History of Bishop’s Waltham Palace

In the Middle Ages Bishop’s Waltham Palace was one of the finest residences of the Bishops of Winchester, who were among the richest churchmen in Europe. First built by Henry of Blois in the 12th century, the complex was remodelled and extended in the 14th and 15th centuries, becoming a palace capable of housing the king and his court on a number of occasions, as well as the bishop and his household. The palace was badly damaged in the Civil War (1642–9) and subsequently abandoned. Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham, one of Britain’s most distinguished naval commanders of modern times, lived here after the Second World War.

The west range of Bishops Waltham Palace, which dates from the 12th century

The west range of Bishop’s Waltham Palace, which dates from the 12th century when the palace took shape under Bishop Henry of Blois

Saxon and Norman Origins

King Edward the Elder (r.899–924) gave the large manor of Waltham to Denewulf, Bishop of Winchester, in 904, in exchange for a similar area of land at Portchester. Waltham remained among the most important possessions of this very rich bishopric until 1551.[1] The medieval Bishops of Winchester were not only influential in the church but were also powerful figures in national politics, holding major offices of state.

The first palace was begun probably in the 1130s by Henry of Blois (bishop 1129–71), the brother of King Stephen (r.1135–54). Henry was instrumental in the coup that brought Stephen to power, and became his chief adviser. He changed sides twice during the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, Henry I’s only surviving legitimate child. When Henry II, Matilda’s son, came to the throne in 1154 the bishop went into exile. Bishop’s Waltham was badly damaged when Henry II ordered Bishop Henry’s castles and palaces to be destroyed in 1155–6.

Little is known of this first phase of the palace, although Ministry of Works excavations in the mid-20th century revealed evidence of smaller stone buildings under the great hall and chamber ranges. The doorway in a pit just south of the cloister is probably from this period.

Henry of Blois seems to have rebuilt the palace in the 1160s or 1170s, having returned from exile in 1158. The outer walls of the south and west ranges incorporate much 12th-century masonry, probably from this second period. The Romanesque chapel crypt could date from either of the 12th-century phases.[2] The palace hosted a royal council in 1182, and again in 1194.

A reconstruction of the great hall as it may have appeared shortly after it was completed in 1381. William of Wykeham is shown entertaining an important visitor at the high table

A reconstruction of the great hall as it may have appeared shortly after it was completed in 1381. William of Wykeham is shown entertaining an important visitor at the high table
© Historic England (illustration by Peter Urmston)

William of Wykeham

Waltham was extensively remodelled from 1378 by William of Wykeham (bishop 1367–1404), Chancellor to Edward III (r.1327–77) and Richard II (r.1377–99). The work was carried out by his chief mason, William Wynford, who also supervised the building of Winchester College, New College, Oxford, and the nave of Winchester Cathedral for him.

There is considerable documentary evidence for William of Wykeham’s building works, which involved rebuilding the great hall, service area, kitchen and great chamber to create more up-to-date accommodation.[3] His will is dated at Waltham, and he died there in 1404.

The tomb of Cardinal Henry Beaufort in Winchester Cathedral

The tomb of Cardinal Henry Beaufort in Winchester Cathedral
© Pjposullivan; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 unported license

Cardinal Henry Beaufort

Cardinal Henry Beaufort (bishop 1404–47), half-brother to Henry IV (r.1399–1413) and a leading figure at court, also often resided at Waltham, and carried out further enhancements.

He raised the west tower, which housed his private apartments, by a storey in about 1408. He built a new chapel, work on which was under way in 1416–27,[4] and in 1438–43 a new inner gatehouse and a range of lodgings along the northern side of the inner court.

In his will Beaufort bequeathed to Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI (r.1422–61), the ‘blue bed of gold and damask at his palace of Waltham, in the room where the Queen used to lie when she was at that palace, and three suits of the arras hangings in the same room’.[5]

The coat of arms of Bishop Langton and those of the bishopric of Winchester, found among the rubble of the inner gatehouse at Bishops Waltham

The coat of arms of Bishop Langton and those of the bishopric of Winchester, found among the rubble of the inner gatehouse

Thomas Langton

Thomas Langton (bishop 1493–1501) made further extensive changes. The antiquary John Leland, writing in 1535–43, said that ‘most of the 3 partes of the base court [the outer court] was builded of brike and timbre of late dayes by Bisshop Langton’.[6]

Langton’s works included the rebuilding of Bishop Beaufort’s north range in brick, and the barn or stable in the outer court, destroyed probably in the 1980s. He may also have built the impressive walls, with distinctive diapering, around the great garden, most of which still stand.

A reconstruction of Bishops Waltham Palace as it may have appeared in the early 16th century, at the height of its development

A reconstruction of the palace as it may have appeared in the early 16th century, at the height of its development
© Historic England (illustration by Peter Urmston)

Bishop’s Waltham in the 16th Century

In 1522 Henry VIII (r.1509–47) and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V signed a treaty at Waltham pledging an alliance against their mutual rival Francis I, King of France. From 1531, when the bishopric was held by Stephen Gardiner, the king frequently  visited Waltham.

