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From Romantic Castles and Palaces, As Seen and Described by Famous Writers, edited and translated by Esther Singleton; New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1901; pp. 89-98.


Lambeth Palace


Black and white photograph of Lambeth Castle, England, with the Thames river before it, on which is a old-style boat, taken in the late 19th century.


A LITTLE higher up the river, but almost opposite to the huge mass of the Houses of Parliament, lies a broken, irregular pile of buildings, at whose angle, looking out over the Thames, is one grey weather-beaten tower. The broken pile is the archiepiscopal Palace of Lambeth; the grey, weather-beaten building is its Lollards’ Tower. From this tower the mansion itself stretches in a varied line; chapel and guard-room, and gallery, and the stately buildings of the new house looking out on the terrace and garden; while the Great Hall, in which the library has now found a home, is the low picturesque building which reaches southward along the river to the gate.

The story of each of these spots will interweave itself with the thread of our narrative as we proceed; but I would warn my readers at the outset that I do not propose to trace the history of Lambeth in itself, or to attempt any architectural or picturesque description of the place. What I attempt is simply to mark, in incident after incident which has occurred within its walls, the relation of the house to the primates whom it has sheltered for seven hundred years, and through them to the literary, ecclesiastical, the political history of the realm. Nothing illustrates the last of these relations better than 90 the site of the house itself. It is doubtful whether we can date the residence of the archbishops of Canterbury at Lambeth, which was then a manor-house of the see of Rochester, earlier than the reign of Eadward the Confessor. But there was a significance in the choice of the spot, as there was a significance in the date at which the choice was made. So long as the political head of the English people ruled, like Ælfred, or Æthelstan, or Eadgar, from Winchester, the spiritual head of the English people was content to rule from Canterbury. It was when the piety of the Confessor and the political prescience of his successors brought the kings finally to Westminster that the archbishops were permanently drawn to their suffragan’s manor-house at Lambeth. The Norman rule gave a fresh meaning to their position. In the new course of national history which opened with the Conquest, the Church was called to play a part greater than she had ever known before. Hitherto the archbishop had been simply the head of the ecclesiastical order — a representative of the moral and spiritual forces on which the government was based. The Conquest, the cessation of the great Witenagemotes in which the nation, however imperfectly, had till then found a voice, turned him into a tribune of the people.

Foreigner though he might be, it was the primate’s part to speak for the conquered race the words it could no longer utter. He was, in fact, the permanent leader (to borrow a modern phrase) of a constitutional opposition; and, in addition to the older religious forces which he wielded, he wielded a popular and democratic force which 91 held the new king and the new baronage in check. It was he who received from the sovereign whom he crowned the solemn oath that he would rule not by his own will, but according to the customs, or, as we should say now, the traditional constitution, of the realm. It was his to call on the people to declare whether they chose him for their king; to receive the thundered “Ay, ay,” of the crowd; to place the priestly unction on shoulder and breast, the royal crown on brow. To watch over the observance and order into religious duties, to uphold the custom and law of the realm against personal tyranny; to guard, amidst the darkness and brutality of the age, those interests of religion, of morality, of intellectual life, which as yet lay peacefully together beneath the wing of the Church — this was the political office of the primate in the new order which the Conquest created; and it was this office which expressed itself in the site of the house that fronted the king’s house over Thames.

From the days of Archbishop Anselm, therefore, to the days of Stephen Langton, Lambeth only fronted Westminster as the archbishop fronted the king. Synod met over against council; the clerical court of the one ruler rivaled in splendour, in actual influence, the baronial court of the other. For more than a century of our history the great powers which together were to make up the England of the future lay marshalled over against each other on either side of the water.

