University College was founded in 1832 when the Bishop of Durham, William Van Mildert, donated Durham Castle, former home of the Prince Bishops of Durham, to become the first college of Durham University. The Castle’s construction began in 1072 under the Normans and has been modified considerably by the inhabitants since. However, 1832 to 1837 saw perhaps the greatest change in its history, as the Castle was converted and the Keep was rebuilt for use as student accommodation. 149 years later, Durham Castle and Cathedral were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first such site in England, as they are the largest and best-preserved examples on Norman architecture in the country. In fact, the Norman Chapel contains the earliest representation of a mermaid in the world!
Over the course of the 19th century, Durham University grew and Castle expanded with it, although by the end of WWI the Castle had rapidly escalating maintenance costs and steeply declining enrolment numbers. The interwar and postwar years were incredibly formative for Castle: the Lowe Library was opened in 1925, fundraising campaigns allowed for major repairs to be undertaken, most notably to sturdy up the Castle’s foundations before it slipped down the banks into the River Wear, and improvements were made to accommodation in and around Castle. This included the purchase of Lumley Castle in 1946 to house students, and its subsequent sale in the 1970s to fund the building of Moatside, an accommodation block a few minutes from Castle. This large amount of investment paid off and numbers returned to a healthy level, with female students being admitted for the first time in 1987.
Since then Castle has continued to thrive as a lively academic, pastoral and social community of more than 700 undergraduates, being the most oversubscribed JCR in Durham. There has also been a huge amount of refurbishment – the Lowe Library basemen
t was created from the college wine cellar, the Great Hall floor was replaced after years of erosion from dancing, the Keep and Junction rooms have been completely renovated, college officers have moved from offices in Garden Stairs to the newly built Fellows’ Garden block, and the Undercroft Bar and common room areas have been extensively updated to allow for more student activities. Despite all of this change, we remain grounded in our history and traditions, though also find pride in being a forward-thinking and outward-looking body that will never allow tradition to obstruct progress. As one of our mottos states, Floreat Castellum – let the Castle flourish!
If you would like to learn more, please take a look at this excellent website which was published just recently: https://stories.durham.ac.uk/durham-castle-history/
The Durham World Heritage Site contains a fantastic plethora of historical detail into Durham Castle itself, and also another resource into the Castle as a college – University College.
Please do also visit University College Durham’s Wikipedia page for a more stand-alone description!