History Files
 
 

 

Castles of the British Isles

Photo Focus: Wells Bishop's Palace

by Peter Kessler, 27 November 2021

 

The Bishop's Palace, Wells in Somerset
Photo © P L Kessler

The earliest stages of the Bishop’s Palace in Wells were constructed in the early thirteenth century when Bishop Jocelin received a crown licence to build a residence and deer park on land immediately to the south of the Cathedral of St Andrew (Wells Cathedral).

Once through the town's centrally-located 'Bishop's Eye' archway, the vista opens up to display a moat, the gatehouse with drawbridge shown here, and ramparts which are topped with crenellations. Bishop Ralph in the mid-1300s was wary about his callers. This was a time of extreme plague, famine, and political warfare, so he built the ramparts for protection and also as a symbol of authority and power.

The Bishop's Palace, Wells in Somerset
Photo © P L Kessler

The moat also served a practical purpose. As it does now, it played a key role in taming the damp, marshy, and often flooded land which surrounded the palace. Nowadays, the moat is home to a collection of waterfowl, a family of Kingfishers, and an occasionally-passing otter.

The palace's north-west bastion is shown here, with the gatehouse in the near distance, although of course the original palace had no walls or moat, and a more simple residence building inside that space.

The Bishop's Palace, Wells in Somerset
Photo © P L Kessler

The ruins of the Great Hall offer tantalising glimpses above the western outer wall and moat. Behind this wall is the café known as the Bishop's Table, along with the stableyard just beyond it.

The Bishop's Palace, Wells in Somerset
Photo © P L Kessler

The springs - or flowing wells - which gave the town its name lay beyond the palace, at its north-eastern corner but still within the palace grounds. They include the holy well of St Andrew, after whom the adjacent cathedral is dedicated.

The water is collected as run-off from the Mendip hills. It forms the pools here which originally overflowed into a jumble of streams which then spread out across the neighbouring land. The building of the palace saw them reorganised into a series of man-made pools, with the water largely being channelled into the moat via streams and a waterfall.

The Bishop's Palace, Wells in Somerset
Photo © P L Kessler

The palace is also notable for its resident mute swans who live on the moat and which ring a bell alongside the gatehouse when they want to be fed. It's best not to approach them too closely, though. As with all swans they can be somewhat grumpy and protective of their space.

The Bishop's Palace, Wells in Somerset
Photo © P L Kessler

This is the south-west bastion. The south wall beyond it protects the South Garden and what would have been the Great Hall until its ruins were partially demolished in the 1800s by Bishop Law.

That bishop used the remaining shell of the Great Hall as a landscaping feature for his picturesque garden which survives to this day.

The Bishop's Palace, Wells in Somerset
Photo © P L Kessler

Successive bishops left their mark on the palace. The original palace which was built for Bishop Jocelin can still be entered and explored, along with the beautifully vaulted undercroft, with a staircase which leads to what would have been the rooms in which the bishop entertained, worked, dined, and slept.

The chapel at the heart of the palace (on the right-hand side of the photo, across the croquet lawn) is dedicated to the Holy Trinity and St Mark. The unusual dedication is depicted in the modern icon by Silvia Dimitrova which stands to the side of the altar. The chapel was built by Bishop Robert Burnell at around the same time as the adjoining Great Hall, between 1275-1292.

The Bishop's Palace, Wells in Somerset
Photo © P L Kessler

Bishop Burnell's splendid dining and entertaining 'Great Hall' was built in the Early English Decorative style in the 1280s alongside his chapel.

Although only two walls and the four corner turrets survive, it is still one of the most impressive examples of a medieval open hall, the third-largest secular hall in England after Canterbury and Westminster Palace. Elements of its former grandness can be seen in the remaining large windows and the crenellations.

The building would have been entered via the impressive porch which is visible to the right of the tree. The large open space inside the building on the other side of that porch was church-like, with aisles on each side of a nave.

At one end was a pantry and buttery, and above these the bishop's private rooms (the 'solar'). At the other end was the 'high table'.

The English Reformation marked the end of the Great Hall's illustrious role. During the second half of the 1500s it was stripped of its lead roof, allowing the elements to begin to wear away the rest of the building until the partial demolition which was enacted by Bishop Law in the 1800s.

 

All photos by P L Kessler, taken in February 2015.

Main Sources

The Bishop’s Palace website

Visit Wells, Somerset website

Historic England

 

Images and text copyright © P L Kessler except where stated. An original feature for the History Files.