Finding the Prince-Bishop's Chapel

by frankbeswick

Archaeologists have uncovered the site and remnants of the long-lost chapel of the Prince-bishops of Durham.

The episode of vandalism that led to the destruction of the famed mediaeval chapel cannot be ascribed to Henry the Eighth, but to puritan extremists during the brutal tyranny of the Commonwealth, when Britain became a republic under Oliver Cromwell.But the chapel left traces in the ground and now generously funded archaeologists aided by local volunteers have discovered the remains with some precious, though sadly broken pieces. Is restoration possible?

Image courtesy of MarkMurphy of Pixabay. It shows the tower of Durham Cathedral

The Prince-Bishops

The nation was saddened when the genial archaeologist and television personality Mick Aston died suddenly, but as a man who studied the traces of the past he left his own impact on archaeology, which included a generous legacy to fund research.The legacy funded a dig at Auckland Castle in County Durham, sometimes known as Auckland Palace, official residence of the Anglican bishops of Durham, the most senior clergy after the two archbishops, Canterbury and York.  

So where is Durham? It is England's second most north-eastern county, just south of Northumberland. In the war-torn history of the county it has seen Viking raiders come and go and in the eleventh and twelfth centuries massive Scottish raids, during one of which in 1069 the population of the county town of Durham sheltered in the Cathedral while the Scottish horde approached until they were rescued by an advancing Norman army. This is an early instance of the Prince-bishops taking responsibility for security in the area.

From Norman times the bishops of Durham had special status, for the bishop was not merely a spiritual ruler, but a temporal one. He was earl palatine of Durham, a non-hereditary position responsible for civil government. The title palatine denotes responsibility for tax collection. The bishops dwelt at Durham Castle, a place of safety against Scottish [and English] raiders, but in the late thirteenth century they moved from the drafty castle to a newly-built Auckland [Northern English for Oakland] Palace. [The English raiders were the clans of the north Pennine hills and the Cheviots, who lived in a state of constant clan warfare, preying on both Scots and English.] 

In 1283 Antony  Bek became Bishop of Durham, and was the most famous of the Prince-bishops.He had been on crusade and represented the king in dealings with the Scots,including William  Wallace, the renowned Braveheart. The new palace was near his deer park,whose meat was to provide food for his guests and extensive staff.It was said of Bishop Antony that there were two monarchs in England, King Edward the First and Bishop Antony. It was Antony who constructed Auckland Palace and the great chapel.It was just smaller than the chapel at the king's residence at Windsor Castle, a great national treasure. 

The beautiful edifice survived the depredations of Henry the Eighth and the attentions of iconoclastic Protestants, possibly because its prince bishop was so powerful and maybe because the Durham area was very Catholic  in sympathy, and the Stewart dynasty that succeeded the Tudors was uninterested in destroying anything, but its destruction was only delayed, for a second wave of fanaticism struck the country culminating in the mid seventeenth century.

The Nimrod of the North.

Sir Arthur Hesilrige

By the mid seventeenth century England was a religiously divided nation. Most people were religiously moderate and divided between mainstream Church of England, an Episcopalian church that attempted a half way house between Protestantism and Catholic ideas, and surviving Catholicism, which was still strong in Durham.  These people were generally monarchists. But there were also Puritans, believers in a strong form of Protestantism derived from Calvin. [It was people of Calvinist persuasion who operated at Salem, Massachusetts.]They formed a group within the Church of England, but also there were  some dissenters who worshipped independently. All disagreed with bishops. They detested statues and imagery in churches, and thought that the Catholic mass was an abomination. Christ, for them was merely symbolically rather than really present in the Eucharist. Cromwell was a Puritan, and after the English Civil War, when he and his Puritan parliamentary forces won, the Puritans were in power. It was a government of extremists. 

One of the worst extremists was Sir Arthur Hesilrige, nicknamed the Nimrod of the North, after a great biblical villain from Genesis. Nimrod was said to have been a mighty hunter, and  Hesilrige hunted Catholics. He also hunted people whose religious sympathies deviated too much from his own.Once the Puritans attained power he, as is common with extremists, was let loose upon areas under his influence.Once, he chose midnight to evict a Church of England minister and his family, throwing their belongings into the local graveyard. 

But his first target was the captured king, Charles the First. Hesilrige was one of the ones who signed the king's death  warrant. With Charles safely dead Hesilrige turned his attention to indulging his anti-Catholic principles. Unfortunately,  in his direct line of sight was the prince-bishop's chapel. So full of hatred for anything Catholic, whether surviving or residual, was he that he persuaded his fellows in Cromwell's government to sell him the chapel, and acting on the principle that you can do what you like with your own property, purchased gunpowder and simply blew up the chapel and the bishop's  palace.. One hesitates to think what his wife thought of his spending their money on an unnecessary and wanton detonation,but I suspect that she had no say in the matter.Down went centuries old paintings and elaborate carvings; the ancient stones were borne away for use in secular constructions; and the site became part of the palace grounds, lonely and desolate, a relic of an earlier age when men and women worshipped God through art.

