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Review: Auckland Castle

Attraction - Castles & places of worship

Bishop Auckland, County Durham, DL14 7NR, United Kingdom

The home of the Prince Bishops and the Zurbaran paintings

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2256 reviews

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  • 2014
  • Husband

58 people found this review helpful

When we first visited Durham fifty years ago, Auckland Castle was very private and only glimpsed through the locked gates of the splendid C18th Clock tower gatehouse. It was the palace of the Prince Bishops for nine hundred years. Since 2010, the Bishop of Durham no longer lives in the castle, although it remains his place of work. The castle is now owned and run by a charitable trust and has recently been opened to the public. If you are expecting a grand palace you may well be disappointed and it is necessary to understand some of the background to begin to appreciate what is being done in the castle.

It all started when the Church Commissioners wanted to sell the Zurbarán paintings in 2010. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of Francisco Zurbarán. We hadn’t until now. He was an important Spanish baroque artist and the paintings were bought by Bishop Trevor in the C18th and hung in the long dining room of the castle to impress his guests. Jonathan Ruffer, a financier in London and a collector of religious art, grew up in the north east and felt this would be an irreparable loss to the region. He bought the paintings with the intention they stay in the palace. He ended up buying the palace as well. He set up a charitable trust with plans to restore the castle and estate, turning it into a major centre for religious art as well as a museum of religion. There is plenty to fill a museum as in the C7th the north east was the cradle of Christianity with figures like Paulinus, Cuthbert, Aidan and Bede living and teaching in the area.

These are grand plans and could cost up to £50 million in developing what may be the largest tourist attraction the region has ever seen. The castle opened last year with 800 visitors. This year there have been more than 6000. It is still very much a work in progress as only the chapel and four rooms are open. When work is finished they are looking at over 100,000 visitors a year. As well as the castle, the trust is wanting to regenerate this deprived area of County Durham by bringing money and visitors into the town of Bishop Auckland. To this end, they have bought two derelict pubs which they are planning to turn into boutique hotels. After years of decline, there is a spirit of hope and enthusiasm in the town again.

The castle is set in extensive parkland along the River Gauntless to the north east of Bishop Auckland. The original castle was built as a hunting lodge by Bishop Pudsey in the late 1100s. Around 100 years later, Bishop Bek moved into the hunting lodge, preferring to live here rather than Durham Castle. He enlarged the building and added new kitchens.

After the Norman Conquest and the Harrying of the North, the Bishops of Durham were granted immense power by the king and acted as political and military leaders to keep the north under control on behalf of the king. The Bishop of Durham was the second most powerful man in the country and was given the title of Prince Bishop. The title was finally abolished in the Reform Act of 1832.

Much of the present building is C17th after a renovation by Bishop Cosin. The original banqueting hall became the chapel and is the largest private chapel in Europe.

The castle reflects the importance of the Prince Bishops and was probably the greatest working episcopal complex after the Vatican. It is a large L shaped building with battlements and crocketted pinnacles, with the glorious clerestoried chapel on the right and the Bishop’s quarters on the left. On the ground floor is the library, now the tea room, with the throne room, long dining room, King Charles Room and music room on the first floor.

Entry is into a long passageway with the ticket desk and small rather basic shop at the far end. This leads to ST PETER’S CHAPEL which is the largest private chapel in Europe. It was originally the C12th banqueting hall. The original chapel was destroyed after the Civil War. After the Restoration of the Monarchy, Bishop Cosin rebuilt the castle and turned the banqueting hall into a chapel. The side aisles were added by Bishop van Mildert in 1828. In the 1880s, Bishop Lightfoot added the heraldic shields and angels on the roof as well as the tinted stained glass windows and the carved oak reredos on a Frosterley marble plinth.

Massive dark wood carved doors lead into the vestibule of the chapel which has a small modern wood font and a memorial to Richard Trevor, Bishop of Durham from 1752-71. An equally massive dark wood carved screen leads into the chapel. High on the west wall is the organ, reached by an open spiral staircase.

The chapel is a splendid building with arcades of multiple round pillars and pointed arches separating nave and side aisles. The pillars are made of sandstone which was originally faced with Frosterley marble. This is beginning to peel off in places resulting in different colours on the pillars.

The plain glass clerestory windows above flood the chapel with light. The C19th stained glass windows in the side aisles show scenes of Christianity being brought to Northumbria and the life of the early church. They begin with the arrival of Paulinus in the C7th and end with Cuthbert

Between the arches are painted angels playing a trumpet, or holding a candle or a censor. On the walls of the side aisles are the coats of arms of the different Bishops and the grave slabs of some of them are in the floor.

Round the walls are massive dark wood pews with carved ends and poppy heads. Seating in the nave is modern chairs. On the side of two of the pillars are large carved chairs used by the Bishop.

