The Old Bishops Palace at Somersham

The Old Bishops Palace at Somersham in Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire, UK


Somersham was grew once the Bishop of Ely built his residence here, it was also a resting point on the boggy journey across the fens to Ely, the settlement was granted a weekly market on Thursdays. Around the time of 1190 it was also raised to the status of Somersham Town. Its growing importance was marked by a visit from King Richard I, during this year the King or ‘Richard the Lionheart’ granted the Bishops of Ely the right to hunt deer in the royal forest at Somersham. After the kings death the bishops of Ely approached the new king John to seek permission t continue to hunt the forests, it was granted and King John also visited the official residence at Somersham. This must have been a site of a very comfortable dwelling, to be not only able to house the king but also to cope with the entourage which would of accompanied him: plus stabling and feeding of numerous horses.

All this increased the trade in the town and secured its importance in the region at this time. Circa 1229 King Henry III gave ownership of ‘Somersham Forest’ to the Bishops of Ely, this being Bishop Hugh de Northwold, he remained here until 1254, during this time he raised funds and enhanced the nearby church of St John the Baptist. The next Bishop was Hugh de Balsom circa 1257, he was a hard master demanding full payment from his tenants, he lived here until 1286. Records show that along with the usual domestic staff he was also employing charcoal burners and potter, there is still a commercial working pottery in the village to this day. Bishop Hugh de Balsom had a survey done in 1279, which states that the house and gardens covered six acres with the adjacent forrest covering 200 acres.

John Hotham took over Somersham as Bishop of Ely, but when visiting in 1316 he was sadly disappointed at the state of the residence, not fit to live in and no state to receive royal visitors. So he set about building a palace more suited to his rank and his guest’s importance. He moved the new building a short distance from the existing one, and as soon as it was completed the bishop played host to King Edward II. His visit was obviously a great success as in 1320 King Edward II gave a charter, which granted the Bishop of Somersham Manor the right to a market and fair, it was an honour for a town to be granted this right. The fair would be held to celebrate the birth of St John the Baptist, to whom the local church was also dedicated, it was to be celebrated on 24th June the first fair being held in 1320 and lasted for three days. This would really of increased trade in the town, entertainers, traders and village folk were prepared to travel over long distances to attend a fair. This fair still arrives each year but in a completely different form, now side stalls are accompanied by mechanical rides.

The siting of Somersham provided special problems when it came to transporting animals as they had to be moved by boat, large flat bottomed ones locally known as punts. With the boggy ground around Somersham animals could not be turned out to graze during the winter months, notes of the staff at the palace during the 1330s show that besides the usual domestic staff Bishop de Hotham employed an ox herder, two shepherds, two carters and a swine herder. With all the staff and animals this was a very active palace.

King Edward III had been monarch for 7 years before he paid a visit, a keen sportsman he would probably of hunted in the palace grounds, 3 years later in 1337 his host Bishop John de Hotham died at the palace and was buried in Ely cathedral, as had the Bishops preceding him. The year following his death the finances of the palace were reviewed. Rents on the land around the palace were increased, tenants who couldn’t pay the full amount in money were required to work in the palace to cover any outstanding debts, in 1348 460 acres was held by 26 tenants.

The Palace went out of favour for many years after a dispute between Bishop L’Isle and his royal neighbour Lady Blanche, escalated to include the Pope and the King. The Bishop was forced to sell off many of his possessions, dying in exile in 1361. It was pretty much ignored until 1506 when Bishop James Stanley decided to once again make Somersham Palace the official residence.

The palace went out of favour for many years after a dispute between Bishop L’Isle and his royal neighbour Lady Blanche escalated to include the Pope and the King. The bishop was forced to sell off many of his possessions, and died in exile in 1361. It was pretty much ignored until 1506 when Bishop James Stanley decided to once again make Somersham Palace the official residence. It is believed that Bishop James Stanley was responsible for building the walled garden, with the deer park so close it would have been essential if any serious gardening was to be undertaken, as deer will happily eat both garden vegetables along with some flowers like roses.

Nicholas West was Bishop during the 1520s, he wrote to the then powerful Cardinal Wolsey complaining that the palace was totally surrounded by water, the few visitors he had being made to arrive by boat. He was also so scared of the mud banks failing and being drowned that 1oo men were placed along the bank that would raise the alarm by ringing a bell if the banks began to fail. Although no mention is made of whether Cardinal Wolsey could improve the Bishops lot, there is evidence that in 1528 Cardinal Wolsey tried to acquire Somersham Palace for himself, but his time of power was now waning, 2 years after his attempt to gain Somersham Palace he was arrested for treason. Why he would want to own this palace is a puzzle, as compared to some of his other properties like Hampton Court it was very poor indeed.

During the 1580s it seems that the palace once again fell out of favour, Bishop Cox leasing the palace out, so obviously not using it as his official residence. The lease describes the property as being made up of the Bishop’s OLD Lodgings, the servants quarters, barns, stables, two great bridges – one to the buildings, the other out over the moat to the deer park.

It also lists all the domestic offices needed to run a house of this size: -
Water was not fit to drink so ale was made in the brew-house 33.5m x 9.1m which was sited in a second courtyard along with the bake house, and coopers office – who made all the tubs and barrels for the household.

The main domestic buildings were of brick consisting of the Bishop’s bedroom and private chapel, vestry and office. The main hall, library, drawing room, turrets with winding stairs, a study, a gallery adjoining the Bishop’s bedroom, a room with views onto the garden, and a small room overlooking a small courtyard next to the garden. Three rooms kept for important visitors, along with the usual kitchen, larders, scullery and buttery.

Near the entrance to the main entrance was the remains of the old palace which were 36.5m x 3.9m. To the north of the main buildings was the porters lodge 73.1m x 5.4m.

By the end of the 16th century the palace was totally out of favour and being used to house recusants – those who despite it being the law, refused to attend the Church of England services, remaining faithful to their Catholic faith. £400 needed spending to make it ready to receive the recusants of Huntingdonshire.

Finally in 1603 Bishop Heaton sold the manor and palace of Somersham to King James I for £1,144. Sir John Cutts had been keeper of the house for Bishop Heaton; it was he that made it ready for use by recusants. In 1604 after a visit King James I wrote to Sir John Cutts telling him the palace was ‘much to his liking’, but felt better use could be made of the hunting. Sir John was instructed to restock the park with deer and engage a gamekeeper, all was to be ready for his return in 1605, the hounds used for hunting were kept in a part of the grounds called Willow Row.

In 1611 the King made Thomas the Earl of Suffolk keeper of the Palace of Somersham and bailiff of the Honour and Soke, he was still in residence in 1630.

The palace then passed to the wife of Charles I, Henrietta Maria in 1634, it is doubtful she ever visited as she much preferred court life. The following year work began around Somersham on draining the land; a new bridge was built at nearby Earith making the trip from the palace to Ely much easier. In 1636 Oliver Cromwell moved to Ely where he had recently inherited property, complaints were made to him by farmers that reclaimed land was being sold off by Queen Henrietta Maria, he took the case of the Somersham farmers to Parliament in 1641. Along with the drained land it seems that wasteland used by the commoners was fenced and sold off by the Earl of Manchester of Kimbolton Castle, with no recourse to the commoners. Feeling that their case was not being taken seriously they took direct action.