Wolvesey Palace and the Bishops of Winchester

Wolvesey Palace and the Bishops of Winchester

In my recent post about London Bridge City and The Shard, I spoke about the area’s early history and why there were several large houses belonging to important religious figures lining the southern bank of the Thames – and the most imposing of these was Winchester Palace, the remains of which can still be seen in Southwark’s Clink Street.

At the time of the Norman Conquest, Southwark was in the county of Surrey and part of the Diocese of Winchester, one of the most important religious centres in the country, but not only that, Winchester was also the capital of England.

Being an astute and religious man, William the Conqueror not only engaged the services of the bishops to help him keep religious order, he also used their influence and power to advise him on state affairs.

Two of my earlier posts, Winchester – the First Capital of England, and Winchester Cathedral – From the Saxons to the Normans, may help to explain why the city and cathedral of Winchester were so important to the new King of England.

The Remains of Winchester Palace in Southwark

The London palace wasn’t the only big house owned by the Bishops of Winchester, in fact there were several that they used when travelling around the diocese, particularly at Farnham and Bishop’s Waltham, but the one that the Bishop used to entertain his most distinguished guests, including royalty, was the one close to Winchester Cathedral at Wolvesey.

Winchester’s early Anglo-Saxon bishops had lived within the monastic community, but as time wore on, many of their duties were being carried out elsewhere, and so it made sense for the bishops to have a residence of their own. Æthelwold, who was bishop from 963-84, was the first to build a home outside of the monastery, and he enclosed his new home at Wolvesey by using the old Roman city wall, the Nunnaminster (St Mary’s Monastery), and the Cathedral.

The Old Roman and Medieval City Wall

The first Norman bishop of Winchester was a man named Walkelin, a relative of William the Conqueror, but it was William Giffard, the second Norman bishop, who began extending the bishop’s home into something more appropriate for a man who had been chancellor under William Rufus and Henry I – and he did it by building an impressive West Hall.

However, it was his successor who made the most impact on Wolvesey. Henry of Blois, the brother of King Stephen, was initially brought to England by Henry I to become the Abbot of Glastonbury, but in October 1129, he was also given the top job at Winchester. He not only improved Wolvesey, but was also responsible for building other palaces and castles around the different manors of the diocese, including the one at Southwark.

Henry of Blois died on 8th August 1171 and is buried in Winchester Cathedral. A plaque next to his tomb says “This tomb may contain the remains of Henry of Blois”; and the reason for this ambiguity is because the tomb was originally thought to be that of William Rufus (William II): It’s now believed that the king’s bones (minus his skull) lie in one of the mortuary chests on the presbytery screen, and the remains here amongst the choir stalls are those of Henry of Blois.

Possible Tomb of Henry of Blois

William I may not have wasted any time in transferring his capital to London, but throughout the Middle Ages, right up until the Reformation, the Bishops of Winchester were still among the king’s most trusted servants. Between 1367 and 1486 there were just three bishops at Winchester, all of whom were involved in affairs of state.

The first of these was William of Wykeham, who rose from a relatively modest background to oversee the rebuilding of Windsor Castle for King Edward III. He obviously gained enough of the king’s favour to be entrusted as Keeper of the Privy Seal before he became Bishop of Winchester, and then Lord Chancellor.

Wykeham also founded Winchester College and New College, Oxford, both of which were to train clergy including future Bishops of Winchester and Archbishops of Canterbury.

Winchester College
Winchester College
Bishop William of Wykeham's Tomb
Bishop William of Wykeham's Tomb

In 1405 Bishop Wykeham was succeeded by Henry Beaufort, the son of John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster) and Henry IV’s half-brother.

I don’t think I’m being unfair when I say that he wasn’t against the idea of using his connections and wealth to further his ambitions. He was Lord Chancellor on three occasions, including the time he was a member of the Regency Government looking after the affairs of the minor Henry VI.

Officially, the Lord Protector was John, Duke of Bedford, but with his hands full running the English territories in France, the baton was handed over to his younger brother the Duke of Gloucester. In practice however, he was forced to share the responsibility with the Lord Chancellor, and it sounds as though for most of the time they were at each other’s throats.

He upset a few more people after the Pope made him Cardinal in 1426, and legend has it that Beaufort was complicit in the burning at the stake of Joan of Arc in 1431. More recently, doubt has been cast on how true some of the stories were, but in 1922 a statue of Joan of Arc was installed next to the Lady Chapel in Winchester Cathedral – in full view of Cardinal Beaufort’s tomb and Chantry Chapel.

Joan of Arc Statue
Joan of Arc Statue
Cardinal Beaufort's Chantry Chapel
Cardinal Beaufort's Chantry Chapel

On Beaufort’s death in 1447, he was succeeded by his protégé, William Waynflete.

In 1429, Waynflete became headmaster at William of Wykeham’s Winchester College (which incidentally is located just across the road from Wolvesey Palace), and he retained the position until Henry VI paid a visit in 1441.

The king had already been impressed enough to found an imitation college at Eton the year before, and now he was impressed enough with its headmaster to make him the provost there. It’s been suggested that he was the first headmaster of Eton, but there’s no conclusive evidence of this. Even so, he’d made such an impression, that when Beaufort died, the king more or less instructed the cathedral to make Waynflete its next bishop.

