Colm Murray traces the history of the Bishop’s Palace, Kilkenny, which has been adapted, altered and extended continuously over the course of seven centuries and which is now the headquarters of The Heritage Council
The Bishop’s Palace, Kilkenny, is situated close to Saint Canice’s Cathedral and Saint Canice’s Tower, on high ground in the centre of Irishtown (fig. 1). Work on a palace for the Bishop of Ossory began circa 1350 under the aegis of the Franciscan Bishop Richard de Ledrede (d. 1361). We know this as de Ledrede sought permission from the King to demolish three churches outside the city walls, rendered superfluous owing to a dramatic decline in the population of Kilkenny following the Black Death, and to reuse the stones in the construction of a new residence. His building ‘at great expense and labour’ of a palace on a prominent position beside the cathedral was symbolically charged as ‘the provision of a stately residence was…visual confirmation of the bishop’s prestige and social rank’. The bishop, as figurehead of the diocese, was responsible for ‘the ordination of clergy, holding of synods, election of abbots and priors and the exercise of spiritual jurisdiction’ and these ‘all required the presence of the bishop at his chief church and the centre of his diocese’ (Murphy 2006) (fig. 2).
Investigations carried out during conservation works to the bishop’s palace corroborate the documentary account of a construction project reusing the fabric of earlier buildings. For instance, several window surrounds, previously hidden beneath plasterwork, are formed from a soft, pale yellow limestone, called Dundry stone, sourced near Bristol in England. This was a favourite stone of the Normans, who used it extensively when consolidating their conquest through architecture, so it is very likely that the window surrounds originated in one of the demolished churches.
The exact form of de Ledrede’s palace is still the subject of debate but it is generally accepted to have taken the form of a rectangular “hall house”. The walls of the lower floor of the original building are approximately two metres thick and an undated survey, held by the Representative Church Body Library, suggests that there were originally very few openings. Entry was by way of the upper floor where the main room or rooms were supported on stone vaults with stores below.
Further works were carried out by Bishop Milo Baron (d. 1550) immediately before the Reformation of the 1530s and these included the construction of a three-stage tower house, or solar, at the eastern end of the palace. It is a little mind-boggling to think of a tower house as an extension to an existing building but that is indeed the case in Kilkenny. The stone surrounds of window openings from this period were uncovered during conservation works and, consolidated, can be seen on the outside of the bishop’s palace today.
Kilkenny’s cathedral precinct suffered badly during the eleven years of warfare that convulsed Ireland in the mid seventeenth century and the seven-roomed palace was described in the Civil Survey (1654) as ‘a house called ye bishops Court…ye north East Corner of wh[ich] joynes a small Castle [whose] lower rooms are onely fit for Cattle’. Bishop Griffith Williams (d. 1672) recorded in 1661 how he found the palace ‘all ruined, and nothing standing but the bare walls, without roofs, without windows, but with holes, and without doors’. Large sums of money were expended on the bishop’s palace following The Restoration (1660-6) including the addition of new rooms, new doors and windows, and, crucially, a new roof. A contract held in the National Library of Ireland is dated 16th September 1672 and names J. Dowling, P. Haydon and J. Midleton as three workmen who Bishop John Parry (d. 1677) employed to repair the building, including making windows, at a cost of £130 14s. This was just two weeks after Parry was enthroned as Bishop of Ossory and we are told that he later spent at least another £270 on the palace. A kitchen wing added at this time was demolished in 1960 but other fabric survives including a simple rectangular window frame uncovered during recent conservation works. It bears the marks of a mullion and transom with fixed leaded glass quarters and hinged opening sections. This type of window was ubiquitous in Ireland until the ingenious Dutch sash began to determine the character of many buildings, ultimately including bishop’s palace, from the early eighteenth century.
The effects of Parry’s restoration can be seen in Henry Pratt’s The City of Kilkenny (1708), the first known visual depiction of the palace, where, curiously, Milo Baron’s tower house is illustrated as an almost freestanding adjunct (fig. 3).
