Auckland Castle, former home of the Prince Bishops of Durham

Auckland Castle, former home of the Prince Bishops of Durham, re-opens to the public following major conservation project 

  • Castle to reveal public and private lives of its former residents the Prince Bishops of Durham - “Kings of the North” who governed as the King’s second-in-command for more than 750 years
  • A three year conservation project, supported by a £12.4m grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, has returned the Castle to its Georgian Gothic Splendour
  • The Castle’s series of paintings Jacob and His Twelve Sons by Spanish master Francisco de Zurbarán will return following an international tour
  • Auckland Castle is the centrepiece of new destination The Auckland Project - to which £150m has been committed to date - fuelling long-term regeneration in the town of Bishop Auckland

The historic Auckland Castle in County Durham opened its doors to the public on Saturday 2nd November 2019 following a three year conservation project. The Castle was purchased from the Church of England by financier Jonathan Ruffer in 2012 with the aim of opening it up to the public. Once the private palace of the Prince Bishops of Durham, the Castle will reveal a legacy of Northern power from medieval times to the present day, revealing the untold stories of some of the most influential men in British history.

The Prince Bishops commanded great wealth and exercised political and military power second only to the King for over 750 years. They had the authority to raise an army, influence the law of the land, and mint their own coins. Their influence extended to public affairs and national politics, including advising Catherine of Aragon on her divorce from Henry VIII and campaigning for the abolition of slavery. The Castle has played host to royalty on multiple occasions, including King John, Charles I and Queen Victoria.

Following parliamentary reforms of the 1830s, the Prince Bishops’ secular powers were significantly diminished, and they transitioned into the Church leaders we know today. The Bishops of Durham (resident in Auckland Castle until 2010) have nonetheless continued to play an important role in shaping the society we live in today, sitting in the House of Lords and speaking publicly on contemporary social and religious issues.

Auckland Castle has been sensitively returned to its original Georgian Gothic splendour, designed by renowned English architect James Wyatt. Visitors will be able to follow his 18th century processional route through the Castle to the State Rooms, leading to the Throne Room, where the Prince Bishops entertained important guests. The private apartments where later Bishops lived with their families are being opened to the public for the first time, offering an insight into the domestic lives of its former residents.

The Castle is home to a collection of precious objects collected by the Prince Bishops as symbols of status and power. These include the series of paintings Jacob and His Twelve Sons by Spanish master Francisco de Zurbarán, which were bought at auction by Bishop Trevor in 1756. They are returning to Auckland Castle following an international tour to the United States and Israel, where they were viewed by more than 394,000 people.

Auckland Castle is at the heart of The Auckland Project, a multi-faceted visitor destination using art, faith and heritage to fuel long-term change in the town of Bishop Auckland. As well as bringing visitors to the region, the project aims to make beautiful works of art, experiences and opportunities - the things that feed people’s bodies, minds and spirit - accessible to everyone, starting with the local community. The Auckland Project comprises seven sites in and around the Castle grounds, including a Deer Park, Walled Garden and three landmark firsts – a Mining Art Gallery, Spanish Gallery and Faith Museum. Bishop Auckland is also home to the outdoor spectacular Kynren – an epic tale of England, performed every summer on a 7.5-acre stage close to Auckland Castle, featuring 1,000 volunteer cast and crew.

Jonathan Ruffer, Founder of The Auckland Project, said:

Bishop Auckland is a small town with a big history and even bigger ambitions, and Auckland

Castle lies at the heart of its story. I’m pleased that anyone can now come and visit this historic building and discover the rich tales and treasures of our shared history. The Castle was the starting point for the journey of The Auckland Project and its wider purpose; historically the people of Bishop Auckland served the Castle – but now it’s the other way round.”

Clare Baron, Head of Interpretation and Exhibitions at The Auckland Project, said:

“The story of Auckland Castle and the Prince Bishops of Durham spans more than 1,000 years but for various reasons has remained relatively untold. Now, thanks to extensive conservation work and research, visitors will be able to walk in the footsteps of the men who helped shaped the country we live in today.

Sir Peter Luff, Chair of The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said:

“We are delighted that, thanks to National Lottery players, this significant site has undergone conservation. The Castle’s transformation into an arts and cultural centre will connect people with their heritage and act as a major catalyst for the regeneration of Bishop Auckland. We hope Auckland Castle will be an inspiration for heritage organisations across the country, encouraging even more of them to work to boost their local economy and ensuring the UK is an ever more attractive place to live, work and visit.”

