Every village with an ancient church has a history, but the history of this village is not confined to the local scene. Three rectors were chaplains to Kings of England, one was a cabinet minister, and several were involved in national intrigues. The then lord of the manor, the last Earl of Westmorland, led the Rising of the North; an earlier lord was one of the barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta; at one time Elizabeth I owned Brancepeth Castle and sent deer from the park to the King of Scotland; the first Baron Brancepeth, Robert Carr, was a suspected murderer; King Charles I, when short of money, sold the castle to London businessmen. So the romantic story goes on, but first it had to have a beginning.
In Saxon days there was a great house and a church; the first recorded rector was a monk named Haeming, in 1085. The Bulmer family owned the village until the sole heir, Emma, after marrying the nephew of William the Conqueror, then married Geoffrey Neville, in 1174. The Nevilles became Earls of Westmorland in 1397 and Brancepeth owned the sway until the last Earl escaped abroad in 1569 after leading the Rising of the North, when the castle was taken over by the crown. It was Emma’s son who was concerned in the Magna Carta episode. The first Earl, who fought at Agincourt and was grandfather of Warwick the “kingmaker”, built most of the present castle. Some of these mighty men (and women) of a bygone age are buried beneath the church.
Robert Neville, who was known as the “Peacock of the North” because of his swaggering ways, was slain fighting the Scots. The Peacock was remembered for killing Richard Fitzmarmaduke on Elvet Bridge in Durham as this official rode to open county courts as Bishop’s Seneschal. The body of the Peacock was brought back to Brancepeth, where Rector Hugh officiated at the burial in the North Transept. To mark the spot a colossal effigy in stone, representing a knight in a coat of mail and a hood and chain work, was laid.
After the ‘Rising of the North’, the church fell into some disrepair until John Cosin (later Bishop of Durham) became rector in 1625. James I gave the castle to his favourite Robert Carr, whom he made Baron Brancepeth. In love with the Countess of Essex, Carr was suspected of poising Sir Thomas Overbury, who opposed the Lady’s divorce. Soon he fell from favour, the castle reverted to the Crown again, and the title died with him, to be recreated at a later date. Charles I sold the estate and 1400 trees were cut down and sent to Woolwich to build the Sovereign of the Seas, the first triple-decker in the British Navy.
In 1636 Ralph Cole, at one time Mayor of Newcastle, bought the castle. Grandson of a blacksmith, he was a local boy made good. His son became a baronet. But the second Sir Ralph Cole was a man of the arts, a pupil of Van Dyck. He filled the castle with Italian painters and so impoverished himself that in 1701 he was forced to sell the castle to Sir Henry Bellasyse for £16,800. The last of the Bellasyse family was Bridget, who died in 1774 – she was the lovesick girl who sang the famous verse to Bobby Shafto of nearby Whitworth.
In 1796 William Russell, a Sunderland banker and coal owner, bought the castle for £75,000. His son Matthew, who re-built the castle at a cost of £120,000, was alleged to be the richest commoner in England, his wealth resulting from coal mining. In 1838 Emma Russell married the son and heir of Lord Boyne (as a previous Emma had married the forerunner of the Earls of Westmorland in 1174), and the Boyne family remained in Brancepeth until the First World Way when the castle became a military hospital. The Boynes restored the chapel in the castle and also the parish church, though mercifully this restoration was slight. A great visitor to Brancepeth in those days was the poet Tennyson, a nephew of Matthew Russell’s wife, who wrote “Come into the garden Maud” in the gardens here.
After the 1914-18 war the church continued its uninterrupted round of prayer and worship as it had down the ages, but for the first time the castle stood empty and its contents were sold – the Great Hall contained a suit of armour inlaid with gold, taken from King David of Scotland at the Battle of Neville’s Cross, together with a picture by Hogarth.
But when there are wars it seems that Brancepeth just must be in the thick of it and during the Second World War the castle came to life again as the home of the Durham Light Infantry, whose regimental headquarters it was until 1960. Memorial plaques of the regiments hung in the church.