Prince Bishops

Coat of arms of Nathanial, Lord Crewe, Durham's longest serving prince-bishopWhen William the Conqueror and his Norman army successfully invaded England in 1066 they found that the further away from London they got the more difficult it was to maintain control. In 1069 an expedition led north by Robert Comines was massacred in Durham by a host of angry Northumbrians. This resulted in a long campaign of savage reprisals that came to be known as ‘the harrying of the north’ (fortunately however, Durham escaped the worst of its excesses). After it was over William installed William Walcher, a trusted cleric from Liege, as Bishop of Durham to administer the region alongside Waltheof, a Northumbrian earl. When Waltheof was executed for his involvement in a Norman plot against William, the earldom was sold to Walcher who became the first ‘Prince-Bishop’ in 1071.

The bishop thus effectively became not only spiritual but temporal lord over all the lands that constituted the Patrimony of St Cuthbert or which we loosely refer to today as the ‘Land of the Prince Bishops‘. He was able to administer his own laws, collect and spend his own taxes, mint his own currency and appoint his own officials without seeking authority from the crown. However, as a ‘quid pro quo’ he was also expected to raise and maintain armies to defend the country from Scottish aggression and to accompany the monarch on campaign when necessary. Several including Puiset, Hatfield and Fordham – but perhaps most notably Bek, the ‘Patriarch of Jerusalem’ – personally and aggressively led forces raised under their banner.

It can be no surprise therefore that bishops were very rarely appointed from a monastic background, most of them being favoured courtiers, administrators or diplomats appointed by the sovereign (or in some cases, the Pope) to one of richest sees in the country. This resulted very often in open conflict with the prior and his monks, and after the reformation in 1540, the Dean and his canons who were constantly at pains to reinforce and maintain their own status as well as that of the church and its lands.


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