Castle full of treasure
The Auckland Project has already delivered countless highlights since it was founded by Jonathan Ruffer back in 2012. His aim was to create major new visitor attractions for the region and his vision has already given us a landmark first in the shape of the Mining Art Gallery (with the Spanish Gallery and a Faith Museum still to come). These initiatives have not just won much press attention and acclaim in the north-east but right across the UK and beyond. And the project will get the most extravagant of feathers in its jaunty cap this November when the castle itself re-opens following a multi-million pound spruce up. This should be filed under ‘A Really Big Deal’ because Auckland Castle is the former private palace of some of the most powerful and influential men in British history, who governed the north of England for more than 750 years. Granted exceptional secular and religious powers by the King of England in 1081 (ie William the Conqueror), from raising an army to minting their own coins, they became popularly known as Prince Bishops due to the authority and wealth they commanded on a national scale, second only to the monarch.The secular powers of the Bishops were significantly diminished by the 1832 Reform Act (enacted by Earl Grey whose monument stands in the centre of Newcastle), after which they transitioned into the church leaders we recognise today. The Bishops of Durham (resident in Auckland Castle until 2010) have continued to play an important secular as well as spiritual role, sitting in the House of Lords and speaking publicly on contemporary social and religious issues. The significance of the Prince Bishops and legacy of their power from medieval times to the present is displayed through the story of Auckland Castle. And what a story!
Visitors will begin their journey at St Peter’s Chapel, the sacred heart of the palace and an active site of worship, before following the impressive 18th century processional route through the Castle’s state rooms. They will then discover private apartments, where the Bishops lived together with their families and wider household. These domestic spaces will be open to the public for the very first time, offering a glimpse into life behind closed doors. Each room in Auckland Castle will present episodes in the life of a particular Bishop, capturing a specific moment in time. In this way their unique characters will come to light, reminding visitors that while these men were powerful figures, they also had their own individual lives, impulses and quirks. Interpretation within the rooms will be delivered through a range of interactive media, including soundscapes, animations and audio-visual displays bringing the stories of Auckland Castle to life.
Another highlight of the newly reopened Castle will be the remarkable paintings ‘Jacob and His Twelve Sons’ by Spanish master Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664). Auckland Castle has been home to this impressive series of thirteen paintings since the 18th century. Bishop Trevor (1752-1771) bought twelve of the original paintings at auction in 1756 for just over £124. He was outbid for the thirteenth, but employed the prominent English artist Arthur Pond to make a faithful copy to complete the collection.
These artworks will be joined by a number of rare objects further demonstrating the power and status of the Prince Bishops. These include a magnificent set of alter plates (1665) commissioned by Bishop John Cosin for his newly created chapel. Elaborately decorated pieces like these, made of solid silver and coated in gold, had been banned under Cromwell as objects of ‘Papish’ superstition, but Cosin believed that beautiful objects could inspire devotion to God. The alms dish depicting the Last Supper was made by one of King Charles II’s royal goldsmiths. You will also be able to see the seal matrix belonging to Bishop Van Mildert (1831) used to authenticate official documents.
Also on display throughout the Castle will be everyday objects from the 20th century that highlight the Bishops’ involvement in matters of national importance. These include a ceremonial trowel given to Mary Moule by the Aged Mineworkers’ Homes Association. Both Mary and her husband Bishop Handley Moule worked to support local mining communities. Another fascinating item is ‘The Yellow Spot’ a 1936 book by an anonymous author describing the ways in which the Nazi regime was isolating and persecuting Jewish citizens.
Final word to Clare Baron, Head of Exhibitions and Interpretation at Auckland Castle: “We are delighted to open Auckland Castle up to the public, allowing visitors to learn about the remarkable history of this 800-year-old building, and discover the lives of its formidable residents the Prince Bishops. Thanks to extensive conservation work and research, the Castle and its fascinating story, is now accessible to everyone.”An Auckland Castle Community Day will be held to mark the launch on Saturday 2 November. This will include live entertainment and activities. General admission begins on Sunday 3 November. More information (including ticket details): aucklandproject.org