Few people know that it is possible to visit Lambeth Palace in London, lying next to the Thames within a stone’s throw of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. Off the beaten track and with beautiful grounds, it makes for a lovely, peaceful way to explore this lesser known part of London's history.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF LAMBETH PALACE
By the 12th century, the Archbishop of Canterbury was well established as a spiritual leader and one of the King’s chief counsellors with an important place at court. He needed a suitably imposing residence so, on land previously held by the bishop and monks of Rochester, building began.
By Stephen Langton’s time in 1207 the most important rooms of the medieval palace had been established – the Chapel, the Great Hall, the Great Chamber and the archbishop’s private apartments.
These have been significantly altered over the years, but the 15th century Lollards’ Tower and Morton’s Tower still stand. The Lollards ‘ Tower was built by Archbishop Chichele and outside there is a niche which once housed a statue of Thomas Becket. Passing Thames watermen used to doff their caps to this statue.
Morton’s Tower Photograph © Alex Baker/Lambeth Palace
Morton’s Tower is a red-brick gatehouse built as a porter’s lodge, accommodation for the household and a prison. Today’s visitors still pass through this gatehouse to enter the Palace.
The main frontage is the residential wing for the Archbishop and his family, constructed by Archbishop William Howley in the early 19th century. Built of Bath stone, it stood resplendently honey coloured until the building of nearby Waterloo station in 1848 began to render it murky grey.
Incendiary bombs in WWII caused huge damage to the Great Hall and Library (some of the books are still under repair over 70 years later). Archbishop Lang set up a Rest Centre for local people in the Crypt Chapel for those whose homes had been damaged or destroyed. The Palace was slowly restored and in 1955 Queen Elizabeth II was present at the rededication of the Chapel.
THE TOUR OF LAMBETH PALACE
The tour comprises many of the medieval and later rooms of the Palace and, what is quite surprising, extensive gardens with, in March, magnificent magnolias, which are a peaceful oasis in the heart of the busy city.
A large fig tree is reputedly the descendant of one brought to Lambeth by Cardinal Pole when he arrived to be Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of the Catholic Mary Tudor in 1556.
There is memorial to Archbishop Randall Davidson commemorating his 25 years as Archbishop 1903 – 1928. Archbishop during WWI, he seems to have been a deeply compassionate man who was enormously affected by the suffering in the trenches and understood why soldiers had lost their faith and believed only in hell.
This is a working palace, the HQ of the Anglican communion all over the world, and as such many rooms are not open to the public. But those that are available immediately give you a great sense of the spiritual purpose of this place through the ages.
The Crypt Photograph © Alex Baker/Lambeth Palace
The Crypt Chapel with its medieval stone vaults and pillars of Purbeck marble, is the oldest and least restored part of the Palace, still in daily use for prayer and worship. Part of the undercroft in 1199, it was originally designed as a larder, but every year the Thames (a wider river than it is now) flooded so it was then used as a store area. At least the flooding gave the advantage of preservation - the steps are the originals, covered in mud until the early 20th century when the Thames was narrowed and the flooding stopped.
The Great Hall Photograph © Alex Baker/Lambeth Palace
The Great Hall was rebuilt in the 17th century in medieval style – Pepys called it the “new old building” - and then rebuilt again after WWII. So it’s a 20th century copy of a 17th century copy of a 13th century building. And it’s awe-inspiring. Spacious, light and airy it has a vast and impressive oak hammer beam roof with seven bays and acanthus foliage for decoration.
The trusses reset on stone corbels cut to represent lion heads, masks, cherubs and angels.
But it is the books that immediately attract attention – large, bound, ancient tomes and manuscripts breathing the drama of historical and religious changes through the years of Reformation, the short-lived return to Catholicism under Mary, the swing towards Puritanism under Cromwell. Naturally enough, they are out of reach, but the temptation to devour them is strong!
The Library, the principal repository of the documentary history of the Church of England, is not accessible to the visitor but is clearly extensive.
