Once upon a time, in the 13th century, in the grounds of Auckland Castle, there stood a mighty northern chapel that was almost as large as St George’s at Windsor and bigger than St Stephen’s Chapel at Westminster. The Prince-Archbishop Antony Bek was its founder, a man so powerful it was said by some that England had two rulers, the Archbishop and the King. Bek came from a family of knights in Eresby, Lincolnshire, and studied at Oxford with his brother, Thomas. Later, he joined the church where his qualities attracted the attention of King Edward I. He was at this time Archdeacon of York, and he went with Edward on Crusade, after which he became Constable of the Tower. In 1283 he was elected Bishop of Durham and thereafter journeyed on many diplomatic missions for King Edward, although they eventually fell out over a dispute with the Prior of Durham, during which Bek excommunicated the unruly Prior. Unfortunately for Bek, the King wasn’t as unhappy with Prior Richard de Hoton as he seemed to be with Bek, and it was Bek’s own lands that ended up confiscated–but he shortly had them returned. But de Hoton was still not happy with the situation and continued to press various charges against Bek–including that of imprisoning a royal messenger. Bek lost his lands over such a serious offence for the second time…but was saved from further action against him when the old King died.
Despite his fall-out with his monarch, Bek officiated at Edward I’s funeral, and the new King, Edward II, soon restored all his lands. Having being made the Patriarch of Jerusalem by Pope Clement, Antony Bek was now top of the heap in the hierarchy of the English church. This gave him time and ability to enjoy his abode at Auckland Castle with its massive, ornate chapel. Building had begun around 1300 at a cost of £148.
Unfortunately the grand chapel was destroyed at the end of the Civil War by Sir Arthur Hesilrige, a ravening Puritan of a decidedly unpleasant disposition, who blew it up with gunpowder, levelling it until there was nothing visible above ground. He then built a mansion out of the fragmented ruins of the castle…but in turn that was pulled down and a new castle built in medieval style at the time of the Restoration. That chapel in that was in fact made from the remnants of the great hall.
The location of the original chapel remained lost for centuries…until 2020, when archaeologists finally discovered the hidden remains of the destroyed building. Broken fragments of columns, chunks of buried masonry, a rare, unusual black floor, fan vaulting and even a copper communion bowl were all found during the dig…but perhaps the most important treasure found was the statue of a kneeling monk, thought to be St Cuthbert, the famous northern saint whose shrine was of great importance and can still be visited in Durham Cathedral today.
Born in the 7th c Cuthbert was an Anglo-Saxon monk, bishop and hermit whose cell was on the remote Inner Farne Island near Bamburgh. He had a special significance to the people of northern England. When the Prior of Durham had a vision of Cuthbert before the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346, Cuthbert’s banner was carried aloft before the army. After that, it was borne frequently into any battles against the Scots. Saint Cuthbert was one of Richard III’s favourite saints, possibly one of the most important, and at the creation of his son, Edward of Middleham, as Prince of Wales, the banner of Cuthbert was displayed prominently alongside that of Saint George. I have no idea if Richard ever visited Auckland Castle and its chapel but as it is only approximately 15 miles away from Barnard Castle, I expected he did at one time or another as Duke if not as King.
ARTICLE ON THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL FINDS AT AUKLAND CASTLE: