The Prince Bishops

Crown and Mitre

"There are two kings in England, namely, the lord king of England wearing a crown and the lord bishop of Durham wearing a mitre in place of a crown," William de St Botolph, 1302.

Thursday 31 March 2016 - Friday 15 May 2020
12:00 am

To be a bishop in medieval times was not just a religious calling or a demonstration of great faith. The bishops were leading statesmen, diplomats and military leaders, wielding immense political power on a national and international stage.

Following the Norman Conquest, The Bishops of Durham were granted exceptional political and military powers by the King to guard the northern frontier of England against Scottish invasion.

From his base in Auckland Castle, the Prince Bishop effectively rule the lands between the Tyne and the Tees. He could raise money from taxes, mint his own coins, and hold his own law courts. He was allowed to command an army, levy taxes, mint coins, and hold his own courts. These royal privileges made him the second most powerful man in the country.

Not all Bishops were pious. Bishop Ranulf Flambard (1099-1128) had a reputation for being an immensely able political figure but lacking spiritual conviction. The 12th-century chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, described Flambard as being “addicted to feasts, and carousing” while Archbishop Anselm called him “an illiterate rent collector of the worst possible reputation.” However other bishops, like Richard de Bury (1333-1345) and Walter Skirlaw (1388-1406), were nationally renowned for their theological learning and scholarship.

Many Prince Bishops were considered to be the king’s right-hand man. Bishop Hugh de Puiset (1153-1195), who commissioned the Great Hall, ruled the entire country for a short time in 1189 while Richard I was away on crusade. Bishop Anthony Bek (1284-1310), a skilled military leader and crusader, and second in command to Edward I, led a number of successful campaigns against the Scots. On 10 July 1296 King John of Scotland surrendered to Bishop Bek at Brechin. However Bek’s lust for power led to conflict with the king, who twice stripped him of his bishopric. He was only restored to power when Edward II ascended the throne.

After the ravages of the Civil War, Bishop John Cosin (1660-1672) set about restoring the religious role and national importance of the Prince Bishops. He converted the medieval Great Hall at Auckland Castle into the beautiful St Peter’s Chapel seen today.

The near-absolute power of the Prince Bishops lasted until the death of Bishop Van Mildert in 1836. In 1832, after Parliament passed the Reform Act, which began the dismantling of the Prince Bishops’ powers, Van Mildert gave his other residence, Durham Castle, to the newly founded University of Durham.

The temporal powers of the Prince Bishop of Durham were returned to the Crown as part of the Reform Acts of the 1830s. Despite this, Auckland Castle remained the sole official residence of the Bishop of Durham until 2010.