Winchester Palace, located in present-day Southwark about 250 meters west of the London Bridge, served as the London residence of the Bishops of Winchester during the Middle Ages. As Winchester is located approximately 60 miles southwest of London, the bishops required a residence while visiting London for business and administrative purposes. The only standing remains of the palace today include the west wall, with its trademark rose window, and a small portion of the south wall. Although the earliest developments in Southwark date back to the mid-first century C.E., Winchester Palace was not used as the visiting bishops’ residence until the twelfth century when Bishop Henry de Blois, brother of King Stephen, acquired this property and began the construction of the palace.
The earliest finds on these Southwark grounds include an expansive hypocaust underground heating system, vaulted ceilings, and two well-preserved fresco style paintings. Generally, archaeologists believe that these grounds were first used as a public bathhouse before the bishops took over the property. Archaeologists and historians have gathered few remains from the original twelfth-century palace, but excavations show signs of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century redevelopment of the palace. Before this redevelopment, the residence was a livestock and produce depot. By the mid-thirteenth century, the bishops’ palace covered over six acres in total, and eventually included two courtyards, multiple gardens, the Clink prison, a brewhouse, butchery, tennis court, bowling alley, and stables.
The focal point of the palace in the thirteenth century was presumably the Great Hall, which was one of the largest secular buildings in medieval London and is believed to have been designed by master craftsman Henry Yevele. The hall itself was 80 feet long, 36 feet wide, and 42 feet high, and was surrounded by service rooms and kitchen offices to the west (through the rose window wall) and a bishop’s chamber to the east. While the west wall remains intact, the other three stone walls were found in the nearby St. Mary Overy Wharf. Underneath the hall was an undercroft cellar, which was primarily used to store goods such as wine. Fundamentally characteristic to all medieval palaces, Winchester Palace also had three wharfs that granted the bishops access to Westminster via the River Thames. These wharfs were built between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, and were made of beech timber, oak timber, and ashlar blocks.
Many historical records describe the special events and note important visitors that came to Winchester Palace. Thomas Becket is believed to have stayed at Winchester Palace on his trip from London to Canterbury, before his martyrdom in 1170. Fifteenth-century records allude to wedding celebrations, such as the feast to celebrate the marriage of Edmund, the Earl of Kent, to the sister of the Duke of Milan in 1406, and James, King of Scotland, to Joan, the daughter of the Earl of Somerset in 1424. One of the last great celebrations occurred in 1617, when Lord Hay and Lucy of Northumberland also held their marriage feast at the palace. Additionally, historical records reveal that the bishops licensed prostitutes, known as the “Winchester Geese,” in Southwark. The brothels, which were located in bathhouses called “stews,” were under jurisdiction of the Bishops of Winchester. William Shakespeare, whose Globe Theater was located downriver from Winchester Palace, references these “Winchester Geese” in some of his plays, including King Lear.
In 1626, Lancelot Andrewes was the last bishop to die in the palace. After five centuries as a residential and administrative palace, Winchester Palace briefly turned into a prison, and was then sold to Thomas Walker of Camberwell in 1649 for £4,380. It was divided into several tenements and warehouses. Hidden by the surrounding infrastructure, Winchester Palace was forgotten for centuries. However, in August 1814, a fire burned down many of the tenements and warehouses and revealed the remains of the original hall and surrounding buildings, including the rose window and the west wall. This area of Southwark was used as the Port of London until the 1960s and then underwent a major redevelopment project in the 1980s, which prompted the first detailed archaeological excavation of the medieval palace. Today, visitors can walk past the single remaining west wall and admire the rose window of Winchester Palace in a popular tourist area near the London Bridge, Borough Market, Southwark Cathedral, and old Clink Prison.
- Suzanne Forlenza