Canterbury: Archbishop's palace and precincts

The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 11. Originally published by W Bristow, Canterbury, 1800.

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'Canterbury: Archbishop's palace and precincts', in The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 11, (Canterbury, 1800) pp. 294-303. British History Online [accessed 5 March 2024]

Archbishop's palace and precincts

THE VILLE AND PRECINCT of the Archbishop's palace is situated on the eastern or opposite side of the street from Stablegate above-mentioned, and adjoining eastward likewise to the precincts of the cathedral. (fn. 1)

Augustine, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, and his associates, being kindly received by king Ethelbert, were accommodated with a habitation in this city, at Stablegate, near this palace, then the residence of that monarch, as has been mentioned before, where they presently afterwards began, says ve erable Bede, to follow the examples of the apostles in their way of living. (fn. 2) This sanctity of life and innocency of manners, joined to the persuasive arguments made use of by Augustine, in favor of Christianity, so far wrought on the king's mind, that he became a convert to the Christian faith, and shortly after removing his residence to Reculver, he bestowed as a further instance of his favour, on Augustine, for a perpetual seat for him and successors, his own royal palace in this city, conjectured to have stood much hereabouts. The palace with the adjoining buildings, (fn. 3) Augustine afterwards converted into a cathedral and monastery; yet, as it should seem, he did not divide his dewlling, or set out his residence apart from the monks; but he, and they, and both their successors, living in common, both as to goods and possessions, and in one and the same habitation of one entire precinct, and this continued so afterwards till archbishop Lanfranc's days, who came to the see about four years after the conquest, and being a Norman, altered most of the customs and usages of the English church to those of his own country, and among others of this his own see and monastery, and among other regulations abolished this community of living, and among his other structures, built himself a court or palace, distinct from the monks, before which time there is no mention found of any such palace or like separate habitation for the archbishop. Accordingly Eadmer, speaking of archbishop Lanfranc, says, (fn. 4) he it was, that first shifted and settled, in the manner they were at the taking the survey of Domesday, the manors and possessions between himself and the monks, setting out to each of them and their successors, their distinct and proper parts. (fn. 5)

The antient building of Ethelbert's palace, in all probability, did not escape the fury of the Danes, but was consumed in the year 1011 by them in the same flames that destroyed both the church and city. For a long time after there does not appear to have been any thing of any consequence done towards the rebuilding or repairing it, as such; and whatever little had been done, had through the carelessness of archbishop Stigand, the predecessor of Lanfranc, been suffered to fall down again, so that the latter found it, as well as his church, little more than a heap of ruins.

Of whatever Lanfrancbuilt of this palace there seems now to be but very little, if any, part left; and indeed at the time archbishop Hubert came to the see, which was about one hundred years after Lanfranc's death, it was come to a state of decay; for it must be observed, that before. as well as after this time, this palace, which was at times brought to be a large and costly pile of buildings, experienced the change of fortune with frequent variety, being raised to a noble state by some, and suffered to shrink into shameful decay by other archbishops; sometimes it was desaced by accidental fires, and at other times it was neglected and fell under the blemishes of dilapidation, through their carelessness, either from their residing in foreign parts, or preferring some of their other palaces and castles in their several manors for their residence; and it was again often repaired, enlarged, adorned and beautified by others, who were honourable benefactors to it.

Archbishop Hubert, at his coming to the see of Canterbury, finding this palace in the state of decay as before mentioned, pulled down the greatest part of it, and afterwards laid the foundations of that large and stately hall, and other suitable offices, almost the whole of which remained till the times of rebellion in the middle of the last century. But though he sat in this see for upwards of twelve years, yet he left this work unfinished; (fn. 6) the reason of which was not owing to his want of good will, or ability, but to his absence from hence, being constantly employed by the king in the highest offices of state; (fn. 7) archbishop Langton, Hubert's immediate successor, carried the building on, and having completed it, gained the credit of being the founder of it, (fn. 8) yet was the beautifying and adorning of it left to one of his successors, archbishop Boniface, who besides, as he himself expressed it, might truly be accounted the founder of it, by paying those debts which his predecessors had contracted for the expences of it. (fn. 9)

This grand and stately hall, famous for the royal guests, who at different times found in it no less than royal entertainments becoming the greatest princes, and for the splendid feasts of but little less account in general, made by the archbishops on the days of their inthronization, at which not only many of the nobility and suffragan bishops, but a great and numerous assemblage of respectable persons of the gentry, were present.

