A dig may have uncovered evidence of a dramatic English Civil War episode in a castle’s history.
A team from Durham University is currently digging in the grounds of Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland before work to turn the historic site into a top attraction and tourist destination begins.
The Auckland Castle Trust, which now runs the castle, is keen to shed new light on the site’s 900 years of history .
Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a building near the castle’s Scotland Wing – so-called because that is where prisoners from north of the Border were once held – alongside evidence of burning. The rubble, which includes finely worked stone, is up to 1.5m deep in places and lies over what is a substantial layer of burnt sediment and ash.
The castle’s head curator, Dr Chris Ferguson, believes the vast volume of debris could suggest a “very dramatic end” to what looks to have been a substantial structure or range of buildings once directly associated with the main palace.
Dr Ferguson thinks it could either be linked to the tumult surrounding the English Civil War or perhaps improvements undertaken in Georgian times.
“We know that Sir Arthur Hazlerigg, who was one of the five MPs who led the rebellion against Charles I in 1642, was appointed Oliver Cromwell’s general in the North East,” said Dr Ferguson.
“In 1650 he bought Auckland Castle after the then Bishop of Durham, Thomas Morton, had fled at the height of the civil war. Hazlerigg seems to have wanted to turn the castle into his own palace in the North.
“We know he set about what was later described as the ‘ravenous sacrilege’ of the building and that he proceeded to blow up the 350-year-old chapel with gunpowder with the intention of reusing the stone in a new mansion.
“There is great argument as to how far Hazlerigg got in building this mansion, which is believed to have been on the grassed area in front of where the chapel is today.
“Following the Restoration the bishops returned to Auckland Castle and we also know that Hazlerigg’s house was dismantled and the stone used to build the grand chapel we have now.
“If gunpowder was indeed used then that could account for the astounding amount of wreckage that has been found.”
Hazlerigg was appointed Parliamentary governor of Newcastle and captured Tynemouth Castle from the Royalists.
Natalie Swann, project archaeologist at Durham University, said: “Whatever happened here is from a time when records were either vague or non-existent, so anything we find will help add to the overall picture of the castle.”
The dig is being funded as part of a wider Heritage Lottery Fund supported project.