The remains of the Winchester Palace: once one of the largest and most important buildings in all of medieval London

“There was a period when everyone believed in God and the church was supreme. This period was known as the Dark Ages.” Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults on Our Language, Richard Lederer

The Dark Ages is an intriguing depiction of a period in human history. It is now an outmoded expression, but it is nevertheless used to describe the early Middle Ages and the period of cultural degeneration and economic collapse in Europe that happened between the 5th and 9th centuries (although some extend it to the 14th). It occurred when the Western Roman Empire fell, leaving the continent in complete chaos and intellectual darkness.

Winchester Palace, as depicted in the 1660 drawing by Wenceslas Hollar

When free thought was severely outlawed, science was neglected, and logic was apparently a common luxury, everyone agreed that the globe was round and everyone understood what an antipode was. While free knowledge is more widely available than ever before, some people, for whatever reason, continue to think that the globe is flat. Despite every well-rounded piece of scientific data leaning in the opposite way.

The church understood that “facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored” (Aldous Huxley) and that even the gods remained mute in their presence. Instead of ignoring them, ardent churchmen allegedly torched the facts they intended to destroy, allowing God to proclaim the message they desired to impart. Much of the written documents from the time have been lost, leading to many misunderstandings about what occurred. But to claim that nothing positive came out of these times, as many still do, is absurd.

“Even historians who should know better seem addicted to the idea that nothing of any consequence occurred between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance,” writes James Hannam, author and dedicated historian with a Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge, claiming that the medieval world laid the groundwork for modern science. After much study, he wrote and published God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, which the New Scientist describes as “well-researched and highly engaging.”

The palace served as the London residence of the Bishops of Winchester during the Middle Ages. Author: The Car Spy – DSC_0169 – CC BY 2.0.

According to him and his book, the Middle Ages were a time of “innovation and fast technical progress,” with glasses, mechanical clocks, and windmills among the inventions. He even goes so far as to say that during those times, the Church not only imposed bounds but actively fostered research, and that “many of the most notable contributors to medieval science became bishops or cardinals.”

One such figure is said to be Bishop Henry of Blois, also known as Henry of Winchester. He was not an inventor, but he was an important contributor to both science and art in the 12th century. Specifically, the harmonious marriage of creative imagination and scientific understanding in building.

The design of the window is based on a series of intersected equilateral triangles and the central hexagon contains a pattern more closely resembling a floral motif. Author: Daren Clarke – CC BY 2.0.

King Stephen of England’s younger brother (1135-1154), occupied a position of tremendous influence as papal legate (the Pope’s emissary) at one time. Henry of Blois, who became possibly England’s wealthiest man, is most recognized for what he did with his fortune and what he left behind as a legacy.

The rose window is thought to be nearly 700 years old. Author: Peter Trimming – CC BY-SA 2.0.

He had a strong enthusiasm for architecture and a great deal of appreciation for magnificent structures, as well as the resources to follow his hobbies, which culminated in a number of construction schemes in which he committed a significant amount of money. Before the catastrophic fire of 1184, Henry of Blois is credited for planning and supervising initiatives that delivered pure water to every portion of Glastonbury and Winchester, as well as improving the status of adjacent villages, monasteries, and abbeys, notably the famed Glastonbury Abbey.

He designed and oversaw the construction of several large structures, or converted modest defenses into massive gigantic castles. To name a few, Farnham Castle in Surrey, Taunton in Somerset, Wolvesey Castle in Winchester, and Waltham Palace, the Bishop’s house in Hampshire. Some of them are still standing, or at least partially so. Most notably, he completed the beautiful Winchester Cathedral, his and Jane Austin’s last resting place, making it as majestic as it is today.

Winchester Palace, a 12th-century palace built by the Bishop of Winchester in the London Borough of Southwark and mostly destroyed by fire in 1814. Remains of walls from the 14th century, with a rose window, are visible on Clink Street. Author: Deror_avi – CC BY-SA 4.0

It was still a “dark era,” and not everything spoken was made official, yet his name is linked to practically every significant establishment built in England after William the Conqueror (his grandfather) achieved his conquest.

In any case, according to official English Heritage declarations and the Heritage Unlocked guidebook series, Henry of Blois is totally responsible for the construction of one of the grandest and most likely most significant structures in Medieval England: Winchester Palace in London.

The ruins were rediscovered in the 19th century and were finally revealed in the 1980s during the redevelopment of the area. Author: Oxyman – CC BY-SA 2.0

During his brother’s rule, the palace was designed to be a residential area and a splendid house for bishops and royal members when in the city. It was supposed to be a place to unwind and take a break from everyday life.

It was allegedly an enormous palace when it was built around not one, but two courtyards, with the Great Hall, placed right next to the south bank of the River Thames and arranged to provide a clear view across the river while also being as close to the water as possible and allowing for fairly secure and quick distribution of goods to the vaults beneath. After all, it’s good to take your renowned visitors, such as James I of Scotland, down to your wine cellar and show them your wine collection after exquisite meals with a view and speak about politics in full solitude.

The palace was mostly destroyed by a fire in 1814. Author: Nigel Chadwick – CC BY-SA 2.0.

In addition, as a designated refuge and a place for recreation, it was thought that guests might rest in the colorful pleasure garden, play tennis on the tennis court, or bowl in the bowling alley. Only shards of its history remain as ruins in what is now the London Borough of Southwark, near London Bridge. Walls from the past, as well as a few images and pages of historical reminiscences, give us a sense of how wonderful the palace would have been.

Today, only the foundations and ruins of the Great Hall survive with an impressive rose window. Author: Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK. Remains of Winchester Palace uploaded by oxyman – CC BY 2.0.

It was constantly utilized as the Bishops of Winchester’s residence and withstood several modifications and restorations throughout the years. Unfortunately, the area was destroyed by fire in 1814. Only a large wall of the Great Hall, crowned with a superb rose window, remains of what was once vast and majestic, with lovely gardens and many constructions. Extensive archaeological excavations since the 1980s have shown that throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, the Bishop’s palace stretched up to six acres of land and included a brewery, butchery, and stable houses, as well as its jail, the Clink. The most infamous Medieval jail.

“A few walls are all that remains of the mighty Bishops of Winchester’s palace, one of the largest and most significant structures in medieval London” — this is the English Heritage organization’s introduction statement about the archaeological site and tourist attraction they currently care for and administer.

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