From the Middle Ages, the bishops of Durham held an unusual position in England: they were both Church administrators and Crown officials. We now generally refer to them as “Prince Bishops”, but that is not how they would have been called by their contemporaries. What authority did they have and does the current Bishop of Durham still have the same status?
What is a Prince Bishop?
The term ‘Prince Bishop’ is a translation of the eighteenth-century German word Fürstbishof. When English historians in the nineteenth century were trying to define the special status of the Bishops of Durham in the Middle Ages and later, they were looking for bishops in a similar position elsewhere in Europe.
Medieval Germany was divided into different semi-independent states under the rule of an elected Holy Roman Emperor. Some of these states were ruled by bishops and they were therefore secular lords, like princes, dukes or earls, as well as spiritual leaders. Fürstbishof neatly combines these two functions in a single word.
The bishops of Durham did not have the same level of independence as their German counterparts: they were loyal servants of the Crown, appointed through royal favour. They represented the Crown in northern England and were able to impose law and order in their territory between the Tyne and Tees rivers: the Durham Palatinate. This was different from other parts of England, where lords had a lot less power and were completely answerable to the Crown.
The bishops’ powerful position went unchallenged until 1836, when their palatinate rights were transferred to the Crown. The only exception was during the Civil War and Commonwealth period (1642-1660), when there was no bishop of Durham and much episcopal territory was sold off.
The Function of Palace Green
Unlike other English lords, the bishops could issue their own coins, raise their own taxes, and establish their own legal court. The Exchequer Building was constructed in the mid-fifteenth century for this purpose and housed the Court of Chancery, where local disputes could be settled.