Winchester, part of the History of Hampshire by Colin Wintle
The powerful statue of Alfred the Great, the enlightened Christian king and law-maker, was erected in High Street in 1901 to honour his millenary. It is with Alfred with whom ancient Winchester is most popularly associated, but before exploring this unique city it may be helpful to summarise its history from earlier times, and immediately after Alfred’s.
Winchester was Caer Gwent (white city) to the ancient Britons and to the Belgae, who made it their capital. To the Romans it became Ventum Belgarum and from it they radiated roads to Southampton, Portchester, Silchester and Old Sarum.
Cerdic the first king of Wessex, was buried there in 530 (in a heathen temple) and in its cathedral all subsequent kings of Wessex were crowned and buried. Bishop Birinus was sent from Rome to convert the West Saxons and their king, Cynegils, became a Christian in 635. Twenty-five years later his successor, Cenewalch, made it the seat of a diocese.
In 827 Egbert was crowned king of all England at Winchester. Alfred held his councils there and codified and issued thence his laws. Canute made it his capital and kept his crown inside the cathedral, Edward the Confessor (founder of Westminster Abbey) was crowned at Winchester in 1042 and his successor, William the Conqueror, made it his capital jointly with London, as did his Norman and early Plantagenet successors.
Under Henry I (1100-35) Winchester became a thriving city through manufacture and trade, including exports, particularly wool, to the Continent. And it possessed two castles, a palace, a mint, the royal treasury, the national archives, a cathedral, two royal minsters — and sixty churches!
Its High Street is the heart of Winchester and the Cathedral is its soul.
From the Broadway end, King Alfred’s statue on a tall, rough-hewn granite base, faces the line of High Street ascending to the Westgate, one of the two remaining gatehouses of the walled medieval city; and incidentally, the street follows approximately the line of the main thoroughfare used by the Romans.
On either side, centuries overlap in a fascinating confusion of historical association. A small precinct called The Pentice, originating in the 16th century, is near the City Cross and the site of William the Conqueror’s palace and a few yards away, along a dim passage towards the Cathedral, is the little church of St. Lawrence, known as the Mother Church of Winchester.
It is believed to occupy the spot where the Conqueror’s palace chapel stood. Although there is much of interest to be seen inside, few traces of the original building remain. But the church enjoys a special status in the City.
Before each new bishop is enthroned in the Cathedral, he goes to St. Lawrence church to be received by the rector, churchwardens and legal officers. After prayer, the Archdeacon of Winchester invests him with episcopal robes. Following this ceremony, the bishop-elect is presented to the Mayor and then to the bevy of citizens assembled outside, before proceeding to the Cathedral for the service of Enthronement.
Beauty and adaptability go hand-in-hand up the High Street.
Good examples of this are the Tudor-fronted God-Begot House on an 11th-century site with a modern shop front at pavement level; and the classical facade of the Old Guildhall, now Lloyds Bank.
The manor of God-Begot was granted to Queen Emma, second wife of King Ethelred the Unready and mother of King Edward the Confessor. When widowed Emma married King Canute and after his death in 1035, and in the reign of Edward, she bequeathed the manor to the Cathedral, along with a charter which made it a sanctuary by placing it outside the jurisdiction of the civil power — until the Reformation.
Under the cupola of the louvred turret of the Old Guildhall is a curfew bell. It has ancient antecedents, for the curfew is still rung at eight o’clock every evening, as has been the custom in Winchester since the Norman Conquest.
Above the Doric columns which rise from pavement level is a statue of Queen Anne, given to the City in commemoration of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.
But the most eye-catching feature of this unusual bank building is its fine clock. The case and huge bracket supporting it is of intricately carved wood, the large decorated dial protruding high over the pavement.
The old also combines with the new not only at the bank and elsewhere in High Street. Even the offices of the Hampshire Chronicle, established in 1772, retain the attractive twin bow windows, built more than thirty years before the birth of the newspaper. Several panes of the original glass are still in position.
Cathedral Vault and the Cathedral Font
Winchester had a small cathedral church by the year 700, but it was St. Swithun, its bishop from 852 until his death ten years later, who first gave it fame through his piety. A statue of this humble man, who exerted great influence for Christendom, stands in the present Cathedral: it was a touching gift in 1962 — the eleven hundredth anniversary of Swithun’s death — from another Cathedral, that ancient town of Stavanger, one of the finest in Norway and, like Winchester’s, also dedicated to St. Swithun, of whom it had possessed a relic since about 1125.
St. Swithun’s Day is 15 July when, according to age-old tradition, if it rains it will rain for forty days thereafter. It had its origin in the year 971. At his request, Swithun had been buried outside his church but as time passed so many miracles came to be attributed to his ministry that in that year decided — with the support of King Edgar to re-inter the body in a more worthy spot. The remains were therefore “translated’ ‘to a shrine inside the cathedral of that time. It was assumed that the appointed day marked the start of wet period.
