The Prince Bishops


"There are two kings in England, namely the Lord King of England, wearing a crown in sign of his regality and the Lord Bishop of Durham wearing a mitre in place of a crown, in sign of his regality in the diocese of Durham".

This is a quote from the steward of Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham (1284 - 1311).

Auckland Palace

Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland, palace of the Durham Bishops : David Simpson


County Durham is unique, as for many centuries it was a virtually independent state ruled not by the king, but by powerful `Prince Bishops', who were more or less the `Kings of County Durham'. The history, heritage and folklore of Durham and the Prince Bishops form the subject of this section. In order to really understand the unique history of County Durham we must first go back into Anglo-Saxon times, to a period long before England or Scotland existed, when Great Britain was not one kingdom like today, but several kingdoms spread throughout the land. One of the largest and most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was Northumbria which extended from the Humber to the River Forth, making up almost a third of the entire mainland of Britain.

During its greatest period in the 7th and 8th centuries, Northumbria was a great centre for arts, learning and early Christianity and was especially noted for the great saints it produced, like Cuthbert, Wilfrid and the Venerable Bede. Northumbria's downfall was brought about in later centuries, by successive invasion from Vikings and Scots, so by the time of the Norman Conquest, it was reduced to an earldom stretching from the River Tweed to the Tees. This Earldom roughly consisted of the region we now call `North-Eastern England', an area still often referred to as `Northumbria' today.

Seal Bishop Hatfield

Seal of Bishop Hatfield, a 14th Century Prince Bishop of Durham : David Simpson


William the Conqueror became king of England in 1066, and soon realised his kingdom could not be safely protected from Scottish invasion until Northumbria was subject to his rule. At the same time, he was aware of this earldom'sr emoteness and independence, and saw that it would not be easily controlled by a king in the distant south of England. Northumbria's two most powerful men in King William's time were it's Earl, seated at Bamburgh and the Bishop of Durham. The Earls of Bamburgh inherited their Royal powers from the old kings of Northumbria.

They had remained virtually independent of the Kings of England, even during the reign of Alfred the Great (849-99 A.D).The Bishops of Durham, were also of great influence. They were the successors to the earlier Bishops of Lindisfarne, which had included highly respected Northumbria's like St Cuthbert. King William's problem was how could he acknowledge the remote independence of Northumbria and at the same time ensure England was properly defended from the Scots ?. The king gained the allegiance of Northumbria's Bishop and Earl and confirmed their powers and privileges, but Northumbrian rebellions followed and he realised the province could not be trusted in this way.

William therefore attempted to install Robert Comine, a Norman noble, as the Earl of Northumbria, but before Comine could take up office, he and his 700 men were massacred in the City of Durham. In revenge the Conqueror led his army in a bloody and devastating raid into Northumbria, an event which became known as `the Harrying of the North'. Aethelwine, the Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Durham tried to flee Northumbria at the time of the raid, and took with him many important Northumbrian treasures. The bishop was caught by the Norman's and imprisoned. Later he died in confinement, his see was left vacant.


A `saint-like Norman ecclesiastic', by the name of William Walcher was appointed as the new Bishop of Durham, but the north was still not completely subdued, so the King appointed an Anglo-Saxon called Waltheof, of the old Northumbria house, as the new Earl. A close friendship developed between Walcher and Waltheof and the earl built a castle at Durham for his bishop, but later he was implicated in rebellion and was executed in 1075.

Shortly afterwards Waltheof's powers were conferred upon Walcher, who thus became the first and only `Earl-Bishop' of Northumbria. Walcher's status as an `Earl-Bishop' meant that the defence of northern England was in the hands of one of King William's men, while maintaining a degree of political independence for the Northumbria province. In theory the idea of combining the powers of the Earl and Bishop in one man, seemed to be a good one, but in practice, Walter, though a well intentioned man, was a rather incompetent leader. His inability to control his subordinates angered his people and ultimately led to his murder at Gateshead in 1080. 

Auckland Castle

Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland : David Simpson


Despite the murder of Bishop Walter, the Conqueror's son, King William Rufus decided to continue with his father's policy towards Northumbria. Walcher's successor, Bishop William St Carileph (1081-1096), was thus also given the powers of Earl. This time however, the powers were confined only to that part of Northumbria south of the Rivers Tyne and Derwent, an area which became known as the `County Palatine of Durham'. Today this part of Northumbria is known as County Durham - `The Land of the Prince Bishops'. The remainder of Northumbria, to the north of the Rivers Tyne and Derwent, became the county of Northumberland, where the political powers of the Bishops of Durham were limited to only certain districts. Nevertheless the Durham bishops remained the religious leaders for the whole of Northumbria, until the creation of the diocesse of Newcastle upon Tyne in the nineteenth century.


William St Carileph, a much stronger bishop than his predecessor, had thus become the first head of the County Palatine of Durham. His Palatine was a virtually separate state, a kind of defensive `buffer zone' sandwiched between civilised England and the often dangerous Northumbria-Scottish borderland. Carileph and successive bishops, had nearly all the powers within their `County Palatine' that the king had in the rest of England and it is for this reason that history has named the old bishops of Durham, `the Prince Bishops'. Bishops of Durham were thus given powers enabling them to; - hold their own parliament, - raise their own armies, - appoint their own sheriffs and Justices, - administer their own laws, - levy taxes and customs duties, - create fairs and markets, - issue charters, - salvage shipwrecks, - collect revenue from mines, - administer the forests - and mint their own coins. Indeed the Prince Bishops lived like kings in their castles or `palaces' at Durham City and Bishop Auckland.

Durham Castle gatehouse

Durham Castle gatehouse : David Simpson


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