I was recently browsing through the Keys To The Past website and came across a brief reference to a possible Iron Age hillfort at St. Andrew’s church on the outskirts of Bishop Auckland at a place known locally as South Church. Churches built upon Prehistoric sites are always of interest, sadly I couldn’t find any more information on the hillfort. I knew that there was an ancient cross in the church so I decided to go and have a look.
St Andrew Auckland, or South Church, the ancient mother church of Bishop Auckland. Approaching it, the church stands dominatingly above mean houses in a churchyard raised above the level of the road, a long impressive building with transepts and two storied porch. It is one of the great churches of County Durham, founded as a collegiate church, and is almost entirely of the late 13th century…The greatest treasure is the Anglo-Saxon Cross.H Thorold
Walking around the church grounds I could find no evidence of the hillfort. I was met at the church door by the Warden who asked me if I was there for the funeral? I told him that I was there to have a look at the ancient cross, he hesitated and told me that the church was usually locked but had opened for a funeral, he said that the funeral wasn’t due to start for half an hour so I could have a quick look around.
The cross is is essentially a reproduction incorporating a number of fragments that were discovered during building work in 1891. The Cross fragments have been dated to the late 8th – early 9th century. I’ve visited a number of churches where various fragments have been stuck onto the walls or displayed on window ledges, this three dimensional reproduction is far more powerful.
The carvings are beautiful
This panel is rather strange, the sculptor was obviously very skilled, look at the beautiful drape of the robes, …the fingers!
The current church of St. Andrew’s was founded by Bishop Carileph who was also known as William of Calais, he was the second Norman Bishop of Durham and a close advisor to William the Conqueror and his successor William Rufus, Bishop Carileph was also responsible for the re-building of Durham Cathedral.
He also was responsible for removing the existing ‘non celibate’ monks from Durham and replacing them with Benedictine Monks from the monasteries at Jarrow and Wearmouth. To achieve this he had seek the approval of the King, a French Archbishop and finally the Pope, which, to me, implies that removing the monks was a matter of great importance to both the church and the state. The monks were sent to communities throughout the County including Auckland, Billingham and Darlington.
The ‘non-celibate’ aspect of the description of the monks implies that they were somehow disorderly but I don’t think that this was the case. I suspect that the Durham monks followed the ancient Celtic tradition of Christianity, they were the keepers of the shrine of St. Cuthbert, a group known as The Culdees.
The Culdees were a monastic group who followed the Celtic Christian tradition. I first read about them many years ago in Lewis Spence’s book The Mysteries of Britain published in 1905. The book is of its time, Spence was interested in the occult, folklore and Scottish Nationalism, the book covers a whole range of topics from megaliths to druids, bards, Arthurian legend, grail myths and the Egyptian cult of the dead. Spence viewed the Culdees as direct descendants of the Druids.
‘They married, and their abbots held high office by hereditary right, so that in Armagh fifteen generations held the episcopate successively. They dwelt in colleges, practicing music as well as the mechanical arts…They condemned the mass, paid no respect to holy relics and refused to offer up prayers for the dead. In fact any less resembling Roman practice than theirs can scarcely be imagined.’L Spence
Removing the Culdees from Durham, allowed the Bishop to surround himself with a trustworthy administration who were aligned to the Roman church and loyal to the County Palatine of Durham where the Prince Bishop’s powers were almost equal to that of the Norman King.
County Durham. A Shell Guide. Henry Thorold. 1980. Faber & Faber.
The Mysteries of Britain. Secret Rites & Traditions of Ancient Britain. Lewis Spence. 1905 reprinted 1994. Senate