Lambeth Palace

Lambeth Palace, which stands on the opposite bank of the River Thames from the Palace of Westminster, has been the London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury for almost 800 years. It has evolved over that period, with styles of architecture that range from medieval to 21st century. The palace has been the scene of various political and religious events of national importance.

Lambeth Palace seen from the riverside in 1706. It was then only separated from the river by the Bishops’ Walk, long before the creation of the Albert Embankment. On the left in the picture stands the Lollards’ Tower and Morton’s Tower on the right. Between them stands the Great Hall.

As the River Thames flows eastwards, down past modern-day Pimlico and Battersea, it curves northwards until it reaches Charing Cross, and there it curves back eastwards again through London. In ancient times, the western bank of that short south-to-north stretch of river was a marshy island known as Thorn Ea. It was there at that isolated spot, then some distance from London, that in around 960AD Dunstan established a small Benedictine monastery. Several decades later King Cnut, who ruled Denmark and England, built a palace beside the monastery. In 1045 King Edward the Confessor, as a promise to the Pope, began enlarging the monastery into a vast abbey, which became known as Westminster. Edward was buried in the abbey in 1066 and it became an important place of pilgrimage. His successor, Harold, was crowned there and Westminster Abbey has been the place of coronations of English monarchs since that time. During his reign King William II, son of the Conqueror, enlarged Cnut’s old palace. Over time, Westminster Palace became the location for the Royal Exchequer, the base of monarchs’ administrators and, eventually, the seat of government.

In 1088 the Manor of Lambeth, on the opposite bank of the Thames from Westminster, was given to the Bishops of Rochester by Goda, sister of Edward the Confessor. Archbishop of Canterbury Baldwin had a church built there at the end of the 12th century. Baldwin’s successor, Hubert Walter, acquired the 19-acre manor in 1197 in exchange for the Manor of Darenth in Kent and planned to form a college of monks at Lambeth. The monks of Canterbury were alarmed by these matters as a threat to their primacy and petitioned the Pope, who ordered the church to be demolished.

The position of Archbishop of Canterbury can be traced back to the early 7th century when Pope Gregory decreed the establishment of two Christian provinces, centred on York and London. At that time London was a deserted ruin so the see of the South of England was instead located at Canterbury. Mellitus was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury by Augustine in 619AD, with ecclesiastic jurisdiction extending north to the River Humber.

The Archbishops of Canterbury were one of the monarch’s chief councillors at the royal court. They were men of national prominence throughout the Middle Ages, and several held the position of Chancellor, approximating the Prime Ministers of modern times. It therefore became important for the Archbishops to have accommodation close to the Palace of Westminster.

Through much of London’s history the most important buildings were sited on the banks of the Thames, allowing their residents to easily commute between them and to Westminster by barge. Therefore, in the early 13th century, during the time of Archbishop Stephen Langton, a small palace was constructed at Lambeth as a residence for the Archbishops, including private apartments, and a chapel. A Great Hall, which was improved under various archbishops, was used for entertaining prominent guests such as the monarch, important Christian festivals, and the celebration following the consecration of new bishops.

The palace’s chapel dates from the 13th century and is where many Anglican bishops have been consecrated. The original stained-glass windows were installed by Archbishop Morton in 1496, telling the biblical story of man from the creation to the day of judgement.  Archbishop Laud had the chapel richly decorated and controversially replaced the windows in 1634. In 1640 damage was done to the palace when an angry mob of 500 London apprentices came seeking him. Laud was unharmed on that occasion and fortified the palace with cannon in case of further attacks. Nevertheless, the following year he was imprisoned in the Tower of London at the request of Parliament. In his trial he was accused of installing Popish images in the Lambeth Palace chapel window. Found guilty of religious offences, he was beheaded at Tower Hill in 1645 and the archbishopric remained vacant for the next seventeen years. The palace was again threatened during the Gordon Riots of 1780.

The chapel was completely gutted by bomb damage during the Second World War but fully restored in the 1950s with ceiling paintings depicting key events in the history of the Archbishops, including Augustine and Thomas Becket. Archbishop Matthew Parker, who died in 1575, is buried below the floor in front of the chapel altar. He is the only archbishop to be buried within the palace, although several were laid to rest in the neighbouring parish church.

The Crypt Chapel is the oldest remaining part of Fulham Palace, with its lower wall originally part of the undercroft of Archbishop Walter’s church of 1195. The crypt is now used on a daily basis for prayers and worship. At eight feet below the modern ground level, and almost adjacent to the Thames, it has often flooded over the centuries and for much of that time was relegated to a store-room. The accumulated mud had almost reached the top of the supporting columns by the time it was cleaned out in 1905. It was then described as one of the best-preserved medieval stone vaults in London.

Chichele’s Tower of the palace was built of brick by Archbishop Henry Chichele in 1435, with two upper floors added in around 1500. The extra levels included a small prison used for those considered as heretics for not following the established Church, hence its better-known name of Lollards’ Tower. Heretics were usually burnt at the stake but Chichele took pity on them and instead had them whipped. The tower’s post room, so named due to the stout 17th century wooden pillar that once supported the ceiling, contains the tomb of Archbishop Parker.

