What I like about Winchester Cathedral is not just its wonderful architecture, but also the human stories that have accompanied it throughout the centuries.
Architecturally, as soon as you set foot inside the West Door the magnificent perpendicular Nave stretches out in front of you right down to George Gilbert Scott’s ornate choir screen.
It didn’t always look like this though because the original Romanesque Norman church suffered badly from subsidence, and it took alterations from the 14th century onwards, firstly by Bishop Edington and then William of Wykeham, to produce what is my favourite style of church architecture.
If you can avoid the temptation to continue on down the Nave but walk down the North Aisle instead, you’ll soon come to the grave of Jane Austen, the author famous for writing such classics as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey.
It’s not surprising that many people want to see where Jane Austen’s final resting place is, but they would miss a gem if they went straight past the nearby 12th century black Tournai marble Font. It’s not just old, but unusual and interesting as well.
It might be a good idea to re-enter the Nave afterwards to get a closer view of the Nave Altar and Choir Screen before heading towards the North Transept.
Both the North and South Transepts were part of the original Norman church, but as the South Transept is currently undergoing extensive renovations the famous Winchester Bible has a temporary home in the North Transept for now. This is one of England’s great ecclesiastical books, and although only one of the four volumes is on display at the moment you definitely shouldn’t miss it.
The other thing that you definitely shouldn’t miss whilst in the North Transept is the few steps that take you down to the Crypt. In winter it floods and Antony Gormley’s sculpture, Sound II, was designed to look its best when the crypt is flooded. That’s something I’ll need to come back for if at all possible.
Back in the transept, and before heading up the steps towards the back of the cathedral, make sure that you take a look inside the Holy Sepulchre Chapel with its wall paintings dating from the 12th century.
The cathedral has any number of chantry chapels containing the tombs of some of its most important bishops, and as you walk towards the Retrochoir you’ll pass Bishop Gardiner’s who officiated at Mary Tudor’s marriage to Philip of Spain in 1554 – right here in Winchester Cathedral.
The Retrochoir for me is the most fascinating part of the church. It was built in the 13th century in the Early English style as an extension to the original Norman building. It was started by Bishop Godfrey de Lucy whose tomb still lies in the Retrochoir, although his simple tomb is in marked contrast to the chantry chapels of Bishop Waynflete and Cardinal Beaufort.
William Waynflete was not only Bishop of Winchester, but also Chancellor of England between 1447 and 1486 and the founder of Magdalen College in Oxford. Henry Beaufort was also Chancellor of England – three times – but he’s also been accused of having a part to play in the sentencing to death of Joan of Arc in 1431, which is why you can see a relatively modern statue of the ‘Maid of Orleans’ next to the Lady Chapel, no doubt in the hope that Winchester can be forgiven for its past misdemeanours.
The small statue of the ‘Winchester Diver’ nearby is also worth pointing out – but who was he?
He was actually a deep-sea diver who went by the name of William Walker: Earlier, I briefly mentioned that the cathedral suffered from subsidence, and that was largely due to the fact that it was built on marshy ground. The problem got so bad that by 1905 something had to be done about it and a massive underpinning operation began. A team of 150 men took six years to fix it, but it was thanks to William Walker who spent five years submerging himself under the high-water table day in and day out that enabled the water to be pumped out and new foundations to be built under the existing walls. Known as the diver who saved Winchester Cathedral there is even a pub named after him just down the road.
I did say that there were a lot of human stories connected with the cathedral, didn’t I? – and I haven’t even explained who St Swithun was yet.
Actually, there’s not that much known about him, except that he was a 9th century bishop of Winchester with miraculous powers, but even that has to be open to debate if you ask me. Apparently during his lifetime, he performed just one miracle, and wait for it – he is supposed to have restored an old woman’s dropped basket of eggs!!
He was however credited with re-building Winchester’s bridge over the Itchen and his wish to be buried in a simple grave outside the Old Minster was granted.
In 971 (the 15th of July to be precise), his bones were exhumed and carried into the church where a shrine was made in his honour. The event co-incided with a tremendous storm which has given rise to the famous rhyme: –
St Swithun’s Day, if thou dost rain
For forty days it must remain’
St Swithun’s Day, if thou be fair
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mair
Before the Old Minster was demolished, St Swithun’s relics were brought into the Norman Cathedral and displayed on a platform behind the altar. To enable pilgrims to get as close as possible to the shrine (and his healing powers) a ‘Holy Hole’ was introduced which people could crawl through.
The Holy Hole is still here, but St Swithun’s remains aren’t. When the Great Screen behind the altar was constructed, St Swithun’s bones were transferred to the spot in the Retrochoir where his present memorial now stands – and here they stayed until Henry VIII’s henchmen destroyed the shrine. Whatever happened to what was left of St Swithun nobody knows.
The Feretory Screen above the Holy Hole initially included statuettes of early kings and bishops but it seems as though they suffered a similar fate. Their place has recently been taken by icons painted by the Russian painter Sergei Federov.
If the Retrochoir is the most fascinating part of the cathedral, then I reckon that the Choir and Presbytery has to be the most magnificent. The 15th century Great Screen is full of intricate stone carving, and although the original statues were destroyed at the Reformation the Victorian replacements also show a high degree of craftsmanship.
Superb craftmanship can also be seen in the choirstalls that were probably created by a Norfolk carpenter called William Lyngwode in the early 14th century, and if you’re wondering why the tomb here says ‘12th c Tomb’, it’s because it was thought that William Rufus was buried here. William Rufus was the third son of William the Conqueror who became King William II, and it’s more than possible that he was buried here, but the tomb is more likely to belong to Bishop Henry of Blois, Rufus’s nephew and younger brother of King Stephen.
Before you leave the Presbytery make a note of the mortuary chests of pre-Norman kings and bishops on top of the screens which were brought into the cathedral from the Old Minster by Henry of Blois.
As I mentioned earlier, the South Transept has a major renovation project in progress which means that the Fishermen’s Chapel, Morley Library and the Triforium Gallery are not accessible at the moment. Hopefully, 2019 will see access resumed with an improved experience.
If you haven’t had enough of seeing Winchester’s famous chantry chapels there are two more in the nave that are worth looking at – one of Bishop Edington and another of William of Wykeham. Both of them were Chancellors of England indicating how important the Bishops of Winchester were to the running of the country in post Norman times.
It’s impossible to cover everything that the cathedral has to offer in such a short review as this, but I’ve tried to include most of the highlights that appealed to me. Your preferences may differ to mine but I hope that it’s given people an idea of how important a part Winchester Cathedral played during England’s early years as a nation – as well as being such an inspiring place to visit.