Compared to famous Thames landmarks nearby such as the Palace of Westminster, St.Thomas’ Hospital, or the London Eye, Lambeth Palace is the soul of discretion. Low key, modest in height, and hidden behind a veil of green for half the year, the official home of the Archbishops of Canterbury is one of London’s most historic sites.
Established for over 800 years, the gardens and palace are calm now yet their past history was anything but. An article in The Wonderful Story of London, edited by Harold Wheeler in the 1930s, laments the 1829 destruction of much of the old palace, by Architect Edward Blore, commissioned by William Howley, Archbishop of Canterbury. “In place of the venerable buildings so ruthlessly dismissed, Edward Blore erected a mansion second only in size to Buckingham Palace and more suited to the taste of the time […] It was sham Gothic and cost some £60,000.” He goes on to list other parts of the palace which were spared and still exist today: The Norman crypt; the chapel above it, built in the reign of Henry III; the Lollards Tower; and Morton’s Tower, the familiar red brick Tudor gateway built shortly after the Wars of the Roses. And yet the Palace had, before Victorian times, already undergone many changes and episodes of destruction as it lived through historic events.
An article published by the Vauxhall History Society tells of how, during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, Watt Tyler, one of the leaders, “led his men to Lambeth where they burnt the Chancery records stored in the Archbishop’s Manor.” Not only that, according to the article in The Wonderful Story of London, the peasants “plundered and wrecked the Palace, paying special attention to the well-stocked archiepiscopal wine cellars”.
One particularly destructive period took place during the English Civil War in the middle of the seventeenth century. Cromwell’s followers demolished the Great Hall, sold the bricks; desecrated the Chapel, disinterring the tomb of Archbishop Parker; and used parts of the palace as a prison for Royalists.
However, yet even more destruction was to be wreaked on the site during the Second World War. Dr.Rowan Williams writes: “The Chapel and Lollards Tower were gutted by the direct hit of an incendiary bomb on 10th May 1941.” The Great Hall was also hit during an air raid. Restoration after the war saw the replacement of roof and windows in the Chapel and the reinforcement of the ceilings in the Post Room and Lollards Tower.
From left to right, the buildings you can see from the river include the fifteenth-century Lollards’ Tower; the Gothic Great Hall, rebuilt in 1663 and again after bomb damage in WW2; and Morton’s T0wer, the Tudor Gatehouse. To the right is the church of St. Mary-at-Lambeth, now housing the Garden Museum, and is the oldest structure in the Borough of Lambeth, except for the crypt of Lambeth Palace itself.
The weather vane above the glass lantern bears the coat of arms and archiepiscopal mitre of Archbishop Juxon, who in the 1660s built the Great Hall. As mentioned above, the Hall was damaged by a bomb in WW2, which left the lantern slightly crooked.
The new Lambeth Palace Library is certainly a striking feature of the London skyline from the Thames. Depending on where you stand, it seems quite a stark addition but then, amid the existing architectural hotchpotch, there is logic to its being there: it houses the famous Lambeth Palace Library in one place. The architects Wright and Wright, bearing in mind the library’s close proximity to the Thames, built upwards rather than below ground.
Michael Prodger writes in Apollo Magazine that its red brick construction can be seen as “a modern-day nod to Morton’s Gatehouse, the Tudor entrance to the palace built in 1495.”
Michael Prodger also explains that the top of the tower, clearly visible from the river, is a lecture theatre with two viewing platforms, one facing the Palace of Westminster and the other Lambeth Palace. “At night, when illuminated, the top storey acts as a lantern or the flame of a candle”.
A river crossing has existed somewhere here, in front of the Palace, since medieval times. Access to a ferry was essential for the Archbishops of Canterbury when they were in residence as their attendance was frequently required at the Sovereign’s Palace across the river at Westminster.
St. Mary-at-Lambeth, though a separate entity deconsecrated in 1972 and now housing the Garden Museum, rounds off the historic site of Lambeth Palace to the south. And climbing up the medieval tower’s 131 steps, you will be rewarded by spectacular views across the Thames to the Palace of Westminster and beyond.
Sources and further information
British History Online: Lambeth Palace
The Garden Museum and history of St-Mary-at-Lambeth.
Living London History: ‘St-Mary-At-Lambeth’
Michael Prodger, article in Apollo Magazine, July 10, 2021.
Vauxhall History: The Peasants’ Revolt 1381
Wheeler, Harold, General Editor: The wonderful Story of London, c. 1930s.
Williams, Dr. Rowan: The History of Lambeth Palace
Wright & Wright Architects