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Reconstruction of Bek’s Chapel in Auckland Castle. (Andy Gammon / The Auckland Project)

Lost Medieval Chapel Unearthed 370 Years After Destruction

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The mysterious 14th century Bek’s Chapel that was lost at the beginning of the English Civil War has been rediscovered and excavated at Auckland Castle in England.

The grand, two-leveled religious structure was originally built for the powerful Bishop Anthony Bek in the 14th century, but its location was lost after it was demolished in 1646 and the chapel site became a historical mystery among English archaeologists.

The recent excavation project was conducted by Archaeologists from Durham University and volunteers from the local charity The Auckland Project , which currently owns Auckland Castle, and according to Durham University archaeologist Chris Gerrard, speaking to the Daily Mail , “this is archaeology at its very best.”

Archaeologists excavating the Bek’s Chapel site at Auckland Castle. (Jamie Sproates / The Auckland Project)

Archaeologists excavating the Bek’s Chapel site at Auckland Castle. (Jamie Sproates / The Auckland Project )

A Grand Religious Structure With Stunning Features

Some 370 years after it was destroyed in the wake of the English Civil War, the team of excavators pieced together clues from historical documents and old illustrations and applied the very latest hit-tech survey techniques to finally solve the mystery of the whereabouts of the 14th century medieval chapel - Bek’s Chapel - at Auckland Castle in County Durham.

The team from Durham University spent five months unearthing the foundations of the chapel including part of the unique black plaster floor and buttresses along the sides of the chapel. The walls measured 4.9 feet (1.5 m) thick by 39 feet (12 m) wide and 131 feet (40 m) and contained “ultra-fine masonry,” fragments of stone columns and a delicate stone vaulting from the ceiling with fragments of stained glass.

Stained glass from the long-lost Bek’s Chapel. This fragment shows a pelican pecking her own breast – a traditional Christian symbol representing Christ's self-sacrifice. (Durham University / The Auckland Project)

Stained glass from the long-lost Bek’s Chapel. This fragment shows a pelican pecking her own breast – a traditional Christian symbol representing Christ's self-sacrifice. ( Durham University / The Auckland Project )

The researchers reconstruction informs that the lost chapel was larger than the king's own chapel in Westminster and would have been “stunning,” featuring a timber ceiling and huge pillars with decorated stonework.

Reconstruction of Bek’s Chapel in Auckland Castle. Source: Andy Gammon / The Auckland Project

Reconstruction of Bek’s Chapel in Auckland Castle. Source: Andy Gammon / The Auckland Project

Who Was Bek, The Wealthy English Chapel Builder?

Anthony Bek (also spelled Beck and Beke) was born into a family of knights around the year AD 1245 and his father was Walter Bek, who held lands at Eresby in Lincolnshire. Serving the crown as the Bishop-Prince of Durham between 1284-1310, Bek became one of the most influential men in Europe after winning the respect of Prince Edward (later to be King Edward I ).

With 140 knights, Bek accompanied and advised Edward on a crusade in AD 1270. Renowned for his “bravery, chastity and extravagance” he died in London in AD 1311 and was buried in Durham two months later.

Bishop Bek built Auckland Castle on the site of an existing 12th century manor house, which served as his main residence. A report in The Independent says the experts believe that the grand scale of the chapel and its elaborate decorations would have served as a “statement to the status of the bishop-prince” who wielded power over armies, minted his own coinage and even ruled in place of King Edward I.

Archaeologists excavating the Bek’s Chapel site at Auckland Castle. (Jamie Sproates / The Auckland Project)

Archaeologists excavating the Bek’s Chapel site at Auckland Castle. (Jamie Sproates / The Auckland Project )

A Castle Under Demand

Bek’s Chapel was described as being “sumptuously constructed” to a scale comparable with continental chapels, such as Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. But the castle fell to Sir Arthur Haselrig who was a leader of the parliamentary opposition to Charles I in 1646 at the beginning of the English Civil War. Haselrig demolished most of the medieval structure, including the chapel, and he built a mansion on the site, but the castle was later rebuilt after the Civil War and the banqueting hall was converted into a replacement chapel.

The Auckland Project's archaeology and social history curator, John Castling, told press that it is difficult to “overstate just how significant this building is,” and the reconstruction images show a building that would have “stunned visitors, from all walks of life.” He also said discovering the chapel was a fantastic moment for the whole team and that they were all surprised by the sheer scale of the chapel.

Professor Gerrard said the researchers will resume their excavations in the hope that they will uncover more of the south side of the building, but until then an exhibition titled ‘ Inside Story: Conserving Auckland Castle ’ will open on March 4 and run until September 6 in the castle's Bishop Trevor Gallery.

Top image: Reconstruction of Bek’s Chapel in Auckland Castle. (Andy Gammon / The Auckland Project )

By Ashley Cowie

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