartlepool returned one member each from 1868 until the Redistribution Act of 1885.


Durham has never possessed any manufacturers of importance, and the economic history of the county centres round the growth of the mining industry, which employed almost the whole of the non-agricultural population. Stephen possessed a mine in Durham which he granted to Bishop Pudsey, and in the same century colliers are mentioned at Coundon, Bishopwearmouth and Sedgefield. Cockfield Fell was one of the earliest Landsale collieries in Durham. Edward III issued an order allowing coal dug at Newcastle to be taken across the Tyne, and Richard II granted to the inhabitants of Durham licence to export the produce of the mines, without paying dues to the corporation of Newcastle.

Among other early industries lead-mining was carried on in the western part of the county, and mustard was extensively cultivated. Gateshead had a considerable tanning trade and shipbuilding was carried on at Jarrow.


To the Anglo Saxon period are to be referred portions of the churches of Monk Wearmouth (Sunderland), Jarrow, Escomb near Bishop Auckland, and numerous sculptured crosses, two of which are in situ at Aycliffe. The best remains of the Norman period are to be found in Durham Cathedral and in the castle, also in some few parish churches, as at Pittington and Norton near Stockton. Of the Early English period are the eastern portion of the cathedral, the churches of Darlington, Hartlepool, and St Andrew, Auckland, Sedgefield, and portions of a few other churches.

The Decorated and Perpendicular periods are very scantily represented, on account, as is supposed, of the incessant wars between England and Scotland in the 14th and 15th centuries. The principal monastic remains, besides those surrounding Durham cathedral, are those of its subordinate house or cell, Finchale Priory, situated by the Wear. The most interesting castles are those of Durham, Raby, Brancepeth and Barnard. There are ruins of castelets or peel towers at Dalden, Ludworth and Langley Dale. The hospitals of Sherburn, Greatham and Kepyer (Kepier), founded by early bishops of Durham, retain but few ancient features.


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