Wolvesey Castle

Has been described as a Certain Masonry Castle, and also as a Certain Palace (Bishop)

There are masonry ruins/remnants remains

NameWolvesey Castle
Alternative NamesWolvesey Palace
Historic CountryHampshire and the Isle of Wight
Modern AuthorityHampshire (City of Winchester)
1974 AuthorityHampshire
Civil ParishWinchester

Wolvesey Castle, palace of the Bishops of Winchester was built by Henry de Blois c. 1130 - 71 possibly re-using material, from the Conquerors palace destroyed in 1141 (SU 42 NE 2.3). It appears to have been a courtyard house with keep, of advanced design, remodelled c. 1160 by the addition of a hall, N. range and gatehouse, and further remodelled by the addition of a range along the N. side of the courtyard late in the same century. On the S side of the courtyard was a chapel.

The castle was destroyed during the Civil War and a new palace was built for Bishop Morley in 1684 by Sir Christopher Wren, incorporating the 15th c. chapel. This palace and its stables still exist, but a contemporary block facing College Street was demolished. Recent excavations on the site have revealed a late Saxon oval building, possibly a chapel, indicating perhaps the existence of a pre-Norman Bishops Palace (Nisbett; Pevsner; Biddle).

The remains consist of the Keep, the NE & SE towers, the part of the chapel which is built into the E wing of the 17th c. palace. Much of the castle wall exists up to 20 ft in height. Excavations by Biddle are still in progress (F1 FGA 23-APR-68).

Excavations continued until 1971.

The Saxon chapel was found to have a rectangular extension and to overlie earlier Saxon levels.

Most of the palace complex has been excavated and the plans recovered.

The palace eventually formed an irregular polygon surrounding a central courtyard. There was originally only a single hall, West hall, dating to Bishop Giffard's building of 1110, an East Hall being added by Henry de Blois circa 1130.

The West Hall appears to have been the successor to the Saxon Bishop's Palace, and probably represents the earliest official residence on the new site. The work in the West Hall is of finer detail than work on the Cathedral transepts of 1079-93, but of comparable detail with the Cathedral crossing piers and tower of circa 1107

In its later phases it was divided longitudinally by two aisles, and the surviving floor levels are of 13th century and later date. Throughout its life it was the principal residence and private apartments of the Bishop within the Palace. it was one of the great buildings of the Norman period in England measuring 53m long and 26m wide. At its southern end was a cross block, 44m long and 11m wide. This plan recalls that of the 11th? century 'palatium Tau' of the archieopiscopal palace at Reims. The western compartment of the cross block probably supported a tower. The Eastern aisle probably existed at the ground level only, with a pitched roof. Only the central aisle was storied, the area of the western aisle actually containing a walled garden.

At the South-West angle was a great tower on at least three floors, the basal chamber containing the Bishop's Treasury and Exchequer, with a private chapel above.

The chapel at the South-West end of the hall is the only part of the complex which survives intact and remains in use. The present chapel was rebuilt 1442-7, although on Norman foundations. It probably replaced the Saxon chapel, the western apse of which can still be seen below Woodman's Gate. The chapel was repaired 1907-9 and restored in 1927-8.

Henry de Blois succeeded Giffard as Bishop in 1129 and as early as 1130 began an extensive programme of building work which resulted in a palace/castle complex in two phases. Initially, this only consisted of the West Hall and East Hall, but other buildings rapidly appeared from 1135 onwards within a moated enclosure and fortified curtain wall.

The East Hall functioned as the Great Hall throughout the lifetime of the Palace. In its original plan it appears to have consisted of a building of three bays wide, the western bay divided longitudinally by a wall, the walls rising the full height of the building, with a two-storey chamber block of equal height to the South. A porch was built in the North-West corner. A galery ran for half the length of the building on the East side of the building from the South corner. The walls of the central range are considerably thicker than the external walls suggesting that the central space was storied and flanked by lean-to galleries. The principal entrance to the hall was from the South, the North-West porch being for the Bishop's use and tahat of his retinue, it facing the entrance to the West Hall.

The hall was extensively remodelled 1159-71, the floor levels being raised by a storey throughout. The hall was even more extensively remodelled in the late 13th century to create an aisled hall of 4-bay plan with service rooms at the south end. It remained essentially the same until its demolition in the 1680s.

On the East side of the East Hall a square 'keep' was added after 1141, and a stone tower (Wymonds Tower) added at the South-East corner of the East Hall at the same time. The keep appears to have been intended as a military structure, but excavated evidence suggests that it was soon converted to domestic usage, perhaps shortly after the slighting of 1155. The walls are half the thickness of contemporary defensive structures, and internal arrangements cast some doubt on it ever having been for military use. Wymonds Tower is certainly of contemporary military dimensions, but was originally built as a permanent latrine for the East Hall.

About 1135 a curtain wall defining the North side of the courtyard was constructed, and a new block built on the North side of the West hall. This block was divided into 4 compartments, initially as a reredorter. This block was extensively altered in the 12th and 13th centuries. A gatehouse (Woodman's Gate) was created in the centre of the North wall after 1158, although this never became the principal entrance to the palace complex. The Treasurers and Exchequers lodgings were moved to this gateway 1372-6. Bakehoses and a wine cellar were added to the East of the gatehouse at a later date.

At the same time the South range was also created within a curtain wall, and included wellhouse. Circa 1138 a gatehouse was built in the middle of the range. Domestic buildings were built within the South wall during the lifetime of the palace.

Remodelling of the North and South ranges continued in the 14th and 15th centuries. The whole complex was demolished in the 1680s (Biddle).

Thompson considers that the early thin-walled keep is more an example non-military architecture than military (Thompson 1992).

MCXXXVIII. Hoc anno fecit Henricus episcopus aedificare domum quasi palatium cum turri fortissima in Wintonia (Annales de Wintonia - 1138. In this year Henry the bishop built a house like a palace with a strong tower in Winchester)

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law

This is a Grade 1 listed building protected by law

Historic England Scheduled Monument Number
Historic England Listed Building number(s)
Images Of England
Historic England (PastScape) Defra or Monument number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceSU484290
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Copyright Neil Howard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons license.View full Sized Image
Copyright Neil Howard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons license.View full Sized Image
Copyright Neil Howard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons license.View full Sized Image

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Guide Books

  • Wareham, J., 2000, Three palaces of the bishops of Winchester: Wolvesey (Old Bishop's Palace), Hampshire; Bishop's Waltham Palace, Hampshire; Farnham Castle keep, Surrey (London: English Heritage)
  • Biddle, Martin, 1986, Wolvesey: the Old Bishop's Palace, Winchester, Hampshire (London: English Heritage)

Primary Sources

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  • Rickard, John, 2002, The Castle Community. The Personnel of English and Welsh Castles, 1272-1422 (Boydell Press) (lists sources for 1272-1422) p. 237


  • Payne, Naomi, 2003, The medieval residences of the bishops of Bath and Wells, and Salisbury (PhD Thesis University of Bristol) Appendix B: List of Medieval Bishop's Palaces in England and Wales (available via EThOS)