Auckland Castle reopens on November 2 having been closed for more than two years for a multi-million transformation into a major heritage tourism venue. This is the latest chapter in an extraordinary story that wends its way through the ages…


THE site high on a hill above the Wear was probably an outpost of the Romans’ important settlement at Binchester, a mile to the north.


"Aclit", which became “Auckland”, is first mentioned. It may be an oak-tree related name, like Aycliffe, although the best theory is that it means "additional land". It could have referred to land which a nobleman had recently given to the newly-created Bishop of Durham.


Bp Eadmund, the second bishop, is the first to have a manor house at Auckland.


After the Norman Conquest, William II bestows special powers on Bp William St Carileph making him the second most powerful man in the country. In return, the bishop has to keep the Scots out and the north of England quiet.


By now, the bishop has castles at Durham, Bishop Middlehma, Stockton, Craike and Norham. He had manor houses at Auckland, Evenwood, Darlignton, Howden, Welhall, Riccall and Northallerton, and had deerparks in Weardale, Auckland, Evenwood and Frankland at Durham. Plus, he had Durham House in London.

Bp Hugh de Puiset builds a hunting lodge on the site of the old Auckland house. It includes a banqueting hall with a minstrels’ gallery. His 200-strong retinue would go hunting in Auckland Park by day and feast by night, sleeping where they fell on the floor of the banqueting hall while he retired to the comfort of the lodge. The hall is now the castle chapel.

Not only were deer tasty, but they were a symbol of the bishop’s power – everywhere else in England, they belonged to the king, but in the Palatinate of Durham, they were the bishop’s.


Bp Robert de Insula has two monkeys at Auckland "to drive away his cares". After dinner, they were encouraged to fight each other for almonds "amid roars of laughter proceeding from the Bishop and his guests".


Bp Anthony Bek pays Galfrid, the Bailiff of Auckland, £148 to "sumptuously build and incastellate the ancient mannor place of Auckland”. Bek, a powerful soldier bishop, constructs a great chamber which later becomes the Throne Room. Auckland is now grandly referred to as a “castle”.


Bp Richard de Bury employs a steward, park-keeper, porter, baker, lardner, chandler, plumber and a glazier at Auckland, although he only stays at the castle for five weeks a year as he tours his properties.


A £40 stone wall is built around the park, partly to keep in the bishop’s deer, rabbits and rare herd of white cattle, and partly to keep out the local people who might infect him with the Black Death.


Bp Walter Skirlaw builds the castle wing known as Scotland. It either got its name because Scottish prisoners were kept in its dungeons or because, like Scotland, it was cold and remote.


Henry VIII’s men raid Auckland hoping to find evidence that Bp Cuthbert Tunstall has been assisting Catherine of Aragon in her fight against divorce. In 1551, Edward VI’s men raid Auckland hoping to find evidence that Bp Tunstall has not been following the king’s anti-Catholic policy. The bishop must have been tipped off, because one of the raiders writes: "We went to the Busshops house at Aukland, and came secretly and shortley, so no man knew We marvelled we found so little value - he must have mad all things cler beforehand – only found in money at Aukland £11."


On June 20, Sir William Brereton describes his visit to Auckland: "The castle, as it is a stately pleasant seat, of great receipt, so it is of great strength, compassed with a thick stone wall, seated upon the side of a hill, upon a rock, a river running below, and a good store of wood. Here is a very fair, neat hall, two chapels belonging hereto, the one over the other; the higher a most dainty, neat, light, pleasant place, the lower is made use of on Sabbath days. here are three dining rooms, a fair, matted gallery; a dainty stately park, wherein I saw wild bulls."


Oliver Cromwell's Puritans take over Auckland. On February 4, 1647, they hold King Charles I – who has twice visited Auckland as the bishop’s guest – in a room in Christopher Dobson’s inn in Silver Street. A Royalist lady called Mrs Wren bursts into the pub and snaps every soldier's pipe as the king was complaining that he hated the smell of the smoke. Next day, the soldiers resume their journey to London where the king is executed.


Sir Arthur Hazlerigg, Cromwell’s Governor of the North, buys Auckland Castle for £6,102 8s 11d. He employs local Quaker John Longstaff, a specialist in recycled stone, to blow up the 350-year-old chapel with gunpowder and reuse the stone in a new mansion.


Following the Restoration of the monarchy, Bp John Cosin says that Auckland had been “almost utterly destroyed by the ravenous sacrilege” of Hazlerigg. After trying builder Longstaff for his part in the treason, Cosin employs him to take down Hazlerigg’s house and reuse the stone to turn Pudsey’s banqueting hall into the grand chapel we see today, with a richly-ornamented ceiling 64ft high held up by Frosterley marble columns. On June 5, 1663, plumber Robert Harding is killed in the chapel when stone fell on his head.

At the centre of the chapel, beneath the heavy marble floors, Cosin digs his own vault 8ft deep and reached by 12 steps. He wants to be the first to be buried in his chapel and is thoroughly vexed when, in his absence in London, his grieving daughter has buried her late husband, Mr Davison, in the chapel before him.


Bp Richard Trevor – nicknamed “the Beauty of Holiness” – spends up to £16,000 on Auckland (about £2.6m today). Sir Thomas Robinson of Rokeby designs the clocktower gatehouse, which is built by local stonemason William Atkinson.

Bp Trevor buys a 17th Century townhouse beside the gatehouse which was being used as a woollen factory and turns it in to the Porter’s Lodge.

Jeremiah Dixon of Cockfield lays out the park, with the deerhouse, which costs £379 in 1757, at its centre. From the deerhouse’s upper room, hunting parties would enjoy supper overlooking the park.

Bp Trevor also creates Europe’s first purpose-built art gallery, extending the Dining Room so that it is long to house his collection of Zurbaran paintings showing the 12 tribes of Israel. By displaying them so prominently before his important guests, the bishop is said to have been making a profound statement of religious tolerance.


Bp Shute Barrington employs architect James Wyatt to redecorate the interior rooms so that they no longer looked like a hotch-potch from across the centuries. He places pale green and pink glass in the throne room "to make the ladies appear less pale in the bright sunlight".

Outside, he builds the “screen wall” which provides the castle with such an enigmatic approach, and probably also the Great Gates at Park Head.


Sir Walter Scott describes being a guest at Bp William van Mildert’s dinner at Auckland in honour of the Duke of Wellington in 1828: "We dined in the old baronial hall, impressive for its rude antiquity, and fortunately free from the plaster of former improvement, as I trust it will long be from the ginger-bread of modern gothicizers. The high moon streaming in through the old Gothic windows contrasted strangely with the artificial lights within; spears, banners, and armour were intermixed with the pictures of old bishops, and the whole had a single mixture of baronial pomp with the grave and more chastened dignity of prelacy.”

In 1832, Bp van Mildert gives his castle at Durham to the newly-formed university leaving Auckland his principal residence, but when he dies in 1836, his non-religious powers are returned, after 850 years, to the Crown. The era of the all-powerful Prince Bishops is over.


Bp Michael Turnbull and his wife Brenda, who live in part of the castle, begin to open it to the public.


The Northern Echo’s revelation that the Church Commissioners are secretly plotting to sell the Zurbaran paintings, presumably as a prelude to flogging off the castle, causes uproar. It comes to the attention of financier and philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer who buys the paintings and the castle and gives them to a trust, The Auckland Project, which prepares to create a globally important visitor attraction in Bishop Auckland