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Radar helps archaeologists discover long-lost chapel

25 February 2020

Jamie Sproates, courtesy of The Auckland Project

The site of an archaeological excavation of Bishop Antony Bek’s Chapel at Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland. See gallery for more images

The site of an archaeological excavation of Bishop Antony Bek’s Chapel at Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland. See gallery for more images

ONE of the most important religious buildings in medieval England has been rediscovered.

For the past several centuries, its exact location had been a mystery, and historians had no idea of its exact size or design. After the site’s rediscovery, however, they have been able, for the first time in almost 400 years, to recreate an image of the long-lost structure.

The remains of the building — a huge and rare private princely chapel, larger than even St Stephen’s Chapel at the Palace of Westminster — have just been unearthed adjacent to a 17th-century Bishop’s Palace, Auckland Castle, in County Durham.

The Palace (and the medieval fortress which preceded it) was the principal out-of-town residence of the Prince Bishops of Durham for about 600 years. Then, between 1832 and 2010, it was the main official residence of the Bishops of Durham, and still houses some of the episcopal see’s offices.

The rediscovered chapel is 40 metres long and 12 metres wide. The archaeologists have, so far, found masonry from the chapel’s walls, stone vaulting from the ceiling, fragments of stone columns, stained glass, and the chapel’s unique black plaster floor.

© Andy Gammon 2019 A reconstruction image shows an aerial view of of Bishop Bek’s 14th-century chapel at Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland

The archaeologists have also discovered part of the enamel and copper pyx used to hold 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 north-east England’s most famous medieval Christian episcopal figure, St Cuthbert, whose shrine is in Durham Cathedral. It is one of the very few medieval images of him ever found.

They have also unearthed an enigmatic 17th-century gold finger-ring, which probably belonged to a woman or a child. It bears the inscription (in French) declaring the wearer’s commitment to “lamente jusqu’a la [fin]” (“lament until the end”.

The unearthed chapel was built by the Bishop and Earl Palatine of Durham, Antony Bek as part of his main out-of-town castle, in the late 13th century. He wielded both ecclesiastical and secular power, and was, indeed, so powerful that one of his leading officials boasted that there were two monarchs in England: the King and the Prince Bishop.

Between the late 13th century and the 17th century, some of the most significant figures in the land visited Auckland and worshipped there, including Edward III, James I, and Charles I.

The chapel was destroyed with the help of gunpowder in the mid-17th century by the property’s owner, Sir Arthur Hesilrige, who was an arch-opponent of Charles I’s Church. An ardent Puritan, Hesilrige was a senior Parliamentarian military commander and the most powerful republican in north-east England. He was dubbed the “Nimrod of the North” by his opponents.

Jamie Sproates, courtesy The Auckland Project A large springer from the top of a column, excavated from the chapel site

The chapel, and the castle of which it was a part, had been in royalist hands. It was seized by Parliament and sold to Hesilrige. The destruction of the chapel was consonant with his attitude to the Church. Ultimately, though, it helped to discredit fatally the cause of republicanism, leading to the restoration of the monarchy.

One of the key archaeologists involved in the excavation, John Castling, Archaeology and Social History Curator at the Auckland Project, which owns the castle, said: “For centuries, it has been one of the great lost buildings of medieval England. 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 4 March to 6 September.

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, presenter of the Channel 4 archaeology series Time Team.

Professor Chris Gerrard, of the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, 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.”


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