Among other remarkable occurrences which took place in it, it ought not to be forgotten, that in Sept. 1299, the marriage ceremony between king Edward I. and Margaret, the king of France's sister, having been celebrated in the cathedral here, the nuptial feasts were sumptuously kept in this hall for four days together most of the nobility both of England and France being present at them. The splendid and sumptuous entertainment made by archbishop Warham, at his inthronization, is particularly related by his successor archbishop Parker, and will be fully mentioned in the succeeding part of this history. During that prelate's time, in the year 1520, anno 12 Henry VIII. there was celebrated on one of the nights of the Whitsunweek, a splendid ball in the great hall of this palace; at which the newly elected emperor Charles V. danced with the queen of England, and the king of England with the queen of Arragon, the emperor's mother; this being finished, a royal seast commenced, the tables were covered in the hall, and the banqueting dishes were served in; before which rode the duke of Buckingham, as sewer, upon a white hobby, and in the midst of the hall was a partition of boards, at which the duke alighted, and kneeled on his knee, and that done, took again his horse back, until he was almost half-way to the table, and there alighted and did the like as before; and then rode to the table, where he delivered his hobby, and sewed kneeling at the table where the emperor was, and the king with his retinue kept the other end of the hall. (fn. 10)

But before the end of that reign this palace suffered greatly by fire, as appears by the king's letter to arch bishop Cranmer, dated Dec. 20, 1543, being the 34th year of it, in which, the king shewed his pleasure, that since, by reason of the fire, which had lately happened at the archbishop's house here, he could not entertain the viceroy of Naples sent by the emperor, he should absent himself from Canterbury, at the viceroy's coming thither, and leave the entertainment of him to the lord Cobham. (fn. 11)

The palace seems to have continued in this ruinated state at the time of archbishop Parker's coming to the see in the 1st year of queen Elizabeth, who found the palace with the great hall and the other edifices belonging to it in such a dilapidated condition, that in the two next years he was necessitated to lay out upwards of 1400l. in the re-edifying of them; (fn. 12) after which, in 1573, that queen being here on one of her progresses through the county, and Sept. 7, being her birth-day, he made a sumptuous banquet at this palace, to which he invited the queen, Gondy, count de Rhetz, and Mote Fenelon, with a great number of noblemen, who feasted with him in the great hall here on that day. (fn. 13)

In this state the palace remained till the abolition of episcopacy and church government, after the death of king Charles I. when the whole of it being sold to supply the necessities of the state, the purchasers, for the lucre of the materials, pulled down the great hall, and the other best apartments (being by far the greatest part of it) and converted the remainder into private houses, in which state it has continued ever since.— However, on the restoration of king Charles II. the remains of the palace, with the precinct of it, returned to the see of Canterbury; but the archbishop, on taking possession of them, found the state of the buildings to be such, as not to be capable of being made habitable for him, and weighing well the considerable cost of re-building a palace here, and the inconveniences of its distance from London, demised the whole of the scite of it, with the buildings and precinct of it, on a beneficial lease to one lessee for thirty years, which is usually renewed every ten years, on paying an adequate fine; in which manner it continues at this time to be held, (fn. 14) John Monins, esq. (fn. 15) who has built himself a handsome house on part of the premises, in which he resides, being the present lessee of them.

There is so little remaining at present of this once stately palace, that it is hardly possible to form any conjecture what it ever was.

All that is now left of it is, two buildings converted into tenements opposite the western side of the cloysters, both of which have much shew of antiquity; these were repaired, and perhaps nearly rebuilt, by archbishop Parker; one of them has a kind of regular and not unhandsome front for the time, westward, towards St. Alphage-street, built, by all appearance of it, by him; this was the remains of a spacious gallery between this part of the palace, and the great hall of it, which stood at the north end of it; the back part of this house towards the precincts of the palace, has a strong thick wall to it, built of flints, with an arched stone door case, &c. which Mr. Somner thinks is the only part remaining of archbishop Lanfranc's time, the room within it being that where the archbishop then held his civil or temporal court. The other house adjoining, opposite the western door of the cloysters, is a highbuilding of stone rubble and slint mixed, which seems of itself to be of some antiquity, but was greatly repaired by archbishop Parker, whose arms are on the south side of it, towards Christ church gate, as well as in the windows and some other places within doors. From this part of the palace is a high wall embattled, reaching to the north-west tower of the church, as a separation and bounds between the two precincts; in this wall are the remains of a sheltered way to the cloysters, for the accommodation of the archbishop in bad weather, in his passage to the church; though on public and solemn occasions, his entrance to it was from a large gateway, the square tower of which, handsomely built of flint and ornamented with ashler stone, situated opposite and within a very small distance of the great western door of the cathedral, is still remaining, which, however seemingly otherwise, being on the outer side of the above wall, is yet within the bounds of the precincts of this palace.

