The Bishop has left the Building: Auckland Castle

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Perched on top of a hill with views dominating the surrounding landscape sits Auckland Castle, which until 2010 was the main residence of the Bishops of Durham. The castle was established in the 12th century and initially functioned as a hunting lodge, but many of the bishops preferred it to their official see at Durham Castle because of the extensive hunting grounds surrounding Auckland. The bishops of Durham were created Prince Bishops, entrusting them with secular as well as religious power in a region that was hard to control for the kings in the south. This immense power meant that the prince bishops ruled the county palatine of Durham almost as an independent sovereign.

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The castle became the official see of the bishops after 1837 when Durham Castle was granted to found University College Durham. The diocesan office of the bishop is still located in a wing of the castle, but the Bishop is now housed elsewhere, the maintenance costs of such a building were seen as to heavy a burden on the finances. The castle was transferred to a trust and they open part of it to the public, adding a much needed heritage tourism site in a somewhat deprived town.

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The castle as it stands today owes most of its appearance to the alterations in the 17th and 18th centuries. Especially the work of James Wyatt in the Gothic revival taste for Bishop Shute Barrington has been of importnance in rationalising the disparate elements that make up this complex that was developed over several centuries.

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Thankfully the chapel is one of the interiors that Wyatt didn’t alter. This chapel, reputedly the largest private chapel in Europe, in its current state was for a large part created between 1661-1665 for Bishop John Cosin, who was also responsible for the commissioning of woodcarving for Durham Cathedral and Castle, a lot of which was executed by James Clement. The carvings are stylistically very interesting, combing late Gothic elements with Jacobean and Baroque in a very bold and beefy way.

This room however wasn’t always a chapel, it started out as the 12th century great hall of the castle, elements of which can still be found. The development of this room is elucidated through an interactive digital reconstruction. Digital interpretation is a feature throughout the castle, and this really adds much to the visitor experience of such a complex building.

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The views onto the park and landscape are  spectacular, and and illustrate the dominant position of both the castle, and the status of the Prince Bishops.

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The throne room is another of Wyatt’s  creations in his elegant Gothic revival style, and it houses many portraits of bishops. As with many of the interiors it still feels very institutional, which is probably due to the paint and the sparse furnishing. It would be interesting to see if research of the original decoration of the rooms and the furnishings would present a very different image.

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The long dining room is of special interest because of the series of paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán. The series is comprised of 13 paintings depicting Jacob and his twelve sons and they were painted between 1640-1644. It was Bishop Richard Trevor that acquired them at auction in 1756, although he was outbid for the painting of Benjamin, which now hangs at Grimsthorpe Castle. Bishop Trevor had the dining room altered to accomodate the series, now completed with a copy of the Benjamin painting. In 2001 the church commissioners wanted to sell of this unique series of paintings to raise 20 million, but thankfully they were persuaded to wait for a review. The paintings and their relation to the castle were safeguarded through a large donation by Jonathan Garnier Ruffer in 2011 and the Auckland Castle Trust was created to take on the responsibility of care for the castle and its collection.

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At the time of my visit the castle was hosting an excellent exhibition on the Tudor dynasty, which relates to a rather fascinating object thats on display in the castle, the paradise Bed. This richly carved bed is said to be the Paradise Bed of Henry VII, although there is some debate still ongoing about this claim. The exhibition is interesting for the fact that it presents this debate to the public, and the various forms of evidence that have been used. Research is still ongoing, so this object wil undoubtedly have more to tell us in the future.

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Although the exhibition design throughout is well done, and very informative, it does create more of a museum atmosphere. As a historic house it currently lacks a lot to convey an idea of what it would have been like to live in and use the building, but it is worth visiting as a museum. As it has only recently transitioned from private into public use I’m sure that the future will see many more interesting developments at Auckland, but they are off to a cracking start.

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