EVIDENCE of the opulent and ostentatious lifestyle of the
powerful prince-bishops of Durham has emerged during excavations at
Auckland Castle, the Bishop of Durham's palace.
An archaeological dig in the walled garden has unearthed the
stone base of an 18th-century pineapple pit, a forcing house for
the exotic tropical fruit.
At the time, it was the rare, must-have delicacy for every
wealthy household. Contemporary reports suggest that pineapples
sold for the equivalent of £5000 each. Auckland Castle had space
for 400 plants.
The archaeologist who discovered the pit, Harry Beamish, said:
"The pineapples would have been used for decoration as well as
consumption. For the bishops, it would have been the kudos of being
able to successfully produce something way out of its normal
climate zone that appealed."
Christopher Columbus first found the exotic fruit in the
Caribbean in 1493. They were such a novelty that, in 1675, Charles
II had himself painted receiving the first one cultivated in
The Auckland Palace pinery (as the hothouses were called) was f
irst recorded in 1757. It comprised two buildings, both about 60
feet long and 18 feet widee, one nurturing young plants, and the
other forcing the fruit. The potted plants were plunged into a
trench filled with either manure or tanner's bark, which produced
heat as it rotted. A hypocaust system beneath the pit, heated by a
coal-fired furnace, raised the temperature higher.
"This is the sort of state-of the-art technology that gentry
would be expected to have in their gardens," Mr Beamish said. "It
was a huge investment to build the pit and an expensive process -
even then, with cheap labour - to run it effectively. You would
need to be a prince-bishop to keep it running - and be sitting on a
coalmine somewhere on the estate to keep it fired up."
The prince-bishopric was established by William I, who combined
the region's top temporal and spiritual positions into one, to run
a semi-independent buffer state between England and Scotland. "The
idea of a bishop of the Church of England living in such luxury was
par for the course at the time" Mr Beamish said.