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New exhibit shows power and glory at Auckland Castle

A stunning and nationally significant new exhibit will be unveiled at Auckland Castle in July. Jane Hall has the details

Andrew Ferrara, Auckland Castle's assistant curator, with the Morton Cope
Andrew Ferrara, Auckland Castle's assistant curator, with the Morton Cope

With its intricate and striking embroidery picked out in vibrant silks, and couched gold and silver thread fashioned on to a background of deep blue velvet, the Morton Cope is certainly an eye-catching piece.

So luminous are the colours, and the stitching so finely worked, the raiment could have been made yesterday.

But the vestment, with its elaborate needlework, is more than 500 years old.

And this month, this beautiful and tactile link to our medieval past will go on public display for the first time as it takes its place alongside other sacred masterpieces and works of art in Auckland Castle’s acclaimed Power and Glory exhibition.


The prestigious showcase, running until September 30 at the medieval Bishop Auckland fortress, looks at how the Tudors successfully used religious art as propaganda to stake their claim to the English throne in the years after the divisive Wars of the Roses.

The main focus is the 528-year-old Paradise State Bed, thought to have belonged to the first of the Tudor monarchs Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York.

Other priceless late 15th and early 16th-century royal artefacts on show include portraits of Elizabeth of York and her son Henry VIII, normally housed at the National Portrait Gallery, and an exquisite book of hours that belonged to Margaret Beaufort, on loan from Alnwick Castle’s Northumberland Collection.

The Morton Cope, which was bought from a private dealer earlier this year by the Auckland Castle Trust, will sit alongside two other centuries’ old vestments originally given to Westminster Abbey by Richard III and Henry VII, on loan for the Power and Glory exhibition.

A cope is a long liturgical cloak, open at the front and fastened at the breast, with a usually highly ornamented band or clasp.

The Morton Cope was at some point fashioned into an altar frontal – perhaps during the religious turmoil of Henry VIII’s reign.

But while this is all that is believed to remain of the original mantle, it is still a rare and nationally significant religious relic of England’s Catholic past.

Clare Baron, Auckland Castle’s assistant curator, says: “Pieces of both ecclesiastical and national importance like the Morton Cope only come up for auction once in a lifetime, if that.

“It is not just a piece that is religiously significant, it was also worn by the highest churchman in the country, the Archbishop of Canterbury, during the terribly tumultuous time that saw the end of the Wars of the Roses and the birth of the Tudor period.

“Given what was going on at that time, it is remarkable that even this fragment of the Morton Cope has survived. It is equally extraordinary given its age that it still looks so resplendent.”

The cope is thought to have been made sometime after 1461, and may have been worn at the funeral of Edward IV in 1483. It was the death of his younger brother Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, that saw Henry Tudor seize the English crown.

The cope is eventually destined to take centre stage in a new world-class exhibition called 5,000 Years of Faith planned to open in spring 2018 in a purpose-built £17m museum annexe at Auckland Castle – home for 900 years to the Prince Bishops of Durham.

Before then, the cope will undergo conservation in a bid to ensure it survives for another 500 years.

The debut of the cope coincides with the introduction of a new family-friendly Tudor Trail inspired by the Power and the Glory.

Children are being encouraged to turn detective as they search for Tudor-themed symbols and coats of arms and discover more about the part Auckland Castle and the bishops played in these politically and religiously chaotic times.

Auckland Castle is open to the public 10.30am-4pm every day except Tuesday. Admission is £8 for adults, with children under 16 free. Anyone who would like to take part in the castle’s ongoing consultation process will receive a £4 admission refund. For more information visit www.aucklandcastle.org


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