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Bishop's Palace, Wells

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Bishop's Palace, Wells

Bishop's Palace
Croquet on the lawn of The Bishops Palace in front of the chapel
General information
Town or city Wells
Country England
Construction started c. 1210
Client Jocelin of Wells

The Bishop's Palace and accompanying Bishops House at Wells in the English county of Somerset, is adjacent to Wells Cathedral and has been the home of the Bishops of the Diocese of Bath and Wells for 800 years. It has been designated by English Heritage as a Grade I listed building.

Building of the palace started around 1210 by Bishops Jocelin of Wells and Reginald Fitz Jocelin. The chapel and great hall were added by Bishop Robert Burnell between 1275 and 1292. The walls, gatehouse and moat were added in the 14th century by Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury. The Bishops House was added in the 15th century by Bishop Thomas Beckington. The great hall later fell into disrepair and was partially demolished around 1830.

The palace was originally surrounded by a George Law, who created a reflecting pond near the springs. Parts of the buildings are still used as a residence by the current bishop, however much of the palace is now used for public functions and as a tourist attraction.


The moat
Boundary Wall

Construction began around 1210 by Bishop Jocelin of Wells but principally dates from 1230.[1] Bishop Jocelin continued the cathedral building campaign begun by Bishop Reginald Fitz Jocelin, and was responsible for building the Bishop's Palace, as well as the choristers' school, a grammar school, a hospital for travellers and a chapel within the liberty of the cathedral. He also built a manor house at Wookey, near Wells.[2] The chapel and great hall were built between 1275 and 1292 for Bishop Robert Burnell.[3] The windows had stone tracery. Stone bosses where the supporting ribs meet on the ceiling are covered with representations of oak leaves and the Green Man.[4] The building is seen as a fine example of the Early English architectural style.[5]

In the 14th century, Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury continued the building. He had an uneasy relationship with the citizens of Wells, partly because of his imposition of taxes,[6] and surrounded his palace with crenellated walls,[7] a moat and a drawbridge.[8][9] The 5 metres (16 ft) high three-storey gatehouse, which dates from 1341, has a bridge over the moat.[10] The entrance was protected by a heavy gate, portcullis and drawbridge, operated by machinery above the entrance, and spouts through which defenders could pour scalding liquids onto any attacker. The drawbridge was still operational in 1831 when it was closed after word was received that the Palace of the Bishop of Bristol was subject to an arson attack during the Bristol riots. These took place after the House of Lords rejected the second Reform Bill. The proposal had aimed to get rid of some of the rotten boroughs and give Britain's fast growing industrial towns such as Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham, Bradford and Leeds greater representation in the House of Commons; however there was no rioting in Wells.[11] The water which filled the moat flowed from the springs in the grounds which had previously chosen its own course as a small stream separating the cathedral and the palace and causing marshy ground around the site. The moat acted as a reservoir, controlled by sluice gates, which powered watermills in the town.[12]

The north wing (now the Bishop's House) was added in the 15th century by Bishop Beckington, with further modifications in the 18th century, and in 1810 by Bishop Beadon.[13][14] It was restored, divided, and the upper storey added by Benjamin Ferrey between 1846 and 1854. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1548, Bishop Barlow sold Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset the palace and grounds. These were recovered after the Duke's execution in 1552.[15]

The Chapel and ruined Great Hall

In the 1550s, Bishop Barlow sold the Bishop Law. He created a "more picturesque ruin" by removing the south and east walls and laying out and planting the area previously occupied by the great hall.[18][19][20] The palace was used as a garrison for troops in both the English Civil War and Monmouth Rebellion after which it was used as a prison for rebels after the Battle of Sedgemoor.[21]

Bishop Kidder was killed during the Great Storm of 1703, when two chimney stacks in the palace fell on him and his wife, while they were asleep in bed.[22][23] A central porch was added around 1824 and, in the 1840s and 1850s, Benjamin Ferrey restored the palace and added an upper storey.[1] He also restored the chapel using stained glass from ruined French churches.[4]