The nave ceiling is panelled and brightly painted with bishop’s mitres, angels, lions and eagles.

The altar is a simple table covered with a brightly coloured cloth. On the wall behind it is a glorious reredos. Along the base are paintings of angels set under gilded arches and holding shields with the Instruments of the PAssion on then. Above is a huge carved panel with Christ in Majesty in the centre surrounded by figures of angels, disciples and bishops.

The main entrance to the castle was through the GENTLEMAN’S HALL, a long room with low plaster ceiling and bright scarlet carpet on the floor with white Durham cross motifs. On one wall is a small fireplace and there are paintings on the walls and painted wood coats of arms. It is simply furnished with tables around the walls. At the far end is the grand staircase, which divides into two at the top and is supported by plaster pillars with gilded carved capitals. staircase at the far end which divides into two at the top. On the walls are two paintings of the Castle at the end of the C17th. There is a lovely view of the river from the windows at the top.

At the top of the staircase, a set of big carved doors lead into the ANTE ROOM before the throne room. This was used as a waiting room for people seeking an audience with the bishop. Bishop Barrington commissioned twelve chairs for use in the ante room with his coat of arms and that of the Bishopric of Durham on the back. These are now in the throne room.

The anteroom is now empty apart from the frame of the Paradise State Bed, which is made from white oak and was probably made in Germany. The bed frame is now covered with a very dark C19th varnish but would originally have been brightly coloured. The bed is said to have been commissioned for the wedding of Henry VIII and Elizabeth of York in 1486. The bed is definitely Tudor although there is no evidence to support this claim. At the time it was customary to create a bed for a royal wedding which then became the centre piece of the state apartments. The four small lions at the top of the posts are held in position by cast iron screws and may be the earliest example of the use of screws on a piece of furniture. The bed was designed to be dismantled and moved around by the owner.

Another set of carved doors lead into the THRONE ROOM, a long, rather bare room. The walls are pale cream with narrow cylindrical wall pillars leading up to the pale blue vaulted ceiling. At the far end is the Bishop’s throne set beneath an elaborate plaster canopy. On the back wall are the arms of the Diocese of Durham with those of Bishop Barrington who was responsible for the design of the room. The arms are set on a crosses crook and sword, reflecting the religious and military roles of the Prince Bishops. Above is the ducal crown of the Prince Bishops. On either side of the Bishop’s throne are two carved chairs. On the walls are portraits of some of the Prince Bishops. On either side of the fireplace are marble topped tables acquired by Bishop Trevor. The marble came from the tomb of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. The glass in the windows is tinted pale pink, purple and green, intended ‘to make the ladies appear less pale in the bright sunlight.

Doors lead from the throne room into the LONG DINING ROOM which was originally the Bishop’s private dining room. Bishop Trevor extended the room in 1760 to become the state dining room. He wanted a room to display his art collection, especially the Zurbaran paintings, as well as to impress guests. Walls are covered with green wallpaper and there is a green carpet. There is a lovely plaster ceiling with the coat of arms of Bishop Trevor in the centre.

The Zurbarán paintings were painted between 1640-44 and depict Joseph and his 12 sons depicting chapter 49 of the Book of Genesis. They represent Jacob’s death bed blessing of his sons, each of whom went on to found one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Bishop Richard Trevor bought 12 of the paintings with his own money, but was outbid for the 13th. He employed the prominent artist Arthur Pond to make an exact copy of this one. A the time, religious tolerance towards Jews living in England was low and the Bishop’s actions were an appeal for social, political and religious tolerance.

Above the fireplace are two recent acquisitions of C16th paintings by an unknown spanish artist of Simeon and Gad. above the doors are paintings of the four apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, painted by Artus Wolfaerts between 1600-40. There is also an C18th painting of St Francis contemplating a skull. This is English but was painted after the style of Francisco de Zurbarán.

Beyond is the small KING CHARLES ROOM which was originally a state bedroom and Charles I stayed here twice. It later became a small dining room. This is a very intimate room with red wallpaper, white woodwork and plaster ceiling. This has a central sunburst surrounded by foliage. In each corner is a wyvern. The room is now contains an exhibition of the ‘Hidden Treasures of Spanish Art in County Durham’. Examples of Spanish paintings hang on the walls. In a display cabinet is a lovely painted carving of the Pieta and a carved statue of St James the Less.

This leads into the MUSIC ROOM which was part of the private apartments of the bishop. The decorative theme of dark red walls and white paintwork is continued here although the plaster ceiling is less ornate. The room is now furnished with a central oval dining table with silver candelabra. On the walls are more portraits. The room is above the library and large windows overlook the entrance to the castle.

