The Brimstone Butterfly has visited the medieval Lambeth Palace, the official London residence of the archbishops of Canterbury, on a number of previous occasions but always as part of the Open House London weekend. In the past such visits had necessitated queuing for lengthy periods and without any certainty of gaining admittance. This year places were restricted to those who had managed to book a ticket online. When I applied at 3 o’clock in the morning a few days earlier, I was delighted to discover that I had secured the very last ticket.
I entered the palace by passing under the stone vault of the red bricked Morton’s Tower. This principal gateway on the North-West front of the palace was named after Archbishop John Morton. The latter had the gateway built in the 1490s, during the reign of the first Tudor King, Henry VII. Archbishop John Morton is known to have lived in his eponymous Tower and held audiences there in the large chamber above the archway. Certain 16th century “house guests” were unlikely to have relished their time spent in Morton’s Tower as it was also a prison. In one chamber, on the ground floor, can still be found the iron rings in the wall to which those who had fallen foul of ecclesiastical authority were chained. On the external walls the diaper pattern, formed of black bricks amongst the red and so beloved of Tudor architecture, is clearly visible.
Past Morton’s Tower a little shop had been set up in a tent. In the past I purchased honey produced by bees kept in hives in the palace grounds. This time I bought some strawberry and champagne jam which constitutes manna from heaven in my book.
The first building we entered was the Great Hall. During the English Commonwealth the medieval hall had been demolished. With the Restoration of Charles II his new archbishop, Juxon, decided to rebuild the hall in the medieval style in 1660. Thus, it has a traditional oak hammer beamed roof but with the imposing addition of a 17th century lantern light. The development of stone and brick fireplaces in walls had removed the need for such banqueting halls to have a hole in the centre of the roof for the smoke to disperse through from the open fire below. Juxon had intimations of his own mortality because he added the following codicil to his will: "If I happen to die before the hall at Lambeth be finished, my executors to be at the charge of finishing it, according to the model made of it, if my successor shall give leave."
If Samuel Pepys is anything to go by then Juxon’s last wishes were observed. On 22nd July 1665 Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:
“Thence I by water to Westminster, and the Duke of Albemarle being gone to dinner to my Lord of Canterbury’s, I thither, and there walked and viewed the new hall, a new old-fashion hall as much as possible. Begun, and means left for the ending of it, by Bishop Juxon”.
By the time Samuel Pepys popped by, William Juxon had popped his clogs. Yet it is his gold weather wane, displaying his family crest that can be seen on the roof of the Great Hall today. As such it is something of an embarrassment for modern sensibilities for his escutcheon features 4 blackamoor heads. Furthermore, in the Great Hall Juxon left behind two life sized busts of blackamoors carved from wood. The guide on duty, in contrast to those at the Archbishops of Canterbury’s former palace at Croydon, was at pains to point out that this did not mean that Juxon or his family were slave owners. Rather, such “Moorish” heads were simply seen as being exotic. Whereas I could accept the wooden busts as being simply indicative of a taste for the unusual, I think it a somewhat flimsy explanation as to why the Archbishop would employ such motifs in his family crest.
Now an important library, the Great Hall was once used for entertaining and hospitality. According to Thomas Allen in his “The history and antiquities of the parish of Lambeth, and the archiepiscopal ...” published in 1826 a certain Mr Seymour complained to Henry VIII that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, failed to live up to the dignity of his rank when it came to hospitality. He later had to eat his own words as it were and confessed to Henry: “I do remember that I told your highness, that my lord of Canterbury kept no hospitality correspondent unto his dignity; and now I perceive I did abuse your highness with an untruth. For, besides your Grace's house, I think he be not in the realm of none estate or degree, that hath such a hall furnished, or that fareth more honourably at his own table."
The 17th century historian John Strype, whose Huguenot family had fled religious persecution on the Continent and settled as silk merchants in East London and whose name survives on in a street near Petticoat Lane today, wrote about the level of hospitality that Cranmer maintained. Strype relates that Cranmer’s household included the following officers with some wonderfully archaic titles: “steward, treasurer, comptroller, gamators, clerk of the kitchen, caterer, clerk of the spicery, yeoman of the ewry, bakers, pantlers, yeomen of the horse, yeomen ushers, butlers of wine and ale, larderers, squilleries, ushers of the hall, porter, ushers of the chamber, daily waiters in the great chamber, gentlemen ushers, yeomen of the chamber, carver, sewer, cup-bearer, grooms of the chamber, marshal, groom-ushers, almoner, cooks, chandler, butchers, masters of the horse, yeoman of the wardrobe, and harbingers.”
