ONE of the country’s leading historians is to help transform Auckland Castle into a major museum telling the story of Christianity, the philanthropist behind the project told The Northern Echo last night.

At its centre will be the collection of 17th Century Zurbaran paintings – which is one of County Durham’s greatest religious treasures – that financier Jonathan Ruffer has bought from the Church Commissioners to prevent them being sold abroad.

Professor Diarmaid Mac- Culloch, of Oxford University, who presented the BBC’s acclaimed TV series A History of Christianity, is to create the exhibition.

“It’s a story that is not told anywhere else in the world and now we have a master storyteller to tell it,” said Mr Ruffer, who is buying the paintings for £11m and spending £4m restoring the castle.

“I imagine it will be told by focusing on the bishops of Durham who have lived in the castle for 900 years.

“I hope the castle will become loved locally, admired nationally and visited internationally.

The key will be to make it sufficiently interesting to attract people from far and wide.”

The hope is that the castle will act as a spur for the economic regeneration of Bishop Auckland town centre.

After fraught negotiations last year, which at one point caused Mr Ruffer to pull out, the Stokesley-born benefactor now hopes to complete the paperwork within weeks.

“We are going boilers and lights to exchange contracts ,”

he said.

The Auckland Castle Trust, which is overseeing the project, is to be chaired by Mr Ruffer. It will include his wife, Jane, Bishop Auckland MP Helen Goodman, and Bob Mc- Manners, the former GP who spearheaded the campaign to save the paintings following The Northern Echo’s revelation of the Church Commissioners’ plans to sell them.

It will also include Lady Sarah Nicholson, the wife of the Lord Lieutenant of County Durham, and Lady Sarah Riddell, the widow of the former Lord Lieutenant of Northumberland.

Barrister John McDonnell, who lives in North Yorkshire, is also a member of the trust, along with Sir Mark Jones, the former head of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Victoria and Albert, the British Museum and the British Library have supported the project, and it is hoped they will lend art works on a revolving basis to Auckland.

Multi-millionaire Mr Ruffer will go part-time in his City company from March to concentrate on the castle.

“My real task is to get Auckland Castle scrubbed up, and that will be two years of enormously hard work,” he said.

The Rothschild Foundation is giving £1m to the project and Mr Ruffer hopes to secure several more millions of pounds of heritage grants so that the exhibition can open in 2014.

“Auckland Castle is quite a shadowy presence,” he said.

“It has been difficult to visit; it has been hard to know what’s gone on there. Between the wars one bishop, Hensley Hanson, practically persecuted the Durham miners and the castle became the enemy.

“I want that to change. I want people to feel that Auckland Castle is theirs and is on their side.”