In 1953, it was designated as a Grade I listed building.[1] In February 2008, the poet laureate of the United Kingdom, Andrew Motion, was commissioned by the BBC West television programme Inside Out West to write a poem in Harry Patch's honour. Entitled "The Five Acts of Harry Patch" it was first read at a special event at the Bishop's Palace, where it was introduced by the Prince of Wales and received by Harry Patch.[24][25]

The original Glastonbury chair

The Glastonbury Chair

One of the two surviving Glastonbury chairs is on display in the palace. It was made in Britain from a description brought back from Rome in 1504 by Abbot Richard Beere to Glastonbury Abbey, and was produced for or by John Arthur Thorne, a monk who was the treasurer at the abbey.[26] Arthur perished on Glastonbury Tor in 1539, hanged, drawn and quartered alongside his master, Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury, during the dissolution of the monasteries.[27] The Abbot sat on a Glastonbury chair of this type during his trial at the Bishop's Palace.[28] Other chairs of this age and later reproductions can also be seen.

Current use

The palace now belongs to the Church Commissioners.[29] The main palace is open to the public, including the chapel and a long gallery, although the Bishops House is still used as a residence and offices. There is a restaurant in the medieval undercroft. The palace is licenced for weddings and used for conferences and meetings.[30] The croquet lawn in front of the palace is used on a regular basis.[31] The palace was used as a location for some of the scenes in the 2007 British comedy Hot Fuzz.[32]

On 10 December 2013, it was announced that Peter Hancock would become Bishop of Bath and Wells in 2014.[33] A few days earlier, the Church Commissioners had announced that the new Bishop would work, but not live, in the Palace;[34] it was later announced that he would instead live, at least temporarily, at The Old Rectory a few miles away at Croscombe.[35][36][37]

However that decision proved controversial.[38][39] The Bishops' Council formally objected to the Commissioners' decision, and the matter was referred by the Archbishops' Council to a committee which, in May 2014, decided that the house in Croscombe was not suitable to be a See House, and that the Bishop should remain living in the Palace.[40]


An engraving of the Bishops Palace, Wells made by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck in 1733, showing the wall and moat. The Bishop's Palace is to the left, with the chapel to the right of it and the Great Hall, centre.

Bishop's Eye

The Bishop's Palace lies within the Liberty of St Andrew, which encloses the cathedral, the Bishop's Palace, Vicar's Close and the residences and offices of the clergy who serve the cathedral. The palace is accessible from the adjacent market place through an archway known as The Bishop's Eye in the gatehouse to the walled precinct. The Bishop's Eye was built around 1450, by Bishop Beckington.[41] It is a three-storey building of Doulting ashlar stone, with a copper roof and has been designated as a Grade I listed building.[42] The Bishop's Eye forms one of a pair with the Penniless Porch which is the gateway into the Cathedral from the market place, which was built at the same time and in a similar style.[41] [43]

Bishops Palace

The palace is a two storey building of seven bays, with three gables over alternating bays, two of which are supported by buttresses. There is an attic beneath the coped gables and surmounted by octagonal chimney stacks.[1] The interior is laid out with a hall, solar and gallery with an undercroft. It has flagstone floors and a 16th-century stone fireplace.[1]

To the right of the building is an aisless chapel in the early Decorated Gothic style of the late 13th century, built of local stone with Doulting Stone dressings.[44] The remains of the 13th century great hall are the north wall and some column bases of an internal arcade, indicating that it was a five bayed aisled hall with crenellations and tall windows in the Decorated Gothic style.[3]

Bishops House

The Bishops House consists of two narrow ranges with a narrow courtyard. The front of the building on the south side is crenelated. The arrangement of the rooms inside has been changed many times over the years. It still includes features from the 15th century including a doorway and oak screens. The windows include some remnants of 16th century stained glass.[1]


The grounds of the palace in the 13th century included a medieval deer park. The right to form the park was granted by King John to Bishop Jocelin in 1207.[21][45] The Palace Camery was planted with orchards, a herbarium and kitchen gardens to provide food for the Bishop and staff.[46]