Like those before him, Bishop Waynflete was also Lord Chancellor (between 1456 and 1460), during which time he founded Magdalene College in Oxford. He died in 1486 and is also buried in Winchester Cathedral.

Bishops Wykeham, Beaufort and Waynflete were all influential in state affairs, which serves as a reminder of just how powerful the church was prior to the Reformation.

William Waynflete's Chantry Chapel

The power of the Bishops of Winchester (and everywhere else in England for that matter) started to change when Henry VIII fell out with the Pope over his divorce to Catherine of Aragon.

At the time Henry was proclaiming himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, Stephen Gardiner was the king’s secretary as well as the Bishop of Winchester, but being a favourite in the king’s court wasn’t to last.

Being a traditionalist, Gardiner had grudgingly accepted Henry’s protestant views, but when the king died and his son took over as Edward VI, the bishop’s conservative religious beliefs were in contrast with the young king’s idea of Protestantism, and he spent most of Edward’s short reign in the Tower, during which time he was replaced at Winchester by a more devout protestant, John Ponet.

In 1553, when Edward knew he was dying, he was persuaded to make Lady Jane Grey his successor in order to prevent his older Catholic sister Mary, becoming queen. As we know, Lady Jane Grey did become queen, but for just nine days, and when Mary came to the throne, Gardiner was released and restored as bishop. The following year he married the new Queen Mary to King Philip of Spain in Winchester Cathedral.

Bishop Gardiner's Tomb in Winchester Cathedral

Mary’s five-year reign ended in 1558 when she died at the age of 42, and her sister, the protestant Elizabeth, was crowned Queen.

Bishop Gardiner himself had died in 1555 and his successor, John White, refused to recognise Elizabeth as head of the church, and he too was carted off to the Tower and replaced by a protestant, Robert Horne.

Elizabeth’s reign has been described as the “golden days of good Queen Bess”, but they probably didn’t appear like that to Winchester, and things didn’t get any better when Civil War broke out in 1642.

Royalist Winchester suffered considerable damage during the conflict, and under Commonwealth law the Bishops of the Church of England were abolished. Most of the church properties were broken up and sold, but with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, restoration also began on Wolvesey Palace.

What's left of Wolvesey Palace's East Hall

Bishop George Morley started the restoration, but at Wolvesey he gave up the idea after a while and embarked on a plan to build a brand-new one. The medieval chapel was retained, but he stripped out the materials from the original palace and used them for his new baroque creation, which by the sound of it wasn’t to everyone’s taste, because the bishops who followed on behind him preferred living at the refurbished Farnham Castle instead.

Wolvesey became neglected, and, apart from the West Wing, was demolished. What remains, including the chapel, is now the current bishop’s residence.

The Bishop's House today

So, after a thousand years of history, what is there left to see? Well, the first thing to say is that the layout is basically the one that Henry of Blois created. There have been modifications over the centuries of course, but most of the remains stem from his period in office.

Below is a reconstruction drawing by Terry Ball as to how the palace may have looked in 1171 at the time of Henry of Blois’ death, showing the East Hall and Keep on the right-hand side of the courtyard, and Giffard’s West Hall on the left.

Reconstruction Drawing showing how Wolvesley might have looked in 1171 © Historic England
Reconstruction Drawing showing how Wolvesley might have looked in 1171 © Historic England

Entrance to the palace is through a gap in the city wall in College Street where there used to be an outer courtyard and some farm buildings next to the bishop’s wool house. This was where the estate’s wool was collected and where the name Wolvesey originates.

Walking through the archway next to the defensive structure known as Wymond’s Tower, leads to the remains of Henry of Blois’ East Hall.

Wymond's Tower and entrance to the East Hall

The East Hall was primarily constructed for the bishop’s ceremonial gatherings, and it was built in a way that couldn’t fail to impress his illustrious guests. Today, it’s just a shell with the large keep/kitchen on its eastern flank.

The East Hall and Kitchen

There’s no doubt that the large square building next to the East Hall was a kitchen, but there has also been speculation that it could have been a Keep. It definitely looks large enough to have been used for defensive purposes, but it wouldn’t be surprising to have had such a large kitchen to feed all the bishop’s workers and guests either.

Bishop Wykeham carried out a series of alterations during his long period in office which included draining the moat, building a new curtain wall on this eastern side of the palace, and most importantly, adding a new wine cellar next to the kitchen.

The Kitchen/Keep

Across the Inner Courtyard from the East Hall is the location of Giffard’s early West Hall. Most of it now lies under the area occupied by today’s bishop’s house, but excavations on the public side of the wall have revealed some of the layout.

Of more interest from a visual perspective is Woodman’s Gate, which was a gatehouse built on the north side of the courtyard by Henry of Blois in the latter part of the 12th century. It would have been quite an impressive feature with a drawbridge crossing over the moat. William Wykeham later converted it into accommodation for his treasurer.

