The Old Palace
The Old Palace and Catholic Chaplaincy stand over the ancient millstream bridge, on the west side of St Aldate’s, the ancient Saxon roadway that starts at Carfax, Oxford’s crossroads, and continues southward past the site of the former Augustinian Priory of St Frideswide’s, over Folly Bridge on the Thames into the country.
The millstream, served to power the mills of the Dominican and the Franciscan foundations to the southwest and the mill of the Augustinian Priory which occupied what is now Christ Church College. The buildings of those formidable religious centres of learning have disappeared; the mill stream bridge, a mere two hundred yards from Carfax has vanished, but the stream, much diminished, still flows but out of sight, beneath Rose Place under the road to Christ Church Meadows. It is above the hidden stream that the Chaplaincy now stands.
Nothing is known of the property prior to the English Reformation. The first named resident was Robert King, the Cistercian Abbot of Thame, who seems to have willingly acquiesced with the dissolution of the monasteries. He was simultaneously Abbot of Osney, an Augustinian foundation which lay near the site of Oxford’s railway station. In 1539 he compliantly surrendered his two Abbeys and all their possessions to the Crown, and in 1542 became the first Bishop of Oxford, using Osney’s Abbey church as his Cathedral. Four years later, in 1546 he was ordered to abandon Osney, and make the Chapel of ‘Cardinal College’, later Christ Church College, his new Cathedral. He then took up residence in the house next to the stream, and across the road from his new Cathedral.
During the reign of Mary Tudor he reverted to the Old Religion, and was a judge in the trial and condemnation of Cranmer. He was spared the challenge of further change brought by Mary’s successor, Elisabeth by dying in 1557. His ‘palace’ remained the Bishop’s residence though the bishopric remained vacant for much of the next 70 years.
In the 17th century the house was turned into a great town mansion, and took on its present appearance. The wood carving, decoration and plastering are characteristic of the Jacobean and Carolinian period. Despite these improvements the Bishops of Oxford began to reside outside the city having been driven away probably by the fact that the old mill stream was an open sewer.
The Old Palace subsequently changed hands many times. During the Civil War it was occupied by Thomas Smith, mayor of Oxford, and colonel of the town regiment. Here he must have entertained Charles I whose court was across the road in Christ Church. In the 19th century the Old Palace had a livery stable beneath it and became successively a mineral water manufactory, a photographer’s and a confectioner’s, for St Aldate’s was then a crowded and busy thoroughfare, serving the populous St Ebbes’ area.