But the Puritan regime did not last. Hesilrige turned against Cromwell and his political actions inadvertently paved the way for the monarchy's return. So unlike the other signatories to the death  warrant, his life was spared. He was imprisoned in the tower of London where he died in 1661.The new bishop of Durham then regained the palace and restored it. But the old chapel was left unrestored, while a new one was put in place. Slowly, over the centuries its location was forgotten



 Geophysics is a great boon to archaeologists, for it has given them ground-penetrating radar and magnetometers. It was a radar mapping of the palace grounds that revealed an anomaly, the traces of a structure below the surface.At first the archaeologists thought that as the structure had two towers they were dealing with a gatehouse, a structure known as a barbican which was found on more sophisticated castles. But further investigations revealed that the towers were part of a forty metre-long rectangular structure which had walls 1.5 metres thick. The thought began to dawn on them that the might have discovered the long-lost chapel. 

Their suspicions were soon to be confirmed as the soil began to yield up bits of fine masonry that had once been part of the ornately decorated ceiling;and a rare find emerged, a mediaeval picture of St Cuthbert, a famous saint from North-East England that had somehow survived the various attacks by iconoclasts. This can be given pride of place in Auckland Castle Faith museum, a poignant memorial to what the English Reformation took from the English People. This unique museum explores religious faith in Britain and Ireland through the medium of artefacts. Also discovered was a copper and enamel fragment, what was left of the pyx, a sacred container used for carrying the Eucharist. This sacred remnant had lain undisturbed under the earth for centuries awaiting someone to rescue it.  

A team of experts was assembled to study the chapel. All would have willingly restored it, but restoration would have cost millions of pounds that could be better spent elsewhere.Anyway, the newer seventeenth century chapel was fully usable. So how could the archaeologists turn their excavation into something that would benefit the public? The solution was to use what they had learned to design a scale model with a cut-out roof to enable the public to see inside the chapel. This is an act of imagination, but one based as far as possible on known facts.

Perhaps part of the role of archaeology is to restore what has been lost.When something worthy has been destroyed the archaeologist helps salvage it. A worthwhile pursuit. But any historical study enables us to learn the lessons of the past. The destruction of the Prince-bishops' chapel shows us that extremism is not good, for even now we yearn for what was lost and mourn the impossibility of its restoration. We see that ideological vandalism is harmful.In an age when people are hungering for spiritual nourishment sacred places like the chapel are to be cherished as fountains whence humans draw spiritual and aesthetic sustenance.To be inspired in the present we need to go back to our roots in the past. The Catholic tradition is a  deep wellspring of inspiration. Drink deeply.

Updated: 03/09/2020, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 03/05/2020

Speaking of Hesilrige, I think it worth saying that Calvinists were nearly as keen to persecute Anglicans [Episcopalians] as they were to persecute Catholics. For example, the Scottish Covenanters [Calvinists] violently displaced Episcopalian ministers in Scotland during the seventeenth century.

frankbeswick on 03/05/2020


Veronica on 03/05/2020

Wow Frank. I knew nothing of this.
Your religious and historical backgrounds and interpretations are superb. So much in fact I could just get on a train up to the very far North of England and visit Durham . Ty

blackspanielgallery on 02/26/2020

I meant below the ground, a slip of words, but I believe it also does work below the seafloor.

frankbeswick on 02/26/2020

I did not know that ground penetrating radar could be used below water.

blackspanielgallery on 02/26/2020

I have seen many televised shows where ground penetrating radar was used to find archaeologically significant structures. It s a great tool in seeing below the water.
Great piece to enter Lent with. I did not visit wizzley yesterday since it was Mardi Gras.

frankbeswick on 02/25/2020

Derdriu, you are right, it should have been earl-bishop, but for some reason the title prince became appended to bishop, possibly because of the degree of autonomy that the bishop had. I think that it started out as just bishop

The title prince nowadays belongs only to members of the royal family.But in the Middle Ages it might have been awarded to a senior churchman.Though this is the only instance that I know.

I don;'t think that the chapel site was reconsecrated, but anyway, it was in the grounds of the bishop's palace, which was reconsecrated when it was rebuilt in the seventeenth century. So it was already consecrated ground.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/25/2020

frankbeswick, Thank you for practical informations and product lines.
Did the position always go by the title Prince-Bishop or did it start out as Earl-Bishop? This also makes me wonder whether the various barons, viscounts, earls, marquesses and dukes and their female counterparts are known as princes and princesses. Or perhaps it's just for the Church.
Considering the cause of their dispersal and the length of time underground, was there any special consecrating ceremony for the chapel and recovered components?

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