The Prince Bishops of Durham

Prince Bishops : Two Kings in England

“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 was 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

Origin of the Prince Bishops

County Durham was once a virtually independent state ruled not by the king, but by powerful ‘Prince Bishops’, who were more or less the ‘Kings of County Durham’.

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.

Bede's Tomb, Durham Cathedral
Bede’s Tomb, Durham Cathedral © David Simpson

During its greatest period in the seventh and eighth 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.

Palatinate seal of Prince Bishop Thomas Hatfield
Palatinate seal (front and reverse) of Bishop Thomas Hatfield, a fourteenth century Prince Bishop of Durham

Northumbria at the time of the conquest

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’s remoteness 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.

Bamburgh Castle.
Bamburgh Castle © David Simpson

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.

Ruins of the Norman priory, Lindisfarne
Ruins of the Norman priory, Lindisfarne © David Simpson

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.

Durham Cathedral and castle from Leazes Road, Gilesgate
Durham Cathedral and castle from Leazes Road, Gilesgate © David Simpson

The ‘Earl Bishop’ of Northumbria:

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

Northumbria partitioned : Northumberland and Durham

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 primarily to that part of Northumbria south of the Rivers Tyne and Derwent, an area which became known as the ‘County Palatine of Durham’ or Bishopric of Durham.

The king encouraged Carileph’s purchase of the political rights held by Mowbray, the Earl of Northumberland, between the Tyne and the Tees. Only the south Durham district called Sadberge stayed in Mowbray’s Northumberland between Tyne and Tees.

The Bishopric was centred on the city of Durham and primarily south of the Tyne but included exclaves such as Norhamshire on the Tweed and its neighbouring district called Islandshire (including Lindisfarne) as well as the district called Bedlingtonshire between the River Wansbeck and River Blyth. It also included the village of Crayke in northern Yorkshire. Under King William Rufus the Bishop additionally came into possession of the liberty and Wapentake of Allertonshire (centred on Northallerton) and the Liberty of Howdenshire in East Yorkshire though these two did not form part of the County Palatine.

Territories of the Prince Bishops of Durham
Territories of the Prince Bishops of Durham © David Simpson and Tangled Worm 2022. Click for a larger version of the image. The purple areas are the Palatine of Durham. The pink areas show Allertonshire and Howdenshire. The yellow areas are the parts of the region that historically lay within the Diocese of Durham but not the Palatine.

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 diocese of Newcastle upon Tyne in the nineteenth century.

Durham Cathedral © David Simpson

The Prince Bishops and their powers

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.

Dunholm | Durham Cathedral | Pudsey  

List of Durham Bishops, Priors and Deans, Durham Cathedral
List of Durham Bishops, Priors and Deans, Durham Cathedral © David Simpson

Bishops and Prince Bishops of Durham

Last Bishop of Lindisfarne at Chester-le-Street

  • 990-995 Aldhun Last ‘Bishop of Lindisfarne at Chester-le-Street, transferred to Durham.

Bishops of Durham

  • 1021-1041 Aldhun Previously Bishop at Chester-le-Street.
  • 1021-1041 Edmund
  • 1041-1042 Eadred
  • 1042-1056 Æthelric
  • 1056-1071 Æthelwine Last Anglo-Saxon bishop of Durham.

