Auckland Castle: 800 years as a bishop’s palace, and now open to the people for the first time

Auckland Castle, Co Durham, has served as the palace of the Bishops of Durham for 800 years. Now, after a huge restoration programme and large-scale archaeological investigation, it has been opened to the public. John Goodall reports, with photography by Paul Highnam for Country Life.

In March 2022 — following a false start brought about by the pandemic — Auckland Castle opened its doors after an ambitious programme of restoration and research. The work was overseen by The Auckland Project, a trust established by the financier Jonathan Ruffer after he purchased the castle in 2012. Ever since, The Auckland Project has been pursuing the ambitious aim of using ‘art, faith and heritage’ as a means of driving forward the social and economic regeneration of the town of Bishop Auckland, which the castle adjoins. This, therefore, is only the most recent opening to be celebrated here, following the Spanish Gallery (2021), The Mining Art Gallery (2017) and Kynren (2016), an outdoor show about the history of the town. The Faith Museum is due to open in 2023.

Until its recent sale, Auckland Castle had served as a seat of the Bishops of Durham — with one brief interlude during the Commonwealth in the 1650s — for more than eight centuries. These prelates not only enjoyed exceptional wealth, but, as figures with ‘palatine’ or princely rights until the early 19th century, a combination of secular and ecclesiastical authority that was unique in England. One happy point of continuity given this long association is that, despite the sale of the castle, the serving Bishop of Durham still maintains his office in the building (although he lives elsewhere).

Fig 1: James Wyatt’s 1790s screen leading into the forecourt of Auckland Castle. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

The castle stands on a steep-sided hill defined by the confluence of the rivers Wear and Gaunless. In this position, it commanded two crossings on the line of an important Roman and medieval road that cut diagonally across the heart of the Bishopric of Durham to link Barnard Castle with Durham and Newcastle. Coincidentally, this road also demarcated a division between the wealthier eastern districts of the bishopric and the poorer upland areas to the west, of which Auckland formed a part.

Auckland is known to have been a possession of the Bishops of Durham from before the Norman Conquest, but the story of the castle almost certainly begins in the episcopacy of Hugh du Puiset or Pudsey between 1153 and 1195. Bishop Hugh was a nephew of King Stephen, as well as of the Cardinal and Bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois. He also managed to purchase the title of Earl of Northumberland from Richard I, thereby uniting in himself the historic rights of two authorities that had long contended for supremity in the north of the realm.

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Fig 2: Bishop Ruthall’s recycled oriel window. Auckland Castle. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

In about 1183, Hugh commissioned a survey of his estates known as the Boldon Book. It records the obligations of villeins across the upland areas to contribute to the bishop’s ‘great hunt’. It’s an open question exactly what this was, but it may have been an annual event and it was clearly symbolic of his lordship over the area. On the occasion of this hunt, the villeins of ‘Aucklandshire’ were obliged to construct a ‘hall’ for the bishop ‘in the forest’, presumably a temporary building. It was required to be 60ft long and aisled with a central vessel 16ft broad between the posts. The builders were also to provide a buttery, a chamber and privy, as well as a chapel 40ft long and 25ft wide. The villeins of Stanhope, meanwhile, were to construct a kitchen and larder; to furnish the hall, chamber and chapel; and also to carry the slaughtered game back to Durham.

Auckland Castle is almost certainly this temporary hall made permanent by Bishop Hugh, a figure famous for his opulent lifestyle and architectural patronage. As one contemporary, William of Newburgh, quipped, his determination to build on earth gradually eclipsed his interest to build in heaven. Why Auckland was chosen as the site of this building, however, is more difficult to explain.

Fig 3: The Georgian gatehouse that opens towards the marketplace. It incorporates a medieval vault. Auckland Castle. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

We can be almost certain that it was not a place of established importance in the mid 12th century, because it doesn’t figure at all in the complex events of the civil war of the 1140s known as the Anarchy. Instead, two castles were hastily constructed by rival forces only a few miles away at Thornley and Kirk Merrington. That’s hard to explain if Auckland was significant already. Perhaps its rise to prominence was bound up with changes to the important neighbouring baronial castle of Brancepeth or the start of a gradual colonisation of the upland areas (which continued into the 14th century and otherwise partly helps explain the investment by later bishops in this castle).

Whatever the case, there is clear evidence that Bishop Hugh built here. The proof is to be found in the great hall — splendidly reworked with a clerestory and spectacular heraldic roof in the 1660s — that constitutes the architectural centrepiece of the castle today (Fig 7). Some of its detailing, such as the treatment of the arcade capitals, can be closely paralleled in other buildings commissioned by Bishop Hugh, as, for example, the Galilee Chapel at Durham and St Cuthbert’s church, Darlington.

Fig 4: The redecorated Throne Room. The Bishops of Durham enjoyed princely authority and uniquely possessed a domestic throne. Auckland Castle. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

In its present form, the building is one of the earliest and most perfectly preserved masonry great halls to survive in England. In functional terms, the interior has been reversed: the altar stands at the original point of access to the kitchen and services and the dais end of the hall, formerly the site of the high table, is now the chapel entrance. The importance of this latter space explains the architectural enrichment with masonry rings in the piers and the remains of decorative arcades of stone that ornamented the lower register of the wall.

