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University College

Our History

Durham Castle is the hub of University College. It is part of the Durham World Heritage Site and a Grade 1 Listed Building. No other college in the British Isles can have a more ancient or impressive home. The Castle was previously the chief residence of the Bishops of Durham and as such played a significant role in the history of the United Kingdom. With the Cathedral, it is still very much an icon of the City and County of Durham.

The present Castle began in 1072 as a simple defensive mound commissioned by William the Conqueror and constructed under the supervision of Waltheof, the Earl of Northumberland, to defend the peninsula formed by the meander in the River Wear. Bishop Walcher built a hall on the site of the present Great Hall, together with the Undercroft and Norman Chapel. The Undercroft now serves as the student common room and bar.

Over the centuries, the Castle has been a residence of the Bishops of Durham who added to the buildings and altered them to suit the needs of the time. Bishop Hugh de Puiset was responsible for the range of buildings now occupied by the State Rooms and Norman Gallery. Bishop Anthony Bek built the present Great Hall in 1284. This was extended in 1350 by Bishop Hatfield and then shortened in about 1500 by Bishop Fox, who was responsible for the medieval kitchens.

During the Tudor period, Bishop Tunstal added the Chapel (1540) and galleries which bear his name. The building suffered considerable dilapidation during the Civil War and Commonwealth (1640-1660) when it was confiscated by Cromwell and sold to the Lord Mayor of London. With the Restoration, the Castle reverted to its role as home of the Bishops of Durham and much work was carried out by the then Bishop, John Cosin (who built the Black Staircase, and contributed significantly to the wider architecture of Durham, including his Library) and the next one, Bishop Lord Nathaniel Crewe.

When the University was founded, Bishop Van Mildert gave the Castle to the University. The Keep, by then a ruin, was rebuilt to provide student rooms. The University has been responsible for the Castle since that time. In the late 1920s it was discovered that the north-west corner of the Castle, and the Great Hall in particular, was in danger of sliding down the steep slope into the River Wear. Major work was undertaken to install new foundations and to tie these to a central concrete plug beneath the courtyard.

During World War II, most of the students in residence belonged to the Durham University Air Squadron and were on short courses before joining the Royal Air Force. In 1953 the Norman Chapel was restored with donations from Royal Air Force associations, the University Air Squadron and others to commemorate those members of the Royal Air Force who were at Durham and who died during the war.

The Castle continues to require major restoration and in the last few years the roofs have been replaced with a grant from the Northern Rock Foundation, and English Heritage has contributed to repairs to the Gatehouse and Norman Arch on Tunstal’s Gallery. A new common room was recently constructed beneath the Great Hall and the Undercroft bar-common room was refurbished in 2008. A major project to refurbish the Keep and Junction rooms was completed in 2012. In addition, the Great Hall was refurbished with a new floor (the old one having become very thin in places), and the restoration of a series of portraits which had long been on loan and were returned and restored to their former location. 

Today, the Castle is the focus of a University College which has grown to nearly 1000 students, and sits at the centre of an academic community and alumni network which stretches around the world.