The History and Heritage of Northern England – Bishop Auckland

Bishop Auckland, County Durham

Alcleat – Alclit or Alcluith in Celtic/Cumbric times, possibly Alcleaf.

The first settlement in the area of the modern town was built on the ridhe above the confluence of the River Wear and the River Gaunless. It was known as the “cliff on the Clyde” which was possibly a local Celtic tribal name for what is today the River Wear, and had nothing to do with the River Clyde in modern Scotland. The area where Bishop Auckland eventually developed was part of the extensive tribal kingdom of the Brigantes.

During the Roman occupation of Britain, the settlement was largely untouched but the Roman road, Dere Street which connected the city of Eboracum (York) to the Roman fort at Corbridge ran through what is now the town of bishop Auckland and linked to a Roman fort at nearby Binchester, known by the Roman name of Vinovia.

After the Romans left Britain, the area came under the rule of the Anglo-Saxons and was part of the Kingdom of Northumbria. It is possible that the settlement was the area where the Anglo-Saxon noble Raedwald of Northumbria was killed in 844 AD at the Battle of Alutthelia fighting against an invading Viking army.

The Norse name for the settlement was ‘Aukland’ which means ‘additional land’, although the Norse takeover of the settlement did not see much expansion of the existing village, the Vikings named the River Gaunless, which translates as ‘useless’, meaning it was poor fishing and not enough flow to operate a mill. The region remained part of the kingdom of Northumbria, which was subordinated to the ‘Danelaw’ after the Peace of Wendover between Alfred the Great and the Danish chieftain Guthrum.

The settlement became known as Oakland, in reference to the woodlands that covered the banks of the River Wear and River Gaunless. After the Anglo-Saxon King Aethelstan reconquered the Danelaw territories and established the first united kingdom of England, the area fell under the influence of the church in Durham. The Bishop of Durham was granted the ‘Bishop’s borough’ in the year 1020 AD by King Canute and the village of Bishop Auckland began to grow.

After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the North of England was the centre of repeated uprisings against the Norman overlords. Bishop Auckland eventually expanded as the Norman church established itself as a means of controlling the Northern population. In 1083 monks from Durham cathedral were sent to expand the existing Saxon church at South Church, the village began to spread.

In 1183 Bishop Pudsey of Durham built a manor house in the village which was growing into a small town. Across the Middle Ages, Bishop Auckland grew in importance but was always under the influence of the cathedral in Durham. It was for good reason that County Durham became known as the ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’.

In the years of the Industrial Revolution, Bishop Auckland grew in industry and importance, but its roots lay in the ancient past.

According to the 2011 census, Bishop Auckland remains a largely White British town, only 1.5% of the population was described as being “foreign born”. The ethnic minority presence in Bishop Auckland is well below the national average, and so Bishop Auckland can proudly claim to be a ‘White town’.

A local MP talks to colliery workers in his constituency whilst canvassing for the 1951 General Election.

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