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.
This Minster (which later became known as the Old Minster) was the burial place for many of the future Saxon kings including Alfred the Great, and it was also the final resting place of the revered St Swithun.
In the 10th century the church was extended to include a Benedictine monastery, and so by the time the Normans arrived it had become a mighty cathedral, a thriving priory church, a place of pilgrimage and the final resting place of West Saxon kings.
There’s nothing left to see of the Old Minster, but in the 1960s excavations were made by archaeologists who have thoughtfully left a brick outline out of both the original church and the priory church extension. Unfortunately, there’s no access to the churchyard but if you peer through the railings near to the cathedral entrance you might just be able to make some of it out.
As you can imagine there’s not much left of the monastery to see either thanks to Henry VIII’s falling out with Rome, and what does remain is from the Norman period onwards and largely out of bounds for the casual visitor.
That said, if you venture around to the southern side of the cathedral and into The Close then you’ll be in the part of the grounds where the monks lived and prayed. If you wander into Dean Garnier’s Garden you’ll be at the location of their dormitory and is a lovely spot to sit and contemplate.
After the Battle of Hastings William’s first objective was to be crowned King, and although Edward the Confessor’s new abbey at Westminster symbolized royal authority, Winchester was still the country’s most important city, and so after being anointed at Westminster he set about building a castle and extending the royal palace at Winchester.
It couldn’t have gone down too well that the monks of Winchester had allegedly fought alongside King Harold against William at Hastings, but even though the priory was spared, plans were afoot to demolish the Old Minster and replace it with a brand-new Norman cathedral – although it didn’t stop Matilda, the wife of King William, being crowned Queen here first.
In 1070, the last Anglo-Saxon bishop was deposed and replaced by Walkelin, a Norman from Rouen who was as much a politician as he was a man of the church.
Work started on the new building in 1079, but the Saxon church was kept in use until the essential parts of the Norman replacement were functioning efficiently.
Around Eastertime 1093 the first dedication of the new church took place, after which, the monks moved into their new home and the relics of St Swithun transferred. The very next day Walkelin ordered the demolition of the Old Minster.
Understandably, since the Norman church was built there have been many changes, but the crypt (which floods in the wintertime) and North and South Transepts are the best places to see Wakelin’s original Romanesque building. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on which way you look at it), the South Transept was undergoing major renovation when I was here recently.
Winchester Cathedral doesn’t have quite the same imposing architectural exterior as say, Salisbury for example, but inside it’s another matter altogether. The mixture of styles throughout the centuries, along with some fascinating features and interesting people associated with the church, makes it a rewarding place to visit for anyone, whether you’re into history, architecture, or religion, and in the next article I’ll be wandering through the cathedral explaining some of the things you shouldn’t miss.