Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The Streets of Old Southwark: Winchester Palace

A visitor to London, walking along the south bank of the River Thames, from London Bridge towards Westminster Bridge, having explored the precincts of St Mary Overie (now Southwark Cathedral), emerges from Montague Close into what was once the private wharf of that priory, in which is now moored a replica of the Golden Hinde, the ship once commanded by Sir Francis Drake.

Beyond the wharf is Clink Street, continuing west, on entering which the visitor is confronted by the impressive remains of a Medieval building, the former palace of the Bishops of Winchester. On both sides of the river, the roads leading west from the commercial hub of the City were, in the Middle Ages, lined with grand houses, including the London palaces of provincial bishops, who frequently had business at the Royal Court, and in Parliament. Most were close to the river, since it was much easier to provision a great house from the water than to do so from the land. Winchester Palace is unique only in the extent to which it has survived.

The great hall of Winchester Palace. Photo: Mike Peel (, licensed under CCA: CC-BY-SA-4.0).
Winchester Place in c 1660, by Wenceslas Hollar (image is in the Public Domain).

The great lords of the Church in Medieval England were often the younger sons of leading aristocrats, sometimes with close connections even to the Royal family. The bishop who built Winchester Palace was Henry of Blois, the younger brother of King Stephen, and a grandson of William the Conqueror.

Henry of Blois, commemorative plaque, British Museum. Photo: Ealdgyth (licensed under CCA).
Henry of Blois, British Library, Cottom MS Nero DVII, f87v (image is in the Public Domain).

Henry had been educated at the great Benedictine monastery of Cluny, in Burgundy, a student of its abbot, the Venerable Peter, one of the leading theologians of his day, and the man who commissioned the first translation of the Qu'ran into Latin. For all his learning, however, Henry was unable to resist the lure of gaudy politics: during the civil war, or "Anarchy" of the Twelfth Century, he changed sides twice: supporting, first, his brother, Stephen; then the Empress Matilda; then his brother again; determined, it seems, to end up on the winning side. This, however, was impossible. There was no winning side: the war ended in stalemate, with Stephen retaining the crown during his lifetime; but to be succeeded, not by his own children, but by Matilda's son, the future Henry II, during whose reign the Bishop of Winchester's influence declined.

The Winchester Bible, commissioned by Henry of Blois, Winchester Cathedral (image is in the Public Domain).
Depiction of Hell, from the Winchester Psalter, commissioned by Henry of Blois, British Library (image is in the Public Domain).

It was a later Bishop of Winchester, William of Wykeham, in the Fourteenth Century, who enlarged the great hall of the palace, and added the rose window that we see today. William also served as Chancellor of England under Edward III; founded New College, Oxford, and Winchester College; and supervised major building works at Windsor, Dover, and Leeds Castles. In 1424, the great hall was the venue for the wedding banquet of King James I of Scotland, and the niece of the then Bishop of Winchester, Joan Beaufort.

During the reign of Henry VIII, Stephen Gardiner held the office of Bishop of Winchester. Like Henry of Blois, he preferred to remain on the winning side in political conflicts. An instinctive conservative, he had no enthusiasm for the Reformation, and disliked Thomas Cromwell, but he managed to remain in favour throughout Henry's reign. He could not do so under Henry's heir, the much more ardent Protestant, Edward VI, who had him imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Stephen Gardiner (image is in the Public Domain).

When the Catholic Mary I took the throne, however, she released Stephen, and it was he who crowned her in Westminster Abbey. Unlike many of the churchmen of his day, but like his predecessor, Henry of Blois, he did manage to die peacefully in his bed, in comfortable old age.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. I stumbled upon (figuratively) the palace of the Bishops of Winchester in 1999, while wandering in Southwark. I knew Shakespeare, but not much other history, so I wasn't quite sure what I was seeing. Your post and the photo clear it up. So THAT's what it was!

    I'm excited to return to London and England late this summer with at least more knowledge, if less time. Your posts are so enlightening and I can't wait to walk through some of the areas I've learned about here.

  2. That picture of Hell is frightening enough to keep anyone on the straight and narrow.

    The first time I came across the palace I couldn't work out why it was there, since it was a long way from the diocese. It was much later that I learned how large the diocese of Winchester used to be and that the bishops of Winchester had palaces all over the place.