Britannia Castles: Well's Bishop's Palace, Somerset

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History of Wells Bishop's Palace in Somerset
By Charles Oman


Luxury turned Fortification

Not the least beautiful corner in the little cathedral city of Wells - where everything is beautiful - is the palatial castle of the Bishop, set in the middle of its broad moat of running water. Its fortification came late, in an age when already some idea of splendour and comfort had replaced that of mere military strength in the building of a castle. And Wells lay in a reasonably quiet corner of the land, not like the castles of the Bishops of Hereford or St. Davids - in one where strife, with the unruly Welsh, was endemic. Bishop Robert Burnell worked not only for his family, in erecting Acton Burnell castle in Shropshire, but also for his successors in the See of Bath and Wells, leaving them a fortress, where he had taken over only a fine manor house. The core of the present residential part of the palace was a spacious building erected by Bishop Joseline, early in the reign of King Henry III, to which belong the two lower stories, now visible - the upper storey and roof are comparatively modern. Robert Burnell, having got his "licence to crenellate" in 1285, turned the palace and its precincts into a very effective fortress. He fashioned the abundant waters of St. Andrew's Spring, which wells up from the ground beside the palace, into a broad quadrangular moat and, inside the moat on each side, threw up a rampart wall of earth faced outwardly with stone. On the rampart, he put a stout battlemented wall with towers at its four corners and a bastion or half-tower here and there projecting from its curtains. The extremely broad water defence was the most effective protection. There was an entrance only at one point, in the face which looks toward the cathedral and, here, the curtain is broken by a very large and strong gate-house. Two octagonal towers with battlements and arrow-slits and, between them, a portcullis chamber in which were also the chains by which a drawbridge could be lowered or raised. This is a very pleasing building and its effect has not been spoiled by a queer little Tudor bow-window thrown out from the left-hand tower.

These were Burnell's really military buildings, under his "licence to crenellate" but he gave a certain military effect to his domestic buildings too. A very large hall and a chapel and other chambers, he threw out at right angles to the old palace, into the middle of the green space, now forming a sort of "outer ward." For they are battlemented from end to end and have several towers set in them - also battlemented. Yet everywhere their large and beautiful "Early Decorated" windows show that they are really civil structures not intended for defence.

All these buildings of Burnell's in the palace enclosure, except the chapel, are in ruins and roofless. The abominable Bishop Barlow (1548-53) - who also undertook earlier vandalisms in the diocese of St. Davids - disposed of them to Protector Somerset via some sort of a corrupt bargain with him. And Protector Northumberland's creature, Sir John Gates, who got this fragment of Somerset's plunder, sold the lead of the roofs and the carved beams and panelling. Barlow's Marian and Elizabethan successors got back the palace, but had not the heart or the means to repair all Burnell's ruined buildings, which now stand in picturesque fragments in the middle of the lovely garden, enclosed by the outer enceinte and its swan-haunted moat. The chapel above, adhering to the old palace, survives intact.

Edited from Charles Oman's "Castles" (1926).  (T) 302.234.8904    (F) 302.234.9154    Copyright ©2000, LLC