Wells Bishop's Palace
Wells Bishop's Palace

Simon Jenkins, in his popular book 'England's Thousand Best Houses', sums up the Bishop's Palace rather well. He says, quite rightly, 'There are finer palaces in England but few have settings more picturesque than the home of the Bishop of Bath and Wells'. I agree.

Swans float peacefully in the moat of the Bishop's Palace, while parents push prams along the moat walk and chat, while the high wall separating the Bishop's Palace grounds from the busy market place cuts off the noise of hustle and bustle in the outside world. It is a scene of peace and tranquil beauty.

But it was not also so peaceful; indeed, the presence of the moat tells its own story, for in the Middle Ages the powerful Bishops of Bath and Wells were locked in bitter conflict with the townsfolk of Wells.

The Bishops, fearful for their safety, thought it prudent to protect their palace with a wide moat and allow access only by way of a drawbridge which could be lifted in case of threat. But back to the swans; in the 1870s the daughters of Bishop Hervey taught the resident swans to ring a bell for food, and the tradition continues today.

Ruins of Bishop Burnell's great hall
Ruins of Bishop Burnell's great hall

The palace was begun around 1206 when Bishop Jocelin Trotman was granted a royal license to build a palatial residence and deer park on watery ground near the cathedral. Some of that water comes from the underground wells which give the city its name. The water bubbles up from beneath the ground at a rate of 100 litres per second and fills the beautiful well pool before running into the broad moat.

The view across the well pool, with the cathedral reflected in its still waters, is one of the most perfectly idyllic sights in England. Beyond the wells, closer to the cathedral and reached by a boardwalk, is the ancient holy well of St Andrew. Near the holy well is Well House, built in 1451 by Bishop Beckynton.

Beside the Palace and connected by a low passage beside the high altar, is The Bishop's Chapel, built in the late 13th century by Bishop Burnell. Bishop Burnell was Chancellor of England under Edward I, and in addition to the chapel he built a new hall at right angles to Bishop Jocelin's earlier residence.

The chapel interior is almost wholly Victorian, the result of a remodelling by Bishop George Henry Law. Law did not completely disregard the glories of the past in his desire to update his chapel; the east window incorporates pieces of French medieval glass from Rouen acquired by Law on his travels. The chapel is decorated with wonderful pieces of carving, and embellished with heraldic shields depicting bishops of the past.

The Bishop's Chapel
The Bishop's Chapel

Bishop Law also pulled down Bishop Burnell's decaying great hall but left the north wall intact, and there it stands today, wrapped in ivy and spring flowers, a testament to the Victorian taste for romantic ruins. Lest that sound disparaging, it isn't meant to be; the ruins of the great hall somehow 'fit' within the wonderful garden setting. Set into one side of the great hall is perhaps the most luxurious medieval loo in Britain; a garderobe tower, beautifully vaulted on its ground floor chamber.

A short stroll from the ruined wall of the great hall is Bishop Ken's Walk, set against the rampart of the outer wall that rings the palace grounds within the moat. The walk is named for Bishop Thomas Ken (1688-91), and from it you can see the tower atop Glastonbury Tor on a clear day.

The Undercroft
The Undercroft

Palace Interior

I loved exploring the Bishop's Palace; only a handful of rooms are open to the public, but they take you effortlessly through the centuries. On the ground floor is a long entrance hall leading at one end to the chapel and through another doorway the undercroft, a beautifully vaulted space supported on tall, slender pillars. When I visited there was a fascinating multimedia display projected on the floor of the undercroft, showing how the Bishop's Palace and the Cathedral developed over time.

From the entrance hall, the Jacobean Stair leads to the first floor. This stair is one of the highlights of the Palace; wonderful carved and painted with heraldic devices, the newel posts are topped by painted green dragons carrying shields.

The upper floor chambers are a mix of Victorian and Georgian furnishings and filled with memorabilia, including ecclesiastical garments and the original Glastonbury Chair. In a small chamber filled with glass cases are treasures from the Bishop's collection, including medieval goblets, garments, and objects excavated from the area around the cathedral.

The Bishop's Palace is a gem; it is hard to imagine a more beautiful historic house, steeped in history, surrounded by slowly moving water and gorgeous gardens; a piece of history preserved.

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About Wells Bishop's Palace
Address: Wells, Somerset, England, BA5 2PD
Attraction Type: Historic Building
Location: in Wells, off the Market Place, near the Cathedral
Website: Wells Bishop's Palace
Email: info@bishopspalace.org.uk
Location map
OS: ST552457
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express


HeritageWe've 'tagged' this attraction information to help you find related historic attractions and learn more about major time periods mentioned.

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13th century (Time Period) - 14th century (Time Period) - Decorated (Architecture) - Edward I (Person) - Georgian (Time Period) - holy well (Historical Reference) - Medieval (Time Period) - moat (Historical Reference) - Victorian (Time Period) -


Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest

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