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Wolvesey Castle, Winchester, Hampshire, UK

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A Brief History of Winchester
Winchester Castle | Wolvesey Castle | Westgate
Royal Hampshire County Hospital | Winchester Cathedral
Wolvesey Castle.

Wolvesey Castle is the remains of a fortified palace, home of the Bishops of Winchester for over a thousand years. The Bishop of Winchester still lives on the site of the former medieval West Wing and Chapel, in an area that is not open to the public, yet most of the medieval palace's remains are now in the care of English Heritage. Wolvesey Castle is located in a particularly pleasant area of Winchester. Its main entrance is on College Street, the same street as the house in which Jane Austen died1.

Early Saxon History

Winchester was the Saxon capital of Wessex and, later, of the whole of England. From 648 AD a Minster was located in Winchester and from the 10th Century the first Bishops of Winchester established their residence in the Southeast corner of Winchester's Roman town walls. East of the Bishop's Palace known as Wolvesey Castle was Winchester Cathedral itself, and to the palace's north was St Mary's Abbey, also known as Nunnaminster. Winchester was the wealthiest see in England throughout the Middle Ages. It was even wealthier than the archbishopric of Canterbury, which Winchester challenged unsuccessfully for the right to be an archiepiscopal2 see3.

King Alfred the Great and many other kings of Wessex and England were buried at Winchester Cathedral4. The Saxon Minster was the largest church in Europe during the Saxon period.

It is believed that the earliest Saxon Bishops lived in communal residences with the cathedral community and did not have their own accommodation. The first Bishop's Residence at Winchester is believed to have been located beneath the current Cathedral. Bishop Æthelwold, Bishop of Winchester 963 - 84, was the one to build the first Bishop's Residence on the small island in the middle of the Itchen. This island was originally called Wulf's Isle, a name that corrupted in time into Wolvesey.

The Early Norman Palace

After the Norman Invasion the Saxon Minster was disused and a new Norman Cathedral constructed by William the Bastard5's kinsman William Walkelin next to the Saxon Minster. The second Norman Bishop, William Giffard, built Wolvesey Castle's west hall in 1110 but it is the third Norman Bishop of Winchester, Henry de Blois, that is responsible for the layout of Wolvesey Castle that is visible today.

In early Norman times Wolvesey Castle was designed to be a luxury bishop's palace. William Giffard, the second Norman bishop, added to the Saxon palace a luxurious Norman stone hall complete with raised garden in 1110. This was for the bishop's own private accommodation as well as for rooms for official church business, and also provided rooms for his household. At the very south of the West Hall was constructed a three-storey tower. This was to keep the bishop's exchequer, or treasury, secure as well as provide protected accommodation for the bishop on the top floor.

After William Giffard's death Henry de Blois became bishop, a post he would hold from 1129 - 1171.

Henry de Blois

Henry de Blois was brother of King Stephen and nephew of King Henry I, son of Henry I's younger sister Adela and Stephen de Blois, and a grandson of William I. As the Bishop of Winchester, he was one of the most powerful men in England, controlling Winchester, England's wealthiest bishopric. As papal legate he outranked even the Archbishop of Canterbury and was King Stephen's chief advisor.

Henry de Blois initially constructed the East Hall, opposite the central courtyard from the West Hall, and also constructed a chapel that connected to the West Hall as well as a latrine block emptying into the wet moat attached to the north end of the West Hall. The East Hall was now to be for public ceremonies while the West Hall would be used for private and household use. The East Hall was a large, long and tall Great Hall built of flint and mortar and had a gallery built high in the north end of the hall. A latrine block was constructed at the south-east corner of the East Hall range, which also incorporated kitchen and similar facilities. He also introduced a water system in the courtyard.

These improvements were designed to increase the luxury of the palace, which was considered the finest Romanesque house in all of England. However, in 1135, when King Stephen claimed the throne on the death of Henry I, despite Henry I's daughter Empress Matilda being the appointed heir, Henry de Blois began a series of building projects to turn the palace at Wolvesey into a well-defended castle.

