VISITING WOLVESEY CASTLE: THE OLD BISHOP'S PALACE IN WINCHESTER

Wolvesey Castle was once a very important building, being the home of the Bishopric of Winchester, which was the most powerful and wealthy diocese in the country during the Middle Ages. The palace is now Grade I listed and sits in a pretty corner of Winchester, right next to the new Bishop's Palace, and is owned by English Heritage. The ruins are free to visit and there are still quite a lot of them left to explore.

Two people looking at the ruins of the Old Bishops Palace in Winchester

In a beautiful green corner of Winchester, right behind the cathedral, next to the ancient Winchester College and just a short stroll from the historic St Catherine's Hill, are the remains of the home of the once all-powerful Bishops of Winchester. At the peak of their powers they controlled land from Southwark in London to the south coast, becoming one of the wealthiest and most powerful entities in England, at times famed for their corruption and greed. The position included a seat in the House of Lords and often Lord Treasurer and Lord Chancellor.


The first Bishops of Winchester used to live as a part of the community of monks who served at Winchester Cathedral, but by the 10th century the position became increasingly public and it was no longer practical to live an enclosed monastic life. Æthelwold I was the first bishop to live separately from the cathedral and he built a small timber palace in the south-east angle of the Roman wall to the town of Venta Bulgarum which probably just had residential accommodation, a hall and a chapel.

The castle ruins of Wolvesey Castle

The first stone palace was built in 1110 by Bishop Gifford. He added the West Hall which is now largely buried beneath the current Bishop's Palace, although the ruins of the northern end of it have survived. This was raised on the first floor to give the building an imposing appearance. A three storey tower was also built with a raised garden from which people could see the cathedral.


The ruins you see today were largely created by Henry of Blois, Bishop from 1129 - 1171, great-grandson of William the Conqueror and brother of King Stephen. He had a passion for architecture and is responsible for additions to Winchester Cathedral, the Hospital of St. Cross, Winchester Palace in London, and Glastonbury Abbey amongst others.


The remaining wall of the Great Hall

He became bishop in 1129 and until his death 42 years later he continually added new buildings to Wolvesey Castle, including a new hall, a keep, a defensive tower, stables, barns, a prison, bakery, wool store and gatehouses.


The gatehouse was where the bishop's money was stored, along with the annual accounts of their vast estates in scrolls known as the Winchester Pipe Rolls. These recorded the yearly income and expenditure from all of the estates, which were recorded in great detail. Many of these documents survive, covering the years 1208 until 1711. All the various managers around the estates had to send their profit directly to the Bishop's Treasury with income coming from rent, fees, tolls and sales.


Bishop Henry also added plumbing, installing one of the earliest medieval water systems, building a large well house in the central courtyard in 1130 with a series of troughs, pipes, ornamental ponds and latrines that emptied into the moat.


Wolvesey Castle was where the Rout of Winchester took place, when Empress Matilda and King Stephen fought for the crown. In 1141 King Stephen was captured by Matilda; Henry of Blois deserted his brother and welcomed Matilda to Winchester to consecrate her as queen.

The chapel of the new Bishops Palace behind the ruins of Wolvesey Castle
The chapel, still in use, can be seen behind the ruins

However they soon fell out over ecclesiastical policy and patronage, and Henry of Blois returned to his brother's side. Matilda besieged Henry at the Palace, using Winchester Castle as her base (of which now only the great Hall survives). King Stephen's wife advanced troops on Winchester to besiege the besiegers, and much of the old city was destroyed in the ensuing battle. Matilda was defeated and Stephen returned to the throne.


After the siege, Henry fortified the palace, giving it the appearance of a castle. By 1170 the palace had a moat and was arranged around an inner courtyard. In 1170, Henry II (son of Empress Matilda) slighted the palace by removing all of its armaments such as the portcullis and gates, after the death of Bishop Henry just a year earlier. Otherwise, his palace survived intact for the next 500 years and most of what you see today were the parts added by Henry, although the boundary wall was added in 1374.


In 1403 Wolvesey Castle was the location for the magnificent and expensive wedding feast of Henry IV and Joan of Navarre of which the menu still survives; the pièce de résistance was a cake shaped like crowned panthers, with each panther having flames issuing from his mouth and ears.


In 1554 the Palace hosted the wedding breakfast of Queen Mary and Philip II of Spain where nearly one hundred and forty people dined on thirty dishes spread across four courses.

A wall from the Bishop's Hall

The palace was destroyed by the Roundheads during the Civil War in 1646. It continued in use until 1684 when a new Baroque palace was built right next to it. Much of that palace was demolished in 1786 and now only the north wing exists, which is where the present day Bishop of Winchester resides and the only part of the original palace which remains in use is the chapel.


The site now is a rather peaceful spot, which can only be reached by walking a narrow path between the current Bishops Palace and some school playing fields, which are still encompassed by the 14th century wall of the castle. There are a few information boards to tell you what you are looking at, and few barriers so you can mostly roam where you want. It is a very green and pretty site and would be perfect for picnics amongst the ruins.


Visiting Wolvesey Castle

How to get to Wolvesey Castle


Postcode: SO23 9NB

what3words: lengthen.could.barbarian


Public Transport:

Train: The castle is a 20 minute walk from the train station

Bus: The castle is a 9 minute walk from the bus station


Parking: Park in one of the Park & Ride sites and get the bus to the centre of town


When is Wolvesey Castle open?

Winter months - weekends only, 10am - 4pm

Summer months - daily 10am - 6pm


How much does it cost to visit Wolvesey Castle?

The site is free to visit for all


Are there any facilities at Wolvesey Castle?

There are no facilities here at all, but plenty of places near the cathedral