IT is a thousand years since Ranulf Flambard (1099-1128) reigned in Durham, but the results of his decisions stare many of us in the face every day, and his life story is amazing, as befits the son of a one-eyed sorceress.

He came from humble stock – his mother was said to be a witch who did not have the full complement of eyes – from Bayeux in France, and he was obviously very clever, very cunning and very ruthless.

His surname means either “torch-bearer” or “incendiary” – he could have carried a torch for an important person or, more likely, he had a fiery personality.

The Northern Echo: Shaun Howey On Durham riverbank looking up at framwellgate bridge.Shaun Howey On Durham riverbank looking up at framwellgate bridge.

His skills were so hot he rose under William II to become the king’s chief treasurer – he was always coming up with new ruses to extort taxation from people. In London, On the positive side, he built London’s first stone bridge and the outer walls of Westminster Hall, which still stand as part of the House of Parliament.

In 1099, aged about 40, he bribed the king with £1,000 to make him Bishop of Durham.

Unfortunately for Flambard, next year William was killed in a freak hunting accident, and his younger brother, Henry I, seized the throne. On August 15, 1100, Flambard was arrested on charges of embezzlement and thrown in the Tower of London.

The Northern Echo: A view of Palace Green and Durham CathedralA view of Palace Green and Durham Cathedral

However, on February 13, 1101, he became the first prisoner to escape from the Tower – and no prisoner ever got out in a more ingenious way.

His friends sent a flagon of wine to his cell with a rope hidden inside. He gave the guards the wine, who became so drunk, they fell asleep.

He then abseiled out of the window on the rope down to where his friends – including his mum – were waiting with horses. Off they cantered to France, from where the bishop organised an invasion against the king.

The invasion was unsuccessful, but Henry I allowed him to return to Durham – perhaps to keep him out of trouble.

Flambard turned his inventive mind to the North-East. He built Norham Castle overlooking the Tweed in Northumberland to keep the Scots out, and he fortified the peninsula at Durham with the castle and a surrounding wall.

He carried on the work started by his predecessor, Bishop William de St Calais, on building the cathedral, and in 1104, he oversaw the removal of St Cuthbert’s remains from a temporary chapel into the shrine where they lie to this day.

The Northern Echo: Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster, started in 1097..Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster, started in 1097..

A busy market was on the uneven ground between the cathedral and the castle until Flambard ordered that it be moved to its current location – he founded the church of St Nicholas, the patron saint of merchants, beside it.

He then levelled the land into Palace Green, and so he created what is today a world renowned view.

In1128, he built Durham’s first stone bridge, Framwellgate, because, under his guidance, the city was expanding over the river. His bridge had five or six arches and was largely swept away in 1401, although one of his arches is believed to survive inside the bridge on the city side.

According to one critic, the bishop was "addicted to feasts and carousals and lusts; (he was) cruel and ambitious, prodigal to his own adherents, but rapacious in seizing the goods of other men".

He had several children with his mistress, Alvera, whom he allowed to marry a nobleman in Huntingdon. Whenever travelling between London and Durham, he found it convenient to stay at their house in Huntingdon, and there’s a story about a quick-witted teenage girl locking him out of bed chamber to escape his advances.

Under him, deer-hunting in Weardale was a great, annual spectacle. The men of Auckland had to build a grand but temporary hall for him in the forest, 60ft by 16ft, with a butlery and a buttery hatch, plus a chapel, 40ft by 15ft. The dalesmen joined him on the deer hunt and were expected to sleep in the hall, ready for more action the following day.

When he was ready to leave, the carried his possessions for him, and in return there were allowed a tun of ale – if there was any leftover.

He died in Durham on September 5, 1128, and was buried in the chapter house beside the cathedral. His grave was opened in 1874 and his skeleton was found to be intact – he stood, 5ft 9ins tall.

Flambard’s vision of Durham lives on, and several streets in the county are named after him. In London, the capital’s “wildest sky-high destination”, Savage Garden, which looks down on the Tower, has a signature Flambard cocktail (rum, pineapple, cucumber, champagne and wormwood – £18) to celebrate his alcohol-infused escape from prison.