Prince Bishops

  • 1071-1080 : William Walcher Of Lorraine, he was the first French Bishop of Durham. A Bishop of Durham and the Earl of Northumberland, his political powers extended across all Northumberland and Durham. Walcher was murdered at Gateshead.
  • 1081-1096 : William de St-Calais Builder of Durham Cathedral. Powers extensive between Tyne and Tees except Sadberge and limited in Northumberland to the exclaves of Islandshire, Norhamshire and Bedlingtonshire. Ecclesiastical Diocese included all of Northumberland and Durham.
  • 1099-1128 : Ranulf Flambard Powerful adviser to the king. First man to be imprisoned in Tower of London and the first to escape.
  • 1133-1140 : Geoffrey Rufus
  • 1141-1143 : William Cumin Cumin was a usurper Bishop of Durham and a Chancellor of King David I of Scotland during the period sometimes known as ‘the anarchy’.
  • 1143-1153 : William of St. Barbara Legally elected bishop had to challenge and engage in military action against William Cumin to claim his position.
  • 1153-1195 : Hugh de Puiset Now generally known as ‘Bishop Pudsey‘. One of the most powerful Prince Bishops. Also became the Earl of Northumberland, acquiring the Wapentake of Sadberge in south Durham. His other titles included Chief Justiciar of England and Regent of the North. The castle and town of Newcastle, Bamburgh Castle and Windsor Castle were amongst his possessions and he virtually ruled the whole of Northern England during King Richard’s lengthy absence. Pudsey issued the first charters for the towns of Sunderland and Gateshead and instigated the Boldon Book, more or less the Domesday Book for County Durham.
  • 1197-1208 : Philip of Poitou
  • 1209-1213 : Richard Poore Appointment disallowed by the pope who was having an ongoing dispute with King John (see 1229). 
  • 1214-1214 : John de Gray Died before consecration.
  • 1215-1215 : Morgan A Provost of Beverley and illegitimate son of King henry II whose appointment was disallowed by the pope.
  • 1217-1226 : Richard Marsh
  • 1226-1227 : William Scot
  • 1229-1237 : Richard Poore Built the Chapel of the Nine Altars at Durham Cathedral. He had been Bishop of Salisbury (from 1217-1228) and had relocated Salisbury Cathedral from Old Sarum.
  • 1237-1240 : Thomas de Melsonby The surname is from a place in Richmondshire, North Yorkshire.
  • 1241-1249 : Nicholas Farnham
  • 1249-1260 : Walter of Kirkham
  • 1260-1274 : Robert Stitchill
  • 1274-1283 : Robert of Holy Island
  • 1284-1310 : Antony Bek One of the most powerful Prince Bishops of Durham. He held the title patriarch of Jerusalem.
Tomb of Bishop Bek, Durham Cathedral
Brass plaque on the tomb of Bishop Bek, Durham Cathedral © David Simpson
  • 1311-1316 : Richard Kellaw Family name from the Durham village of Kelloe.
  • 1317-1333 : Lewis de Beaumont
  • 1333-1345 : Richard de Bury
  • 1345-1381 : Thomas Hatfield Bishop at the time of the battle of Neville’s Cross. Remembred for his prominent throne in Durham Cathedral.
  • 1382-1388 : John Fordham
  • 1388-1406 : Walter Skirlaw From Skirlaugh in East Yorkshire. Built the bridge across the Tees between Yarm and Egglescliffe and the bridges across the Wear at Shincliffe and Bishop Auckland.
  • 1406-1437 : Thomas Langley
  • 1437-1457 : Robert Neville Member of the powerful family.
  • 1457-1476 : Lawrence Booth
  • 1476-1483 : William Dudley
  • 1484-1494 : John Sherwood
  • 1494-1501 : Richard Fox
  • 1502-1505 : William Senhouse
  • 1507-1508 : Christopher Bainbridge
  • 1509-1523 : Thomas Ruthall
  • 1523-1529 : Thomas Wolsey He never visited the diocese. Also Archbishop of York but he only visited York late in his term of holding that office.
  • 1530-1559 : Cuthbert Tunstall Bishop of Durham during the period of the Reformation. Ostensibly accepting the religious reforms.
Tomb of Bishop Bury, Durham Cathedral
Tomb of Bishop Bury, Durham Cathedral © David Simpson

Post-Reformation Prince Bishops

  • 1561-1576 : James Pilkington First Protestant Bishop of Durham.
  • 1577-1587 : Richard Barnes
  • 1589-1595 : Matthew Hutton
  • 1595-1606 : Tobias Matthew
  • 1606-1617 : William James
  • 1617-1627 : Richard Neile
  • 1627-1628 : George Montaigne
  • 1628-1632 : John Howson
  • 1632-1659 : Thomas Morton
  • 1660-1672 : John Cosin
  • 1674-1722 : Nathaniel Lord Crewe
  • 1722-1730 : William Talbot
  • 1730-1750 : Edward Chandler
  • 1750-1752 : Joseph Butler
  • 1752-177 1 : Richard Trevor
  • 1771-1787 : John Egerton
  • 1787-1791 : Thomas Thurlow
  • 1791-1826 : Shute Barrington
  • 1826-1836 : William Van Mildert The last bishop to hold any vestiges of the powers held by the ‘Counts Palatine’ or Prince Bishops of Durham. Founder of Durham University to which he bestowed Durham Castle.

Modern day Bishops of Durham

  • 1836-1856 : Edward Maltby
  • 1856-1860 : Charles Longley
  • 1860-1861 : Henry Montagu Villiers
  • 1861-1879 : Charles Baring
  • 1879-1889 : John Barber Lightfoot
  • 1890-1901 : Brooke Foss Westcott
  • 1901-1920 : Handley Moule
  • 1920-1939 : Hensley Henson
  • 1939-1952 : Alwyn Williams
  • 1952-1956 : Michael Ramsey
  • 1956-1966 : Maurice Harland
  • 1966-1972 : Ian Ramsey
  • 1973-1983 : John Habgood
  • 1984-1994 : David Jenkins
  • 1994-2003 : Michael Turnbull
  • 2003-2010 : Thomas Wright
  • 2011-2013 : Justin Welby
  • 2014-2024 : Paul Butler
  • 2024-present : Sarah Clark, Bishop of Jarrow (Acting Bishop of Durham)
David Jenkins, Durham Cathedral
David Jenkins, Durham Cathedral © David Simpson

Dunholm | Durham Cathedral | Pudsey  

The early Prince Bishops : Flambard and Carileph



North East England History and Culture