In the more turbulent past the Archbishops occasionally needed men at arms for protection, such as when the palace was ransacked during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. (Archbishop Simon of Sudbury was seized at the Tower of London and beheaded by the angry mob). The original Guard Room dates from the 14th century. It seems the armour and arms were the personal property of each Archbishop and were then sold to his successor. When the Guard Room was restored by Blore in 1829 the medieval arch-braced roof was propped up while a new room was built below it. It is now used for functions, with its walls decorated by portraits of former archbishops from the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Palace is entered through the main gate of the large red-brick Morton’s Tower, which leads into the outer court. A ‘great gate’ existed by the reign of King Edward II in the early 14th century. It was rebuilt by Archbishop Cardinal Morton in the late 15th century, with immense square towers, and resembles the gatehouse of St. John’s College at Cambridge where Morton was a Fellow. It acted as the gatehouse with a porter’s lodge and included accommodation for senior members of the Archbishops’ household, as well as a prison on the ground floor.

The 16th century was a time of religious reform and division in the Christian Church, led by Martin Luther and known as the Reformation. Under Archbishop Thomas Cranmer Lambeth Palace became central to the changes in England. Cranmer produced two prayer books which later became the basis for the Book of Common Prayer. Henry VIII was then a frequent visitor to Lambeth Palace, which was renowned for its hospitality, for which the number of palace staff was greatly increased. Cranmer had a staff of sixty at the palace, rising to one hundred under Cardinal Pole.

The Anglican Church of England evolved during the second half of the 16th century. Queen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 and chose Matthew Parker as her first Archbishop of Canterbury, replacing Reginald Pole, England’s last Catholic Archbishop. Parker had been the favourite chaplain of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, who had entrusted in him her daughter’s spiritual well-being. Although England was to remain firmly Protestant, Parker’s time as Archbishop was noted for the growing schism within the Protestant movement between the Anglican Church of England and the more Puritan Lutheran and Calvinist views, a divide that grew in the following century.

The positions of bishops and archbishops were abolished following the Civil War in the mid-17th century and Lambeth Palace was for a time used as a barracks for the army. Royalist ministers were imprisoned there, many dying of pestilential fever. The Manor of Lambeth and the palace were sold to Colonel Scott and Matthew Hardyng, two supporters of the Parliamentary cause. They demolished the Great Hall, with the materials sold to raise funds for the government. The chapel was turned into a dance hall and its sacred memorials destroyed. The corpse of Matthew Parker was exhumed and reburied amongst offal in an outhouse. William Juxon was appointed as Archbishop after the Restoration of 1660 and he had the Great Hall rebuilt in medieval style, including an oak hammer-beam roof. The body of Parker was re-interred by Archbishop Sancroft before the altar in the chapel.

Lambeth Palace remained largely unchanged for the next 150 years and more. William Howley had carried out a programme of restoration and modernisation at his residence of Fulham Palace while Bishop of London. He was appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1828 and consulted with the architect Edward Blore regarding changes at Lambeth. Old buildings were demolished and a new residential wing erected as accommodation for the Archbishop, his family, and a large domestic staff. The Great Hall was converted into a library and remained so until the early 21st century. Blore’s main building is based on a central tower in medieval style with four turrets and made of Bath stone. It faces onto an internal courtyard, which contains a memorial to the early 20th century Archbishop Randall Davidson.

There was extensive bomb damage to Lambeth Palace during the Second World War, including destruction of the 17th century hammer-beam ceiling of the Great Hall. The building was restored by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners who took responsibility for the restoration, and the chapel was rededicated by Elizabeth II in 1955.

Within the palace grounds is the Lambeth Palace library, which holds a vast collection of ancient and modern documents. Archbishop Richard Bancroft died in 1610 and was buried in Lambeth church that stands next to the palace. He had amassed a collection of 5,600 printed books and 500 manuscripts and, according to instructions in his will, a library was to be created that should be open to scholars. Bancroft’s predecessor, John Whitgift, and successor, George Abbot, were able to bring together many of the documents that had been dispersed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. King James I encouraged the enlargement of the collection and it became one of the most important libraries in England. The collection briefly moved to Cambridge University for its safety during the Interregnum period. It was returned to Lambeth according to the wishes of Archbishop Juxon following the Restoration but carried out by his successor, Gilbert Sheldon. The Russian tsar Peter the Great, visiting London in 1698, claimed that nothing astonished him more than the Lambeth Palace library and he could not believe there were so many books in the world. The collection was first catalogued by Edmund Gibson when he was the vicar of Lambeth church in the first decade of the 18th century. Gibson was later translated to Bishop of Lincoln.

The library’s collection continued to increase down the centuries but 10,000 books were lost when Lambeth Palace was hit by incendiary bombs in 1941. Since 1953 it has acted as the main repository and research centre of the Church of England. From the 19th century the collection was located in various rooms throughout the palace, notably within the Great Hall, but that became increasingly unsatisfactory. In the 21st century a new state-of-the-art, purpose-built library, restoration facilities, and research room were built within the palace garden, which opened in 2021. The growing collection now contains around 250,000 books and more than 600 medieval manuscripts, including various documents of national historical importance, as well as many Anglican Church records.

Lambeth Palace continues as the London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury and his family. It is also the central office of the Archbishop’s national and international ministry and senior advisors and administrative staff of about 50 people. There are a small number of resident nuns. In past centuries the palace could be viewed from across the Thames as an impressive castellated fortress. In the 1860s it was separated from the river when the Albert Embankment and its busy highway replaced the Bishops’ Walk promenade. In modern times it is therefore easy to pass its high walls, with perhaps a brief glimpse of the large Tudor gatehouse, but without any knowledge of what lies within.

Sources include:

  • Edward Walford ‘Old and New London’
  • Lambeth Palace guidebook
  • John Field ‘Kingdom Power & Glory’
  • Richard Jenkyns ‘Westminster Abbey’

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