There are now 14 acres (5.7 ha) of gardens including St Andrew's Spring from which the city takes its name. The spring supplies St. Andrew's Well from which water flows at a rate of 40 imperial gallons (180 L) per second into the moat which holds 4 million imperial gallons (18,000,000 L).[47] The water emerging from the spring originates from the cave system of the Mendip Hills including Thrupe Lane Swallet.[48] The Well House was built in 1451, for Bishop Beckington to provide water to the citizens of Wells in the market place.[49] The small stone building with a slate roof has a central hole in the stone floor giving access to the well itself.[50]

The grounds included The Bishop's Barn which was built as a tithe barn in the 15th century, and the area next to it which is now a public park and play area. The barn was built of local stone roughly squared, with Doulting ashlar dressings and a Westmorland slate roof.[51] Royalist troops were quartered in the barn during the Bloody Assizes.[52]

Wells Cathedral seen in the reflecting pool

Much of the existing landscaping on the south lawn was carried out by Bishop George Henry Law in the 1820s.[21] This included the incorporation of the remains of the roofless great hall and the construction of a raised rampart around the inside of the wall accessible from one of the towers. Bishop Law also created a grotto which he used to display fossils from Banwell Caves which were also part of his estate.[53] A range of tress and shrubs were planted including: a Black Walnut, Lebanon Cedar, Catalpa and Ginkgo.[54] In the 1830s, Bishop Law had a pool created next to the springs. This acts as a mirror on a still day providing reflections of the east end of the cathedral in the water.[55]

In the outer garden is an arboretum, planted in 1977 by Bishop John Bickersteth to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of Elizabeth II.[56] The Mute Swans on the moat have been trained to ring bells by pulling strings, to beg for food. The first swans were trained by one of the daughters of Bishop Hervey in the 1870s.[57] Two swans which were given to the bishop by Queen Elizabeth II in 2006, are still able to ring for lunch fed to them by the caretakers who live in the gatehouse.[58]

