Howden Civic Society

Help protect and improve our town

Bishops Palace Excavation

Located to the rear of Market Street, Howden, is a stone built structure known as Bishops Palace. This, in fact, is the remains of the 'Great Hall' of a larger complex, once the residence of the Bishop of Durham. The area is now a Scheduled Monument ( and it is believed that the complex would have had an 'East Wing' of buildings including a chapel, parlour and Bishop's Lodgings.

The idea of the Community Project was that of Mike Hatfield, a member of the Howden Civic Society and a Heritage Centre volunteer, forming his very own Howden "Time Team".

The Project began in 2018, the team initially conducting research to gain information and collect documentary evidence which included two surveys from the 16th century which describe the buildings of Bishop's Palace at that time. A plan, which had been drawn up in the 19th century, from the text of those surveys, was also found, and it was understood that the East Wing buildings would have stood where today is the back garden of 16 Market Place. The current landlord gave his permission to explore the site.

The site was cleared by volunteers during the winter as much of it was littered with rubbish, builders' rubble and vegetation. Teams of volunteers worked in often freezing conditions and one day work had to stop because they couldn't see the rubbish as the site had become covered in snow. Much of the rubbish was recycled.

A drone camera survey was carried out by Golden Media so that the site and its proximity to the Bishops Manor and Minster could be shown at public meetings. Detailed surveys of the site by Brian Elsey of North Duffield Conservation established fixed points from which accurate measurements could be taken. This was necessary to plot the positions of any structures or objects found underground. A ground penetrating radar survey was then carried out by Met Geo Environmental, Leeds to see whether the results of the desk research could be supported by physical evidence under the ground - and it looks as if it could. All these activities were donated to the Society free of charge, for which we were extremely grateful.


Naimh Richardson, a member of the team, helped Mike set out the evidence to present a case to Historic England to request "Consent to dig". We could not carry out excavation of any type without this consent, so the proposals had to be carefully thought out.

As this was going on, Mike was busy recruiting volunteers and raising public awareness of this project. A well attended public meeting was held in the Shire Hall on 9th April 2018.

Donations of digging equipment and archaeology materials were sought and provided by many local businesses and the North Duffield Conservation and Local History Society. The response to requests has been tremendous. The only thing we lacked a week before digging started was a spade!

Consent was granted on 22nd June 2018 and the required two weeks notice was given before excavation could start. Further public meetings were held in the Heritage Centre on 27th and 28th June attended by 35 people who were keen to volunteer to help.

Two Trial Trenches were opened up by the volunteer team, with the support of Jon Kenny (Community Archaeologist), revealing remains of stone foundations, as well as interior and exterior surfaces.

We received two further grants for the excavation fund, which is very welcome news as this will enabled us to acquire the appropriate tools, equipment, visual displays and of course finds specialists, which will be invaluable to us in learning more about the site. The first was from Howden Town Council for £1500 and the second from The Postcode Lottery for an amount of £5,507. We also gained support from Howden Rotarians with the provision of a gazebo to protect volunteers and the excavation from adverse weather conditions.

In 2019 Trench 2 was extended to reveal more of the stone foundations and a third trench was opened where another foundation and further internal surfaces were encountered. A smaller, Trench 4, was started but, as coming to the close of the season, only dug to a depth of 1m.

Towards the end of the 2019 season Karen Adams (PastSearch Archaeology) also offered support to the Community Team, and produced an Interim Report which was submitted to Historic England. This report gave results of the structural remains and layers excavated, as well as some of the historical background researched by volunteers.

It was hoped that in 2020 a fifth trench could be opened up to investigate the course of the 'Old Derwent' which ran to the east of the Bishops Palace, now culverted. Also to record masonry within the boundary wall. The artefacts, including pottery, bricks, tiles, animal bone, glass and metal work etc requires specialist analysis and assessment.

Unfortunately, although we planned to re-open the site in March, the restrictions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic meant that the site currently remains closed. In the meantime work is progressing to ensure all finds are identified, correctly labelled and stored. Further work is being prepared to publicise information about the work completed so far, and when specialist assessment work can be completed another report will be produced and submitted to Historic England.