Princes of the Church

Bishops and their Palaces

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David Rollason
Society for Medieval Archaeology Monographs
  • New York, NY: 
    , May
     476 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Pre-modern bishops were princes not quite of this world. They lived in aristocratic milieu, but their distinctive spiritual, administrative, and intellectual activities set their residences and domestic environments apart from those of their secular counterparts. Princes of the Church: Bishops and their Palaces is a collection of twenty-four essays—the fruits of a conference held at Bishop Auckland Castle in 2015—in which the interplay between similarities and differences is explored richly, and from many viewpoints. Palatial domestic buildings are the starting-points for investigating their wider contexts: political, for projecting power; domestic, as settings for households of a special kind; intellectual, as vehicles for theological and iconographic display; and topographical, as the foci of cities, rural communities, and landscapes of recreation. All but four of the contributions are on English, Scottish, and Welsh themes, but the collection is not insular: rather, English palaces (pre-eminently Auckland) serve as case studies to illuminate Western European patterns.

Why does a bishop live in a “palace”? In late antiquity, episcopal residences were already becoming distinguished by imperial attributes, notably the aula palatina (Jaqueline P. Sturm); in Italy, after 1200, the new competition of communal palazzi incentivized bishops to keep up appearances (Maureen C. Miller). In England, these influences merged with the old tradition of hall-centered aristocratic life to produce an exceptionally lavish group of late Romanesque and Gothic episcopal halls. Hugh de Le Puiset’s magnificent hall at Auckland, with its marble shafting, illustrates the rich but elegant transitional idiom of the 1190s (Malcolm Thurlby). During the century after 1250, palaces were augmented with sumptuous ancillary buildings like the gatehouse at Exeter (Richard Parker), and larger, more luxurious chamber-blocks. The extraordinary arcaded parapets at St. Davids, added by Henry de Gower (d. 1347), gave the building a unique skyline, and embodied both theological and courtly imagery (Rick Turner): another illustration that in spanning the two worlds, medieval bishops were always distinctive. So were their early modern successors, like John Cosin of Durham (d. 1672) whose lavish and idiosyncratic architectural enthusiasm left its mark on every building he touched, not least Puiset’s hall at Auckland, which he remodeled as a chapel (Adrian Green).

In their parks, forests, and chases, English bishops hunted like noblemen and competed with their secular equals: the deer-hunting culture was a vehicle for great men to honor or shame each other in ways that crossed the lay/ clerical divide. Yet again, there were distinctive overtones: Andrew G. Miller argues here that attacks on a bishop’s deer undermined his masculinity—potentially ambiguous in a celibate cleric. At times, episcopal status-posturing verged on the bizarre. Shute Barrington of Durham (d. 1826) was a philanthropist and anti-slavery campaigner, yet he used his privileges to raise a private army against striking miners, and refashioned his state apartments at Auckland to create a quasi-regal throne-room. By contrast, his less combative colleague Richard Hurd of Worcester (d. 1808) put his efforts into building a splendid academic library: a unique survival now, but perhaps not so exceptional at the time.

Yet bishops were also busy administrators, whose routines and itineraries are exceptionally well documented. These documents show, for instance, that English medieval bishops primarily interacted with their own clerics in their chambers—often the richest and most opulent rooms in their palaces—but conducted other business in the more public setting of their halls (Michael Burger). Another conspicuous feature of the bishops in high medieval England was the possession of several different residences, widely distributed for purposes of diocesan administration, politics, recreation, or attendance on the monarch. This pattern mirrored the itinerant lifestyles of kings and nobles, which it also tracked in a growing concentration on major residences, and abandonment of the others, during the late middle ages: Winchester, for instance, had twenty-three separate residences c. 1300, reduced to twelve by c. 1450 (John Hare). After 1700, palaces increasingly replicated the sedentary comforts of the greater country houses. Catherine Talbot, a member of the Bishop of Oxford’s household in the 1740s, led “a mere domestic life,” but with differences: visitors were varied and interesting, diocesan administration and Church politics were transacted just out of earshot, and Talbot had special social responsibilities to maintain her host’s public standing (Michael Ashby).

The editing and presentation of this volume are excellent—with the exception of the murky black-and-white photographs. Chapters are grouped into four sections, with results that are superficially idiosyncratic—the six chapters on Bishop Auckland appear in three sections in reverse chronological order—but are actually very effective in linking themes and associating ideas. The reader reverts to the same buildings in different contexts, and the interplay between thematic and topographically-specific strands is stimulating and original. Editor David Rollason and his team are to be congratulated on a major contribution towards the mature understanding of historic buildings in their social and intellectual contexts. So too is Jonathan Ruffer, the munificent rescuer and benefactor of Bishop Auckland, to whom Princes of the Church is appropriately dedicated.



About the Reviewer(s): 

John Blair is Professor of Medieval History and Archaeology at the University of Oxford.

Date of Review: 
September 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Rollason retired in 2010 and remains Emeritus Professor, his most recent publication being The Power of Place: Rulers and Their Palaces, Landscapes, Cities, and Holy Places (2016) – the outcome of his 2010-13 Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship.


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