27 February 2020, The Tablet

Ruins of medieval chapel found in Bishop Auckland

Ruins of medieval chapel found in Bishop Auckland

A graphic showing the medieval chapel in Bishop Auckland.
Andy Gammon

The ruins of a large medieval chapel, comparable in size and cost to some of the most famous in Europe, have been uncovered in Bishop Auckland.

Destroyed in the 1650s, the chapel was built by Bishop Anthony Bek during his reign as Prince-Bishop of Durham between 1284 and 1310. As Prince Bishop of Durham, Bek had far-reaching rights and powers; to mint coinage, raise armies and rule his territories in the north of England on the king’s behalf.

As well as being one of the most senior churchmen in England, being raised to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem in 1306, Bishop Bek was also a noted warrior, fighting alongside King Edward I in the Crusades and the Wars of Scottish Independence in 1298. He substantially rebuilt Somerton Castle and Auckland Castle, the location of the chapel, and built the “Great Hall” at Durham Castle.

Uncovered at Auckland Castle during a five month dig, the bishop’s chapel was, at the time it was constructed, larger than the royal chapel at Westminster, rivalling continental structures such as Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle in its size and opulence. The foundations of the building indicated that the walls of the chapel were 1.5m thick, 12m wide and 40m long, and further excavations found huge bases for internal columns, buttresses along the chapel’s sides and even part of the floor. Archaeologists found more than 300 pieces of carved stone on the site, ranging in size from tiny fragments to pieces weighing as much as small cars.

The chapel was destroyed with gunpowder charges following the English Civil War in the 1650s, at the hands of the parliamentarian Governor of Newcastle, Sir Arthur Haselrigg. Archaeologists from Durham University and The Auckland Project, the charity that owns and manages Auckland Castle, say that the locations of those charges can be identified from the remaining ruins.

For centuries after the destruction of the chapel its exact location was a mystery, but after years of work by archeologists, surveyors, and researchers, the ruins were excavated and accurate reconstructions of the chapel were composed by analysts. John Castling, Archaeology and Social History Curator at The Auckland Project, praised the historical and architectural importance of the find, saying: “It’s difficult to overstate just how significant this building is”. It’s hoped that the rediscovery of the Chapel will also aid the Auckland Project in aiding the economic regeneration of the wider Bishop Auckland area.

The chapel will be the subject of a special exhibition, featuring items recovered from the ruins, at Auckland Castle, from Monday, 4 March to Sunday, 6 September this year.

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