Woodman's Gate

Most of the information about Wolvesey and the other castles and palaces of the Winchester manorial estates come from the Winchester Pipe Rolls, a set of in-depth accounts that cover a period from 1208/9 to 1710/11. These invaluable records have given historians an incredible insight into life in medieval southern England, and are kept in the Hampshire Record Office in Winchester.

If anybody has been following my blogs on Winchester, they will know by now that it is one of my favourite cities in Southern England. Not only is it historically interesting, it’s just a lovely city to walk around. With so much to see and do I can imagine that Wolvesey Palace (or Castle as it’s also called), will get missed out by many people, and I can understand why in a way.

A thousand years have passed since Æthelwold built the first bishop’s house here, and unlike the great Shard of glass that looms over the remains of Southwark’s Winchester Palace today, to some, Wolvesey is just a pile of old stones. I wonder though, if the glass and steel buildings of modern England will still be here in a thousand years’ time, and what’s more, I can’t help but wonder what stories could be told about what happened here at Wolvesey – if only that pile of old stones could talk!


17 thoughts on “Wolvesey Palace and the Bishops of Winchester

  1. Toonsarah

    A great historical write-up Malcolm. I like the way you weave together the stories of buildings in London, Oxford and Winchester. The latter is one of my favourite English cities but I’ve never yet properly explored Wolvesey Castle – must do so sometime soon!

    1. Easymalc Post author

      I’m glad you enjoyed it Sarah. Thank you.
      With any number of things to see in Winchester, Wolvesey wouldn’t be the first thing on the list to see, but it’s easy to find and worth taking a look even if only for a short while.

  2. Simone

    Another great and very interesting page to read! Ah, if only those old stones could talk… I wonder what they would tell us. I have never visited Winchester, but is high on my wishlist for a next visit to the UK! (hopefully one day that is practically possible again)

  3. Alli Templeton

    Ah, so my inkling was right then, it was Winchester! I just didn’t remember the name of the Bishop’s palace! Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this fascinating look at Wolvesey, a place I haven’t, in fact, been to yet. 🙂 We did see it from the path on the excellent walk we did from your previous Winchester post, but by that time it was later in the day and it was closed, so we resolved to visit it next time. The intention was to go back in the spring this year, but of course that all went to pot, so we’ll return when things have finally returned to normal. But thanks to your informative and entertaining piece, I’ll now have a good idea of what to expect and a great picture of the people who made it the rather splendid-looking residence it was.

    I love the mystery of who’s really in that intriguing tomb in the cathedral choir. There are a lot of mysteries surrounding the hapless William Rufus, and this is another good one. And I couldn’t agree more with your assertion that such a medieval ruin will outlast – and outclass – any modern structure, and oh, the centuries’ worth of stories they could tell! Mind you, don’t let them talk too loudly or us historians would be out of a job! 😉 But without doubt, give me a pile of old stones over glass and steel any day. Thanks for another great insight into a corner of lovely Winchester, Malc, and some fine inspiration too. Roll on next year. 🙂

    1. Easymalc Post author

      I had no doubt that you would guess it was Winchester, but I couldn’t be sure if you had been to Wolvesey or not. If, and when you do get there, I’d love to read your take on it, as you’re a master (or should that be mistress) on bringing old stones to life 🙂

      Talking about who’s who in that tomb, it would be absolutely fascinating to rummage through those burial caskets of the old kings on the top of the presbytery screen – as long as somebody else did the rummaging 🙂

      Roll on next year indeed, and thank you so much Alli for sticking with my humble efforts. It really is appreciated 🙂

      1. Alli Templeton

        It’s my pleasure to follow your blog, Malc. I’m not sure I could improve on your account of Wolvesey, but I’ll see what the muse whispers to me when I’m there. Either way, I’m looking forward to going.

        I remember learning that, as it was such an important place, King Cnut was also buried in the cathedral, but they’re not sure where he is either. That’s because in the 17th Century the delightful parliamentarians used the bones in the reliquaries to smash out the beautiful stained glass window – the one that looks like a more modernist piece of art today, (you’ll know the one, and what I mean). Apparently, after the thugs had gone the city’s people gathered up the glass shards and the bones and remade the window and put the relics back in the boxes, but of course their all jumbled up.

        I think that recently they may actually have opened one of the reliquaries and examined the bones within. I seem to remember a film about it in the exhibition when we were there. I can understand why you wouldn’t want to do the rummaging, but as such a devotee of the middle ages I wouldn’t mind, as that really would be a way to connect with the past and its royalty! I’d have given anything to be involved when they found Richard III. What an honour that would have been. 🙂

        1. Easymalc Post author

          Thanks for your lovely comment again Alli.

          Even though we have a different perspective on how we write about history, I think we both believe that by trying to destroy it isn’t the answer.
          I think we could do with another William Marshall to help us out just now 😊

          1. Alli Templeton

            Goodness, yes, if only we could bring back the wonderful William – in his armour, of course! 😉 He’d come to our rescue, alright – and he’d cheer me up no end! 😀

            1. Easymalc Post author

              I’ve been reading about him again today as I’ve been sorting out some photos of Chepstow. If he was alive today I’m not sure he would even be allowed to leave Wales 🙂


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