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Bishop of Durham

Arms of the Bishop of Durham
Arms of the Bishop of Durham

The Bishop of Durham is the officer of the Church of England responsible for the diocese of Durham, one of the oldest in the country. He is the senior bishop in the province of York, and sits in the House of Lords. Other duties include (with the Bishop of Bath and Wells) escorting the sovereign at the coronation. He is officially styled The Right Reverend Father in God, (Name), by Divine Permission Lord Bishop of Durham, but this full title is rarely used. In signatures, the bishop's family name is replaced by Dunelm (from the Latin name for Durham). In the past, bishops of Durham alternated their signatures between the French Duresm and Dunelm.

The post of Bishop of Durham has existed since the eighth century. After the Norman conquest the Bishop was made Prince-Bishop of the Palatinate of Durham. They had their own army, parliament, currency, and court system. In 1536 Henry VIII withdrew much of the Prince-Bishop's secular authority, and this authority was further hedged during and after the English Civil War; the Principality was finally abolished in 1836. The Palatinate court system, however, survived until the passage of Courts Act 1971.

As the only such bishop in England, the Bishop of Durham bears on his arms a mitre enfiled of a coronet (instead of a plain mitre) and a crozier crossed with a sword in saltire (instead of two croziers) to symbolize temporal power.

The title "The Land of the Prince Bishops" is an invention of the tourist industry, but the Bishops of Durham did hold vice-regal powers, and more.


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".
The steward of Anthony Beck, Bishop of Durham (1284 - 1311).

Origin of the Prince Bishops

The County Palatine of Durham was once a virtually independent state ruled by the so-called Prince Bishops, who were more or less the Kings of County Durham. It owes its unique position to the 7th and 8th century Kingdom of Northumbria. Although it once stretched from the Humber to the Firth of Forth, making up almost a third of the entire mainland of Britain, invasions by the Vikings and Scots reduced it to an earldom, stretching from the River Tweed to the Tees. It acted as a buffer zone, protecting the rest of England from Scottish invaders.

Northumbria at the time of the Conquest

Both the Bishops of Durham and the Earls of Bamburgh had remained virtually independent of the Kings of England, even during the reign of Alfred the Great (849-899). When William the Conqueror became king of England in 1066, he soon realised he needed to control Northumbria to protect his kingdom from Scottish invasion. William gained the allegiance of both Bishop and Earl, and confirmed their powers and privileges, acknowledging the remote independence of Northumbria. Even so, rebellions followed.

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 raid into Northumbria, an event that 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, with Northumbrian treasures. The bishop was caught, imprisoned, and later died in confinement, his see becoming vacant.

The Earl-Bishop of Northumbria

The Norman William Walcher was appointed as the new Bishop of Durham, but since the north was still not completely subdued, 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 Waltheof was nevertheless executed in 1075 after another rebellion.

Waltheof's powers were given to Walcher, the first and only Earl-Bishop of Northumbria. Now the Northumbrian province maintained a degree of political independence but was in the hands of one of the King's men. Walcher was a well-intentioned man but an incompetent leader, and this led to his murder in Gateshead in 1081.

Northumbria partitioned - Northumberland and Durham

Despite the murder, the new King William Rufus continued William I's policy in Northumbria. Walcher's successor, Bishop William of St. Carilef (1081-1096), was thus also given the powers of Earl, but only south of the Rivers Tyne and Derwent. This became the County Palatinate of Durham. The remainder, to the north of the rivers, became the county of Northumberland, where the political powers of the Bishops of Durham were limited to only certain districts. Despite the partition of political power, 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.

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 Palatinate of Durham: a virtually separate state, and 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 Palatinate that the king had in the rest of England. Although they were often called Prince Bishops this title was not actually used by any of the office holders.

The exceptional independence of the bishops reached its full development by 1300, although it diminished very substantially during the sixteenth century. Full powers were not returned to the Crown until 1836.