When a new cathedral was completed in 1093 poor Swithun was again translated to a tomb in its interior. Even that was not the end of the story. Eventually a more magnificent shrine was erected and became a place of pious pilgrimage — but was destroyed in 1538 at the behest of Henry VIII.
By failing to attempt to withstand the King’s onslaught on the place of sepulture, the monks apparently avoided total dissolution of the foundation, for the last Prior and his monks were allowed to become the first Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral.- Swithun’s costly shrine (assessed by the King’s representative at 2,000 marks, but probably undervalued) was the price paid for continuity after the Reformation.
Of all Winchester’s bishops, William of Wykeham must surely rank as the greatest. A Hampshire man, he was born of peasant stock in the village of Wickham in 1324. He became an architect and was chief surveyor to Windsor and other castles, bringing him into close touch with affairs of State, He was not ordained priest until he was thirty-eight, but within four years he became bishop.
For four decades this enlightened and industrious man, devoted to the advancement of learning and art and holding high office in Church and State, was among the foremost men in the kingdom. The results of the great educational foundations he laid are flourishing to this day in New College, Oxford, and Winchester College, near his Cathedral.
Then came the Cathedral’s turn. The architect-bishop was mainly instrumental in transforming the Norman structure into the superb building we now see, thanks in no small measure to Wykeham’s foresight in bequeathing money for finishing the work after his death.
The immensely long nave is the Cathedral’s most unforgettable feature: a peerless example of English Gothic.
In the very place where, when a boy, Wykeham had first heard mass, is a chapel containing his tomb — a recumbent effigy, robed and mitred, with three tiny figures of tonsured monks at his feet.
Every year Old Wykehamists — as the Old Boys of Winchester College are known — observe the day of their founder’s death, 27 September. And on that day, as year succeeds year, there is a celebration of the Holy Communion within the chapel where rest the remains of the great man.
Instead of dissolution, a metamorphosis; instead of destruction, a re-foundation. That was the happy lot of Winchester at the time of Henry VIII, unlike that of most monastic communities which were dissolved, their estates enriching the Crown or distributed among favoured laymen.
Richard Foxe, founder of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and holder of the sees of Exeter, Bath and Wells and Durham before coming to Winchester, was a statesman-bishop who did much to beautify the Cathedral between 1509 and his death in 1528. Perhaps tactfully, he brought more than a touch of Tudor to the work, for among the ninety-one coloured bosses he added to the Quire roof were those depicting Tudor figures, notably Henry VIII himself and his first wife, Katharine of Aragon. And back in 1491 Foxe had baptised the future king, then Prince Henry.
So perhaps there was a tendresse between King and City which helped to retain the continuity of the Cathedral at the Dissolution by making it virtually a new foundation; the Prior became the Dean and twelve monks formed his Chapter in 1547. Henry treated them handsomely, issuing Letters Patent to secure revenues from an almost identical list of manors as formerly contributed.
But the good St. Swithun was side-tracked. Not content with the destruction of his tomb, it was decreed that the “late monastery” dedicated to him should become a cathedral church dedicated to the Blessed Trinity. But Swithun made his influence felt in 1554, when Philip of Spain arrived to marry Henry’s daughter, Mary Tudor. He landed at Southampton to meet (for the first time) and marry his bride at Winchester — and he had to make the journey in pouring rain.
Englishmen could not be surprised because it was 19 July, well within the forty days of rain traditionally attributed to follow St. Swithun’s day, the fifteenth of that month!
Raiding and ravaging by the Danes beset Winchester in very early times but during the Commonwealth the villains of the piece were Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans.
It is not surprising, though not pardonable, that the cathedral attracted their especial ire because not long before it had been given new statutes by Charles I and the church’s beauty had been greatly enriched, including a new Quire screen by Inigo Jones. Moreover, effigies of the King himself and of James I had recently been placed there. Both were destroyed.
A contemporary records that on December 14, 1642, the Puritans broke in with colours flying and drums beating. They tore down the altar table, “afterwards carrying it to an alehouse, they set it on fire and in that fire burnt the Books of Common Prayer and all the Singing Books”.
Destroyed also were windows, organ, chantries, monuments and furniture. Even the bones of the early Kings of Wessex were seized from mortuary chests and scattered. Later, in common with those elsewhere, the bishop, dean and other church dignitaries were “abolished”, and worship ceased.
But in 1652 a tactfully worded petition by the City’s Recorder to preserve the ‘ `goodly Fabrick” was successful. Three preachers were appointed and there are stones in the Cathedral proving that in Cromwell’s time burials took place there.
Yet at the end of eleven years of the Commonwealth, when Charles II returned as King in 1660, there was a lively resurgence — and a rapid one, taking into consideration the immense problems involved.
