The Bishop's Palace is one of two ancient religious sites in the city of Wells, Somerset, the other being the cathedral, adjacent on the north side. The palace has been the residence of the bishops of Bath and Wells for over 800 years, and is mostly unchanged from its construction, principally in the 13th and 14th centuries; all is intact and undamaged apart from the great hall, which was partly dismantled in the 1820s, though about half of its walls were left in place. The hall forms part of a cluster of buildings around a central courtyard, now known as the croquet lawn, also including a chapel, stables and two large ranges, containing the residential and administrative rooms. There are over a dozen medieval bishop's palaces in the UK, the majority either ruined or used for other purposes; the buildings in Wells are the best preserved.
At the rear of the palace are extensive gardens, and all the site is enclosed by a battlemented wall with six mural towers and a three story gatehouse, and further protected by a wide moat, fed by the springs for which the city is named. The grounds extend to the far side of the moat to the northeast, to include more gardens, plus allotments and an arboretum, so there is much for the visitor to see, both outside and inside, since most of the interior of the buildings can also be viewed - the only exception is the north range, as this is still functioning as the bishop's residence. Unlike Wells Cathedral, the main parts of the Bishop's Palace are not free to enter, however, though the moat, the gatehouse and part of the lawn can be seen without payment.
Construction of the palace was begun by Bishop Jocelyn (died 1242), at the same time as building work on the cathedral; the first structure was the residential building, the Jocelyn range. To this was added a chapel and the great hall, both finished in 1292 under Bishop Burnell, then further additions were carried out by Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury around 50 years later; due to tensions with the local townspeople on account of increased taxes, and general instability as a result of famine and plague, the palace was fortified by enclosing with a castle-like, crenellated wall, and circled by the moat, entrance now being through the sturdy, twin-towered gatehouse guarded by a drawbridge, gate and portcullis. Part of the moat followed the course of the marshy stream that flowed southwestwards from the springs, and as part of the construction the drainage was re-routed to the south, now flowing along the edge of the city before joining the River Sheppey. The final major addition to the palace, in the mid 1400s, on the north side of the central lawn, was the Beckington range (the current bishop's residence), which was altered and enlarged in Victorian times. The great hall became ruinous following removal of the lead from its roof in the 16th century, sold in order to raise funds, precipitating its partial demolition. Some of the walls were retained in order to create an appealing focal point for the gardens.
The whole site, the moated palace and all the gardens, is mostly enclosed by an outer wall, and the only entrance is on the west side, from Market Place in the city centre, though a public path does run along the south side of the moat, giving good views of the inner walls and three of the mural towers. Visitors enter the palace through the arched passageway of the Bishops Eye, another historic building, built out of the local, richly coloured sandstone around 1450. The passage leads to a lawn, Palace Green, which is overlooked by the cathedral cloisters to the north. A walkway runs alongside the western part of the moat, while the main driveway curves round to a bridge across the water, then passes through the gatehouse to the croquet lawn, which is lined on three sides by the various buildings. The freely accessible area includes part of the lawn, the northwestern mural tower, or bastion (once used as a prison), and the stableyard, an enclosure at the south end of the hall, beside a cafe and gift shop. Payment is required to see all other areas - principally the palace, the ruins of the great hall, the chapel, 14 acres of gardens, and the rampart walk, along the southern wall, this is a relatively recent feature, dating from the mid Victorian times.
The original palace, the oldest section of the complex, contains various historical exhibits, on its two main floors and in the vaulted undercroft. The south end links to the 13th century chapel, built in the decorated Gothic style complete with unusually large windows, filled with stained glass salvaged from French churches following the 1789 revolution. The chapel also adjoins the roofless, ruined great hall, a rectangular structure with a turret at each corner. Two of its four walls survive to full height, containing tall, traceried windows, plus a short section of a third wall on the south side, and the remaining turret, which now stands isolated in the south lawn. The gardens at the rear of the palace include a series of ornate flower beds, and from here a path crosses the moat on a footbridge, accessing the remainder of the gardens; the closest area contains the springs, or wells, including a large reflective pool that gives picturesque views of the cathedral. Nearby are a small community garden, some private allotments and the Garden of Reflection, while to the south is the arboretum, which has a picnic area at the centre.