Archaeologists have long known that the remains of a chapel built around 1300 are hidden somewhere on the grounds of Auckland Castle in northern England. But the exact site was lost to history until recently, when researchers discovered traces of the house of worship, including walls with fine masonry, fragments of stone columns, fragments of stained glass and parts of the floor. Now, after years of excavation, the Auckland Project—the entity that owns the County Durham castle—is finally unveiling its findings.
“For centuries it has been one of the great lost buildings of medieval England,” John Castling, archaeology and social history curator at the Auckland Project, tells the Independent’s David Keys. “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.”
The team first uncovered sections of the chapel in 2016, according to the Auckland Project. Then thought to be part of a castle gatehouse, the ruins were later identified as part of a surprisingly large building. With walls measuring about five feet thick and a total internal length of roughly 130 feet, the structure was larger than the king’s private chapel at Westminster Palace and nearly as large as Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.
But this chapel didn’t belong to royalty—instead, it was built for Antony Bek, a clergyman who was appointed Bishop of Durham in 1283. Bek came from a family of knights and had close ties to the crown: At the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, for instance, he fought alongside Edward I, leading an army of more than 1,000 men against William Wallace and the Scots fighting for independence.
The private chapel at Auckland Castle served as a symbol of Bek’s status, explains Castling to Chris Lloyd of the Northern Echo. Though Bek held the title of Bishop of Durham, Durham Cathedral itself fell under the purview of the Prior of Durham.
“He wants to rule the North-East as an independent kingdom,” says Castling, “and the monks of Durham get in the way, so the chapel is all about his ambition to create a site that isn’t Durham where he can display his wealth and power.”
Per the Northern Echo, the chapel’s lower level was probably open to the public on special religious days. But the second story, which held the bishop’s private quarters, was only available to Bek and his invited guests.
“The upper chapel is far more elaborate, by permitted access only, and Bek had monks and priests saying mass there daily,”says Castling. “It is possible there was a corridor or balcony from the bishop’s private quarters into the upper chapel—he could certainly lie in bed and hear mass, if he wanted.”
The chapel remained in use for the next 300 or so years. But the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642 rocked the British Isles—and led to the dethroning of the bishops.
Artifacts and stones discovered at the excavation site show evidence of burns, leading the researchers to suspect the chapel and castle’s post-Civil War owner, Sir Arthur Haselrigg, a Parliamentarian appointed governor of Newcastle by Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell’s Interregnum government, used gunpowder to raze the structure.
When the royal family was restored to the throne in 1660, Haselrigg was found guilty of “demolition of the goodly chapel” and thrown into the Tower of London.
Materials from the chapel were likely recycled and used in other construction projects, including Haselrigg’s own mansion and St. Peter’s Chapel, which stands on the site of the castle’s original main hall to this day.
“It seems bizarre to think that this giant building has just gone,” Castling tells the Northern Echo. “Now when people visit the castle, they remember St. Peter’s Chapel but if you came here in 1400, you would remember Bek’s chapel.”