The antient wall which surrounded these precincts, is still, in great part, remaining on the west and north sides of it, and was more so, till the alterations made within these few years here; it is built of rubble-stone and flint, of great height and thickness, and seems by every appearance of it, to be part of that originally built by archbishop Lanfranc. Nearly in the middle of the west side of it is a large handsome gateway, built of brick, with stone ornaments, by archbishop Parker, being the principal entrance to the palace from St. Alphage street; on the north side of it are some other brick buildings erected about the same time, seemingly for the inferior offices belonging to the palace; (fn. 16) and until the present lessee, Mr. Monins, within these few years, pulled down several others for the purpose of erecting his new house and offices, and laying out his garden behind them, there were some small remains left of the great hall of this palace. The north porch of it, of no small size, opening into the precincts of the palace, then a dwelling-house, was remaining; and in the garden behind it were numbers of small pillars of the Bethersden marble, once the ornaments of it, dispersed in sragments about it. At the eastern wall of the garden were two nitches, adorned with pillars and canopies of this sort of marble, still maintaining the appearance of grandeur, and against the wall at the east end was the look of what seemed formerly to have been a cloyster, consisting of five arches on the outer side, which were eleven feet wide, the crowns of which appeared about four feet above ground, all below being buried in the rubbish which made the foot-way.

At a small distance eastward from hence, adjoining to the west side of the cloysters, was, whilst the priory remained, the lodgings belonging to the cellarer of it, having a door opening into them. These at the dissolution of the priory came to the crown, and were particularly excepted out of the dotation charter granted by king Henry VIII. to his new dean and chapter, and were afterwards granted to the archbishop, since which they have continued to be esteemed as part of the precincts of his palace. (fn. 17) Part of them were converted into a dwelling, though new modelled to a different appear ance, till Mr. Monins pulled it down a few years since, and there is now remaining of it only a wall against the cloysters, though much higher, built of flint, with stone ornaments, being part of those antient lodgings before mentioned.

There was in 1720, a French chapel or meetinghouse within these precincts, for Anne Herault, spinster, of Canterbury, by her will proved that year, gave the sum of 10l. to the adorning and repairing of the French chapel or meeting house, in the Archbishop's palace here, belonging to the French congregation; but there has been none such within memory, though there has been a methodist meeting, in a chapel within these precincts, for many years past, not improbable in the same place as above-mentioned.


  • 1. A few years ago these precincts were erected into a ville, so that now, parish officers are appointed of the inhabitants of it, and they maintain their own poor by a rate levied occasionally among them. These precincts are now bounded, on the east and south, by those of the dean and chapter; on the west, by Palace street; on the north. by the street that leads from the Borough of Staplegate to the Green-court, and to the precincts of the dean and chapter, and contain about three acres and 65 perches.
  • 2. Hist. Eccles. lib. i. c. 26. Brompton, col, 729.
  • 3. Mr. Somner, willing to carry the antiquity of Christchurch as high as possible, says, Augustine converted the palace and neighbouring church into a cathedral and monastery; but sure it seems improbable that there should be any church here. At that time, the king himself had been, till then a Pagan, and was not likely to permit a Christian church even in ruins, so near his own dwelling; and his queen Bertha, who was a Christian and through his favor, was permitted to follow her religion, had both her public and private church, and oratory at some distance, in the church of St. Martin, or chapel of St. Pancrase.
  • 4. Hist. Novorum, lib. i. p. 8.
  • 5. Batt. Somn. p. 101.
  • 6. Anglia Sacra.
  • 7. Lambarde's Perambulation, p. 313.
  • 8. Harpsfield, Eccles. Hist p. 434.
  • 9. Stow's annals of king Edward I. Mr. Somner gives us the archbishop's speech on this occasion. My predecessors, says the archbishop, built this hall at great expences, they did well indeed, but they laid out no money about this building, excepting what they borrowed. I seem indeed to be truly the builder of this hail, because I paid their debts. Archbishop Langton left his see so much in debt, by what he laid out on this hall, and the excessive expences he was at, on the translation of St. Thomas Becket, that it cost archbishop Boniface 22,000 marcs, or 14,666l. 13s. 4d. to clear the see of those debts.
  • 10. Peck's Desid. Curios, book vi. p. 50.
  • 11. The original letter is among the Harleian MSS. in the British Museum, No. 135, 283.
  • 12. See Rattely, appendix, No. x.
  • 13. See Camden and Strype's Aonals, vol. ii. p. 314.
  • 14. The reserved rent amounts to 60l. 8s. yearly; in 1770 the fine on renewal was 63l. and the rack rents 203l.
  • 15. See an account of him and his family in the History of Kent, under Charlton.
  • 16. These remains of the old palace, above mentioned, escaped the sury of the Puritans in the time of the great rebellion; for when they had killed the right owner and taken possession of his spoils, as Mr. Gostling tells us, their zeal for destroying cooled by degrees, and they had wit enough to find out that good houses were of more value than the rubbish of them; and it is rather diverting to know, that the person to whose share one of the houses sell, that is opposite the cloyster door, used to date his letters from his palace at Canterbury.
  • 17. The king exchanged the cellarer's lodgings with the archbishop, for three acres of land, late parcel of the priory of St. Gregory, and lately included in the park at Canterbury, and other premises, by deed, dated April 24, anno 34 Henry VIII. Augmentation-office, deeds of purchase and exchange, marked Kent, box C. 50.