Wolvesey Castle was a palace built as the main residence for the Bishops of Winchester. It was completely remodelled and its defences enhanced by Henry of Blois, brother to King Stephen. The castle remained in church hands throughout the Reformation but it was eventually eclipsed by the palace at Farnham.
Wolvesey Castle was built by Bishop Aethelwold in the late tenth century AD to serve as the palatial residence for the Bishops of Winchester. This important post was responsible for overseeing the clergy and managing the estates across the diocese - the richest in England - and encompassed a vast area including Surrey and the Isle of Wight. In addition many of the incumbents held important lay posts in the Government including roles such as Lord Chancellor or Treasurer. Accordingly their palaces reflected this status and were large enough to support the officials and servants that accompanied the Bishop. Due to its location within the Winchester town perimeter, Wolvesey was their main residence but the Bishops also had major palaces at Bishop's Waltham (Hampshire), Downton (Wiltshire), Esher (Surrey), Farnham Castle (Surrey), Merdon Castle (Hampshire), Southwick (London) and Taunton Castle (Somerset).
The early Palace built by Aethelwold was rebuilt in stone by William Giffard, Bishop of Winchester after his appointment in 1100. He constructed the west hall complete with a three storey tower. However, the site underwent a dramatic transformation under Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester. He had been appointed in 1129 but six years later his brother, Stephen, became King of England. However, the succession was disputed and England descended into a civil war known as the Anarchy as Matilda, daughter of Henry I, challenged Stephen. A wave of castle building swept the country as magnates, lay and clergy alike, sought to protect their property. Henry strengthened many of the diocese's castles including Wolvesey.
The upgrades to Wolvesey Castle proved timely for in 1141 it was besieged by Matilda’s forces. Henry of Blois had supported his brother at the outbreak of the war but, following the King’s capture at the First Battle of Lincoln (1141), he switched sides to support Matilda. However, she alienated him and in July 1141 he switched sides again and besieged Winchester Castle, which was held for Matilda. She responded by deploying a large army to Winchester forcing Henry’s forces to take refuge within Wolvesey Castle (Henry himself fled). Concurrently Royalist forces besieged Matilda within the town. Henry’s men sallied out of Wolvesey and set fire to much of the town, thus denying shelter to the Angevin army. As her position became untenable, Robert, Earl of Gloucester mounted a rescue. Matilda managed to escape but Robert was captured in the rear-guard action. He was later exchanged for Stephen resulting in the war drifting into stalemate and dragging on for another decade.
The civil war ended with an agreement that Stephen would remain King for life and then be followed by Matilda’s son, Henry Plantagenet. When he became Henry II in 1154 Bishop Henry fled into exile. During his absence some of his castles were slighted but it is unclear whether Wolvesey was one of them. If so it was rebuilt when he returned from exile in 1158.
During the First Barons' War, Wolvesey Castle was captured by Prince Louis of France. He held it for a year before it was recaptured by Royal forces and returned to the church. Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester repaired the structure and rebuilt the east range into a substantial hall. Further upgrades were made by William Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester between 1367 and 1404.
In 1534 Henry VIII declared himself supreme head of the Church of England severing the link with the Pope and plundered the wealth of the church. Stephen Gardiner was Bishop of Winchester throughout this turbulent period. He opposed reform, at least as far as that was possible in the court of Henry VIII, minimising the impact to his diocese. However, Henry VIII died in 1547 and was followed by his son, Edward VI, whose government embarked upon substantial Protestant reforms. Gardiner was imprisoned in the Tower of London and in 1551 was stripped of his titles. Later that year the Bishopric of Winchester had most of its assets and lands confiscated. Only Farnham, Southwick and Wolvesey remained in church hands.
Edward VI died in 1553 and was followed by the Catholic Mary I who restored Stephen Gardiner as Bishop of Winchester. He hosted her at his palaces, including Wolvesey, as she prepared to marry Philip II of Spain at Winchester Cathedral. When Gardiner died in 1555, he was followed by another Catholic, John White. However, when the Protestant Elizabeth I became Queen in 1558 the monarch once again became head of the church. White refused to acknowledge this and was imprisoned in the Tower of London and deprived of the Bishopric.
Wolvesey Palace played no part in the Civil War despite the city of Winchester changing hands between Parliamentary and Royalist forces several times. The victory of the former saw the abolishment of bishops in the Church of England and the seizure of their lands. Following the Restoration of the monarchy, these posts were restored and Brian Duppa appointed as Bishop of Winchester. He commenced repairs at Wolvesey plundering resources from Bishop Waltham's Palace to do so. However, by the early eighteenth century Wolvesey had been eclipsed by Farnham Castle and was neglected.
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Wolvesey Castle is in ruins but the layout of this large medieval fortress palace can still be appreciated. The site is in the care of English Heritage but remains property of the Church of England. It is not staffed but the grounds are only unlocked during normal museum opening hours.
Wolvesey Castle Layout. The earliest surviving parts of the castle are the foundations of the West Range which date from the early twelfth century. In the 1130s Henry of Blois added the East Range and strengthened the curtain wall.
East Range. The East Range was added between 1135 and 1138 by Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester. This incorporated the Great Hall, the main administrative and state facility. The Bishops, many of whom also held important lay positions, held court within this facility.
Keep. This square structure is often described as a Keep and projects out into the moat. However, it has thin walls and seems to have simply served as the castle's Kitchen.
Fortifications. Although built to serve as a palatial residence, the political instability during the Anarchy meant Wolvesey Castle was given substantial fortifications.
Woodman's Tower. Winchester Pipe Rolls, the legal decisions and accounts of the Bishop, were stored with Woodman's Tower.
Modern House. The current Bishop's Palace is more modest in scale and reflects the fact the diocese of Winchester was divided into three in the first half of the twentieth century.
Winchester Cathedral. Winchester Cathedral was started in 1079 and replaced an earlier Saxon one in which King Cnut had been buried in 1035. At the time of its construction, the Norman Cathedral was the longest building in Europe.
Wolvesey Castle is located to the south-east of the Cathedral. There are ample car parks across the city with one option shown below.
Car Parking Option
Colebrook Street, SO23 9LH
College Street, SO23 9ND