Industry News

Team of 100 dig to uncover the home of infamous Tower of London prisoner

Publication Date: 06th Jun 2024

Visitors to Auckland Castle will have the opportunity to see a working archaeological site this summer as a team of 100 students and experts aim to discover more of Bishop Auckland’s history, taking place in the Castle’s grounds from Monday 3rd June – Friday 21st June.  

Archaeologists from Durham University and The Auckland Project are preparing to uncover the lost house built by infamous Parliamentarian and Puritan Sir Arthur Haselrig who owned Auckland Castle during the middle of the 17th century.  

Informed by geophysics, the team will be working to discover if the house was ever finished and lived in. They’re hoping to find household objects and identify essential parts of the building including windows and floors. Durham University’s Department of Archaeology is ranked fifth in the world in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2024, and this will be the sixth summer of excavations on the Auckland Castle site.  

Haselrig is famed as a key ally of Oliver Cromwell, and as the most powerful man in north-east England during Commonwealth purchased Auckland Castle whilst the monarchy, Church of England and Bishops had been outlawed. He quickly set about demolishing parts of the medieval Bishop’s castle, even using gunpowder to blow up the chapel built by Bishop Bek in approximately 1300, and began building a fittingly contemporary house for himself.  

Unfortunately for Haselrig, when the Monarchy was restored and Bishops returned to power in 1660, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The new Bishop of Durham, John Cosin, demolished Haselrig’s house wiping away the evidence of the Commonwealth and rebuilding Auckland Castle as a Bishop’s Palace. 

John Castling, Archaeology Curator at The Auckland Project said: “This excavation will give us an exciting view of the 1650s – the most dramatic of decades in Auckland Castle’s history. It also promises us a glimpse at an alternative timeline for the site and for northern England, had the course of history been different. What if the monarchy hadn’t been reinstated and Sir Arthur Haselrig was able to live in the house he erected? This dig will cast a light on that point in past where history almost, but didn’t quite, change its course.” 

“We’re especially excited to work with Durham University again – we both benefit hugely from their world-class expertise coming to investigate our remarkable buildings, gardens and parkland. Giving visitors to Auckland Castle a peek at the pit is equally exciting, as it’s not very often you’re welcomed to a working archaeological site on a family day out!” John added.  

A viewing platform will allow visitors to observe the work underway. When the dig is in progress on Mondays - Fridays, visitors will be able to talk to the archaeology students and may have the opportunity to handle objects as they’re found.  

Professor Chris Gerrard, the academic lead on the project from Durham University, said: “Sir Arthur Haselrig ended his days in the Tower of London, his reputation in tatters. Perhaps he thought about his grand design of a new house at Bishop Auckland and wondered what had become of it. We should be able to find out this summer and get a much better idea of what he was planning. With luck, we should also see the east end of the later medieval gatehouse we excavated in 2021 and that will help us to understand how the palace entrance looked before the present Wyatt arch was built at the end of the 18th century.” 

Auckland Castle’s excavations have previously featured on hit BBC TV show Digging for Britain and with nearly 900 years of history at the site it’s believed there is still more left to uncover. 

On Saturday 8th June, The Auckland Project’s Young Archaeology Club (YAC), open to 7 – 16-year-olds, will be getting stuck in and digging on the site to see what they can uncover. This is an initiative run by The Auckland Project and part of the Council for British Archaeology’s national YAC network. It is free to join and explores local digs as well as wider topics of archaeology and history.  

More information about the archaeological dig will be available on The Auckland Project’s website in the Discover section. Please note, visitors to the site will need a ticket to Auckland Castle or Unlimited Pass to view the archaeological work.