Clarendon Palace is a little known historical site. Most people in Salisbury know it’s there; less can tell you how to reach it. There is no car park; you won’t find tourist coaches. Pull in on the narrow leafy green lane then you must walk, like a Hobbit leaving the Shire, past farms and across a green landscape, eventually ascending a rise where you join a wooded track following the line of an old Roman road. Salisbury Cathedral spire is behind you, a needle in the haze; before you lie the woods, hiding all for a brief time. Then you see the trees part near a thatched cottage– a gaunt grey ruin appears before you in a field that is sometimes home to a pack of friendly llamas.
It is badly ruined; only one substantial wall remains, a stone platform with shallow steps and outlines of chambers in the ground. The steps to the one-time treasury lead into a slumping earthen pit. Bits of the red roof tiles lie scattered over the site; sometimes you can find one in good condition with the hole for a large medieval nail still intact.
These are the remains of a grand Plantagenet Palace. Henry II founded it and it was there his struggles with Thomas Becket began, but it was in the time of his grandson, Henry III, that it began to truly flourish. Henry enlarged and beautified it for his Queen, Eleanor of Provence, adding in a fireplace carved with figures representing the 12 months of the year, gardens, stained glass and a chapel painted with scenes from the life of St Katherine. The pink, golden and grey tiled floors were a wonder ; some were found in post-war excavations, and are now in the British Museum.
It was at Clarendon Palace in the summer of 1453, that Henry VI first exhibited his first signs of madness–he became catatonic, slumped down insensible. Chroniclers stated he ‘suddenly was taken and smitten with a frenzy and his wit and reason withdrawn’.
After that, the Palace was seldom in use (although, interestingly, another possible mistress of Edward IV was called ‘Catherine of Claringdon’, which is probably Clarendon), falling into total disrepair after 1485. Elizabeth I stopped there once but the chambers were so ruinous by that time she had to find alternative accommodation in a ‘banqueting hall.’
Recently it has been announced that new excavations will be taking place at the Palace, the first in over 30 years, and there are plans to hold a medieval fair in 2020 (it will be interesting to see how they work that one with the parking!) Perhaps there are still treasures to be found and maybe the Palace will become better known, but I hope in a way it never becomes too popular, for as it stands, in ruined isolation, you can imagine the presence of shades of kings, with the only sounds in the world being the wind in the trees and the birdsong…
Reconstruction of the Palace, and tiles from the chapel.