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Bridewell Revisited: Finds From A Lost Palace

By 30/09/2022March 16th, 2023News, Published Articles

An article detailing the results of our excavations at Dorset Rise in the City of London, by Douglas Killock, has just been published online.

Click here to read the full article, which will appear in Post-Medieval Archaeology Volume 56 Issue 2 2022.

Bridewell Palace, Henry VIII’s first major building project, is well-attested historically. The Palace was built between 1515 and 1523 and appears on both the ‘Agas’ map of 1561 and Braun and Hogenburg’s map of 1572 (below left). The details of the Palace on these early representations are somewhat sketchy; these can be seen more clearly on Ogilby and Morgan’s map of 1677 (below right). However by this time the southern courtyard had disappeared, having been destroyed by the Great Fire.


Antiquarian reports had provided information of structural remains relating to the palace, such as the discovery of arched brick foundations resting on timber planking with chalk and timber abutments. This characteristic construction technique later became synonymous with the remains of Bridewell, but the lack of detailed locations meant that the ground plan of the palace, particularly its southern range, remained largely unknown. However, in the 1970s results of excavations at Bridewell Place and Tudor Street, combined with a 1791 survey of Bridewell, allowed the complex to be mapped with some certainty.

Our 2013 excavations at Dorset Rise on the site of a 1950s office development revealed remarkable results, demonstrating that the Palace extended considerably further than previously thought. Puzzlingly, the building remains did not fit the proposed ground plan of the Palace, including the alignments of the walls. These structures are thought to have been part of Wolsey’s redevelopment of the site before he gave it to the king. This may seem unlikely considering the materials and techniques were the same as those used in the construction of the Palace. However, the pointed brick arch (below) employed in the foundation design at Bridewell was a solution to overcome the unstable, reclaimed ground and its use was not confined to Bridewell; we have recently recorded similar arches at the Duke of Suffolk’s palace, Brandon House in Southwark.

Prior to the excavation in 2013 it had been assumed that the area under investigation had lain outside of the footprint of the palace. Derek Gadd who led the 1978 excavation at Bridewell Place confirmed that the arched foundation at Dorset Rise, unearthed nearly 40 years after the original excavation, was identical to those that formed parts of the royal palace.


Apart from the structural remains, our excavation of garden features associated with the Palace has made a small but notable contribution to the knowledge of the material culture and diet of a Tudor palace, with a remarkable assemblage of animal bone that probably derived from the king’s lavish kitchen. The conspicuous consumption represents an increase in status which is also reflected in the pottery assemblage.

The artefacts recovered from the lost Palace help to paint a picture of everyday life there. These include household fittings and furnishings, dress accessories, and objects associated with production and accountancy. A late medieval pipeclay figurine represents the unusual find of a devotional object from the domestic sphere. Fixtures and fittings include an iron door-latch rest; household furnishings include a curved iron bucket or cauldron handle and the upper part of a copper-alloy branched double-socketed candlestick. A hooked clasp decorated with a five-petalled double rose, fashionable during the late 15th and 16th centuries was one of the dress accessories recovered. Other finds include a horseshoe, a tiny bone die, while accountancy and commerce may be reflected in a copper-alloy jeton, used for calculating sums on a chequer board. The only coin recovered is a Venetian silver soldino, representing an influx of Venetian coins at this time, mainly through trade via Southampton; the Venetian coins were removed from circulation with the major weight reductions of silver in England from 1526.

This miniature pipeclay figurine of the 4th-century St Barbara was one of our finds from the lost Palace and is a particularly important discovery. It could have been the personal possession of a soldier; St Barbara is the patron saint of artillerymen, venerated by Catholics who face the danger of sudden and violent death. As is common with other pre-Reformation devotional figurines found in London, the head of the figurine has been intentionally removed at the shoulders in a deliberate attempt to deface the statue in an act of post-Reformation iconoclasm. As the location for Henry’s preliminary divorce proceedings with Catherine of Aragon, a major factor leading to the break with the Catholic Church, the discovery of a headless saint at Bridewell Palace is poignant.