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Further Excavations at Winchester Palace, Southwark

Rose Baillie

Our May lecture saw the welcome, if belated, return of Bruce Watson of MoLAS to talk about recent work at Winchester Palace, Southwark.  However this area has had notable excavations in the past, so it was a happy trip down memory lane for many present. 

The palace was the London residence of the Bishops of Winchester from the early 12th until the mid 17th Century.  It lay near the south end of London Bridge and eventually grew into a large complex, whose inner courtyard is reflected in the present Winchester Square.  In 1649 the Palace had passed into private hands and was subsequently submerged by later developments. It was rediscovered in 1814, when the well-preserved west gable wall of the Great Hall in Clink Street was revealed after a fire caused the masonry that was covering it to collapse. This was a discovery that helped spark antiquarian interest in the Medieval period.  Excavations by Francis Celoria (1962-3) and Peter Kernoe (1971) revealed further parts of the Palace complex, but it was the major excavations by the Southwark and Lambeth unit in 1983-4 (with help from the DUA and COLAS volunteers) on the site of the demolished Stave, Rosings and  Pickford’s D warehouses that revealed the great surprise.  Underneath the Medieval remains was a lavish Roman bath building. 

Southwark is an area that is undergoing rapid redevelopment and the area in and around what is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument has seen a number of small excavations in recent years that have helped fill out the picture.  One such at Blows Yard, Winchester Square in 2003, was for a new electrical sub-station.  Supervised by our Speaker, it revealed over 2000 years of history.  The sequence began with Neolithic/Bronze Age gravels, succeeded by dense, muddy deposits of the 2nd – 1st Century BC when the Thames inundated the area for long periods.  Somewhat bizarrely, along with the silt a human leg floated in – probably from an up-stream water burial. 

The Roman era was inaugurated with the dumping of a 30m wide, up to 1m thick layer of burnt clay, daub, and masses of pottery to raise the ground level.  This was probably the debris of a warehouse fire of c. AD 70-90, although, oddly, it was not deposited on site until c. AD 100-120. This dumping was intended to provide a flood free level building plot for a large 2nd century masonry building.  This building was on the same NE/SW alignment as the substantial and prestigious bathhouse found in 1983/4, suggesting it belonged to another building along the same street. The foundations of this masonry building were robbed out during the Medieval period.

An important feature of the bathhouse found in 1983/4 were rooms heated by hypocausts.  Among the debris in the furnace stokehole COLAS members, with others, found many fragments of a high quality marble inscription that apparently lists legionaries or veterans by Cohort.  This led to a suggestion that they were from the Governor’s staff - alternatively they could be members of an ex-serviceman’s guild.  Another find was sheets of wall plaster that fell face down when the baths were demolished. Careful lifting and conservation showed that they were painted with a highly sophisticated and colourful picture of a mythological figure in a classical portico hung around with garlands of flowers.  The reconstructed panel is now displayed in the Museum of London’s Roman gallery.

This high status building, unusual for Southwark, was falling into disrepair in the 3rd century AD and gone by the 4th century.  The next great happening was the acquisition of the area in the early 12th century by the Bishops of Winchester.  Their building activities can be traced archaeologically and in the considerable documentary evidence, but not so easily by present day visitor as the 12th century-Great Hall wall, with its 14th century rose window and three entrances, currently has no explanatory signage.  Earlier excavations had found parts of the kitchens and a great drain of Purbeck marble under the hall, while the main excavation of 1983/4 found the substantial chalk walls of 13-14th century-buildings at the SE corner of the Palace courtyard intertwined with the Roman remains.  A narrow and deep garderobe pit, in use from the 14th to 17th century and partly excavated by yours truly, yielded a rich haul of finds, including bone skates, Nuremberg jettons and a gold and garnet ring.  More recent excavations have traced 14-15th century additions and rediscovered Celoria’s trenches of 1962-3.  Bruce’s site had a substantial Medieval wall foundation of mortared stone that has been interpreted as part of a previously unknown room or series of rooms added during the 15th or 16th century to the rear of the 13th century west range of the inner courtyard. 

By the 16th century the Palace included an outer courtyard that contained more living accommodation, kitchens, stables and a bowling alley. It was last seen intact and labelled on Wenceslaus Hollar’s panorama of 1647. During the English Civil war  (1642-7) it was used as prison for Royalists, and afterwards sold off and then subdivided and converted to small industrial or craft workshops, shops and houses This activity was represented at Blows Yard by the construction of a brick cellar floor and 18th century-soakaway. With the advent of mid 19th Century mains drainage, represented by (guess what) a toilet bowl and U bend, the now redundant soakaway was used for the disposal of assorted cheap, broken, everyday items that was rubbish at the time, but is now a neat time-capsule of Victorian life.  So this single small site not only added to our knowledge of Roman and Medieval developments, but also offered a time-line from Pleistocene to the present.

The Middlesex House of Correction

The earliest human occupation of Britain

The demise of Peter of Colechurch's London Bridge

The enduring fascination of the mammoth

Further excavations at Winchester Palace, Southwark

London Before London:
The Iron Age of London

Survival or introduction? Romanitas in Britain after AD410


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