As I’m writing this, the sky outside is lit by colourful explosions, in other words: I’m just spending a few days in London where people are already practising for tomorrow’s Bonfire Night.
While the weather forecast had announced what may be euphemistically described as the perfect weather for visiting museums, it has actually been mostly dry with even the odd ray of sunshine ever since I arrived here Wednesday evening. This gave me the opportunity to take a stroll along the South Bank of the Thames and pay a visit to what is probably my favourite building in this city:
Granted, in its current state it’s not so much a building as merely a gap in a row of modern houses, but in its heighday more than half a millennium ago it would have been one of the grandest, most splendid edifices in all of London. Back then, however, it wasn’t actually part of London: As mentioned above, it’s located south of the river Thames, in the borough of Southwark which, in medieval times, was an independent community under the jurisdiction of the Bishops of Winchester. And what you see in the above photo is nothing else than the Southwark residence of said bishops, also known as Winchester Palace.
All that remains of it today, is basically just the western end of what once was the Great Hall. It’s a two-storeyed structure with a vaulted basement/ground floor, and the actual representative hall on the first floor level. This is a pretty standard type for a medieval hall which had been quite widespread at least since the High Middle Ages. A two-storeyed hall of this kind is already shown in the famous Bayeux Tapestry, executed most likely around the year 1080:
Even the bishop’s hall in Southwark might be nearly as old as that: It has been argued that the basic structure of the building goes back to the time of bishop Henry de Blois (1101-1171) who founded Winchester Palace in the first half of the 12th century. Even if this holds true, the surviving architectonical details of the building go to show that it was in any case significantly altered in the 14th century – see, for instance, the Gothic ogive doorways on what used to be the second floor when there still was a floor:
These doorways once lead to the palace’s buttery, pantry and kitchen. Originally, they would have been hidden behind a wooden screen, an arrangement one still finds in other medieval structures like the 14th century hall at Penshurst Place, Kent:
Like the all at Penshurst, the one in Southwark most probably was covered by a hammer-beam ceiling. Another feature the two buildings have in common is the rich tracery of the window on the gable. There is one significant difference here, though: What we have in the bishop’s palace in Southwark is a rose window…
…an elaborate and rather fancy feature often found in medieval church architecture, but rarely used in palace architecture. And that’s “rarely” as in: I can’t think of any other example, and believe me when I say I’ve seen many a medieval hall.* So really, the inclusion of the rose window in a secular building speaks volumes about the high profile and representational standards of the bishops of Winchester in the late Middle Ages. And it makes Winchester Palace – even in its ruinous state – one of the most interesting medieval buildings in all of London.
* If you can think of any other examples, though, please do not hesitate to let me know…