05 June 2023

Winchester Palace, once
one of the largest buildings
in mediaeval London

The 14th century rose window in Winchester Palace, once the London palace of the mediaeval Bishops of Winchester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During last week’s visit to Southwark and Southwark Cathedral, two of us also visited the ruins of Winchester Palace, once one of the largest and most important buildings in mediaeval London.

The palace was built in the early 13th century as a home for the powerful Bishops of Winchester, but was mostly destroyed by fire in 1814. A few walls are all that remain of the palace, but visitors can see the impressive remaining walls of the Great Hall, including the magnificent rose window in the west gable.

Winchester Palace was first built in the 12th century by Bishop Henry de Blois, a brother of King Stephen, and the great hall was probably built ca 1136. The palace was built to house the bishops comfortably when they were in London on royal or administrative business.

Winchester had once been the capital of the Saxon kings of England. Southwark was once the largest manor in the Diocese of Winchester, and the Bishop of Winchester was a major landowner in the area. Traditionally, the mediaeval Bishops of Winchester were also the king’s royal treasurer, the equivalent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer today.

The Bishop of Winchester attended the king at his court in Westminster and at the Tower of London and also attended Parliament. Winchester Palace served as the London townhouse of the Bishops of Winchester. Many bishops similarly had palaces in London, such as Lambeth Palace, the residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury, and Ely Place, the townhouse of the Bishops of Ely.

Winchester Palace was in the parish of Southwark, then in Surrey, on the south bank of the River Thames, opposite the City of London and on what is now Clink Street, near Saint Saviour’s Church, now Southwark Cathedral.

The remains seen today are part of the Great Hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The hall was enlarged and the rose window built in the 14th century, possibly by Bishop William of Wykeham (1367-1398).

The remains seen today are part of the Great Hall. The gable wall of the hall has doors that once led to the buttery, pantry and kitchen, and it has a magnificent rose window. Below the hall was a vaulted cellar, where goods such as wine could be stored, with a passage to the river wharf.

The rest of the palace was arranged around two courtyards housing many buildings, including a prison, brewhouse and butchery. As the bishop’s private retreat from the stresses of mediaeval governance, the palace also had a tennis court, a bowling alley and pleasure gardens.

Below the hall was a richly decorated vaulted cellar with direct access to a wharf on the River Thames for bringing in supplies. Royal visitors were entertained at the palace, including The Great Hall would have been lavishly decorated in the 15th century, and was often used to entertain royal guests.

James I of Scotland and Joan Beaufort held their wedding feast there in 1424 after their wedding in what is now Southwark Cathedral. She was a niece of the then Bishop of Winchester, Cardinal Henry Beaufort, and of King Henry IV.

The palace was associated with the Liberty of the Clink on the south bank of the Thames. This was an area free from the jurisdiction of the City of London, and it became an area where activities suppressed in the City could flourish openly.

Gaming houses, bowling alleys, theatres and brothels abounded. It took its name from the notorious Clink prison which lay within the Liberty and gave rise to the slang expression ‘in the clink,’ or in prison. The Bishops of Winchester received rents from the many brothels, leading to the local prostitutes being known as the ‘Winchester Geese.’

During the English Civil War, Sir Thomas Ogle was imprisoned there. During his time in prison, he tried to draw Thomas Devenish, a member of John Goodwin’s Independent congregation, into a royalist plot to split the Parliamentarian Independents from the Presbyterians in order to boost Charles I’s numbers in Parliament.

From 1682 to 1686, the palace was remodelled, adding Corinthian columns and pilasters, to give a more contemporary Renaissance look. The sculpture and masonry was by Edward Strong the Elder.

The palace remained in use until around 1700, when it was converted and divided into tenement housing and warehouses. These were mostly destroyed by fire in 1814. Part of the great hall and the west gable end with its rose window became more visible after a fire in the 19th century fire and were finally revealed in the 1980s during redevelopment of the area.

The remains of Winchester Palace are a Grade II listed building and as a Scheduled Monument are under the care of English Heritage. Winchester Palace is managed by Bankside Open Spaces Trust, which has planted a mediaeval-style garden in the remains of the Great Hall.

Bankside Open Spaces Trust has planted a mediaeval-style garden in the remains of the Great Hall of Winchester Palace (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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