From Kings of distant past and powerful Prince Bishops to the current Queen of England, Durham has many fascinating connections to royals throughout history.  

To celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee we’ve travelled through time and discovered lots of incredible connections the county has to past and present royal families, from King Cnut to the noble Neville family and H.M. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. 

We've uncovered some incredible legends and surprising stories... 

Collage of paintings of different Prince Bishops throughout history

The Prince Bishops 

The Prince Bishops of Durham were powerful men, second only to the English monarch, they enjoyed quasi-royal powers for 800 years and controlled the County Palatine of Durham, stretching from the River Tees to the River Tyne.

 The Prince Bishops pretty much lived like kings in their castles or palaces and had nearly all the same powers within Durham that the king had in the rest of England. Many throughout history have quoted that there were always two kings of England, the Lord King of England and the Prince Bishop, who’s main responsibility was to protect English interests as a buffer state between England and Scotland.  

In 1836 the last Prince Bishop died. The Bishopric of Durham, of course, continued but without the temporal powers. Today, the Bishop of Durham remains the fourth senior Anglican Bishop ranking after the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop of York and Bishop of London. 

drone shot of Auckland Castle and surrounding grounds

The Prince Bishops are mainly linked to two major castles - Durham Castle and Auckland Castle, both of which are now open to visitors throughout the year. The Prince Bishops also had an extensive hunting forest in the medieval period in Weardale, in the Durham Dales, known as the Great Chase. 

In 1109 King Henry I gave the Bishopric of Durham a Royal Charter granting ownership and hunting rights for all forests between the River Tyne and the River Tees. Westgate Castle was built by Bishop Bek, near the town of Stanhope as a hunting lodge, and as a location for the Forest Courts. Today nothing is visible today above ground, only limited remains of the lodge survive below ground.    

Did you know? 

  • When King Richard I set off for the Crusades he appointed Prince Bishop Hugh le Puiset regent over all land north of the River Humber with authority to act on the king’s behalf in his absence. His mother Agnes, was the granddaughter of William the Conqueror and his uncle was King Stephen.
  • Prince Bishop Thomas Hatfield was a friend and advisor to King Edward III. He also tutored Edward, the Black Prince (Edward III’s son). Hatfield was responsible for the building of the Bishop of Durham’s throne in the Quire of Durham Cathedral.

The Coronation ceremony and Bishop of Durham

The Bishop of Durham has a significant role to play in the Coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. He is one of two Bishops who traditionally escort the Sovereign at the Coronation ceremony and remains at the right hand of the new monarch as the crown is placed on his/her head. 

At the Coronation of the present Queen in 1953 the Bishop of Durham was (Arthur) Michael Ramsey, who went on to become the Archbishop of York in 1956 and the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1961.  The Transfiguration Window in Durham Cathedral was installed in 2010 “in honour of Bishop Michael Ramsey” and contains his image in the design.

Painting of monks carrying St Cuthbert's coffin - Chester-Le-Street

Chester-le-Street

In 883AD King Guthred granted an area of land at Chester-le-Street to the Community of St Cuthbert, where a wooden church was built to house St Cuthbert’s body which remained at this site for 112 years before being removed to Durham in 995AD.

Throughout history many Kings visited St Cuthbert’s Shrine at Chester-Le-Street, including King Athelstan, stepson of Queen Aelfflaed and King Edmund I, grandson of King Alfred the Great. 

Did you know?

  • In 1603 King James VI of Scotland stayed at Lumley Castle on his way south to London to claim the throne of England as King James I of England?        

Durham Cathedral at sunset image by Mike Ridley

Durham Cathedral 

Throughout history many Kings have made pilgrimage to the site of Durham Cathedral, especially the earlier and much smaller church, which stood on the site of the present Durham Cathedral.  

