A visit to Fulham Bishop’s Palace by Fulham FROGS
In May, the Fulham FROGs (Foreshore Recording and Observation Group) got together to explore the palace of the Bishops of London at Fulham. In this FROG Blog, Rachel Hosier shares her memories of the visit. It was a fun and informative outing, highly recommended!
A sunny morning in mid-May 2022 saw some regular Fulham FROGS meet with Alexis Haslam, Community archaeologist at Fulham Palace, for a bespoke tour of the grounds, buildings and archaeology of this multi-period site, situated on the banks of Fulham foreshore. Some of us had been volunteers on digs at the site, others had heard Alexis give virtual talks during lockdown but all of us wanted a little bit more context to our foreshore monitoring activities.
There was a lot to talk about! From Mesolithic flint scatters through to 1970’s historic building policy the site’s history is vast. There have been several prehistoric finds of note nearby including a trepanned Bronze Age skull found on the foreshore at Chelsea , and just upstream on the south of the river is the recently excavated Barn Elms Iron Age fortified settlement . Small finds at the site indicate that the river has been forded here regularly since the late Mesolithic, and recent excavations discovered a Bronze Age ring ditch and possible low barrow on site.
History of Fulham Palace
From ours and other mudlarking finds we know that there was plenty of Roman activity here. Tesserae, tegula – Roman roof tiles – and coins are all present. The coins are particularly interesting as they date to the final days of Roman occupation in Britain (3-4th century) and give a snapshot of local Roman occupation at that time. The remains of a Roman settlement are also found on site. Some early Mediaeval pottery has been found here but for centuries most of the surrounding areas would have been farmland.
The first records of site ownership show Bishop Waldhere purchased the Manor of Fulham from the Bishop of Hereford in 704 CE. 175 years later in 879 CE the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles report that Guthrum’s Vikings over-wintered here during the campaign against King Alfred . A man-made ditch has been excavated on the river and east side of the site, broadly contemporary with the defensive burghs that Alfred built in response to the Viking threat. These points are situated where the ground slopes upwards and the south-eastern corner would have given the best views along the river, handy for spotting any would-be raiders.
In the early 1300s, the entire 36 acre site was moated, increasing the site’s defences and creating the longest domestic moat in England. This was a time of drought and bubonic plague across western Europe and building trends show an increase in defensive structures appearing, presumably to protect resources and health. The digging of moats did not require a licence, whereas building crenelations did, so a moat was the quickest and cheapest route to increased protection.
Tour of medieval buildings
We started off at the pedestrian footbridge on the west of the site, giving access from Bishop’s Avenue. This bridge spans what is now the only remainder of the dry moat, which was filled in against local wishes 100 years ago. Alexis explained that the site is much reduced from its original footprint, with most of the north half being given over to allotments in the ‘Dig for Victory’ WW1 campaign. One of our FROGs with a plot there has found evidence of nighthawking on the site which is illegal as it is still a scheduled area . This is being reported.
Only the foundations from the medieval buildings remain here, so using a map from 1828, we followed the driveway from the bridge under the central archway and into the courtyard of the main Tudor building, built by Bishop Richard Hill in 1493-5. Recently given a make-over it really is impressive, with a beautiful fountain centrepiece. The Tudor walls are decorated with a distinctive diamond-shaped brick pattern called diapering. The pointing was previously restored using heritage unfriendly materials so had to be done again with the correct double-struck pointing.
As with many buildings of this age, what exists today represents little of the original but rather many adaptations and modifications that took place over hundreds of years. This is not only due to the wear and tear on the building but also in response to building trends of the day, and as a stamp of occupancy by various important residents who wanted to leave their mark.
There are plenty of stories about these erstwhile bishops, some less fortunate than others. Bishop Grindal who cultivated grapes in the palace gardens, selected his finest of the season and sent them off to Elizabeth 1st, only to become persona non grata when his courier was found to have also been carrying the plague with him.
Others such as Bishop Fitzjames must have been prosperous. He ordered a complete overhaul of the foreshore-facing south side of the palace in the 1500’s, building triple gabled quarters with direct access from the river-landing point through the gardens and directly into these new private rooms, so there was no need to enter the bustling courtyard.
Despite the bishops being relieved of their residency in 1647 due to the Reformation, luck would have it that the next occupant, Colonel Edmund Harvey, allowed the Parliamentary Reform group to have detailed plans drawn of the site. A researcher’s dream when compiling a site’s history. By 1660 the palace had been restored back to the Bishops of London.
As we walked east along the south boundary of the site, past the modern chapel and heading towards the walled gardens, Alexis explained that a much older medieval chapel, built in the 1200s, occupied where the current cafe garden is and was only demolished in 1764 along with the Tudor gardens destroyed in favour of the current walled gardens. A time of modernisation and a mood of exploration was in the air but it is good to think that the original chapel had been prized for its historic significance over time.
There are plans of the chapel but no drawings exist. It would have been familiar to Elizabeth I as she visited the abutting Palace State wing on occasion. Excavations of the early medieval parts of the site have revealed cellars and a huge hearthplace, dating from circa. 1150 CE, which is contemporary with a well also on site but as yet unexcavated to the bottom. This could yield some very interesting finds as wells are often places of intentional deposition. It is not yet known if the hearthplace relates to the first great hall built on the site but it is a good candidate.
We discovered that gardens and plants have long been integral to the development of the Fulham Palace site. The garden is home to a 500 year old holm oak tree – quercus ilex – and is likely the oldest of its kind in Britain.
Both Bishop Grindal (1653-59) and Bishop Compton (1645- 1713) were keen specimen collectors. Compton so much so that it is thought he ordained a priest and sent him off to ‘convert and collect’ in new lands. Collecting over 1000 new plants in his lifetime, Compton helped establish Fulham Palace as the second oldest botanic garden in London. He was the first to cultivate a magnolia virginia plant in Europe and you can see an example in the flower beds. He also had the gardens landscaped by Henry Holland Snr, whose son married the daughter of Lancelot (Capability) Brown and both are buried in All Saints church adjoining the site.
There is of course lots more recent history from the Palace but by this stage we had a pressing appointment with the cafe, and an unexpected visitor! The buildings on site went through further Gothic Revival and Georgian architectural styles and the grounds became open to the public in 1893. The bishops left the palace as a residency in 1973 and while somewhat neglected for a time, the Fulham Palace Trust was formed in 2011 and is responsible for the wonderful upkeep and full public programme on offer.
Our thanks go to Alexis for being so patient and knowledgeable. To find out more or to experience one of the regular historic tours do visit the Fulham Palace website.