Even when Peter the Great visited the Library in 1698 he claimed that he could not believe that there were so many books in the whole world.
It contains 600 medieval manuscripts among the 5000 in total as well as 250,000 printed books including a Gutenberg Bible printed in 1455. There is also a collection of artefacts which include the gloves worn by Charles I when he went to his execution in 1649. Photograph © Museum of London
The Blue Dining Room is small, only able to seat 12, but special guests like the Queen and the Dalai Lama have been entertained there.
Portraits include four of the early Father of the Church: Saints Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine (sent by Pope Gregory to England in 597) and Pope Gregory himself – still showing the slash marks of Cromwell’s soldiers who briefly occupied Lambeth Palace during the Commonwealth period.
The State Drawing Room Photograph © Alex Baker/Lambeth Palace
The State Drawing Room is large, its ceiling restored after WWII. Its views over the garden and Thames are accessed through large box windows. This has a more domestic feel – the Archbishop’s personal photographs are there and, although large, the room is comfortably furnished with large sofas, occasional tables and small lamps.
The Guard Room Photograph © Alex Baker/Lambeth Palace
The Guard Room was originally the medieval chamber where the archbishop received honoured guests, visiting dignitaries and accepted petitions. It has an arch-braced roof dating from the 14th century and three very modern chandeliers which were a millennium gift from the Anglican Church in America.
The Chapel is one of the oldest surviving part of the Palace. Archbishop Laud installed the black and white chequered flooring and the decoratively carved screen that still exist.
The Chapel Photograph © Alex Baker/Lambeth Palace
Scorch marks made by burning debris falling from the roof in WWII are still visible on the floor.
A tile in front of the altar marks the resting place of the bones of Matthew Parker, the only Archbishop buried at Lambeth.
The ceiling comes across as slightly incongruous with its surroundings. Painted by Leonard Rosoman in 1988, entitled From Darkness to Light, the colours and designs of the paintings are bright and very much 20th century. They depict some of the key events in the history of Archbishops of Canterbury, starting with Pope Gregory’s commission to a reluctant Augustine to go to England to spread Christianity.
Two panels illustrate the Lambert Conference and representatives of the Anglican Communion. The series ends with the head of Christ in Glory over the altar.
Throughout the Palace there are portraits of previous Archbishops of Canterbury and the guides have history and anecdotes about each one. Thomas Becket, murdered on the orders of Henry II and later canonised, is frequently mentioned. So too is Archbishop Cranmer. Author of the English Reformation, his Book of Common Prayer has been central to the Christian faith since 1549 and continues to be one of the most glorious influences on the English language.
Cardinal Reginald Pole, Archbishop Matthew 'Nosey' Parker, Archbishop William Laud
Cardinal Reginald Pole, from the reign on Mary Tudor, is there – looking understandably mournful, as many of his family had been killed on the orders of Henry VIII as a threat to his dynasty.
There is Archbishop Matthew Parker, Elizabeth I’s principal Archbishop who oversaw much of the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. He had a large nose and was apparently known as Nosey Parker.
We see Archbishop William Laud, from the reign of Charles I, who was executed on the orders of Parliament for his pro-Catholic stance.
Under his portrait is the shell of his pet tortoise which is reputed to have outlived him by 120 years. The final portrait is that of Archbishop Rowan Williams, ex-Archbishop who can still be seen walking through the streets of Cambridge if you ever happen to walk there on a Sunday morning, his gowns billowing out behind him.
A visit to Lambeth Palace is a step into the ancient and sacred walls of the heart of the Church of England; a truly unique chance to explore one of the lesser known but most important aspects of London's history.
Lambeth Palace sits right on the Thames, and is very close to the tourist areas (you can see the London Eye on the left) but few tourists make it to this historic location, making it ideal for the Slow Traveller.
Visiting Lambeth Palace
Visits can only be by guided tour and should be booked in advance. Book here >>
Photography is not allowed inside the palace.