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Durham University

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Clarendon Palace, Wiltshire

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


This project, co-directed by Professor Chris Gerrard with Professor Tom Beaumont James (formerly University of Winchester), examines Clarendon Park’s long archaeological and architectural history from early prehistory through to the present day. During the medieval period Clarendon developed from a hunting box into the grandest western royal residence in England, an expression of ultimate power in which kings enjoyed privacy in a managed, sparsely occupied landscape in which family and guests could indulge their passion for hunting. This was country retreat of the kings and queens of England; a place for business of government, to enjoy the pleasures of the largest private park in the kingdom. This is far more than a hunting park, nor it is merely a deer park. With its timber and its coppicing, it is also an economic unit, a carefully controlled, compartmentalised and managed landscape, a grand setting with a high status residence at its heart.

Stripped of its deer and many trees during the Civil War and Interregnum, the Park passed out of royal hands to one of the architects of the Restoration, Edward Hyde (1609-74) until, in the early eighteenth century, a new mansion house, built for Peter Bathurst, was set in its own landscape nearby. The old palace ruins were visited by antiquarians like William Stukeley, among others (see image below) and the first plan of the site was produced by Thomas Phillipps and his agent William Hensley in the 1820s. We now think that Hensley exposed more of the palace site than has ever been uncovered since.

Using results from recent excavations at the palace site (part funded by English Heritage) and fieldwork in the Park as well as newly discovered private archives, including building accounts, sale catalogues, house and probate inventories, building campaigns at the mansion and landscapes on the estate can be revealed and the intentions of their owners explored. The site is now open to the public from the Clarendon Way and visitors are guided around the site by new information panels derived from research for this project. From the palace the visitor can look out over a modern farming landscape but one which is remarkably faithful to the outline of the medieval landscape with its blocks of woodland, wood pasture and grazing.

A new publication will detail the archaeological results from our investigation of the spoil heaps generated during the 1933-39 campaigns directed by Tancred Borenius and John Charlton. Borenius, a ‘rather massive cherub” … with lively manners’, was a Finnish art historian, associated with the Bloomsbury Group and first professor of Art History at University College London and Fine Arts Advisor to Sothebys. He was really a specialist in Italian art but became increasingly interested in the art of his adopted country and edited a series of monographs on English medieval art. John Charlton was a young archaeologist, only 24 years old when the Clarendon excavations began. Later he became an Inspector of Ancient Monuments, but in the early 1930s he was alternating his time at Clarendon with excavations at Old Sarum. One might see parallels here between the Borenius/Charlton partnership and the Wheelers at Maiden Castle where Tess Wheeler supervised all the day-to-day practical aspects of the dig, paid wages, arranged accommodation, kept accounts and site records while her husband handled public relations. Charlton’s role was similar; but Borenius was the influential front man.

From the summer of 1934, Borenius and Charlton made use of workmen registered on an ‘unemployment relief scheme’ – about 80 men worked for 4 weeks in a camp organised by the Universities Council for Unemployed Camps. The Christie Miller family provided camp facilities at Alderbury, and the family was involved in selecting the men who excavated on the site – mostly Welsh miners. Women were not recruited but the camp environment was intended to bridge the gap between the unemployed and the privileged young students - in this case volunteer students from King’s College, London.

The material now under study is therefore inevitably compromised by the archaeological techniques employed at Clarendon in this pre-War period. The aim was the recovery of buildings, often as a single phase plan, rather than unravelling any sequence; artefacts became almost incidental. This kind of ‘ungentlemenly burrowing’, as one author has described it, was very much the spirit of the age for medieval sites and it fell some way behind the technical clarity of Pitt Rivers. As a result we have recovered more from the excavation spoil heaps than was catalogued by James and Robinson in 1988 for their account of the Borenius/Charlton years. The result will be important for our understanding of a medieval royal palace and the way it functioned during Middle Ages, not to mention its subsequent decline and any archaeological evidence for later visitors. 

Published Results

Authored book

  • Beaumont James, T. & Gerrard, C.M. (2007). Clarendon. Landscape of Kings. Macclesfield: Windgather Press.


From the Department of Archaeology