The long-lost remains of one of medieval England’s most important Catholic architectural masterpieces have been rediscovered.
For centuries, its precise location had been a mystery – and until now scholars had not known exactly how big it was or even what it had looked like.
However, following archaeological investigations, researchers have now been able, for the first time in around 370 years, to recreate an image of the spectacular building.
The remains of this masterpiece – a vast and extremely rare private princely chapel, have been unearthed adjacent to a 17th-century bishop’s palace, Auckland Castle in County Durham. The newly discovered evidence shows that, in its heyday, it would have been even larger than Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster.
The Auckland palace (and the medieval episcopal fortress which preceded it) was the principal countryside residence of the prince bishops of Durham for some six centuries. Then, between 1832 and 2010, it was the bishops of Durham’s main, official residence – and still houses some of the Anglican episcopal see’s offices.
Data from the excavations have revealed that the medieval Catholic chapel was 130 feet long and 40 feet wide. The dig has so far yielded high-quality masonry from the chapel’s walls, delicate stone vaulting from the ceiling, parts of stone columns, remarkable stained glass and sections of the chapel’s unique black plaster floor.
The archaeologists have also unearthed several artefacts of religious significance.
Among the items unearthed in the excavation have been part of the enamel and copper pyx used to hold Eucharistic hosts. The archaeologists have also found an image of a kneeling monk – thought to be St Cuthbert (whose shrine is still in nearby Durham Cathedral).
The princely chapel was built in the late 13th century by the Bishop and Earl Palatine of Durham, Antony Bek (as part of his princely country castle). Bek was one of English history’s most remarkable churchmen – a crusader, senior diplomat and friend of Edward I. His dual title gave him both ecclesiastical and secular power. He was so powerful that one of his leading officials, his steward, boasted that there were two monarchs in England – the king and the prince bishop.
The castle and chapel he built at Auckland was also historically important. Between the late 13th 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.
Among the most significant Catholic bishops who lived in the castle and worshipped in the chapel was Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall – a hesitant supporter of Henry VIII who later changed his mind and refused to swear the Oath of Supremacy to Elizabeth I. He was arrested and died in custody.
The chapel was a key part of Auckland Castle for some three-and-a-half centuries. But the castle was caught up in the devastation of the Civil War: having been in pro-royalist hands, it was seized by parliament and sold to a senior parliamentarian commander, Sir Arthur Haselrig.
The most powerful republican in north-east England and an ardent Puritan, Haselrig had little respect for architectural heritage. He had apparently been an enthusiastic participant in the parliamentarian soldiers’ vandalism of two important cathedrals, Winchester and Chichester. When Auckland Castle passed into his hands, he blew up the chapel using gunpowder.
In many ways, that moment of destruction symbolised a key phase in England’s ecclesiastical history. The Civil War period was a particularly difficult time for England’s Catholics, who were frequently targeted by parliamentarian troops. What’s more, the parliamentarian government seized vast amounts of property from anybody who could be identified as Catholic. Some Catholics also suffered at the hands of the royalists who often tried to extract money from them.
Yet the vandalism of men like Haselrig probably helped to discredit the republican cause, and lead to the eventual Restoration.
The rediscovery of the chapel was due to sophisticated remote sensing equipment – including ground-penetrating radar and magnetometers. It was work funded through the legacy of the late Mick Aston, the television archaeologist.
John Castling, archaeology and social history curator at the Auckland Project, which owns the castle, rejoiced at the find, saying: “For centuries it has been one of the great lost buildings of medieval England.”
Durham University archaeologist Chris Gerrard said: “This is archaeology at its very best. Professionals, volunteers and Durham students, working 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.”
Some of the new discoveries will be put on public display at Auckland Castle until September 6.
Image copyright: Durham University. Used with permission of the Auckland Project