Special open air Easter service held in ruins of medieval chapel at Auckland Castle in County Durham

Credit: North News

A unique open-air service has been held in the ruins of a chapel at Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland to celebrate Easter.

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, led the service in the atmospheric ruins of the long-lost medieval place of worship, and reflected what would have been offered during its 300-year history.

It comes as the Bishop of Durham used his Easter message to encourage families to rejoice in the chance to be reunited after two years of lockdowns.

The chapel was constructed during the early 14th century during the rule of Prince Bishop of Durham, Anthony Bek (1284-1310).

The magnificent building, which housed two chapels, would have dominated the Auckland Castle site and the surrounding landscape as a statement and symbol of the ruling Prince Bishops’ power and status.

It was uncovered over a number of years during excavations - some of the most extensive ever undertaken on a Bishop’s palace in Europe in recent years - beneath the Castle’s lawns by archaeologists and volunteers from Durham University and The Auckland Project, before being revealed to the public in a special exhibition in early 2020.

Although its existence had been documented, the chapel’s location had remained a mystery since its destruction in the 1650s by Sir Arthur Haselrig, following the English Civil War.

The service, held at 3.30pm on Sunday, 17 April, celebrated the achievement of rediscovering the chapel while also serving to mark this moment in the history of Bishop Auckland before the remains are reburied for their protection.

The Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler, led the service in the ruins of the medieval chapel. Credit: North News

The Bishop of Durham, said: “The discovery of Bek’s Chapel has been a wonderful addition to our knowledge of Auckland Castle.

“It was very special to hold an open-air service in the remains on Easter Sunday afternoon. We used music, prayers and readings, some of which we can be sure were used here by John Cosin when Chaplain to Bishop Neile in the 1620s.

“It was a wonderful way to celebrate with the archaeologists of Durham University and The Auckland Project on Easter Day.”

The service was a short, standing-only celebration of Easter Day, which acknowledged the chapel’s connections with the past and commemorated the work of those who have worked diligently to uncover it.

Alongside local dignitaries, guests at the service included local volunteers and archaeologists from Durham University who worked to excavate the chapel as well as Founder of The Auckland Project, Jonathan Ruffer.

John Castling, Archaeology and Social History Curator at The Auckland Project and PhD researcher at Durham University, said: “The discovery of this fantastic jewel in the crown of medieval Auckland Castle has been the result of a great deal of hard work by many of those involved in the strong partnership between The Auckland Project and Durham University’s archaeology department.

“As we’ve excavated the chapel, we’ve encountered remains like shoelace ends, clay-pipes and personal religious items that have given us a feeling of closeness to those who built, worshipped in and demolished this magnificent building.

“Marking this latest chapter in the archaeological re-discovery of the castle’s medieval past with a service that provided a powerful connection to those who walked here before us, is an immense privilege."