  • 1296 - King Edward I made gifts to St Cuthbert’s Shrine en-route to fighting the Scots.   
  • As a newly crowned king, King Henry IV had been accompanied on his Scottish campaigns in 1400 by the Banner of St Cuthbert. He presented two jewels at the Shrine of St Cuthbert.
  • 1448 – King Henry VI stayed at Durham Castle and made his own pilgrimage to Shrine of St Cuthbert.   
  • 1484 – King Richard III gifted “a robe of blue velvet with great lions of pure gold” to the Shrine of St Cuthbert.
  • June 1633 – King Charles I visited Durham Cathedral. He knelt at the north door and prayed, which was followed by an elaborate church service. The king returned the next day for Matins. In the Cathedral Museum the cope (a long, semi-circular cloak worn by priests during ceremonies) made for that royal visit is on display.  

1st November 1072 – William Conqueror (King William I) passed through Durham on his return from fighting King Malcolm III of Scotland and attended All Saints Day service. Two very different versions of the story of his visit exist - The king approached the Shrine of St Cuthbert with “great devotion” or  The king showed his disbelief in the story of the Saint’s incorrupt body but was taken strangely ill as he approached the Shrine and fled from Durham, not stopping until he was south of the River Tees and away from the land of St Cuthbert. Which do you believe? 

Main Nave of Durham Cathedral

Did you know? 

  • In the medieval period women were not allowed to go beyond the Frosterley Marble line (near the font). Women were confined to the Galilee Chapel and the very rear of the nave. According to legend this was because of St Cuthbert’s supposed dislike of women and therefore women were not allowed to approach the sacred body of Cuthbert.     
  • Legend says that in 1333 Queen Philippa (wife of King Edward III) stayed overnight in the Prior’s lodging in the Cathedral cloisters. The Queen was supposedly woken during the night, briefed on the Saint’s dislike of women and agreed to move out of the Prior’s lodging and transfer to Durham Castle. Instead of taking a direct route through the Cathedral interior, the Queen agreed to “go the long way round” via the Baileys, Dun Cow Lane and then onto Palace Green and to the Castle. 

External View of Durham Castle and Durham Castle Keep

Durham Castle

Durham Castle was the centre of power for The Prince Bishops of Durham. Many Prince Bishops have called the castle home throughout the years, and many have left their mark on the castle. You can hear all the stories and legends about these powerful men on a guided tour of the castle. 

  • During the 13th century Bishop Bekhad had the Great Hall constructed for the visit of King Edward I.
  • 1503 – Princess Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, stayed at the castle on her way north to marry the Scottish King James IV. Prince Bishop Richard Fox was involved in the discussions relating to the marriage and held a banquet in her honour during her stay.  
  • Other royal visits include: Kings Edward I and II;   King Edward III and his wife, Queen Philiippa;   King Henry III, King John (of Magna Carta fame), King Henry VI (in Sept 1448), Kings James I (in 1617), Charles I, James II, and HM Queen Elizabeth II, who has visited the castle five times throughout her reign.

Exterior view of Durham Marriott Hotel Royal County on Old Elvett, Durham City

Durham Marriott Hotel Royal County, Old Elvet, Durham City 

The building now occupied by the Royal County Hotel incorporates much altered remains of earlier buildings which once lined Old Elvet. One of the earlier buildings was the home of Lady Mary Radcliffe whose half-sister was Lady Mary Tudor, an illegitimate daughter of King Charles II.    

The present hotel was originally called the County Hotel but at some point pre-1901 (exact date unknown) it is thought that the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) visited the hotel which was then renamed “Royal” County Hotel in honour of his visit.

Raby Castle and surrounding deer park

Raby Castle

King Cnut 
Raby Castle stands on the site of a 11th century manor house owned by King Cnut, who was the King of England, Denmark and Norway. The name Raby comes directly from the Viking/Danish language: Rabi (ra is Danish for boundary and bi means settlement).

House of Nevill
John Nevill, 3rd Baron Nevill (1337-1388) was born at Raby Castle and held the post of Steward of the royal household in 1368 and Chamberlain in 1371 and was part of the inner circle of King Edward III. His tomb is located in the nave of Durham Cathedral, and the Nevill Screen at the High Altar of Durham Cathedral was commissioned by him.

