Hartlebury Castle in Worcestershire (historic residence of the Bishops of Worcester for 800 years) has already been sold off, Rose Castle in Cumberland (Bishops of Carlisle) is at severe risk and Auckland Castle seems likely to be next in line for sale by the Church Commissioners, who have presided over significant investment losses over the past twenty years (culminating in 2009/10 in a £40m loss on a bad property deal in Manhattan) and who view the palaces and their contents as a way of recouping some small portion of the losses. The contents of Auckland are also valuable, notably a set of twelve Zurburáns (pictured) bought in 1756 by Richard Trevor, then Bishop of Durham as a sign of solidarity with English Jew after his Jewish Emancipation Bill fell in the Commons; so they represent religious tolerance as much as a fundraising opportunity. Andreas Whittam Smith, First Church Estates Commissioner, has said that ‘the simple equation is how much money can be raised to be used for the clergy…We are not custodians of great works of art’.
As Charles Moore has countered, ‘it is not a simple equation at all. As the established Church, the CofE is the holder of national patrimony. Such things are not ‘assets’ to be traded, but almost as much part of what it is as its liturgy or its cathedrals. Its artistic treasures represent a huge cultural and religious achievement which should not be sacrificed to the producer interest, especially when so many of the clergy no longer do parish work, but swell diocesan and synodical bureaucracies. If the Church had a right relationship with its heritage, it would throw it open to the public, and use it as the material for its teaching ministry’.
Concerted action from campaigners, including us, has led to a period of grace at Hartlebury, to allow a dedicated friends’ group time to rise the money to buy the building and its unique eighteenth century Bishop’s library; unhelpfully, a lottery bid to assist the fundraising effort was scuppered when the Heritage Lottery Fund deemed to Church’s valuation of Hartlebury to be too high. We will exert what pressure we can to achieve transfer to a charitable trust if the Church presses ahead with plans to sell Auckland, which is perhaps at greater risk owing to its greater commercial potential.