Was one of the last shires to be fully incorporated into the English political and legal system, because for centuries it was a palatinate under the jurisdiction of the bishop. It did not receive parliamentary representation until as late as the 17th cent. Geographically the county is of two halves and three rivers. The western half is hilly, the eastern half flat. It has always been mining country, with iron and lead in the hills and coal in the coastal plain. The northern boundary is the river Tyne and its tributary the Derwent; the southern is the Tees. Through the middle flows the Wear from Bishop Auckland to Sunderland.
In Roman times the area formed part of the territory of the Brigantes. After the Saxon occupation, it was part of Bernicia, the northern half of the great kingdom of Northumbria. The county owed its pre‐eminence largely to one man, St Cuthbert, who died in 687 on the Farne Islands and was first buried on Lindisfarne. In 875 the monks were forced by Viking raids to abandon the place and, taking Cuthbert's coffin with them, established themselves at Chester‐le‐Street. In 995, in the face of further raids, they fled once more, taking the coffin first to Ripon, then to Durham, where it has remained. There it attracted the great wealth on which the power of the later bishops depended. The name—Dun‐holm, the island on the hill—reflected the nature of the place, a rocky promontory, almost completely surrounded by a loop of the river Wear.
The region was not included in the Domesday survey and offered fierce resistance to the Norman Conquest. When finally it was subdued, the bishop was given palatinate powers, partly to deal with the local population, partly to resist Scottish incursions. The castle at Durham was begun by William in 1072, blocking the neck of the peninsula: the great cathedral was started in 1093.
Although the coal measures had been worked since the 13th cent., Durham remained thinly populated. Defoe visited the county in the 1720s and was not greatly impressed: Darlington had ‘nothing remarkable but dirt’, and Chester‐le‐Street was ‘an old dirty, thorough‐fare town’. But the industrial, mining, and shipbuilding developments of the 19th cent. acted as a magnet, and by 1891 the county had well over 1 million people. Darlington had grown from a town of 5,000 to 36,000; Gateshead from 8,000 to 85,000; South Shields from 8,000 to 97,000; Stockton from 4,000 to 51,000; and Sunderland, which established itself as a major industrial centre of shipbuilding, pottery, and glass, from 12,000 to 156,000.
Nineteenth‐cent. prosperity was not maintained and the collapse of shipbuilding, mining, and the steel industry led to massive unemployment. The industrial base of the county has diversified, with chemicals at Billingham, car manufacture at Sunderland, and light industry in the Team valley south of Newcastle.
Subjects: British History — Literature.