No sooner had William the Conqueror been crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066, he was ordering castles to be built all over the country to defend his newly won territory – and Winchester, England’s de facto capital, was one of the first on his list.
Under these circumstances you would think, wouldn’t you, that Winchester would have been razed to the ground, but the truth was, that until the new King could set up his headquarters in London then Winchester still had an important part to play.
William’s Castle was built over the top of the Roman fort that was built to protect Venta Bulgarum, and for over a hundred years after the conquest England was ruled from Winchester Castle.
Henry II, the first Plantagenet king, built a stone keep to house the royal treasury and the Domesday Book, and Henry III, who was born at Winchester Castle and only 9 years old when he became king in 1216, added the Great Hall between 1222 and 1235.
In my recent post about London Bridge City and The Shard, I spoke about the area’s early history and why there were several large houses belonging to important religious figures lining the southern bank of the Thames – and the most imposing of these was Winchester Palace, the remains of which can still be seen in Southwark’s Clink Street.
At the time of the Norman Conquest, Southwark was in the county of Surrey and part of the Diocese of Winchester, one of the most important religious centres in the country, but not only that, Winchester was also the capital of England.
Being an astute and religious man, William the Conqueror not only engaged the services of the bishops to help him keep religious order, he also used their influence and power to advise him on state affairs.
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.
Winchester Cathedral - From the Saxons to the Normans
People who read my pages can be forgiven for thinking that I’m a religious person as I often seem to be writing about cathedrals, abbeys, and churches in general. The truth is that I’m not at all religious, but I am interested in the historical significance and architecture of these fantastic buildings and Winchester Cathedral is a perfect example.
In this article I’m delving into the background of the cathedral from a time when England became Christianized under the Anglo-Saxons to when William the Conqueror needed Winchester to consolidate his hold over the rest of the country.
The Romans initially brought Christianity to these shores, but after their departure in 410 AD the country reverted back to paganism.
In 597 Pope Gregory sent Augustine to England to re-introduce the Roman version of Christianity, but he wasn’t able to convert the whole country on his own of course and it was St Birinus who came to Wessex in 635 and converted Cynegils, King of the West Saxons.
King Cynegils established a cathedral church at Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, but soon after his death in 643 his son, Cenwalh, built a minster church in Wintanceaster near the centre of his kingdom.
In the 670s Bishop Haeddi transferred his Cathedra (Bishop’s Throne) from Dorchester-on-Thames making Wintanceaster both the Royal and ecclesiastical centre of Wessex.
The good thing about Winchester is that a stroll around the city centre can be accomplished comfortably in about an hour and a half. This doesn’t include visits to the Cathedral, the Great Hall or the pub mind you, so you’ll need to allow extra time for visiting some of the things that will hold you up on the way around as well.
On the map opposite I’ve compiled a trail which covers most of the interesting things that can be seen. Some places will occupy just a few minutes of your time and others considerably longer, and just a quick reminder for anyone who may be interested, you can always print out this post by clicking on the print icon at the bottom of the page. The map can also be printed out by using the ‘print map’ feature within the map itself.
I’ve chosen to start the trail at the King Alfred Statue in the Broadway (No1 on the map), and if you’ve read my introduction to Winchester – The First Capital of England, you’ll understand why I’ve chosen it as the starting point. I’m not going to describe his achievements here as this blog is mainly about what there is to see.
If someone were to ask me where to go for that quintessential English experience then Winchester would have to be right up there near the top of my list.
Its location, where the River Itchen flows through the chalk Downs of the Hampshire countryside, helps give this small city of 45,000 people an air of peace and calm that belies its past history and status as Hampshire’s county town.
It was this precise spot, where the river could be forded, that attracted a Celtic tribe from the continent to build a settlement here. The tribe we now call the Belgae arrived around 100BC, but it would appear that their enclosure at Oram’s Arbour and fort at St. Catherine’s Hill had been abandoned by the time the Romans arrived in AD70, who then created a settlement of their own which they called Venta Belgarun (Marketplace of the Belgae).
The river at this point split into two around an island, and although it made for a good crossing point, it was also liable to flooding, and so the Romans diverted the river through a single channel, which not only saved their town from flooding but also gave it an extra line of defence on their eastern flank. The river still flows through this channel and can best be seen on the lovely Weirs Walk.