In addition, Strype noted that “"there were generally three tables spread in the hall, and served at the same time: 1st. The archbishop's table, at which ordinarily sate none but the peers of the realm, privy counsellors, and gentlemen of the greatest quality. 2. The almoner's table, at which sate the chaplains, and all the guests of the clergy, beneath diocesan bishops and abbots. 3. The steward's table, at which sate all other gentlemen. The suffragan bishops were then wont to sit at the almoner's table. Besides this hospitality, he administered proper relief to the poor at his gate.”
From the Great Hall we walked up the Gothic revival wooden staircase with the sage green walls to the Guard Room or Great Chamber. I believe the staircase and hallway must have been refurbished in the 1830s at the same time as the Guard Room. But before we entered the Guard Room we passed through a barrel vaulted corridor decorated in a pleasing scarlet colour. A door had been left open at the far end of the corridor and from its balcony I could catch a glimpse into the Chapel below. The Guard Room itself was filled with portraits of various archbishops down the centuries. Not all of them had been as fortunate as John Morton who, like his predecessor Thomas Bourchier, died peacefully in his bed at Knole, when it was still one of the many palaces owned by the archbishops until Henry VIII took a fancy to it and nabbed it for himself. A number of Morton’s successors might have well have wished they too had maintained a small army to protect them from their political enemies, as had been the right of earlier archbishops. The arch braced roof in the Guard Room is medieval in origin and as such was built 400 years before the walls themselves. This was not a sign of a divine miracle but the ingenuity of a Victorian architect, who had the 15th century roof kept in place with supports whilst news walls were built all around it. The early 19th century engraving of the Guard Room was done before these renovations. Consequently, the frame of the original medieval roof beams is now supported with modern beams and the current oak wainscoting is only half the size it was. Possibly the most intriguing item on display was an empty tortoise shell. The living animal the shell formerly housed was given as a present to Archbishop Laud in the 1630s. In 1753 the ancient tortoise was accidentally prematurely unearthed from its hibernation by a gardener and so died. Still, it lived far longer than its master, William Laud, who had been beheaded on Tower Hill on a charge of High Treason over a hundred years earlier.
The Guard Room leads into a small lobby which houses bound copies of Hansard, the official record of Parliamentary debates. The office of Archbishop of Canterbury comes with an automatic entitlement to a seat in the House of Lords and so the office holder is entitled to receive free copies of such papers.
We passed along another corridor that displayed gifts given to various archbishops as well as a couple of 17th century wooden bookcases with metal pierce work, which the guides said had been found in the basement and were assumed to have once belonged to tortoise fancier extraordinaire Archbishop Laud. Along the corridor I noticed a blocked off arched Tudor doorway.
|Victorian engraving of prison cell in Lollards' Tower|
The corridor led to a flight of stairs and the Lollards' Tower. The latter represents one of the darkest periods of the history of the palace. The Lollards were a pan-European political and religious movement who challenged the authority and teachings of the Catholic Church and sought the right to read and be taught religious texts in their own native tongue. Their efforts met with a savage response from the Church and State. On an upper floor of the Lollards' Tower, which we did not enter partly because of its fragile state having sustained bomb damage during World War Two, is the oak plank lined prison cell complete with iron rings to restrain prisoners. Some prisoners endured rigorous interrogation before being condemned to a fiery death at the stake. The guides claimed that Richard Lovelace, the cavalier poet, was imprisoned here in the 1640s as a religious dissenter. His experience inspired the last stanza of one of his most famous poems: To Althea, From Prison:
“Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage”
Others contend that Lovelace was actually held in the Gatehouse Prison at Westminster Abbey. But as that prison was pulled down in 1776, it makes for a more dramatic gesture to have extant stone walls to point to whilst reciting the poem.
