Country Life visits Fulham Palace

Fulham Palace and its surrounds, the setting of The Country Life Fair, are of outstanding interest and importance, as John Goodall and Tim Richardson explain

Fulham Palace and its surrounds

What to look for

1 The entrance gate and lodge to the palace, the latter was reputedly designed by the wife of Bishop Howley in about 1815
2 The Tudor entrance court
3 The former Bishop’s apartments now containing the museum, and the Porteus Library, which was once a chapel
4 The East Lawn
5 The 500-year-old holm oak, presumably the oldest tree in London
6 The Walled Garden
7 The line of an immense moat that formerly enclosed the rectangular palace site
8 The eye-catching Sir William Powell’s Almshouses, designed in a Gothic idiom by J. P. Seddon in 1869
9 Allotments that today overlay the northern area of the former palace garden

In about 700, Waldhere, the Bishop of London, bought the manor of Fulham. Removed from the City, but comfortably connected to it by the River Thames, his purchase became the site of a country retreat that was to be enjoyed by his successors in office for more than 1,200 years.

As it presently survives, the palace they created is arranged around two courtyards divided by the Great Hall. The outer of these broadly preserves its Tudor form, but the inner has been adapted from the 18th century to contain comfortable entertaining and withdrawing rooms overlooking the gardens. It is an extraordinary historical survival that has been protected from London’s remorseless expansion by spacious grounds.

The Bishops of London left the palace in 1973 and there followed a period of neglect. In 1990, a trust was set up to manage the property with the council and, in 1992, a small museum opened here. The work of revitalizing the palace continues under a new trust, established in 2011.

The Gardens

The gardens at Fulham Palace have, for several decades, been something of a mystery to most Londoners—it is remarkable how many people have not been there, given the site’s importance in the history of the capital, as well as its horticultural distinctions. Now, some 40 years after the last Bishop of London left the palace, it is recapturing a sense of identity—not as a much-loved public park, but as a nationally important historic garden.

I think most people involved with Fulham Palace would agree that the garden was neglected during the 1980s and 1990s. In the early 2000s, it felt almost forgotten—the house shut up, the garden deserted—but a restoration programme in two phases, backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and Hammersmith and Fulham Council, has been completed over the past decade, resulting in the reopening of the palace, the rejuvenation of the walled garden and a general sharpening up of the rest of the 13-acre site. There is a positive feel about the place, which now buzzes with visitors. If a third HLF bid is successful, Fulham Palace Trust proposes to recapture the sense of the palace as a private country residence for the bishop, his family and staff. This will be achieved partly by means of management of the overdense tree belt that cuts the site off from the River Thames.

The garden’s importance in the history of British horticulture is principally the result of the activities of two Bishops of London: Edmund Grindal (about 1519–83) and Henry Compton (1632–1713). Both bishops were botanically minded and politically controversial, which perhaps gives the lie (yet again) to the old saw that gardening is a pastime only for those who have failed. Grindal’s precise horticultural legacy is unclear, but he is credited with the introduction of the tamarisk tree and he also grew grapes that were sent to Elizabeth I, as they were among the earliest in London to ripen. It is possible that some of the oldest holm (evergreen) oaks at Fulham were his plantation, in the mid 16th century, as a novel introduction from southern Europe. Compton was a leading figure in early-18th-century horticulture— a distinction that often went hand in hand with political power. The youngest son of the Earl of Northampton, Compton came from a Royalist family, but was himself an anti-Catholic Whig involved with the successful importation of the Protestant monarch William of Orange.

He achieved notoriety when—as a bishop who had begun his career as a soldier—he wore a sword and rode up Oxford High Street at the head of a column of troops during the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. It was Compton and not the Archbishop of Canterbury who placed the crown on William’s head, but he never achieved further promotion in the Church, perhaps because he was seen as somewhat wayward.

At Fulham, Compton planted a large number of ‘exotic’ trees and shrubs, many of them sent by his theological plant-hunting contact, the Rev John Banister, whom he had dispatched to North America, ostensibly as a missionary chaplain. Compton is credited with planting the first Magnolia virginiana in Europe as well as liquidambar, honey locust (Gleditsia), Acer negundo, black walnut and scarlet oak. His head gardener was George London, who went on to partner Henry Wise in the leading landscape-design and nursery concern of the age. We know nothing of Compton’s planting regimen and not a single one of his original specimens survives, but a series of engravings published in Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1879 indicates that he may have disposed his trees fairly naturalistically around the East Lawn and north of the house. On this evidence, it appears he wanted his best specimens to be easily visible from the house, such as a cork oak to the south and a robinia to the north-east—both celebrated trees in the 19th century. Having been brought up at Compton Wynyates, in Warwickshire, Compton would have been comfortable gardening at this scale and, as an unmarried man, he was able to dedicate much of his time and energy to it during the 38 years he was Bishop of London.

With nothing—except the holm oaks —from Compton’s time or earlier to conserve, the Fulham Palace Trust has something of an open brief when it comes to tree planting. One suggestion is that trees with some relevance to Compton or Grindal ought to be retained or replanted —Aesculus pavia, Magnolia virginiana, Pinus pinea, Acer rubrum and Juniperus virginiana, for example. The tree expert Lear Associates, which has been engaged to work on the project, calculates that only about a quarter of the trees on the estate currently fit that prescription; the sycamores in particular need to be thinned out to make the tree mix more that of an arboretum as opposed to an unmanaged woodland.

The crucial intervention proposed is that sightlines be opened up south of the house towards the site of the river beach on the Thames, which was, until the mid 19th century, the principal route to the house. This view is currently obscured by sycamores and also by part of an 1890s avenue of London planes in adjacent Bishop’s Park, several of which would need to be removed and others crown-lifted to form a glade-like area by the river.

Perhaps because of its remoteness from town, Fulham Palace was never a showpiece residence. Compton’s tree collection, for example, was essentially private, although it would most probably have been seen by other experts—we know that John Evelyn visited more than once.

There is one reference to Catherine of Aragon spending part of 1506 at the palace, sent away from Court for the good of her health. It was certainly an administrative centre for diocesan affairs, but the impression is that the atmosphere was always that of a country retreat rather than a place of business. Something of this sequestered tone remains, and the proposed tree works will potentially benhance it greatly