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Architectural history


Construction of Durham Castle began in 1072 under the orders of William the Conquerer, six years after the Norman conquest of England, and soon after the Normans first came to the North. 

Building was begun under the supervision of the Earl of Northumberland, Waltheof, until he rebelled against William and was executed in 1076. The castle then came under the control of Walcher, Bishop of Durham, who purchased the earldom and thus became the first Prince-Bishop of Durham. 

The first buildings of the Castle were typical of Norman castles. A motte (mound) and an inner and outer bailey (fenced or walled areas) were constructed. There is still some debate about whether the original buildings were wood or stone. Historic sources mention a keep (fortified tower) of wood but archaeological evidence suggests that even in the 11th century much of the building was in stone. Excavations also suggest that there was an Anglo-Saxon structure on the site before the Norman castle.

Substantial elements of the Norman castle survive to today, incorporated into later buildings, most notably the Norman chapel, the 11th century undercroft below the great hall and the 12th century Norman range on the north side of the courtyard. 

As well as being a military stronghold, the Castle was the Bishop's ceremonial palace. The wealth of the Bishop's estates meant that the Castle could be developed on a grand scale. Original structures were soon superceded by grander buildings. Fire also played it part. For example, following a major blaze in the 12th century Hugh le Puiset (1153-95) rebuilt the west end and upper half of the North Hall. 

Middle Ages

Modifications continued throughout the Middle Ages, with less and less emphasis on military defence and more on convenience for living and display of status and wealth. The Great Hall was first rebuilt and then extended and the keep was rebuilt in stone. The present keep dates from 1840 but it retains the octagonal design put in place by Thomas Hatfield in the 14th century. 

In the 15th century, the extension to the Great Hall was converted to apartments and a new kitchen was created which survives to the present day. During the 16th century major additions were made to the north side of the courtyard including a new chapel and its attendant stair-turret as well as the two storey gallery that leads from the Great Hall to the chapel. 

17th century onwards

Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 a huge amount of work was undertaken by Bishop John Cosin, his most spectacular addition being the great staircase in the north-west corner, known today as the Black Stairs. 

Cosin was the last bishop to make major changes to the architecture of the Castle. When Durham University took over the Castle buildings in the 19th century alterations were made to increase the quantity of student living accommodation. The most important of these was the reconstruction of the keep which took place in 1840. 

More in-depth information on the architectural history of the Castle, including a series of plans and diagrams, can be found on the website for Durham World Heritage Site.

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