The vestibule in front of the Chapel is known as the Post Room: first, on account of the stout pillar supporting the ceiling and second, because the mail used to be collected from here. The original chute through which mail descended to the collection box in the lower outer wall can still be seen. The post room had been used as an audience chamber by Archbishop Chichele between 1414 and 1443, which would account for the fine wooden ribbed ceiling with carved bosses, ¾ of which is original, the rest having being replaced in recent centuries. I noticed incongruous modern cork tiles on the floor along with an alarmingly wide and long crack in the floor. The 17th century Archbishop Matthew Parker’s black granite tomb is in a corner of the Post Room, although his mortal remains are buried beneath the Chapel floor in front of the altar. His bones were dug up by Parliamentarians during the English Civil War and flung onto a dung heap. At the Restoration, Charles II had them re-interred within the Palace.
The Chapel, along with the rest of the palace at Lambeth, has faced a precarious existence over the centuries, what with rioting, the threat of demolition during the Commonwealth and substantial damage during World War Two. The ill fated 17th century Archbishop Laud installed the black and white chequered marble floor, which today still bears evidence of charring from the incendiary bomb which partially destroyed the Chapel in the 1940s. Laud also erected the ornately carved wooden screen. Laud's coat of arms used to be emblazoned upon the then flat roof. He also replaced the stained glass windows with designs more to his own taste. Not a single pane survived the Commonwealth no more than did Laud himself. The stained glass, along with Laud's altar rail in the Chapel at the Old Palace Croydon, were anathema to the Puritans, who regarded them as clear evidence of Laud's popish tendencies.Thus, they removed the altar rail at Croydon, smashed the stained glass at Lambeth and for good measure removed Laud's head from his shoulders on Tower Hill in January 1645.
The flat roof was replaced with a vaulted roof in the 19th century by the English architect Edward Blore, who did so much to transform the decaying palace.In the 1980s the English artist Leonard Henry Rosoman was commissioned to paint a mural for the ceiling illustrating key moments in the history of the Church. Basing the design on what Archbishop Morton allegedly had chosen to display in the late 15th century, new stained glass was commissioned for the Chapel windows.
|From the right: Chapel, Cranmer'sTower and Edward Blore range|
On one side of the altar was the small balcony I had observed earlier from the red barrel vaulted corridor. On the other side could be seen a small room through the open arches. This must be the very room where Thomas Cranmer is believed to have compiled the first ever Book of Common Prayers in English in the 1540s. Underneath Cranmer’s chamber is a small room with a Tudor stone fireplace and 18th century wooden panelling. I now realise that these two small rooms and and the steep ancient stone steps which led us through to the 21st century atrium, were within Cranmer's Tower. The latter had been built in the middle of the sixteenth century of red brick and Ragstone quoins. (Incidentally, I shot my picture of Cranmer's Tower from the street by standing up on tip-toe, stretching out my arm way above my head and reaching up to the top of a very high fence and hoping for the best).
The modern glass atrium protected the stone façade of the early 13th century crypt beneath the Chapel. The Crypt was originally used as a cellar to store beer and wine. It was not until enemy bombs during World War Two wrecked the Chapel above that it began to be used for less secular purposes. It has always been prone to flooding, although presumably less so with the construction of the Albert Embankment. Nonetheless, I do recall going to the palace in recent years and being told that the Crypt had flooded the previous week.
We left the atrium and went out into the inner courtyard. In the 19th century the English architect Edward Blore built a turreted range of buildings in the Tudor style and faced them with Bath stone. We were not permitted to enter these buildings as they serve as the private apartments of the current archbishop. Before I first visited Lambeth Palace I would catch sight of these buildings from the
railway train on its way to Waterloo and think them authentic Tudor buildings.
By the wall of the Great Hall is the white Marseilles fig-tree believed to have been planted as a sapling in the 1550s by Cardinal Pole, when he was Archbishop of Canterbury under the Catholic Queen Mary. Reginald Pole’s mother, Margaret the Countess of Salisbury, was executed by Henry VIII in 1541. Unable to get his hands on her son, who he regarded as an arch traitor, Henry summarily and vindictively executed some of Pole’s closest relatives. Margaret’s own execution became notorious, not simply because by then she was an elderly woman but because it was botched and ended up with her being hacked to death by the axeman.
Last weekend must have constituted my 3rd or 4th visit to Lambeth Palace over the past decade and on each occasion it has only made possible through the good offices of Open House London. Long may they continue in their magnificent efforts to make more of London’s buildings accessible to the general public, even if only for one day a year.