With the union of the English people, and the sudden arising of English freedom, which followed the Great 92 Charter, this peculiar attitude of the archbishops passed necessarily away. When the people itself spoke again, its voice was heard, not in the hall of Lambeth, but in the Chapter-house which gave a home to the House of Commons in its earlier sessions at Westminster. From the day of Stephen Langton the nation has towered higher and higher above its mere ecclesiastical organization, till the one stands dwarfed beside the other as Lambeth now stands dwarfed before the mass of the Houses of Parliament. Nor was the religious change less than the political. In the Church as in the State, the archbishops suddenly fell into the rear. From the days of the first English Parliament to the days of the Reformation, they not only ceased to be representatives of the moral and religious forces of the nation, but stand actually opposed to them. Nowhere is this better brought out than in their house beside the Thames. The political history of Lambeth lies spread over the whole of its site, from the gate-way of Morton to the garden where we shall see Cranmer musing on the fate of Anne Boleyn. Its ecclesiastical interest, on the other hand, is concentrated in a single spot. We must ask our readers, therefore, to follow us beneath the groining of the Gate-house into the quiet little court that lies on the river-side of the hall. Passing over its trim grass-plot to a doorway at the angle of Lollards’ Tower, and mounting a few steps, they will find themselves in a square antechamber, paved roughly with tiles, and with a single small window looking out towards the Thames. The chamber is at the base of 93 Lollards’ Tower; in the centre stands a huge oaken pillar, to which the room owes its name of the “Post-room,” and to which somewhat mythical tradition asserts Lollards to have been tied when they were “examined” by the whip. On its western side a doorway of the purest early English work leads us directly into the palace chapel.

It is strange to stand at a single step in the very heart of the ecclesiastical life of so many ages, within walls beneath which the men in whose hands the fortunes of English religion have been placed from the age of the Great Charter till to-day have come and gone; to see the light falling through the tall windows with their marble shafts on the spot where Wyclif fronted Sudbury, on the lowly tomb of Parker, on the stately screen-work of Laud, on the altar where the last sad communion of Sancroft originated the Non-jurors. It is strange to note the very characteristics of the building itself, marred as it is by modern restoration, and to feel how simply its stern, unadorned beauty, the beauty of Salisbury and of Lincoln, expressed the very tone of the Church that finds its centre there.

And hardly less strange it is to recall the odd, roistering figure of the primate, to whom, if tradition be true, it owes this beauty. Boniface of Savoy was the youngest of three brothers out of whom their niece, Eleanor, the queen of Henry the Third, was striving to build up a foreign party in the realm. Her uncle Amadeus was richly enfeoffed with English lands; the Savoy Palace in the Strand still recalls the sentiment and the magnificence of her uncle 94 Peter. For this third and younger uncle she grasped at the highest post in the state save the crown itself. “The handsome archbishop,” as his knights loved to call him, was not merely a foreigner as Lanfranc and Anselm had been foreigners — strange in manner or in speech to the flock whom they ruled — he was foreign in the worst sense: strange to their freedom, their sense of law, their reverence for piety. His first visit set everything on fire. He retreated to Lyons to hold a commission in the Pope’s bodyguard, but even Innocent was soon weary of his tyranny. When the threat of sequestration recalled him after four years of absence to his see, his hatred of England, his purpose soon to withdraw again to his own sunny South, were seen in his refusal to furnish Lambeth. Certainly he went the wrong way to stay here. The young primate brought with him Savoyard fashions, strange enough to English folk. His armed retainers, foreigners to a man, plundered the City markets. His own archiepiscopal fist felled to the ground a prior who opposed his visitation. It was the prior of St. Bartholomew’s by Smithfield, and London, on the king’s refusal to grant redress, took the matter into her own hands. The City bells swung out, and a noisy crowd of citizens were soon swarming beneath the walls of the palace, shouting threats of vengeance.

For shouts Boniface cared little. In the midst of the tumult he caused the sentences of excommunication which he had fulminated to be legally executed in the chapel of his house. But, bravado-like, this soon died before the universal resentment, and “the handsome archbishop” fled 95 again to Lyons. How helpless the successor of Augustine really was, was shown by a daring outrage perpetrated in his absence. Master Eustace, his official, had thrown into prison the prior of St. Thomas’s Hospital for some contempt of court; and the prior’s diocesan, the Bishop of Winchester, a prelate as foreign and lawless as Boniface himself, took up the injury as his own. A party of his knights appeared before the house of Lambeth, tore the gates from their hinges, set Master Eustace on horseback, and carried him off to the episcopal prison at Farnham. At last Boniface bowed to submission, surrendered the points at issue, recalled his excommunication, and was suffered to return. He had learned his lesson well enough to remain from that time a quiet, inactive man, with a dash of Continental frugality and wit about him. Whether he built the chapel or not, he would probably have said of it as he said of the great Hall at Canterbury, “My predecessors built, and I discharge the debt for their building. It seems to me that the true builder is the man that pays the bill.”

