The History of Wolvesey Castle

Previously I used to choose project sites as an excuse to see a different part of the country.  But having the site local to me for this project is bloody handy, means you can make impromptu lunchtime site visits!  Anyway, it’s going to be a long blog post this one.  Complete text of the palace information boards transcribed below…


Wolvesey became the residence of the bishops of Winchester in the late 10th century. The name means ‘Wulf’s island’, the higher ground between two streams of the River Itchen. The extent of the 12th century complex developed by Bishop Henri de Blois can still be appreciated. In 1684, Bishop Morley had a new house built in the baroque style. The surviving east wing remains the residence of Winchester bishops.



You are standing at the entrance to one of the greatest medieval buildings in England – the palace of the powerful and wealthy bishops of Winchester.

Throughout the medieval period the bishops of Winchester held one of the highest positions of power in the English church, as well as in national politics. They owned vast estates stretching from Somerset to London which brought them great wealth.

Although known today as a castle, Wolvesey was in fact a luxurious palace. The original approach was through a gate in the city wall, positioned roughly where you are standing. This led into an outer courtyard containing stables, barns, a great wool store, and the bishop’s prison.

As you walk along the path towards the medieval palace remains, look to your right to see the city of Winchester. To your left is the remaining wing of a baroque house, built in the 1680’s to replace the old palace. It is still the private home of the present bishop of Winchester.

In the 12th century the south-west corner of Winchester, bounded by the old Roman city wall, was dominated by the bishop’s residence, the cathedral and St Mary’s monastery.



The surviving ruins of Wolvesey were largely the creation of one man, Bishop Henry of Blois (1129-71), who built a palace befitting his immense wealth and powerful position.

When henry of Blois became bishop of Winchester in 1129, the residence consisted of a large hall block (the ‘west hall’), which had been built in about 1110 by the previous bishop, William Giffard (1107-29).


Until his death 42 years later, Henry continually added new buildings. Starting with another hall block (the ‘east hall;), he then added a keep, a defensive tower and two gatehouses. Directly in front of you are the foundations of one of these gatehouses, which stood within this southern entrance courtyard.

Although subsequent bishops carried out various repairs and alterations to the buildings, Henry’s palace survived virtually intact for the next 500 years. It is his work that comprises most of the ruins seen today.


By 1170 the palace was surrounded by a moat and arranged around an inner courtyard. The south-west part, connected to the chapel, lies under the present bishop’s house and garden.

Some clues to help you understand the ruins, some of which are still standing and some that were exposed by excavations between 1963 and 1974.

  • The interior of rooms have gravel surfaces, while outside areas such as courtyards are now under grass.

  • Walls of rough flint rubble would have been faced in high-quality cut stone.

  • Red tiles, inserted during repairs in the early 1930s, show where facing stones have been robed from the ruins.


The east hall was the public audience chamber of Henry of Blois, designed for large assemblies and ceremonial occasions.

The hall was probably built by 1138, when the Winchester Annals record that ‘Bishop Henry built a house like a palace’. However, within 20 years of its construction, Henry had remodelled the building, raising the hall to first-floor level.

Henry needed a suitably grand hall for his important duties so that he could hold large meetings, receive important visitors, and entertain his guests. An outstanding 27 meters long, and displaying the latest fashionable architectural features, this hall was clearly designed to impress.

Appointed abbot of Glastonbury in 1126, Henry became bishop of Winchester three years later. When his brother Stephen was appointed king in 1135, he took on the role of the king’s chief advisor, and in 1139 he became papal legate, the pope’s representative in England.

Henry of Blois, depicted as Pope Desiderious with St Jerome, in an initial from the illuminated Winchester Bible. Dating from about 1160, the bible is thought to have been commissioned by Bishop Henry, a great patron of the arts.


During the reign of King Stephen, there was a civil war – both Stephen and the Empress Matilda were claiming the English throne. As Stephen’s brother and advisor, Bishop Henry was close to the centre of these affairs.

In 1141, King Stephen was captured by Matilda’s forces. Henry deserted his brother, welcoming the empress to Winchester and preparing to consecrate her as queen. However, he was soon alienated by her attitude and returned to his brother’s cause.

With the help of Stephen’s other supporters, Henry laid siege to Winchester, with Matilda trapped inside. Accounts of the siege are confusing, but Wolvesey certainly played its part. At the height of the fighting, Bishop Henry’s defenders rained down fire on the town, destroying part of the city. The empress was defeated and Stephen was restored to the throne.