Bishops of Durham had the power 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
  • mint their own coins

In 1093 Bishop William demolished the old Durham Minster. The first stones of the replacement cathedral were laid by the Bishop and King Malcolm III of Scotland – even though Malcolm had invaded the county just two years before. Only a few months later, Malcolm III was killed during a raid on Alnwick.

Because the Earl joined the new King Donald III of Scotland, William Rufus invaded and took direct control of Northumbria. Suspecting of supporting the revolt, Bishop Carileph was summoned to Windsor to meet the king; he died there on January 6, 1096. Ranulf Flambard, William Rufus' chief adviser, was appointed the next Bishop, but not until 1099. Flambard had acquired a fortune for himself and the king by collecting revenue from postponed appointments and through his tough approach to taxing the barons.

By 1100 William Rufus was dead and Henry I was on the throne. To appease the barons, Flambard was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The first prisoner in the tower, Flambard also become the first to escape – using a rope smuggled in by a butler in a cask of wine. He then fled to seek refuge in Normandy.

One of the many anomalies of county administration in England that were resolved in the late nineteenth century was Islandshire. This exclave resulted from the Bishop holding Bedlington, and the shires or parishes of Norham and Holy Island, which lie on the south bank of the River Tweed, and also the Bishop's duty to maintain a major fortress overlooking the Tweed at Norham to check Scottish incursions. For a period Carlisle was also placed under the bishop's jurisdiction, to protect the west of England from invasion.

To differentiate his ecclesiastical and civil functions, the Bishops used two or more seals: the traditional almond-shaped seal of a cleric, and the oval seal of a nobleman. They also had a large round seal showing them seated administering justice on one side, and, on the other, armed and mounted on horseback. That design was, and still is, used by monarchs as the Great Seal of the Realm. Similarly, the bishop of Durham's coat of arms was set against a crosier and a sword, instead of two crosiers, and the mitre above the coat of arms was encircled with a coronet normally reserved for dukes.

In 1534, under King Henry VIII, an act was passed that listed the places that might be used in providing titles for Anglican assistant-bishops appointed as assistants to diocesan bishops. Such bishops had been common in the diocese of Durham, ensuring that episcopal functions continued to be performed while the diocesan bishop was playing his expected part in affairs of state. For instance Bishop Langley was frequently in London and occasionally overseas because as chancellor to Kings Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI, he was the highest ranking servant of the Crown.

List of Bishops of Durham

Roman Catholic Bishops

  • Aldhun 995-1018
  • Eadmund 1021-1041
  • Eadred 1041-1042
  • Ethelric 1042-1056
  • Ethelwin 1056-1071

Roman Catholic Prince-Bishops

  • Walcher 1071-1080
  • William of St. Carilef 1081-1096
  • Ranulf Flambard 1099-1128
  • Geoffrey Rufus 1133-1140
  • William of St. Barbara 1143-1153
  • Hugh Pudsey 1153-1195
  • Philip of Poitou 1195-1208
  • Richard Marsh 1217-1226
  • Richard le Poor 1229-1237
  • Nicholas Farnham 1241-1249
  • Walter of Kirkham 1249
  • Robert Stitchill 1260-1274
  • Robert of Holy Island 1274-1283
  • Antony Beck 1284-1310; also Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem from 1306 to 1311, the only Englishman ever to hold this post.
  • Richard Kellaw 1311-1316
  • Lewis de Beaumont 1318-1333
  • Richard de Bury 1333-1345
  • Thomas Hatfield 1345-1381
  • John Fordham 1382-1388
  • Walter Skirlaw 1388-1406
  • Thomas Langley 1406-1437
  • Robert Neville 1437-1457
  • Laurence Booth 1457-1476
  • William Dudley 1476-1483
  • John Sherwood 1484-1494
  • Richard Fox 1494-1501
  • William Senhouse 1502-1505
  • Christopher Bainbridge 1507-1508
  • Thomas Ruthall 1509-1523
  • Thomas Wolsey 1523-1529

The Reformation

Church of England Prince-Bishops

Church of England Bishops

External links

Last updated: 10-24-2005 08:19:00
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