Bishop Charles Este (1696-1745) greatly enhanced the palace in the 1730s, making the medieval hulk conform to the image of a Georgian country house, the entrance signalled by an elaborately embellished “Rustic Palladian” doorcase (fig. 4), the rooms lit by an array of sash windows. Walter Harris (1686-1761) observed the works and remarked in The Whole Works of Sir James Ware Concerning Ireland (1739) that ‘[in] this present year [Bishop Este] hath made great additions to his Episcopal House in Kilkenny; which from an inconvenient Habitation he hath made commodious, regular, and noble both within side and without’ (Harris I 1739, 433). The accompanying illustration by Guillaume Dheulland (d. c.1770) titled The South East Prospect of the Cathedral Church of St. Canice in Kilkenny with the Bishops Pallace shows, perhaps only in diagrammatic form, the results of Este’s endeavours (fig. 5). The façade is not as symmetrical in reality as it is portrayed and it is not known if the “rustic” surrounds around the windows, presumably intended to match the doorcase, were ever installed. Today there is no surviving evidence of the pitched roof illustrated and we do not know exactly when the palace was raised to three full storeys; the dormers were still in situ when the bishop’s palace was featured in A Panorama of Kilkenny (1757) by Thomas Mitchell (1735-90).
Figure 5: An illustration by Guillaume Dheulland (d. c.1770) from The Whole Works of Sir James Ware Concerning Ireland (1739) showing the bishop’s palace ‘made commodious, regular, and noble’ by Bishop Charles Estate (1696-1745). The bishop’s palace also featured in A Tour Through Ireland in several Entertaining Letters (1748) by ‘Two English GENTLEMEN’ [William Rufus Chetwood (d. 1766) and Philip Luckombe (d. 1803)] when it was described as ‘new built, inclosed with a hall Wall, with two Gates, one of which leads out of the Church-yard, and the other into a back Street. It is a very handsome Building, but whitened on the Outside, which, to me, glares a Meanness I do not like; but every one to their own Fancy. The present Person that fills this Bishoprick is Dr. C—x [Bishop Michael Cox (1689-1779)], newly translated here’
Bishop Este added four rooms and the staircase to the property at a cost of £1,956. The panelled staircase hall, its staircase an elaborate confection of fluted balusters and Corinthian colonette newels, continues to be used as the principal circulation space (fig. 6). A Venetian window lights each landing. Halfpenny included a design for such a window in Practical architecture but, unlike the doorcase, here the proportions do not match up. A very curious feature of the first Venetian window is that the archivolt over the central light does not sit satisfactorily below the landing above it but is, in fact, bisected by it (fig. 7). This may be evidence that, when sizing the window, the architect or mason did not take into consideration the decorative surround that would be produced by the carpenter: an unfortunate lack of communication in the design process!
The decorative plasterwork ceiling, its central oval once painted a stereotypical Wedgewood Blue but now a gleaming white, was designed to impress even though it hangs low over the bedroom floor landing: visitors may have been admitted to the ground floor, special visitors to the first floor, but only family members were permitted up to the bedroom floor (fig. 8).
The improvement of the palace continued in the 1750s under Bishop Richard Pococke (1704-65) who, maligned by Mary Delany (1700-88) as ‘the dullest man that ever travelled…but a good man’, toured extensively at home and abroad. Dr. Rachel Finnegan believes that Pococke not only commissioned, but also designed the bookcases in the library, the fluted Ionic pilasters hinting at his interest in the ancient Roman architecture he explored as a young man on the Grand Tour. Pococke is also credited with the construction of a garden pavilion, now known as the Robing Room, which was described (1775) by his successor, Bishop William Newcome (1729-1800), as ‘a summer house of a very good size with a fireplace, fit for drinking tea or a glass of wine… The country about is very pleasant and everything conduces to health and cheerfulness’. Newcome also gave a description of the rooms in his palace which is helpful for dating surviving fabric:
I think my present situation agreeable and even delightful. There are many very good habitable rooms in the house, below stairs a room of about 20 by 16 feet for me to see company in and a dining parlour of about 22 feet square; above stairs a drawing room of 24 by 20 and within it another of 20 by 18. Over the two rooms below stairs are a bedchamber and study of the same size with those below and on the middle floor are two good bedchambers. There are five sleeping rooms in the garrets, some of which are very good.