The Anarchy

The Anarchy was a period of Civil War between the forces of King Stephen and Empress6 Matilda, also known as Maud7. This lasted for nineteen years between 1135 – 1154.

Matilda was the legitimate heir to the throne since the deaths of her only legitimate brothers Prince William and Prince Richard in 1120 in the White Ship disaster. There were several reasons why the English Barons supported Stephen and not Matilda's claim to the throne. Firstly, at the time no Queen had ever ruled England. The second reason was because of her second husband, Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou. The Anglo-French War of 1123 - 11358 was still a recent memory, having ended on Henry I's death in 1135. Matilda also had been raised in a German court and was a stranger to the Normans she wished to govern.

Transformation Into A Castle

During this period Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester, set about transforming his palace into a castle. The kitchen was transformed into a tower and is often referred to as the Keep. The tower, however, has thin walls for a keep, perhaps an indication of the speed in which Henry de Blois wished to transform his palace into a defensible home. The tower has several features in common with keeps, including arrowloops, a battered base, all of which give the impression of a very strongly built defensive tower. South of this the former latrine block was converted into a strong tower built of solid stone up to the second floor, apart from the latrine shafts which emptied into the river Itchen. On the second floor are arrowloops and a staircase to the top of the tower, from which a timber hoarding projected, allowing a stronger defence. This tower, located near the castle's south-east corner and by the gatehouse was later named Wymond's Tower. The castle was enclosed by a stone curtain wall and a wet moat.

The Siege By Matilda

During the Anarchy, Henry de Blois initially wholeheartedly supported his brother Stephen's claim for the throne. However on 2 February, 1141 the forces of Empress Matilda at the Battle of Lincoln captured King Stephen. As the war seemed over and possibly fearing for his life, Henry de Blois promptly surrendered to Matilda on 2 March, 1141. He not only surrendered himself, but also Winchester Castle, located on the Southwest corner of the walled city, Winchester Palace, which was located in the centre of Winchester, next to Winchester Cathedral on its Northwest side and the treasure of Winchester. As papal legate he was prepared to even consecrate Matilda as queen.

However Henry de Blois and Matilda did not remain at peace for long. Matilda alienated her allies and those who had supported her, reportedly through acts of haughtiness. Henry de Blois prepared Wolvesey Castle for a siege and on 31 July, 1141 the forces of Henry de Blois based at Wolvesey Castle were besieged by the forces of Empress Matilda, although Henry de Blois himself was away, gathering support for Stephen's cause. Empress Matilda's forces were led by Matilda's uncle King David I of Scotland, who had been promised Huntingdon, Northumbria and Cumberland in exchange for his support of Matilda, although the division that attacked Wolvesey Castle was commanded by Empress Matilda's illegitimate brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester. Empress Matilda went to Winchester Castle in person to oversee the siege.

However, forces loyal to Stephen under Stephen's wife Queen Matilda soon came to Wolvesey Castle's rescue. They relieved Wolvesey Castle and in turn attempted to besiege Winchester Castle. For seven weeks the forces of Empress Matilda based at Winchester Castle battled those of Queen Matilda based in Wolvesey Castle, with the city of Winchester bearing the brunt. The Royal Palace at Winchester was completely destroyed, the north of the city burnt to the ground and forty churches in Winchester destroyed.

The Rout Of Winchester

Empress Matilda's forces' supplies ran low while Henry de Blois's forces still had a plentiful supply, both because of the preparations Henry de Blois has made and through being relieved by reinforcements. After a battle at Wherwell Abbey six miles north of Winchester in which Empress Matilda's forces had been defeated Richard, Earl of Gloucester felt it was vital to retreat.

During the retreat Queen Matilda's army saw their opportunity and attacked. Although Empress Matilda escaped and arrived safely at Gloucester, much of her army was destroyed and Earl Robert of Gloucester had been forced to surrender. Sadly, the local legend - that, after spreading a rumour that she had died, Matilda escaped from Winchester Castle in her own coffin, pretending to be dead - is untrue.

