Diocese of Durham

Diocese of Durham

Coordinates: 54°43′01″N 1°35′38″W / 54.717°N 1.594°W / 54.717; -1.594

Diocese of Durham
Ecclesiastical province York
Archdeaconries Auckland, Durham, Sunderland
Parishes 249
Churches 292
Cathedral Durham Cathedral
Current leadership
Bishop Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham
Suffragans Mark Bryant, Bishop of Jarrow
Archdeacons Ian Jagger, Archdeacon of Durham
Stuart Bain, Archdeacon of Sunderland
Nick Barker, Archdeacon of Auckland

The Diocese of Durham is a Church of England diocese, based in Durham, and covering the historic County Durham (and therefore including the southern part of Tyne and Wear, the boroughs of Darlington, Hartlepool and the area of Stockton-on-Tees north of the River Tees). It was created in AD 1000 to replace the Diocese of Lindisfarne. The cathedral is Durham Cathedral and the bishop is the Bishop of Durham who lives at Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland. The diocese's administrative centre, the Diocesan Office, is located in the Scotland Wing of Auckland Castle.




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 Northumbria, which stretched from the Humber to the Firth of Forth. Subsequently the Kingdom came under Danish 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.[1] Walcher was well-intentioned but proved an incompetent leader. He was murdered in Gateshead in 1081.

King William Rufus divided the Earldom into two parts: the lands north of the rivers Tyne and Derwent were ruled by the Earls of Northumberland, 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 London, 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 Carlisle 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.

From 1537 to 1572, there was one suffragan Bishop of Berwick. Since 1572, the see has remained in abeyance, and Berwick-upon-Tweed is now in Newcastle diocese.

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 Islandshire exclave was transferred to the jurisdiction of Northumberland, while the Bishop's duty to maintain a major fortress overlooking the Tweed at Norham also came to an end. 1882 saw the Bishop lose the religious leadership for the whole of Northumbria when the part north of the River Tyne became the newly-created Diocese of Newcastle. In 1971 the Courts Act modernised the English courts system and abolished the Palatinate courts.

Since 1906, there has again been a suffragan bishop in the diocese – the Bishop of Jarrow. As of 2011, the incumbent is the Rt Revd Mark Bryant.

Still, people born in Bedlington 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 Castle in Bishop Auckland. Until the 1830s and the national mood at the time of the Great Reform Act, the Bishop had at least two more castles; Norham Castle in Northumberland and his main Palace at Durham Castle now occupied by Durham University. 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 Green in Durham has lapsed – it was noted in the preamble to University of Durham Act 1936 that the Bishop no longer kept horses.


  1. ^ Prince Bishop was never an official title.[citation needed]

External links

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