Many hands make craft work; recreating the intimate opulence of Auckland Castle’s Georgian State Rooms.

Medieval hands first laid the foundations for the majestic towers and grand walls of Auckland Castle. Now, specialist craftspeople are turning back to centuries-old skills to painstakingly recreate the opulence and grandeur of its historic halls and stately apartments.

The palatial home of the Prince Bishops of Durham and a symbol of their powerful status, for centuries Auckland Castle provided a grand and sumptuous setting for entertaining, hunting and worship.

Over the years, the Castle has evolved into the renowned landmark we see today, its stones altered and updated as successive Prince Bishops sought to leave their mark. The Castle continued to serve as the sole residence of the Bishop of Durham until 2010 and remains one of the most significant episcopal palaces in Europe. Now, as part of a multi-million pound conservation project, The Auckland Project is preserving the historic fabric of Auckland Castle. Visitors will be able to step into different points in its long and fascinating history. To forge this pathway through time, experts and craftspeople are currently hard at work to re-present its rooms and create a window into the lives of the Prince Bishops.

Clara Woolford, Project Curator, Auckland Castle, The Auckland Project, said: “This was a palace created to impress.

“The Prince Bishops were men who could raise armies, dispense justice and even mint coins – the opulence and grandeur of the Castle’s State Rooms of the 1790s is a clear statement of that continued wealth and power.

“We have handpicked specialist craftspeople and suppliers to ensure that visitors to the State Rooms will step back in time to experience the look and atmosphere of that point in history.”

In the 1790s, Bishop Shute Barrington (Bishop of Durham, 1791–1826) had Auckland Castle remodelled by famous Georgian architect James Wyatt (1746–1813). Those entering the grand State Rooms, where visitors were once brought for an audience with the Bishop, will now be immersed in the opulence and vivacity of this Georgian Gothic Revival style.

The Auckland Project has been working with specialist suppliers and craftspeople to create historically accurate furnishings, using Wyatt’s designs for his subsequent Gothic masterpiece, Fonthill Abbey, and records from the Castle’s archives, including the account of Bishop Barrington’s secretary, which describes Wyatt’s work in detail.

Historic paint analysis has revealed that the Throne Room’s walls were painted vivid pink. The descriptions given by Barrington’s secretary state that the windows were draped with rich blue silk curtains, with a crimson wool lining.

Fabric specialists, Humphries Weaving, has produced 110 metres of blue silk damask for the curtains, in a pattern that was created for Belton House in Lincolnshire, which was remodelled by Wyatt in the 1770s.

The fabric company, based in Suffolk, creates custom Jacquard cloth and has produced pieces for Royal residences, historic properties and private homes.

The timber floorboards, trodden on by so many as they attended the balls and parties held by the Bishop, were originally covered by a vast carpet, woven in London in the style of a patterned Turkish rug.

Using a photograph taken in the 1970s, carpet company Linney Cooper Ltd, has produced a close replica of the original Georgian carpet, 10 metres long and 5.5 metres wide.

Entering the adjoining Long Dining Room, visitors will step back to the 1750s when Bishop Richard Trevor, (Bishop of Durham, 1752–1771), purchased the famous series of paintings, Jacob and His Twelve Sons by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 –1664).

There, they will be met with a dining table set for a dessert course, including biscuits and confectionary, specially created by food historian, Ivan Day from Cumbria and set design students from the Northern School of Art.

Replica sweetmeats, made using Ivan's own collection of original 18th century moulds, will sit alongside imitation exotic fruits, such as pineapples, figs and white strawberries, which were a clear statement of wealth at the time.

The whole feast has been modelled on a dessert menu from a dinner held by the Dean of Durham Cathedral in 1758, featuring exotic fruits believed to have been harvested from Auckland Castle’s Walled Garden.

The table will be set as if waiting for these guests to arrive, including authentic wine and cordial glasses, crafted by glassmakers Mark Taylor and David Hill in Hampshire.

The talented duo are the only glassblowers in the country to produce authentic 18th century glassware, complete with ripples and imperfections.

Elsewhere in the Castle, masons from Historic Property Restoration have been repairing, replacing and re-carving pieces of stonework inside and out, restoring many of the original features to ensure that the Castle looks its best from every angle.

Based in North Shields, Historic Property Restoration has been carrying out restoration and conservation work on listed buildings and scheduled monuments across the country for over 30 years.

Award-winning and leading national quality site inspection consultancy the Hickton Group provided quality site inspection Clerk of Works services for the project as well as overseeing the construction of the building and M&E works on several elements of The Auckland Project visitor destination.