After the Rout of Winchester, Empress Matilda exchanged Stephen for her brother Earl Robert of Gloucester. Stephen regained his throne and the Anarchy continued until the signing of the Treaty of Winchester on 6 December, 1153 which stipulated that Stephen would rule England until his death, after which Empress Matilda's son, Henry Plantagenet, would be crowned king and not Stephen's son William, Earl of Surrey.

The Anarchy's Aftermath

On King Stephen's death in 1154 Henry Plantagenet was indeed crowned King Henry II. Henry de Blois initially fled England and Henry II gave orders that many of Henry de Blois's castles be slighted, however Wolvesey Castle seems to have escaped destruction. In 1158 Henry de Blois returned from exile to England, remaining Bishop of Winchester until 1171. During this time he finished work on Wolvesey Castle, constructing the heavily defensive Woodman's Gate gatehouse on Wolvesey Castle's north wall, halfway between the East and West Halls

The Anarchy had taken a heavy toll on Winchester, with the Royal Palace destroyed and the Royal Castle in ruins, Winchester would no longer hold its central position in English politics that it had come to enjoy, and the city took time to recover. Wolvesey Castle was inherited by the successive bishop Richard of Ilchester 1171 - 1205. On Richard of Ilchester's death Peter des Roches became Bishop of Winchester 1205 - 1238. He was an influential figure in the reigns of both King John and King Henry III and modernised the East Hall slightly.

Barons Wars

During the First Barons' War (1215 - 1217), which occurred when King John reneged on the signing of the Magna Carta, Wolvesey Castle was besieged and captured by the forces of Dauphin Prince Louis of France. Prince Louis and a French force had invaded, having been promised the crown of England in exchange for help during the war. Wolvesey Castle was not damaged in the siege and, on the death of King John and the crowning of Henry III, who had been born in Winchester, Wolvesey Castle was returned.

After the death of Bishop des Roches, Bishop William Raleigh became the next Bishop of Winchester from 1240 - 50. Tensions between William Raleigh and Henry III increased, indicative of the mood of Henry III's subjects as a whole, and so Henry appointed his own young half-brother Aymer of Lusignan, also known as William de Valence, as Raleigh's successor. This choice did not prove popular with the English barons, who besieged Bishop de Valance in Wolvesey Castle in the summer of 1258, forcing him to flee England, as part of the rebellion that led to the Provisions of Oxford, which later led to the Second Barons' War of 1263 - 65 between Henry III and English barons under Simon de Montfort. In 1265 Simon de Montfort the younger, the son of Simon de Montfort, briefly captured Winchester, including Wolvesey Castle.

The Fourteenth Century

The 14th Century was peaceful in comparison to the first two hundred years of the castle's existence. The castle was often used to house royalty, such as in 1306 when the castle prepared for the birth of Edward I's third child while the Queen was staying there, Winchester Castle having suffered from a fire in 1302. In 1330 Edward III and Queen Phillipa stayed at Wolvesey whilst attending Parliament held in Winchester. Between 1345 - 66 William Edington, Chancellor of England was bishop and in 1367 he was succeeded by William of Wykeham became bishop of Winchester. William of Wykeham had been Edward III's clerk of works at Windsor Castle and restored Wolvesey Castle's defensive wall at his own expense, drawing on his experience at Windsor. Wykeham was also Lord Chancellor and keeper of the Privy Seal. Although briefly tried for corruption, he remained bishop until his death in 1404. William of Wykeham is particularly remembered for founding New College, Oxford.

The 15th Century

In 1403 a feast was held at Wolvesey Castle to celebrate the wedding of Henry IV and Joan of Navarre, which took place in Winchester Cathedral. Records inform us that the menu involved a feast of cygnets, capson, venison, griskins, rabbits, pullets, partridges, woodcock, plover, quail, snipe, kid, almonds and pears. In 1405, after the death of William of Wykeham, Cardinal Henry Beaufort was appointed Bishop of Winchester. Henry Beaufort was Henry IV's half-brother, an illegitimate son of John of Gaunt by his mistress Katherine Swynford, who later became John of Gaunt's third wife.