Known as ‘The Rose of Raby’, Cecily Nevill, daughter of Ralph Nevill, 1st Earl of Westmorland and his wife Joan,1st Countess of Westmorland was born at Raby Castle in 1415. Cecily married Richard, Duke of York and became the mother of two kings of England - Edward IV and Richard III. Cecily’s granddaughter, Elizabeth of York, married King Henry VII and a child of that marriage became King Henry VIII.    

The tombs of Cecily’s parents - Ralph Nevill, 1st Earl of Westmorland and Joan, 1st Countess of Westmorland are found inside St Mary’s parish church in the nearby village of Staindrop. It was their marriage which gave the Nevill family a royal pedigree because Joan was the half-sister of King Henry IV.   

The Rising of the North
Charles Nevill, 6th Earl of Westmorland (of Raby and Brancepeth Castles) was co-leader of the “Rising of the North” in November 1569, a rebellion which attempted to depose the protestant Queen Elizabeth I and replace her with the catholic Mary Queen of Scots. The plot failed and the Nevills lost control of Raby and Brancepeth estates and the 6th Earl went into exile.

Did you know? 

  • The royal connections don’t stop there! Raby Castle was also used as a filming location for the film ‘Elizabeth I’ (1998) starring Cate Blanchett and for TV programme ‘Victoria’ (2016 - 2019) starring Jenna Coleman!

ruins of Barnard Castle overlooking the River Tees

Barnard Castle

1471-1485 – Barnard Castle belonged to the Duke of Gloucester who, later, became King Richard III. He took a particular interest in this castle and in the town of Barnard Castle. If you visit the ruins of the castle keep your eye out for the lintel in the oriel window of the Great Chamber, which has a carving of a boar, Richard III’s heraldic symbol.  

Trimdon on the Durham Coast

Legend says that in 1020 King Cnut paused in this area en-route to the Shrine of St Cuthbert. He shaved (or trimmed) his hair as a sign of humility, hence the name “Trim-don” before making the public gesture of humility by walking the last five miles barefoot to St Cuthbert’s shrine in Durham.    

External view of The Bowes Museum with two children sat with backs to camera sat looking at museum

The Bowes-Lyon Family and The Bowes Museum 

The late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, the present Queen and the four children of the Queen have strong family connections with Durham.

The Bowes were one of the most ancient families of County Durham, and their ancestral home was Streatlam Castle, near Barnard Castle. In 1767 the family heiress, Mary Eleanor Bowes, married John Lyon, 9th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, of Glamis Castle, Angus, Scotland. 
Their son John Bowes, the 10th Earl resided at the Bowes family home of Streatlam Castle and fell in love with a village girl, Mary Millner, who gave birth to John Bowes, founder of The Bowes Museum, in 1811.

The Queen Mother on a past visit to the Bowes Museum admiring the famous Silver Swan.

Mary married the 10th Earl the day before his death in 1820, a court decided that the infant John Bowes could inherit only the Bowes family estates in England as his father had not resided in Scotland. The Scottish estates and title passed to the 10th Earl’s brother, who became the 11th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne and direct ancestor of Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, daughter of the 14th Earl and future wife of King George VI. Elizabeth and George were married became he became king, when he held the title Duke of York. Their eldest daughter, Elizabeth (b. 21 April 1926) is the present Queen. 

HRH Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother had a very special relationship with The Bowes Museum throughout her life. She visited the museum publicly five times and until her death in 2002 was the Patron of the Friends of The Bowes Museum.

Did you know? 

  • The surname ‘Bowes Lyon’ came into existence after John Bowes’s death in 1885, when the Bowes family estates in England were re-united with the Lyon estates in Scotland.
  • The Bowes Lyon family continue to live in the county, with landed estate in Teesdale, based around Holwick Hall near Middleton in Teesdale in the Durham Dales. The family is one of two major landowners in Teesdale, the other being Lord Barnard’s estate centred on Raby Castle.

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