In 1551 Gardiner, who was opposed to religious changes, fell from favour on the accession of Edward VI. The Protestant John Ponet (bishop 1551–3) surrendered the manor of Waltham and most of his other estates to the king, who transferred it to his Lord Treasurer, William Paulet. The young king, who stayed at the palace in 1552, described it as a ‘fair old house, in times past of the bishop of Winchester, but now my Lord Treasurer’s’.[7]

When Charles V’s son Philip, the future King of Spain, came to England to marry Queen Mary I in July 1554, they met at Waltham before the wedding ceremony in Winchester Cathedral. In 1558 Mary restored Bishop’s Waltham to the Bishop of Winchester, and it remained an episcopal residence until the Civil War.[8]

A view of Bishops Waltham Palace in 1761

An engraving of Bishop’s Waltham Palace from the west, from a drawing of 1761
© Hampshire Record Office (ref 5M87/99)

Ruin and Abandonment

During the Civil War (1642–9) Bishop’s Waltham Palace was held for the king with a garrison of 200 under the command of a Colonel Bennett . After a long siege it was surrendered to a Parliamentarian commander, Major-General Sir Thomas Browne, on 9 April 1644, after the king’s forces had been defeated at the Battle of Cheriton nearby. Walter Curll (bishop 1632–46), who was in the palace at the time, is said to have made his escape in a dung-cart.

The palace seems to have been burned down, for on 11 April a Royalist supporter wrote: ‘Waltham House in ashes’.[9]

The palace was returned to the bishops in 1660, on the Restoration of King Charles II, but it must have been in ruins. Like their other medieval residences, Wolvesey Palace in Winchester and Winchester Palace in Southwark, London, it was abandoned.

Over the following century the palace ruins became a source of building material for the town, and several structures and walls disappeared completely. The earliest dated plan (1785)[10] and the earliest views (of 1781 and 1784)[11] show more or less the same areas standing as those that survive today.

The Palace in the 19th Century

In the early 19th century the site was leased to the Poor Law trustees for the parish, and part of the palace was incorporated into a farm. In 1806 there was an old farmhouse, a barn, a stable, a cartlodge and a cowhouse within the area of the former palace.[12]

The site remained the property of the bishops until it was transferred to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1869. In 1889 they sold the site to the renowned physician Sir William Jenner.[13]

Lord Cunningham kept geese among the ruins of Bishops Waltham

Lord Cunningham kept geese among the ruins of Bishop’s Waltham
© Estate of Lord Cunningham

Admiral Cunningham and Palace House

Admiral Cunningham (later Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope) was one of Britain’s most distinguished naval commanders during the Second World War, taking charge of the Mediterranean fleet (c 1939–43) and winning major actions at Taranto and Cape Matapan.

Admiral Cunningham returned to Bishop’s Waltham when on leave from active service. Prime Minister Winston Churchill insisted, however, that a special telephone line be installed there, to ensure that he could be summoned and consulted at short notice.

In 1952 Lord Cunningham transferred the palace ruins to the Ministry of Works’ guardianship. He died in 1963, and was buried at sea off Portsmouth. He is commemorated in Bishop’s Waltham church, as the town’s most distinguished resident of modern times.[14]

Public Ownership

The palace ruins were in need of major repairs. The Ministry of Works carried out major archaeological excavations over several seasons (c 1952–71). The ruins were stabilised and several previously buried structures, such as the chapel crypt and the footings of the cloister, were left exposed.

The farmhouse was adapted as a museum, and displays on the history of the site were installed, including a collection of worked stones.

Palace House and the walled gardens around it remain private property.



About the Author

Steven Brindle is a Senior Properties Historian at English Heritage. He is the author of best-selling books on Brunel and on Paddington Station, and has written numerous guidebooks for English Heritage.


1. W Page (ed), A History of the County of Hampshire, Victoria County History, vol 3 (London, 1908), 276–80 (accessed 28 January 2015).
2. JN Hare, Bishop’s Waltham Palace, Hampshire (English Heritage guidebook, London, 1987; 2nd edn 1990), 13, 19–21.
3. Studied in detail by JN Hare, op cit, and in ‘Bishops Waltham Palace, Hampshire: William of Wykeham, Henry Beaufort and the transformation of a medieval episcopal palace, with an appendix on Beaufort’s lodgings by R Warmington’, Archaeological Journal, 145 (1988), 222–54.
4. Hare, guidebook, 24.
5. Ibid; Page, op cit.
6. Cited in Hare, guidebook, 24–6.
7. Page, op cit.
8. Hare, guidebook, 28; Page, op cit.
9. Hare, guidebook, 28; Page, op cit.
10. Hampshire Record Office (RO) 5M87/61 (G Cobbett, ‘A plan of the ruins of Bishop’s Waltham Palace and its surroundings’, April 1785).
11. Hampshire RO 5M87/99 (anonymous print of 1781); 65M89/Z24 (prints by S Hooper, 1784).
12. Lease of the site, 1806, 1815, and 1821, Hampshire RO, 11M59/E2/154453–58; Hare, guidebook, 28.
13. Page, op cit.
14. AB Cunningham, A Sailor’s Odyssey (London, 1952).

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