The most famous event to happen at Wolvesey Castle in this period took place in 1415. It even inspired William Shakespeare to dramatise it for a scene in Henry V. Sadly, at no point in the scene (Act I Scene II) does anyone state that they are in Wolvesey Castle, but it is indeed the location of the historic meeting of Henry V and the French ambassadors who bring Henry a present of tennis balls. This insult that took place within the walls of Wolvesey Castle led to war with France and the Battle of Agincourt.

The next notable event that took place at Wolvesey Castle was on 25 July, 1554. Queen Mary stayed at Wolvesey Castle while arranging her marriage to Philip of Spain, the wedding taking place next door at Winchester Cathedral. The wedding breakfast was held in Wolvesey Castle's East Hall.

The Decline Of The Power Of The Bishops

After the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s the power of the church, including the Bishops of Winchester, was severely limited and as a symptom of this no Bishop stayed in power for long. Cardinal Wolsey was briefly appointed Bishop of Winchester in 1528 after the death of Bishop Fox. However, he was executed for treason in 1530 as he had failed to provide Papal blessing for Henry VIII's annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon.

In 1531, Stephen Gardiner was appointed Bishop of Winchester. However, his opposition to Edward VI's religious reforms led to his imprisonment in the Tower of London and in him being removed from office in 1551. John Ponet was appointed Bishop on a fixed salary contract, with most of the former Bishop's lands being transferred to crown ownership. Only Wolvesey Castle, Farnham Castle and Southwark remained in Church possession. When Catholic Mary I ascended to the throne in 1553, Gardiner was freed and performed the wedding ceremony. However his successor, John White, was sent to the Tower and deprived of the bishopric in 1559.

Civil War

During the English Civil War Wolvesey Castle spent the early stages quietly avoiding the frequent changes in political allegiance that the city of Winchester went through. However, this was not to last. In 1645 Winchester was re-occupied by Royalists and Bishop Curle himself, a fierce Royalist, organised the defence of Wolvesey Castle against Parliamentary forces. However, the castle was attacked by Oliver Cromwell and the castle's garrison surrendered. Bishop Curle was removed from office and Wolvesey Castle was slighted – essentially destroyed.

After The Civil War

In 1647 all bishops and bishoprics were abolished and church land confiscated. Then, in 1660 the monarchy was restored and so were the bishops, with Bishop Duppa beginning work on restoring Wolvesey Castle. Duppa's successor, Bishop George Morley, who became Bishop in 1662, decided in 1680 to rebuild the Palace next door to the Norman Castle ( despite the work undertaken on Wolvesey Castle), the remains of which he used as a source of stone. The original medieval chapel was retained but the moat was filled in and stone from Wolvesey Castle was used to build the new Baroque-style palace.

However, Morley died in 1684 and as his succeeding Bishops preferred to stay in Farnham Castle, Surrey, the Palace he had planned was not finished until forty years later. Even then it continued to be neglected. In 1785, most of the new Baroque Palace was demolished, except the West Wing, which was used as a training college until 1926. In 1927, the Bishopric of Winchester was divided into three, and with Farnham Castle becoming the property of the new Bishop of Guildford, the neglected surviving Wolvesey Palace wing became the official residence of the Bishop of Winchester.

Wolvesey Castle is now owned and maintained by English Heritage, although Wolvesey Palace next door is still owned by the Bishop of Winchester and is not open to the public.

Other English Heritage sites in the area include:

Another castle in Hampshire which is not owned by English Heritage is Southampton Castle.

Castle Remains

The castle is arranged around a central courtyard, with the West Hall on the west of the courtyard, a latrine block and Woodman's Gate on the north, the East Hall, Keep and Wymond's Tower on the east and the chapel on the south. The castle was surrounded by a wet moat. None of the original medieval house is still roofed, however many of the walls still stand to an impressive height, giving the guest a glimpse into what this, once the finest Romanesque house in England, would have looked like.

The West Hall

The West Hall is the oldest part of the castle. Most of the original West Hall block is under the current Bishop's House garden, which is not open to the public. The northern end, however, is. Despite being called a hall, it was actually a series of rooms used by the bishop, both for accommodation and for the bishopric's business. The ground floor on the west of the west hall (the side nearest the outside of the castle) was filled with chalk, not only to make the building taller and more impressive, but also as a side-benefit to improve its defences. Above this was a private sun-terrace garden. The east side of the West Hall was open at ground level, facing onto the central courtyard. The northern end of the west hall contained a latrine block that emptied into the moat, and at the southern end was a three-storey tower adjoining the chapel.