Rooms that accord to Newcome’s dimensions no longer exist and it appears that perceptions of their adequacies were changing rapidly. Mary Beaufort (1739-1831), the wife of the Reverend Daniel Augustus Beaufort (1739-1821), criticised the palace as ‘small and gloomy’ on her visit there in 1779. What was ‘commodious, regular, and noble’ in 1739 had obviously lost its lustre!
The two grandest rooms in the bishop’s palace today are the apse-ended dining parlour on the ground floor and the apse-ended withdrawing room on the floor immediately above it. Both rooms are shown in a survey of the bishop’s palace held by the Representative Church Body Library (figs. 9-10). The survey is undated but, for Mrs. Beaufort’s remarks about the interior to no longer apply, it, and the improvements it describes, must date to a period after 1780. The detailing of the joinery and plasterwork is in the elegant Regency style and suggests that the dining parlour and withdrawing room were created during the episcopacy (1806-13) of Bishop John Kearney (c.1742-1813) (fig. 11).
The survey provides an interesting insight into the workings of the household. Massive bulks of medieval masonry clot the plan, impeding any modern sense of flow, with access from the butler’s pantry to the larder, both housed side by side in Milo Baron’s tower house, possible only by a circuitous route through the hall and servant’s hall; the space overhead is given over to a pair of passage rooms with one accessed ‘from back stairs’. The rooms to the left of the hall, labelled Cellar on the survey, were subsequently repurposed as a private chapel, the vaults of the “hall house” reborn as the ceil of sacred space with a paper-thin Gothic cornice matched by trefoil- and quatrefoil-panelled joinery below (fig. 12).
The Georgian character was identified as the key theme for architectural re-presentation when The Heritage Council took over and began adapting and restoring the bishop’s palace as its new headquarters in 2006. Conscious of the rich tapestry of history at stake, the adaptation and restoration were guided by the ethos that heritage is a living thing and that having a respectful attitude to heritage does not curtail creativity or prohibit sensitively planned contemporary interventions. Archaeological excavation of the site had uncovered the footings of the seventeenth-century kitchen wing demolished in 1960 and, in line with this ethos, it was decided that a new pavilion of glass and steel would be supported by these foundations, an apt metaphor for the work of The Heritage Council.
As might be expected of a building that has been in continuous use for almost seven centuries, and continuously adapted over that time, the bishop’s palace is a treasure trove of architectural detail with numerous spaces showing an intriguing partnership of early construction and later decoration. For instance, the stone work of medieval loop-like windows and elegantly-proportioned Georgian sash windows jostle for attention outside; inside, the slender cut-stone piers supporting de Ledrede’s vaults are on show alongside nineteenth-century Gothic plasterwork (fig. 13). All interventions, including those necessary on health and safety grounds, have been carried out in glass and steel to clearly differentiate them from the stone and timber of the original building. Similarly, lighting is by way of floor standing uplighters or suspended track lights to avoid impacting, where possible, on plaster surfaces.
The bishop’s palace might be said to have been tailor made for The Heritage Council whose business needs are met by existing spaces, avoiding significant alterations to, or loss of historic fabric. The two largest rooms, the dining parlour and withdrawing room, are used for public meetings and council meetings respectively. The library continues to be used as such and its bookcases are filled with publications and reports funded by The Heritage Council. The bedrooms on the uppermost floor have all been adapted as offices and provide inspiring views overlooking a heritage-rich urban environment. The heritage-led regeneration by The Heritage Council has ensured that the bishop’s palace, an important part not only of Kilkenny’s but of Ireland’s architectural heritage, has been saved for the benefit and enjoyment of many generations to come.
Colm Murray, Architecture Officer, The Heritage Council
Finnegan, Dr. Rachel, “Bishop Pococke’s Improvements to St. Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny” in Laffan, William (ed.), Irish Architectural and Decorative Arts: The Journal of the Irish Georgian Society Volume XI (2008)
Harris, Walter, The Whole Works of Sir James Ware Concerning Ireland Revised and Improved Volume I (Dublin: E. Jones, 1739)
Murphy, Dr. Margaret, The Bishop’s Palace, Kilkenny – History and Context (Unpublished Report for The Heritage Council, 2006)
Two English Gentlemen [Chetwood, William Rufus and Luckombe, Philip], A Tour Through Ireland in several Entertaining Letters (London: J. Roberts, 1748)Back to Building of the Month Archive