Archaeologists find long-lost architectural masterpiece inside one of England’s most important medieval fortresses

‘For centuries it has been one of the great lost buildings of medieval England,’ key excavator says

David Keys
Archaeology correspondent
Wednesday 19 February 2020 18:27
Archaeologists find long-lost architectural masterpiece inside medieval fortress

Archaeologists have unearthed one of medieval Britain’s most important architectural masterpieces – the long-lost chapel of northern England’s most powerful medieval rulers, the Prince-Bishops of Durham.

The exact location of the massive 40-metre-long princely chapel was unknown for hundreds of years.

Now archaeologists from Durham University and a local archaeological project have unearthed the chapel’s long-lost remains.

So far, they have found ultra-fine masonry from the chapel walls, delicate stone vaulting from the ceiling, fragments of stone columns, beautiful stained glass and the chapel’s unique black plaster floor.

The finds have enabled them to recreate an image of what the great chapel would have looked like in the later Middle Ages.

The archaeologists have also discovered part of the enamel and copper sacramental bowl used to hold the communion bread during services held there by the Prince-Bishops in the 14th century.

They have also unearthed an image of a kneeling monk – believed to be northeast England’s most famous medieval religious leader, St Cuthbert (whose major shrine is still in Durham Cathedral). It is one of the very few medieval images of him ever found.

Bigger than the Royal Chapel at Westminster (St Stephen’s in parliament) and almost as big as St George’s Chapel, Windsor, it was built by the Bishop and Earl Palatine of Durham as part of his main out-of-town princely castle in the late 13th century.

So powerful was its builder, Prince-Bishop Bek, that one of his leading officials boasted that there were two monarchs in England – the king and the prince-bishop.

But in the end, three and a half centuries later, the great princely chapel, at Auckland Castle, County Durham, was deliberately destroyed with copious quantities of gunpowder by another megalomaniac – a ruthless anti-royalist who craved absolute power, loathed the established church and hated all bishops.

The ultra-intolerant extremist was Sir Arthur Hesilrige, a senior parliamentarian military commander.

The chapel and the castle it formed part of had been in pro-royalist hands – and had been seized by parliament and sold to Hesilrige, the most powerful republican in northeast England, dubbed, in reference to a biblical villain, the “Nimrod of the North” by his opponents.

As an extreme Puritan, he hated the Church of England – and persecuted its clergy, on one occasion evicting a vicar and his family from their home in the middle of the night, hurling their belongings into the local graveyard.

Indeed, one of Civil War England’s leading left-wing democrats, John Lilburne, leader of the ultra-egalitarian Levellers, accused him of “traitorously subverting the fundamental liberties of England and exercising an arbitrary and tyrannical government over and above the law”.

Hesilrige’s conduct – including his acquisition and deliberate destruction of the chapel – is politically important in English history because, along with similar behaviour by other leading Cromwellians, it helped fatally discredit the cause of republicanism and thus helped in its downfall and the restoration of the monarchy.

Stained glass from the long-lost princely chapel. This fragment shows a pelican pecking her own breast – a traditional Christian symbol representing Christ's self sacrifice.

The discovery of the chapel is of substantial importance in terms of the history of northern England.

“For centuries it has been one of the great lost buildings of medieval England,” said one of the key archaeologists involved in the excavation, John Castling, archaeology and social history curator at the Auckland Project, which owns the castle.

“Our excavation of this huge chapel has shed additional light on the immense power and wealth of the Prince-Bishops of Durham – and has helped bolster Auckland Castle’s reputation as a fortress of great importance in the history of England.”

Some of the new discoveries will be put on public display at Auckland Castle from early next month.

The chapel was discovered using sophisticated remote sensing equipment – including ground-penetrating radar and magnetometers – and was funded through the legacy of the late Mick Aston, the well-known TV archaeologist and presenter of the Channel 4 archaeological series Time Team.

Referring to the excavation of the chapel, Durham University archaeologist, Chris Gerrard said “This is archaeology at its very best.”

“Professionals, volunteers and Durham students, working together as a team, to piece together clues from documents and old illustrations, used the very latest survey techniques to solve the mystery of the whereabouts of this huge lost structure,” he added.

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