Woodman's Gate

Next to the latrine block at the north of the castle was the Woodman's Gate, the main gatehouse to the castle, which was purely defensive in purpose - complete with drawbridge, arrowloops and a defended passageway into the castle. The gatehouse was later used as accommodation for the Bishop's treasurer.

The East Hall

The east hall was the castle's great hall, a vast hall that was open to the hall's rafters, with a gallery built into the north wall. The hall adjoined a covered gallery that ran next to the courtyard, which was later accessible from the hall through arched doorways. Entry to the hall was originally either from the courtyard through a porch at the north end of the hall or to the south from a small open area next to the castle's secondary, southern gatehouse. Next to the south end of the hall was the castle's buttery and pantry, above which lay the bishop's great chamber where he more private discussions with notable lords took place.

North-east of the hall and next to the outer perimeter wall was the Bakehouse and east of the East Hall was the castle's kitchen tower, also called the keep.

The Kitchen Keep

The easternmost part of the castle is the Kitchen Tower, also known as the Keep. This tower was built to give the illusion of a strong, well-defended tower from the outside but internally it is simply the castle's kitchen, large enough to cope with the large meal demands that the Bishop of Winchester and guests, some of whom were royal, placed on the household.

Wymond's Tower

South of the Keep is Wymond's Tower, originally the East Hall's latrine tower but later rebuilt to create a strong, defensive tower. The tower is solid stone up to the second floor. Next to Wymond's Tower was the well house and from Wymond's Tower ran a curtain wall that ran around the perimeter of the castle's south edge before meeting with the chapel at the castle's south-east corner.


The south of the courtyard and adjoining the West Hall was the chapel. The chapel still exists as part of the present Bishop's Palace. The current chapel was built by Cardinal Beaufort in the 15th Century following the foundations of the original Norman chapel.

Near the chapel was the castle's southern gatehouse, which also was defended by a drawbridge over the moat. Just north of the chapel was a cloister walk that ran on the central courtyard's southern edge, linking the east and west halls in a covered walkway.

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1Jane Austen is buried in Winchester Cathedral next door.2A see is the area over which a bishop has authority. An archiepiscopal see is the area over which an Archbishop has authority.3The diocese, or the district of the bishop's authority, of Winchester originally stretched from Surrey to the Isle of Wight. In 1927 it was divided into three, with the northern third becoming the diocese of Guildford, the Isle of Wight and Southeast Hampshire becoming the diocese of Portsmouth and the remainder remaining the diocese of Winchester. In 757 Hampshire became the first county to be named in a document and is sometimes called England's first county.4Kings Egbert, died 839, Æthelwulf, died 855, Alfred The Great, died 899, Edward the Elder, died 924, Ædred, died 955, Ædwig the Fair, died 959, Cnut, also known as Canute, King of Denmark, Sweden, much of Norway and England, died 1035 and William Rufus, died 1100, although Alfred the Great and Edward the Elder were later reburied elsewhere.5William the Bastard has been known since Victorian times as William the Conqueror but was originally referred to as William the Bastard, which was not originally the insult that it is considered today.6Matilda's first husband was Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, a man thirty years her senior. After his death in 1125 she retained the title of Empress, even after her second marriage in 1128, to Geoffrey of Anjou, who was ten years her junior.7Empress Matilda's mother was Matilda of Scotland, her paternal Grandmother was Matilda of Flanders, her aunt was Princess Matilda and her cousin Stephen was married to Queen Matilda. It is understandable that she is commonly called 'Maud' to avoid confusion.8This war was fought to secure England's control of Maine, with Fulk V of Anjou one of England's major opponents. Henry I married his widowed daughter Empress Matilda to Fulk's son Geoffrey Plantagenet hoping that this union would bring peace, yet instead this marriage to an enemy was one of the causes of the Anarchy, a Civil War within England itself.

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