Next to a Pret A Manager store in amongst Borough’s maze of narrow streets there’s an important preserved historical site that helps us remember the time when a major part of Southwark was ruled by a single powerful landowner, the Bishop of Winchester. Most of the Winchester Palace complex, the Bishops’ London home from the 12th to early 17th century, was destroyed by a fire 200 years ago, but you can still see part of the great hall with its striking rose window where Elizabeth I dined in 1577. Here, the positions of entrances leading to the buttery, pantry and kitchen are still visible.
Winchester Palace boasted an amazing estate, now the Park Street area, which in its heyday produced everything from wheat and rye to cabbages and peaches. Livestock were kept, there was a vineyard, a mill for producing cereal and tenants were also brought in to farm the surplus land.
The palace harked back to the time when London was established as the permanent seat of government, and the location of the court, and so important people from elsewhere in the country needed to frequently be in the city to conduct business and thus wanted somewhere to stay. Winchester Palace was one of 12 ecclesiastical mansions, attracting clergy from all over the country who wanted to set up their London homes.
On his last visit London before his murder at Canterbury Cathedral, the infamous Archbishop Thomas Beckett entered St Mary’s church (now Southwark Cathedral) in a procession before receiving hospitality at Winchester Palace, according to a contemporary account from the historian William Fitzstephen in the 12th century.
But this rural playground for the great and good of the church didn’t stay quiet for long. Between the late 11th and early 14th century Southwark grew rapidly as landlords, like the Bishops of Winchester, opened up their private estates to inns, brothels, shops, industry and, later open air playhouses, earning vast some of revenue for their coffers in the process.
Outside the jurisdiction of the City authorities, the Bishops enjoyed virtual autonomy over ‘the Clink’, one of five ‘manors’ in Southwark in medieval times, each with their own courts and prisons. The crown exercised some authority through sheriffs, coroners and justices but in many cases their powers were challenged.
The Clink, the land and the accompanying manorial lordship which had been granted by Bermondsey Abbey in the 1140s for a sum of £8 a year and would today stretch from just west of London Bridge to the Tate Modern, provided a place in society for those who would otherwise be excluded.
Market traders could operate without being part of guilds (the trade associations of their day), as was required within the City walls across the Thames. Prostitutes, also banished from the City, were permitted to set up shop in ‘stews’, paying the Bishops of Winchester for a share of takings and fines for the privilege, hence their nick name ‘the Bishop of Winchester’s geese’
But to City authorities the Clink was seen as a problem that they had little control over. Inns and brothels became rowdy, there were also gambling dens, bear-bating arenas and, later on, open air playhouses. It was also a place of sanctuary for villains who after a year and a day in the manor were legally freed from the bondage associated with it. Allegations were made about hundreds of villains rowing over from their Borough base to commit crimes in Westminster and the City.
While elsewhere in England much church property was confiscated, the Bishops of Winchester did well out of the Reformation, with Stephen Gardener being rewarded with the title for supporting Henry VIII in his bud to divorce Catherine of Aragon.
But in reality their influence as landlords was waning. The Clink, and the other manors, had become too much of a headache for the City authorities and in 1550 they purchased the full rights of Southwark for £647, building on the concessions they had bought in 1327 and 1406 elsewhere south of the river. In the 16th century the powers of sanctuary were also disappearing.
Southwark was created as the 26th ward of the City of London (Bridge Ward Without). Yet bringing it into its fold wasn’t a quick fix to solving the perceived problems of the places south of the river, with the Lord Mayor describing them in 1594 as: ‘the very nurseries and breeding grounds of the begging poor.’ Indeed, disputes broke out between City authorities and JPs for Surrey as to who had overall control.
And even with the 1550 purchase by City of London, the Bishops of Winchester carried on living in the Palace of Winchester and the Clink, for all official purposes, retained in manorial status. In his 1598 survey of London, Stow described the property as a ‘very fair houses, well repaired, and hath a large wharf and landing of Winchester’s Stairs.’ They’d stay there until 1626, although by that stage considerable amounts of property had been sold off in preceding years.
Looking at 17th century drawings, we see that Winchester Palace had been converted into warehouses and tenements, much-demanded for a Southwark which was by was becoming increasingly industrialised. Some of the walls of the great house remained in place until they were destroyed by fire in 1814, a time when the Great Hall and service range were revealed again.
While the Clink was the most infamous of the manors, it was just one of five. Beyond where the Tate Modern is today to roughly the Oxo Tower, a boggy, marshy area of land was once owned by the religious army, the Knight’s Templar and later the Hospitallers, before becoming ‘Paris Garden’. By the 17th century this too had been built on. The great Southwark land grab and rapid period of industrialisation, demanded to serve an expanded London and England’s new found worldwide markets, had truly begun. And in many senses it became an even more notorious place to live for the inhabitants, with terrible slum conditions. How different things are today.