Confusingly, however, the hall is not straight-forwardly a creation of the late 12th century. The rich mouldings of the arcade, the form of the principal windows and the ornamentation of the dais area, point to a substantive reworking soon after 1300 by another of the most assertive Bishops of Durham, Anthony Bek. It was presumably at the same time that he added a new range with a great chamber at right angles to the hall and otherwise transformed both the castle and town.

It is probably to Bishop Bek that we owe the modern plan of Bishop Auckland as a whole. He seems to have created a square, fortified enclosure around the castle, with one major gate opening towards a huge marketplace. All the principal surrounding roads converged onto this space and it was ringed by burgage plots with houses. Between the town and the castle, Bek established a new college of priests: the domestic buildings for the community stood just outside the fortifications and the chapel they served just within them.

Fig 5: The Long Dining Room hung with the full-length portraits of patriarchs of Israel, purchased by Bishop Trevor in 1756. Auckland Castle. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

Excavations undertaken by Durham University as part of the present project have revealed not only the line of the castle enclosure, but the full rectangular ground plan of the chapel, which seems to have served as the parish church of this new planned town. It was a monumental building comprising an upper and lower chapel connected by two spiral-stair towers that flanked the entrance.

The castle continued to grow and develop until the eve of the Reformation and the recent works have also revealed a fine servery screen created by Bishop Fox in the 1490s (very similar to one he built at Durham Castle). There is also a magnificent oriel window bearing the arms of Bishop Ruthall. The Durham Chronicleidentifies its designer as a man called Stranwich and explains that the Bishop intended it for a banqueting house, but died before this was complete, so his successor, Bishop Tunstall, used it in his own building work (Fig 2). Bishop Tunstall also removed richly carved 15th-century stalls from the chapel at Auckland to Durham Castle, where they remain.

The Palatinate of Durham narrowly survived the Reformation, but as a greatly diminished entity. Auckland Castle, by contrast, continued as an admired and intensively used residence. William Camden described the castle in 1607 as standing on a high hill ‘an house of the Bishops stately built with turrets by Anthonie Bec’. Following the Civil War, however, the bishopric was suppressed and the property sold off. Auckland Castle was purchased in 1647 by Sir Arthur Hazelrigg, who reputedly began to prepare the site for a new house. Whether that’s true or not, the castle was clearly badly damaged and, in the 1660s, Bishop Cosin set to work to restore it in the most opulent fashion.

Fig 6: The Breakfast Room. The domestic rooms throughout the castle have been redecorated and rehung. Auckland Castle. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

Hazelrigg and Bishop Cosin between them swept away the southern side of the castle. Again, the recent excavations have revealed something of the extent and scale of the buildings lost at this time, including a large range with towers. Overlaying Cosin’s construction works are extensive 18th-century alterations, which effectively created the Gothic building that the modern visitor encounters. These have been described in detail by John Cornforth (Country Life, January 27 and February 3 and 10, 1972) and John Martin Robinson (Country Life, December 4, 2003).

The castle is approached from the town square through a handsome clock-tower gatehouse in the Gothic style that was designed in 1767 by Sir Thomas Robinson for Bishop Trevor (Fig 3). Nearly everything in the castle cannibalises earlier fabric and this Georgian building recycles a 14th-century vault that probably comes from Bek’s earlier gate. From here, the drive runs across the front of the building and turns through a screen, designed by James Wyatt in the 1790s, into the castle forecourt (Fig 1). Directly ahead is the massive bulk of Cosin’s chapel and, to the left, a range that incorporates Bek’s great chamber and the principal apartments of the building. The main entrance is at the inside angle of the two.

The interiors of Auckland Castle have been completely refurbished in the course of the present project with historic paint schemes and a new picture hang (Fig 6). Each room is presented in a particular period, to trace the domestic history of the bishops in the castle right through to the 21st century.

Beyond the porch with its great 17th-century inner door is a staircase hall and anteroom, which opens into Wyatt’s 1790s Throne Room (Fig 4). Most bishops had thrones or ‘cathedra’ in their churches, but this domestic throne underlines the princely authority claimed by the Bishops of Durham. Beyond this is the Long Dining Room, now dressed with a new canvas floor cloth by Sophie Sarin (Fig 5).

Fig 7: The Great Hall, converted by Bishop Cosin into the castle chapel. This view looks towards the former dais end of the interior, where the high table would have stood. Auckland Castle. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

Hung on the walls are a set of 13 full-length portraits by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán (one of which is a copy of the original), depicting the unusual subject of Jacob and his sons, the patriarchs or founders of the 12 tribes of Israel. The paintings were purchased in February 1756 by Bishop Trevor, who was involved three years earlier in supporting a controversial piece of legislation permitting Jews to naturalise themselves in Britain. He presumably bought the paintings to celebrate this event and subsequently left them to Auckland Castle. They have hung in the dining room ever since.

When, in 2010, the Church Commissioners determined to put the castle on the market, they announced that the paintings would be sold separately from the building. There was uproar at the news. It was this decision, and Mr Ruffer’s love of Spanish painting, as well as his desire to be involved in urban regeneration in his native North-East, that spurred him to become involved at Bishop Auckland.

The process of the sale was protracted and the Church Commissioners were lucky to avoid a humiliating fiasco, but it did go through. Seeing the castle as a whole today — and this room still hung with Zurbarán’s portraits — is a reminder that this unhappy episode has ultimately had a very positive outcome: Auckland Castle is revived and accessible. Make sure you visit.

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Auckland Castle. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life