Downton Bishops Palace

Has been described as a Possible Palace (Bishop)

There are no visible remains

NameDownton Bishops Palace
Alternative NamesThe Old Court; King John's Stables
Historic CountryWiltshire
Modern AuthorityWiltshire
1974 AuthorityWiltshire
Civil ParishDownton

Possible Bishops palace documented during early C13. It is thought to have been situated on the west bank of the River Avon. Excavations in 1957 located part of a Medieval wall. Building material was also dredged from the river in 1962. (PastScape)

"It is probable that, as early as the 13th C, the Bishop and his lessees inhabited a building of considerable extent on the western bank of the river called in ancient deeds the Old Court; of which scattered vestiges remained in the memory of some of the present inhabitants". "A special court was held in the house called the Old Court June 2nd 1578" (Hoare)

A Medieval wall trench running from east to west (SU 1781 2126) was revealed in 1957, when Rahtz dug a trial hole in a field known locally as Old Court (and also King John's Palace and the Bishop's Palace) (WANHM 1891-3; 1965)

Large blocks of greensand stone, including a carved stone with a 12/13th C, decorated capital, suggestive of a substantial building in the near vicinity were dredged from the river Avon in 1962. Information from workmen engaged on the site disclosed that a short length of flint wall had been found and that the blocks of stone had come from the river or the extreme edge of the island fronting the river (Musty 1966). (PastScape)

Henry de Blois episcopal castle, The Moot was demolished in 1155 and never seemed to recover; was this a replacement on a new site?

Creighton writes that "the distinct possibility that the castle was conceived as an appendage to an extant archiepiscopal (sic) palace site, and thus represented the temporary transfer of functions to a fortified nucleus as opposed to the creation of a new seat of Lordship."

It is known that by the later 11th century an episcopal residence stood at Downton (Elrington 1980), and documentary and historical evidence has identified the site at Old Court, just west of The Moot, as the location – a premise confirmed by archaeological research which also discovered that the site had probably been bisected by a Post-medieval mill stream. The 1734 estate map of Joseph Windham shows standing walls marked 'The Ruins' on an island created by the mill stream, but cannot be trusted for accuracy. The size of such a site has been estimated (based upon the body of recorded sites) at between 0.5ha and 3ha (English Heritage 1990, Magnates' Residences (Medieval). Monuments Protection Programme, Single Monuments Class Description.). (Mcmahon p. 13)

Gatehouse Comments

There are weaknesses in the story of a palace superseded by a castle and then another palace. It may be that it is better to think of the Downton palace and castle as one large episcopal site with use over a long period and many rebuilding in various styles, with older building being abandoned, demolished or reused in different ways. In effect this would put the palace in a third bailey, defined by the river, to the west of the castle ringwork. Before the insertion of a post-medieval mill leet and probable changes to the river course, this area may have been rather more clearly defined by the river than is now apparent.

- Philip Davis

Not scheduled

Not Listed

Historic England (PastScape) Defra or Monument number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceSU178212
HyperLink HyperLink HyperLink

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  • Thompson, M.W., 1998, Medieval bishops' houses in England and Wales (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing) p. 185
  • James, T.B., 1990, The Palaces of Medieval England (London; Seaby) p. 88
  • Elrington C.R. (ed). 1980, VCH Wiltshire, Vol. 11: Downton Hundred, Elstub & Everleigh Hundred. (Institute of Historical Research, University of London) online transcription
  • Hoare, Sir Richard Colt, 1822-44, The history of modern Wiltshire: Hundred of Downton (London) p. 18


  • Creighton, O.H., 2000, 'Early Castles in the Medieval Landscape of Wiltshire' Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine Vol. 93 p. 108 online copy
  • Musty, J., 1966, 'Old Court, Downton, and the Moot earthworks' Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine Vol. 61 p. 98-99 online copy
  • Rahtz, P.A., 1964, 'Saxon and Medieval features at Downton, Salisbury' Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine Vol. 59 p. 124-9 online copy
  • Rahtz, P.A., 1963, 'Neolithic and Beaker sites at Downton, near Salisbury, Wiltshire' Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine Vol. 58 p. 116 online copy
  • 1787, The Gentleman's Magazine Library Vol. 57 Part 2 p. 951-52 online copy


  • Mcmahon, Phil, 2004, The Archaeology of Wiltshire's Towns An Extensive Urban Survey Downton (Wiltshire County Archaeology Service) online copy
  • 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)