This set of rooms was originally reached by a spiral staircase. This was replaced in the C18th by the Trevor Staircase which leads off the music room. It divided the place into the public areas (throne room and large dining room) and the private apartments with the servant quarters. The staircase became unsafe in the C19th and small iron struts had to be added to give it more strength. It is not used by visitors.

The castle is surrounded by extensive grounds with footpaths and roads. The walled garden which drops down in front of the castle is being restored. A short distance from the castle is the DEER HOUSE built in 1760 in the Gothic Revival Style. It was constructed as a folly to provide shelter for the deer and a place for them to be fed.

There isn’t a lot to see in the castle yet and this reflects the star rating I’ve given it. It is very much a work in progress. The trust have been carrying out a consultation exercise asking visitors to fill in a questionnaire about their visit and expectations. On the website admission is £8 reduced to £4 if filling in the questionnaire. The trust now has sufficient information so visitors are currently being charged £4. Guided tours run during the day and are included in the admission price. Entry to the grounds and the very good tea room is free. It would be quite easy to spend several hours here

The trust have grand plans for the development of the castle as well as the regeneration of the surrounding area. This is somewhere that will repay visiting in future when I am sure the star rating will have increased. Do visit and support them in their work.

There is disabled parking in front of the castle. There is level access into the castle and the ground floor, including the tea room in the library. There is ramped access into the chapel. A chair lift can take wheelchairs (but not mobility scooters) up the stairs to the first floor. There is level access to all of the first floor rooms. There is a disabled toilet off the Gentleman’s Hall. Carers are admitted free.

Visit website

There are more pictures here.

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Other Members' Thoughts - 8 Comment(s)

  • ESW
    over 2 years ago
    I'm sure when all the changes have been made it will definitely be a 5+* attraction.
  • pink
    over 2 years ago
    well esw, you may only have rated the auckland castle 4 stars on your two-years-ago visit, but this is definitely a five-star review. thank you. you leave only one thing remaining, and that is for me to find the ways and means to visit myself, to see everything you've mentioned, plus the changes made during the intervening years.
  • Riversiderouge
    almost 3 years ago
    About May 2018 is the target. The Zurburans are currently on loan in the USA I'm told.
  • ESW
    almost 3 years ago
    Thank you for that update Riversiderouge. I'd seen your comment on the forum about going on one of the guided tours and wondered how you got on - now I know!

    It is wonderful to see the North east blossom again after decades of depression and the work going on at Auckland Castle as part of this regeneration.

    Do you know how long the restoration work will take?
  • Riversiderouge
    almost 3 years ago
    July 2017…... I know I go on about the North East of England a lot, and promote it whenever I can, but we don’t get thousands of visitors where I live and I know that once you have been here you will want to come back again and again.

    County Durham has been transformed in the last few years from a grey and black vista to a beautiful green and colorful county.

    Bishop Auckland is a pretty ordinary town that is best known for its amatuer football club which won three consecutive Amateur Cup Finals in the 1950’s.

    Three of their players, Bob Hardisty, Derek Lewin, and Warren Bradley helped Manchester United to complete their fixtures following the Munich Air Disaster.

    Stan Laurel, the skinny half of Laurel & Hardy also went to school here when his father owned the local theatre.

    Bishop, as it’s known locally, is also the historical home of successive Bishops of Durham.

    Sadly the Church of England neglected to maintain the Bishop’s residence Auckland Castle, to a standard befitting a Prince Bishop, as they were once known, and recent Bishops of Durham have been confined to a modest flat within the Castle, or in the case of the current incumbent, a more comfortable house on the perimeters of the town.

    The Castle is now in the ownership of the Auckland Castle Trust, and thanks to a very generous benefactor and additional National Lottery funding, the Trust is now setting about repairing the damage following years of neglect.

    Much of the castle is currently closed off to visitors as imortant restoration work is going on, and all the contents, so eloquently described by ESW in her Review, have been removed, but every weekend during the summer anyone can apply to join a free guided tour of some of this once magnificent and historic building, and learn much of its history from the 11th century to date. Some members of my family and I did just that this week and we were fascinated by what we saw, despite the building site conditions, and learned a lot about the long history of the place.

    It is a unique opportunity to see the building and the recent excavations before it is transformed back to its former glory.

    Many 21st century visitors are expected to visit the town this year to see the second season of “Kynren”.

    If you are one of them why not apply to join this guided 90 minute tour each Saturday or Sunday by visiting the website
  • Riversiderouge
    over 4 years ago
    Something really special will be taking place around Auckland Castle next year which will involve community volunteers creating an open air spectacular event celebrating the history of England. It is based on the French "Puy du Fou"
  • ESW
    about 5 years ago
  • ESW
    over 5 years ago
    Auckland castle in County Durham can be located by putting the postal code DL14 7NR into google maps.

    The grid reference is NZ214302.