From the moment when Wyclif stood in Lambeth Chapel the Church sunk, ecclesiastically as well as politically, into non-existence. It survived merely as a vast land-owner; while its primates, after a short effort to resume their older position as real heads of their order, dwindled into ministers and tools of the crown. The gate-tower of the house, the grand mass of brick-work, whose dark-red tones are (or, alas ! were, till a year or two since) so exquisitely brought out by the grey stone of its angles and 96 the mullions of its broad arch-window, recalls an age — that of its builder, Archbishop Morton — when Lambeth, though the residence of the first minister of the crown, had really lost all hold on the nobler elements of political life. It was raised from this degradation by the efforts of a primate to whose merits justice has hardly as yet been done. First in date among the genuine portraits of the Archbishops of Canterbury which hang round the walls of the Guard-room at Lambeth is the portrait of Archbishop Warham. The plain, homely old man’s face still looks down on us, line for line, as the “seeing eye” of Holbein gazed on it three centuries ago. “I instance this picture,” says Mr. Wornum, in his life of the painter, “as an illustration that Holbein had the power of seeing what he looked on, and of perfectly transferring to his picture what he saw.” Memorable in the annals of art as the first of that historic series which brings home to us, as no age has ever been brought home to eyes of after-time, the age of the English Reformation, it is even more memorable as marking the close of the great intellectual movement which the Reformation swept away.

With the Reformation, in its nobler and purer aspects, Lambeth, as we have said, had little to do. Bucer, Peter Martyr, and Alasco gathered there for a moment round Cranmer; but it was simply as a resting-place, on their way to Cambridge, to Oxford, and to Austin Friars. Only one of the symbols of the new Protestantism has any connection with it; the Prayer-book was drawn up in the peaceful seclusion of Oxford. The party conferences, 97 the rival martyrdoms of the jarring creeds, took place elsewhere. The memories of Cranmer which linger round Lambeth are simply memories of degradation; and that the deepest degradation of all, the degradation of those solemn influences which the primacy embodies to the sanction of political infamy. It is fair, indeed, to remember the bitterness of Cranmer’s suffering. Impassive as he seemed, with a face that never changed, and sleep seldom known to be broken, men saw little of the inner anguish with which the tool of Henry’s injustice bent before that overmastering will.

None of the great theological impulses of this age or the last, it is sometimes urged, came out of Lambeth. Little of the theological bitterness, of the controversial narrowness of this age or the last, it may fairly be answered, has ever entered its gates. Of Lambeth we may say what Matthew Arnold says of Oxford, that many as are its faults, it has never surrendered itself to ecclesiastical Philistines. In the calm, genial silence of its courts, its library, its galleries, in the presence of its venerable past, the virulence, the petty strife, the tumults of religious fanaticism finds itself hushed. Among the storms of the Wesleyan revival, of the Evangelical revival, of the Puseyite revival, the voice of Lambeth has ever pleaded for a truth, simpler, larger, more human than theirs. Amidst the deafening clamour of Tractarian and Anti-Tractarian disputants, both sides united in condemning the silence of Lambeth. Yet the one word that came from Lambeth will still speak to men’s hearts when all their noisy disputations are 98 forgotten. “How,” a prelate, whose nearest relative had joined the Church of Rome, asked Archbishop Howley, “how shall I treat my brother?” “As a brother,” was the archbishop’s reply.

Elf.Ed. Notes

*  John Richard Green was an important English historian. He wrote well, which is always helpful. To read an excerpt describing the geography of Roman Britain, from his book The Making of England on this site.


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