site unseen : Rose Window, Winchester Palace

Click to follow
The Independent Online
We all love a good juicy story that features a randy clergyman with straying hands. The recent events in Lincoln prompted some newspapers to offer their readers a "list of shame", cataloguing past clerics who have been caught out engaging in unspiritual behaviour.

When exposed in public, most straying churchmen offer profuse words of apology. But not all. In particular, successive bishops of Winchester once made huge and unrepentant piles of money from a string of brothels which they owned in Southwark in medieval and Tudor times.

The girls were even called "Winchester Geese" in honour of their ecclesiastical landlord. Strict regulations laid down who got what and for how long: "No single woman to take money to lie with any man, but she lie with him all night till the morrow."

When the girls died of disease and illness, as they invariably did, they were heartlessly buried in a special plot of land so that the respectable citizens, who had no doubt enjoyed their services, would not be contaminated.

The bishops clearly felt no shame about their commercial activities because they lived nearby in a massive complex of buildings called Winchester Palace. They also had their own private prison, the Clink, which was horribly damp because of the adjoining Thames. At night, prisoners had to ward off marauding rats. Many of the inmates were here because of their religious beliefs. One year it might be Protestants, the next year a change of regime replaced them with Catholics.

In 1626 the palace was closed down whilst the Puritans cleared out the stews and banned the adjacent playhouses. The palace buildings deteriorated into a squalid mass of tenements and grim warehouses. Today, almost nothing survives of Winchester Palace - but the bit which does is magnificent. As you walk along Clink Street, look up. There, high above, is the 14th- century Rose Window of the palace's Great Hall which has miraculously survived both bombing and redevelopment.

To be more, precise the Rose Window is "a unique design, made up of an inserted hexagon with 18 cusped triangles around a smaller hexagon filled with radiating daggers of alternating widths". Thank you Sir Nikolaus Pevsner.

But I like to think of this window looking down upon the eminent bishops as they counted their ill-gotten gains from the nearby stews. Makes modern church scandals look rather tame, doesn't it?

The Rose Window is in Clink St, Southwark, London, SE1

Comments