Bishop Henry had betrayed both sides in the conflict. Possibly because of his insecure position in the years following the siege, he fortified his palace, erecting the large square tower to your left and the massive Wymond’s Tower in front of you. Henry seems to have been attempting to restore his reputation as a leading figure of authority, giving his palace the appearance of a strong castle.


This tower was probably constructed by Bishop Henry between 1141 and 1154. For 500 years it served as the great kitchen.


From the outside this building looks like a great tower. The walls are in fact very thin – it seems that the building was always intended to serve as a kitchen. It was probably part of Henry’s attempt to reassert his position after the civil war.

The kitchens were used to prepare the large meals required to feed the bishop’s household. High ceilings helped dispel the heat and smell. Behind you was a serving room, where final preparations were made to dishes before being taken through to the east hall.

The east hall was used throughout the medieval period for state occasions. In February 1403, the wedding feast of King Henry IV and Joan of Navarre was prepared in these kitchens. It included cygnets, venison, rabbits, partridges, woodcock, plover, quail, snipe, roast kid, custards, fritters, cream of almonds and pears in syrup.



Wolvesey was just one of many grand houses and castles owned by the bishops of Winchester, who spent much of their time travelling in order to carry out their diocesan duties.

Medieval England and Wales was divided into 21 dioceses, or ares of church administration, each under the control of a bishop. The bishops were responsible for overseeing the clergy and most of the monasteries in the diocese, imposing discipline, and carrying out orders from royal or church superiors.

The bishops were constantly on the move, travelling between their estates and attending the royal court – many of them were important royal officials. Travelling with them would have been a household of perhaps 50 to 100 officials and servants, together with the bishop’s belongings and moveable furniture.

Wolvesey continued in declining use as an episcopal house until the 1680s, when it was abandoned in favour of a new palace built adjacent to the medieval site by Bishop George Morley (1662-84). Although largely demolished in 1786, the west wing remains the current bishop’s residence.



The Winchester Pipe Rolls, the annual accounts of the bishop’s extensive estates, and the bishop’s money were once stored within this gatehouse.

The bishops derived their wealth from vast landholdings, one of the richest estates of medieval England. The yearly income and expenditure on the estates was recorded in great detail in the Pipe Rolls, an astonishing surviving series of documents covering the years from 1208-9 until 1710-11.

Each year, the estate manors totalled up their accounts, and sent the profit in cash directly to the treasury at Wolvesey. In the year 1301-2, this profit totalled £5,188, over £2 million in today’s money. [excerpt written when? 1990’s? 2000’s?] Income was generated from land rents, sales of produce, and fees imposed at the manor courts.

After the 1370’s. The Pipe Rolls were probably stored in this gatehouse, where the treasurer’s quarters and the treasury was located. Today they are held by Hampshire Record Office.



The gatehouse was constructed by Henry of Blois between 1158 and 1171. Although built to apprea strongly defended with a drawbridge and arrowloops in two adjacent rooms, it never had a military function. After 1376, it became the treasury and treasurer’s lodgings.




Before the time of Bishop Henry, there had already been a bishop’s residence at Wolvesey for over 150 years.

The bishop of Winchester had lived as part of the community of monks who served the cathedral church. However, by the 10th century, the increasingly public role of the bishop meant that an enclosed monastery life was impractical.

Aethelwold I (963-84) was the first bishop to live separately from the cathedral. Little is known about his Anglo-Saxon residence, which lay to the north of the present palace, but it probably included a hall, residential accommodation and a chapel.

The first stone ubilding on this site was built in about 1110 by bishop William Giffard (1107-29). This west hall block is today largely buried beneath the baroque palace. However, the ruins of the northern end, seen to your right, have survived.

Raised up on the first floor to give the building an imposing appearance, these rooms served as the bishop’s private chambers, but were also frequently occupied by royal guests. At the far end was a three-storey tower, and to the side was a raised garden from which the cathedral could be viewed.



Bishop Henry employed the latest innovative technology at his palace, installing one of the earliest known medieval examples of a piped water supply.

Key to the water supply system was a substantial well-house in the central courtyard, located at the bottom of the steps behind you. When rebuilt by Henry in about 1130, it consisted of a central stone trough inside a rectangular enclosure.

A pipe ran from this well-house towards the centre of the courtyard, where it probably fed an ornamental tank. The overflow from this tank was piped off towards the southern courtyard where it fed a settling tank and another well-house.

It must have been such works that Gerald the Welshman was referring when he wrote that Henry had built ductus aquarum difficles, or ‘complex aqueducts’.

C’est fin.


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