Above: Gateway leading into the large Tudor courtyard.
The buildings of Fulham Palace standing in extensive grounds are one of the hidden ‘gems’ of Inner London. Until the 1970s the palace its grounds were in use as the bishop’s palace and never open to the public. While many people knew the premises were in Fulham, nobody had ever had the chance to visit it. There has been a Bishop of London ever since early times. St Augustine brought Christianity to Britain and, in the City of London, he founded St Paul’s Cathedral and established a bishop in AD 604. Exactly 100 years later, the Bishop of London bought the estate at Fulham from the Bishop of Hereford. That began a land ownership longer than that of any other property in London – including land owned by monarchs! The Bishops of London owned the land and resided at Fulham Palace from AD 704 until 1973, with no breaks in ownership.
The palace was their country home from at least the 11th century and their main residence from the early 20th century until 1973. The extensive estate was then given up for financial reasons. As well as a record set for its length of ownership, the property had another interesting claim to fame. It was once surrounded by the longest known moat in Britain and that will be the subject of a separate blog. Today, the palace is listed Grade I and the outbuildings are also listed, including the gateway and bridge over the moat at the NW end which have been listed Grade II. Bishops Park was opened in 1893 and is Grade II listed on the Parks and Gardens Register.
Above: Entrance doorway into the Tudor part of Fulham Palace.
The oldest part of the palace was constructed by Bishop Richard FitzJames (1506–1522) but there have been many modifications of the building. The west courtyard is also Tudor; the east courtyard is Georgian; the great hall is late-medieval; the eastern end of the building was renovated in Gothic style in the late 18th century; the east courtyard was classicised in the early 19th century; and the chapel was added in 1867.
When the bishop left, in 1973, the property was acquired by the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham who did absolutely nothing with it until the late 1990s. Not only did the buildings stand unused but they were not properly maintained either, which meant that they steadily fell into disrepair. Since the millennium, restoration has been carried out and the building is now open to the public. Unlike the superb architecture and grandeur of Lambeth Palace, which is still in use by another bishop – the Archbishop of Canterbury – Fulham Palace never had a really grand interior. In fact, it is surprising how plain the inside rooms are. Adjacent to the palace stands a small chapel, originally used only by the residing bishop and his household.
Fulham Palace is some distance from St Paul’s Cathedral, which is the seat of the Bishops of London. With the palace being situated beside the Thames, it is likely that early bishops were rowed downstream to the City of London in an official vessel and then conveyed by land from a landing stage to the cathedral.
There is one reference to Catherine of Aragon spending part of 1506 at the Palace, being sent away from Court for the good of her health. It was certainly an administrative centre for diocesan affairs but the impression is that the atmosphere was always that of a country retreat rather than a place of business.
Above: Aerial view looking from the NW of the buildings. The dark brickwork (near the top of the picture). The old gatehouse to the palace grounds (circled) stands beside the bridge over the line of the moat.
Although the old moat originally enclosed nearly 36 acres of land around the Palace buildings, the present palace garden is about 13 acres. The rest of the land is now in use as allotments. The garden’s importance in the history of British horticulture is principally the result of the activities of two Bishops of London – Edmund Grindal (about 1519–83) and Henry Compton (1632–1713). Grindal is credited with the introduction of the tamarisk tree and he also grew grapes that were sent to Elizabeth I, as they were among the earliest in London to ripen. It is possible that some of the oldest holm (evergreen) oaks at Fulham were due to his planting in the mid 16th century. Compton was Bishop of London for about 30 years and he was a leading figure in early 18th century horticulture. He planted a large number of ‘exotic’ trees and shrubs, many of them sent by his theological plant-hunting contact, the Rev John Banister, whom he had sent to North America, ostensibly as a missionary chaplain. Only the holm oaks remain from Compton’s time. The gardens at that time were essentially private and would probably only have been seen by other experts. It is known that John Evelyn visited more than once.
Today, there is also a large walled garden with a large collection of plants and herbs to be seen. The surrounding wall is Tudor. The large greenhouse has been restored which had been originally used for growing vines.