Every August Lions Club and Air Training Corps. In 2007, the Bishop entered a raft into the race.[59] In 2013, a "tree of heaven" on the south lawn, which had been planted in 1885, was blown down during the St. Jude storm.[60]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f "The Bishop's Palace and Bishop's House". National Heritage list for England. English Heritage. Retrieved 30 November 2013. 
  2. ^ Dunning, Robert. "Wells, Jocelin of (d. 1242)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 15 November 2007.  (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  3. ^ a b "Bishop Burnell's Great Hall". National Heritage list for England. English Heritage. Retrieved 30 November 2013. 
  4. ^ a b Rambridge 2013, p. 33.
  5. ^ "Chapel". Bishops Palace. Retrieved 6 December 2013. 
  6. ^ "Local history". Wells UK. Archived from the original on 24 December 2007. Retrieved 10 February 2008. 
  7. ^ Culson, Charles. "Hierarchism in Conventual Crenellation An Essay in the Sociology and Metap" (PDF). Archeology Data Service. p. 79. Retrieved 8 December 2013. 
  8. ^ Coulson 1982, pp. 69-100.
  9. ^ "Bishop's Palace Timeline" (PDF). Bishops Palace. Retrieved 24 February 2013. 
  10. ^ "Gatehouse and boundary wall with bridge over moat". National Heritage list for England. English Heritage. Retrieved 30 November 2013. 
  11. ^ Rambridge 2013, p. 45.
  12. ^ Rambridge 2013, p. 15.
  13. ^ "The Bishop's Palace and Bishop's House". Images of England. Retrieved 10 November 2007. 
  14. ^ "Pictures of Bishop's Palace, Wells". Pictures of England. Retrieved 10 November 2007. 
  15. ^ Bond 1998, p. 55.
  16. ^ Rambridge 2013, p. 10.
  17. ^ "Bishop's Palace Wells". eCastles. Retrieved 10 November 2007. 
  18. ^ Cross, James; Appleyard, Diane; James, Janet. "Garden History Handout". Bishops Palace. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  19. ^ Colchester 1987, p. 159.
  20. ^ "Bishop Burnell's Great Hall, Bishop's Palace". Somerset Historic Environment Record. Somerset County Council. 
  21. ^ a b c "Bishop's Palace, Wells". National Heritage list for England. English Heritage. Retrieved 30 November 2013. 
  22. ^ "Richard Kidder (1633–1703), Bishop of Bath and Wells (1691–1703)". BBC. Retrieved 2 September 2011. 
  23. ^ Cassan 1829, p. 163.
  24. ^ "Poem honours World War I veteran aged 109". BBC News. 7 March 2008. Retrieved 7 March 2008. 
  25. ^ Motion, Andrew (8 March 2008). "Harry Patch: A century's life shaped by four months at war". The Daily Telegraph (London). Archived from the original on 8 March 2008. Retrieved 8 March 2008. 
  26. ^ Chinnery 1979, p. 220.
  27. ^ "Glastonbury Abbey". New Advent. Retrieved 8 December 2013. 
  28. ^ Phelps 1839, p. 93.
  29. ^ Rambridge 2013, p. 7.
  30. ^ "Venue Hire". Bishops Palace. Retrieved 1 December 2013. 
  31. ^ "Croquet". Bishops Palace. Retrieved 1 December 2013. 
  32. ^ "Film locations for Hot Fuzz". Worldwide guide to movie locations. Retrieved 10 November 2007. 
  33. ^ "Next Bishop of Bath and Wells announced". Diocese of Bath and Wells. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  34. ^ "Church Commissioners decide on new home for Bishop". Diocese of Bath and Wells. 5 December 2013. 
  35. ^ """Decision to move Somerset's bishops out of historic home is a "public relations disaster. Western Gazette. 27 January 2014. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  36. ^ "Bishop of Bath and Wells to swap Wells palace for Georgian rectory in Croscombe". Western Daily Press. 24 January 2014. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  37. ^ Evans, Sophie Jane (29 January 2014). "Bishop banned from living in his palace will be moved to £900,000 rectory that the church is buying back after declaring it 'unsuitable' and selling it ... for £750,000". Mail Online. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  38. ^ "Diocese of Bath and Wells 'cannot support' bishop's palace move". BBC. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  39. ^ "Senior West clerics criticise Bishop's new £900k mansion". Western Morning News. 26 January 2014. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  40. ^ "Determination of objection to regulation transaction: House of Residence of Bishop of Bath and Wells". Archbishops' Council. 1 May 2014. 
  41. ^ a b Bush 1994, p. 222.
  42. ^ "The Bishop's Eye, Wells". National Heritage List for England. English Heritage. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  43. ^ "Penniless Porch". National Heritage List for England. English Heritage. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  44. ^ "The Bishop's Chapel, The Bishop's Palace". National Heritage list for England. English Heritage. Retrieved 30 November 2013. 
  45. ^ "Bishop's Palace, The, Wells, Somerset, England". Parks and Gardens UK. Parks and Gardens Data Services Ltd. Retrieved 1 December 2013. 
  46. ^ Rambridge 2013, p. 18.
  47. ^ "Palace Water Walk" (PDF). Bishops Palace. Retrieved 8 December 2013. 
  48. ^ "Thrupe Lane Swallet". Mendip Cave Registry and Archive. 2009. Retrieved 8 December 2013. 
  49. ^ "Water and the gardens" (PDF). Bishop Palace. Retrieved 8 December 2013. 
  50. ^ "The Well House, about 35 metres north of the Bishop's Palace". National Heritage list for England. English Heritage. Retrieved 30 November 2013. 
  51. ^ "The Bishop's Barn". Images of England. English Heritage. Retrieved 2009-03-04. 
  52. ^ Bush 1994, p. 221.
  53. ^ Rambridge 2013, p. 17.
  54. ^ Bond 1998, p. 119.
  55. ^ Rambridge 2013, p. 24.
  56. ^ "The Gardens". Bishop's Palace and Gardens. Retrieved 10 November 2007. 
  57. ^ Rambridge 2013, p. 47.
  58. ^ "Bishop receives Royal swan gift".  
  59. ^ "BBC Bus in Somerset".  
  60. ^ Malik, Shiv (28 October 2013). "Three dead after St Jude storm lashes southern UK — live updates". Guardian. Retrieved 8 December 2013. 


External links

  • Official website
  • 360 degree panaorama from the BBC
  • Postcard images of swans ringing the bell

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