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The Bishop of Durham is the Anglican bishop responsible for the diocese of Durhammarker in the province of York. The Diocese is one of the oldest in the country and its bishop is a member of the House of Lordsmarker. The current Bishop of Durham is Nicholas Thomas Wright, appointed in 2003.

Other duties of the Bishop of Durham include (with the Bishop of Bath and Wells) escorting the sovereign at the coronation.


He is officially styled The Right Reverend Father in God, (Christian Name), by Divine Providence 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 (the Latinised form of Old English Dunholm). In the past, bishops of Durham varied their signatures between Dunelm and the French Duresm.



The line of bishops of Durham stretches back to the 10th century, when Aldhun, Bishop of Lindisfarne (995-1018), transferred his see to Durham.

The Bishop owes his unique position to the 7th and 8th century Kingdom of Northumbriamarker, which stretched from the Humbermarker to the Firth of Forthmarker. Subsequently the Kingdom came under Danishmarker and English sovereignty and was transformed into an Earldom.

When William the Conqueror became king of England in 1066, he soon realised the need to control Northumbria to protect his kingdom from Scottish incursions. He gained the allegiance of both the Bishop of Durham and the Earl of Northumbria by confirming their privileges and acknowledging the remote independence of Northumbria.

To quell rebellions, William installed Robert Comine, a Norman noble, as the Earl of Northumbria, but Comine and his 700 men were massacred in Durham. In revenge, the King raided Northumbria in the Harrying of the North. Aethelwine, the Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Durham, tried to flee with Northumbrian treasures, but was caught and imprisoned. He later died in confinement, leaving his see vacant for William to the King to appoint William Walcher as bishop of Durham in 1071.


The King also appointed Waltheof, an Anglo-Saxon of the old Northumbria house, as the new Earl. Bishop William was on friendly terms with Earl Waltheof, who built a castle at Durham for the bishop. After another rebellion, Waltheof was executed in 1075 and in his place William Walcher was appointed Earl, becoming the first Prince Bishop. Walcher was well-intentioned but proved an incompetent leader. He was murdered in Gatesheadmarker in 1081.

King William Rufus divided the Earldom into two parts: the lands north of the rivers Tyne and Derwentmarker were ruled by the Counts of Northumberlandmarker, while the lands south of the rivers were put under the control of the Bishop of Durham.

The lands ruled by the bishops became known as the County Palatine of Durham, a defensive buffer zone between England and the Northumbria-Scottish borderland. Due to its strategic importance and its remoteness from Londonmarker, the County Palatinate became a virtually autonomous entity, in which the Prince-Bishop possessed the powers of a King. Specifically, the Prince-Bishops had the authority to

  • hold their own parliaments
  • 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

For a period Carlislemarker was also placed under the bishop's jurisdiction, to protect the north west of England.

Durham's exceptional status reached its zenith by 1300, when Prince-Bishop Antony Beck remarked that:

"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".

To ensure that episcopal functions continued to be performed while the diocesan bishop was playing his part in political affairs of state, suffragan bishops were appointed. For instance, Bishop Thomas Langley served as chancellor to the Kings Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI and was frequently away in London and occasionally overseas.


In 1536 Henry VIII greatly diminished the Prince-Bishop's secular authority, which was further reduced during and after the English Civil War.

After the Union of the crowns of England and Scotland in 1603, the County Palatinate, originally founded to check Scottish incursions, increasingly became an anachronism.

The principality was finally abolished in 1836. In 1844 the Islandshiremarker exclave was transferred to the jurisdiction of Northumberland, while the Bishop's duty to maintain a major fortress overlooking the Tweed at Norhammarker also came to an end. 1882 saw the Bishop lose the religious leadership for the whole of Northumbria when the Diocese of Newcastlemarker was created. In 1971 the Courts Act modernised the English courts system and abolished the Palatinate courts.

Still, people born in Bedlingtonmarker or the other parts of old North Durham, had birth certificates issued with the County Palatine of Durham printed on them, and the North Durham satellite areas governed their areas as Urban District Councils still under the rule of Durham. This prevailed until 1974, when administrative boundaries where changed and all of these areas, and other "autonomous" towns connected to Durham, lost their independence.


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.

Coat of arms

As a symbol of his palatine jurisdiction, 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, usually of the form known as a ‘crest coronet’ (and which is blazoned as a ‘ducal coronet’ though not actually the coronet of a duke). Although the jurisdiction was surrendered to the Crown in 1836, these heraldic symbols of their former power remain.

Bishop's Palace

The bishop's palace is Auckland Castlemarker in Bishop Aucklandmarker. Until the 1830s and the national mood at the time of the Great Reform Act, the Bishop had at least two more castles; Norham Castlemarker in Northumberlandmarker and his main Palace at Durham Castlemarker now occupied by Durham Universitymarker. The Bishop still has the right to use "his" suite at Durham Castle, although the right he retained to stable his horses in buildings adjacent to Palace Greenmarker in Durham has lapsed - it was noted in the preamble to University of Durham Act 1936 that the Bishop no longer kept horses.

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