Inside Lambeth Palace Garden & Library
Lambeth Palace is the official London residence and office of the Archbishop of Canterbury. As well as medieval buildings and historic state rooms, it contains the oldest continually cultivated gardens in Central London.
However, to be perfectly frank, it’s incredibly difficult to get a look inside.
One way to have a snoop is during the Summer season, when it’s open every first Friday of the month between 12pm-3pm. So join me to have a look at the gardens as well as a peek inside the brand new library!
History of Lambeth Palace
The site has been home to the Archbishop of Canterbury for over 800 years.
The earliest surviving part of the palace is the crypt chapel (built 1215-25 and sadly not readily available to visit).
It’s the impressive that Morton’s Tower (built 1490) that acts as the imposing entrance.
Once inside you can get a closer look at the exterior of the Great Hall, rebuilt in 1660 after the 13th century original was demolished and sold off stone by stone under Oliver Cromwell.
Until 2020 this also acted as a storage space for some of the Lambeth Palace Library collection but, as we’ll see, that’s now got a new home.
As for the garden, it was established alongside the Palace back in 1197. At 10 acres it’s the third largest private garden in London, after Buckingham Palace and Winifred House.
Lambeth Palace Garden
Originally it was set out in meticulously organised fashion but after 1783, Archbishop John Moore wanted a less formal structure, including the curved walkways and rows of trees that still exist today.
In 1901 the Archbishops Frederick Temple gave nine acres of land to the people of Lambeth, now known as Archbishop’s Park which runs along the palace walls. The Gardens still take up 10 of the 13 acres of Palace grounds.
The Head Gardener until very recently was Nick Stewart Smith, who’s written a book “The Thousand Year Old Garden” about its history and his experience working at Lambeth Palace.
His aim was to make the garden a little bit wilder and I loved The Glades with an eclectic mix of colours, not quite a wildflower meadow but to an extant letting chance and nature take the reins.
Another interesting feature is the Labyrinth, a physical representation of the winding path of faith, with God at the centre but no set route.
The most famous tree is the magnificent White Marseille Fig tree which arrived at the Palace as a clipping in 1556.
It was the gift of Archbishop Reginald Pole, the last Roman Catholic to hold the post and who served under Queen Mary I. It’s been flourishing in Lambeth ever since and still bears bountiful fruit each Autumn.
The gardens open one day a month between April and September. You can see the latest new on their website here.
Lambeth Palace Library
One of the oldest public libraries in England with manuscripts dating back to the 9th century.
Founded 1610 by Archbishop Richard Bancroft, his will left his collection of over 6,000 printed books and manuscripts to established a library. In a time when the newly established Church of England was seemingly under constant threat, his intended it as a resource to all future archbishops, calling it an “arsenal” for their writing preaching and work.
During the interregnum the library was housed in Cambridge University, then returned to Lambeth in 1664.
From 1830 the library was housed in the Great Hall and after huge damage from bombs in the Blitz (when 10,000 books were destroyed) it was only in 2020 that the new building by Wright & Wright Architects was complete.
It was always going to be a tricky task to find a protective enclosure that also fits into the Grade I listed Palace.
The result doesn’t exactly blend in with its surroundings but one huge positive is how much easier it is for the public to visit.
And a real treat was the chance to see the 8th floor terrace, open for select bookable events and with quite the view back over Westminster.
As well as down onto the gardens below.
It really made me consider how much has changed around the Palace as its remained in situ over the centuries.
Just compare this view looking west:
With this 17th century view looking to the East:
One of the treasures of the collection is the Lambeth Bible, a 12th century illuminated manuscript measuring 52x35cm featuring extraordinary scenes like the Tree of Jesse, a family tree of Christ created between 1150-70.
Digital images of their treasures are readily searchable in the atrium and the Library host a revolving display of regular free exhibitions which can be visited Monday – Friday and select Saturdays. Find out more here.
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