I have very vivid memories of visiting Auckland Castle as a sixth form student beginning to wonder about my vocation to the ordained ministry in the Church of England. At a young people’s gathering in the Throne room of this imposing building I remember the Bishop of Durham, John Habgood, addressing us in a simple and direct way and asking us to consider how best we could use our lives for God. In retrospect this may well have been a significant turning point for my life decisions. In a recent visit to the north-east my sister very kindly drove me over to Bishop Auckland to see the Castle.
Auckland Castle is one of the UK’s most important historical buildings. Since the days of the Norman Conquest in the 11th Century, Auckland Castle has been a seat of power. For almost 900 years, it has been the palace of the Prince Bishops of Durham and although the site where Auckland Castle now stands has seen numerous changes, few will have been as far reaching and visionary as those which are set to take place in the 21st Century.
In recent times church commissioners came into some controversial conflict following a decision to move Bishop out of the Castle into a more manageable house. This plan included the selling of thirteen paintings by Spanish master Francisco de Zurbaran. They were rescued by the philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer who has established the Auckland Charitable Trust in 2012 with the aim of restoring the Castle, its art collection, the Deer Park and gardens to their former glory, ensuring they remain open to the public for generations to come. The Trust’s ambitions are high – and if we are to achieve them we will need to raise well over £10m to fund the restoration and redevelopment of the site.
I was very glad to visit be Castle and share with you some of my photographs which give you a flavour of this extraordinary building.
Here are some pictures of the Chapel;
This is the largest private chapel in Europe. It started life in the 12th Century as a Banqueting Hall, complete with buttery, wine cellar and minstrel gallery. The Castle’s original chapel, which stood from the 13th to 17th century, was demolished following the Civil War (1642-51) when the Prince Bishops lost their power, however by the end of the 1650s, the Restoration changed the political landscape again. Bishop John Cosin arrived in 1660 and set about rebuilding and renovating large parts of the Castle site.
One of his first tasks was to convert the Banqueting Hall into what you now see as the Chapel. It was consecrated on St. Peter’s Day, 1665.
In 1828 Bishop Van Mildert raised the side aisles. In the 19th century Bishop Lightfoot added stained glass windows and a reredos of carved oak sitting on a Frosterley marble plinth.
The heraldic shields and the six angels, which rest upon the supports of the roof of the old Banqueting Hall, were added by Bishop Lightfoot the 1880s. He also added tined glass into the windows; however some of the Chapel windows date back to Medieval times when Bishop Bek was at Auckland Castle.
It was the Throne room that brought back very vivid memories for me – and thinking back visit must have been in 1978 ! This imposing room is a sign of the power of the Prince Bishops. As you enter, you are faced by the Bishop’s Throne. The Throne is very clearly a chair of state; wide, heavy and ornately carved.
Behind the Throne there is an ornate plaster screen depicting the arms of the Diocese supported by a crook and a sword, and surmounted by a bishop’s mitre rising from a coronet. This signifies the status of the northern Bishopric as though it should be worn by a king or queen. The use of a sword also shows that the Prince Bishop had power which extended beyond the Church to securing and administering the secular law.
Around the walls of the room hang portraits of some of the successive bishops. The two portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence of Bishops Barrington and Van Mildert are impressive, as is the portrait of Bishop Westcott painted by George Richmond. There are also portraits of some of the more recent Bishops, Michael Ramsey, David Jenkins and Michael Turnbull.
And finally various pictures including the Zurbaran in the dining room and the Spanish room.
This is a fantastic projects and well worth visit and indeed a detour if you’re in the area.