Bishop Bek’s chapel discovered

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Excavations at Auckland Castle, County Durham, have discovered a long-lost 14th-century chapel associated with the influential Bishop Bek. Historical records document the construction of the chapel in the early 1300s. They describe it as a large building, ‘sumptuously constructed’ – reflecting the status of Anthony Bek, who was Prince Bishop of Durham from 1284 to 1310, and an extremely powerful figure in medieval Britain.

An artistic reconstruction of Bishop Bek’s chapel. [Image: © Andy Gammon 2019]

The chapel was demolished in the 1650s, after the Civil War, and, although its remains were known to exist at Auckland Castle, the exact location remained a mystery until it was revealed by research carried out by The Auckland Project and Durham University.

Several years of excavations uncovered a huge building: 12m wide and 40m long internally, with walls 1.5m thick. Other discoveries, including the bases of huge stone columns inside the building, buttresses along its side, and even part of the floor, confirmed the identity of the building as the medieval chapel.

Several beautiful artefacts were discovered that reflect the high-status ecclesiastical occupation of the site, including two book clasps, an enamelled mount possibly depicting St Cuthbert, and what is believed to be a part from stained-glass working equipment, made from extremely rare baleen (whalebone). A few examples of imports from continental Europe were also found, including the enamel band of a liturgical vessel from Limoges, and a wine glass with shell decoration of Iberian design.

Archaeologists and architects have used the in-situ remains discovered during excavation, the geometry of the fragments of carved stone recovered, documentary sources, and insights from comparable buildings to create a reconstruction drawing of the chapel as it would have looked in the 14th century: a huge double-storey timber-roofed structure with enormous decorated stone pillars, buttresses, vaulted ceilings, and stained-glass windows.

The reconstruction is on display with some of the excavated finds in an exhibition at Auckland Castle, Inside Story: conserving Auckland Castle, and research will continue at the site in the summer.

This news article appears in issue 362 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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