A visitor to the Cathedral today, if he be armed with The History of Winchester Cathedral, the scholarly but simply told and attractively illustrated booklet by Canon Frederick Bussby, will read with awe and admiration the section devoted to its renascence after the ravages under the Commonwealth.
In 1660, the first year of Charles II’s reign, a new Dean – the former one had died — was nominated. The Crown chose Alexander Hyde (brother to Edward, the great royalist Earl of Clarendon) and with the five surviving canons to make up a Chapter Quorum, they elected a new bishop, Brian Duppa, who had been tutor to the King in his boyhood. Bishop Duppa appointed new canons to make up the requisite dozen, and in August, 1660, the first Prayer Book service was again held.
Restoration of the church itself, the canons’ houses and the land belonging to the foundation, was necessarily a task taking several years. There was also an addition: Morley College for clergy widows, named after Bishop George Morley, Duppa’s successor. In 1976 it was wholly restored for the second time in its history.
Morley, who had accompanied Charles into exile, was a churchman of great gifts and a valued servant and `political agent’ to the Monarch-in-exile, He had been chaplain to Charles I and preached at the coronation of Charles II.
The bishopric may be considered as a reward, although during his reign the King proved an excellent judge in appointing bishops. Among them was the hymn-writer Prebendary Thomas Ken, to the see of Bath and Wells, an event referred to elsewhere in this volume.
Two authors, a man and a woman, whose works became famous throughout the English-speaking world — and remain in print today — are commemorated in the Cathedral: Izaak Walton and Jane Austen.
Walton’s Compleat Angler was written some years before he came to live in the Close. It was during the Civil War that the man of peace and tranquility succeeded in avoiding the fratricidal turmoil by going a-fishing and writing about it with exquisite charm. His piscatorial excursions took him to many rivers, not least those in Hampshire where his father-in-law was rector at Droxford, on the Meon.
Towards the end of his long life — he died in 1683, aged ninety — he completed at Winchester his Lives, biographies of leading churchmen, dedicated to the Bishop. In the Cathedral a fine stained-glass Izaak Walton Window includes a modest section showing him sitting under a tree by a riverside, placidly reading a book, his rod, landing-net and fishing basket beside him. At the base is a panel quoting his own immortal phrase: STUDY TO BE QUIET.
From her home at Chawton (described elsewhere) Jane Austen came to Winchester for medical care in the last few weeks of her life. The house in which she took rooms, in College Street, bears a plaque. It had, in her own words, “a neat little drawing-room with a bow window”, which can still be seen. Her faculties unimpaired, three days before she died she wrote some light verse about Winchester Races on that day — St. Swithun’s Day, 15 July.
Her gravestone in the Cathedral has a lengthy eulogy, but totally ignores her literary achievements! More than fifty years later the omission was partly rectified by mentioning, on a plaque in the nave, that she was “known to many by her writings”. In 1900 a window was erected above the plaque, emphasising the religious side of Jane’s character.
What is now the Royal Hampshire County Hospital owes its origin to one of the Cathedral’s Canons, Alured Clarke, Founded in 1723, it marked that year as socially epoch-making: it was the first provincial hospital in the kingdom.
Canon Clarke successfully appealed to the social conscience of the people of Winchester to help alleviate the sufferings of the sick who were too poor to have home-care. It was in effect the start of the Health Service, apart from London’s ancient hospitals of St. Bartholomew and St. Thomas, both church foundations.
Clergy and gentry in the area subscribed annually to make possible Clarke’s compassionate enterprise. Form-filling made a debut, the Cathedral providing forms for would-be patients, and certifying that the Foundation would make donations to help meet the cost of patients’ stay.
Alured Clarke was no vague “do-gooder”, but a practical man. Appended to the sermon preached on the Hospital’s inauguration were not only administrative details about its governance and conduct, but also precise lists of diets — full, low, mild and dry diets — for every day of the week. For example, on Sundays in 1723 the patients for whom a low diet had been prescribed had for their breakfast a pint of water gruel or milk pottage; for dinner, two ounces of roasted veal with a pint of broth; for supper, a repeat of the breakfast ration.
The good Wintonian Canon later became Dean of Exeter. From his deanery he duplicated his good work by achieving the founding of England’s second provincial hospital.
The Cathedral as we see it today owes its very existence to two men, a bishop and a layman. Their lives were parted by five centuries but they shared the same baptismal name: William of Wykeham and William Walker.
As we have seen, Wykeham transformed the Cathedral in the 14th century: in the early years of the 20th century William Walker played a stupendous individual part in saving it with his own hands. The Cathedral stands on low-lying ground in the valley of the river Itchen, and subsidence became so acute that a report in 1905 warned that the building was in danger of collapse.
William Walker was already a distinguished diver when his help was enlisted in 1906. For six years he worked, under water and in total darkness, among the old foundations. Much of his area of operations was an ancient graveyard, carrying risk of infection, but the good diver had a homely remedy to counteract this: on returning to the surface he always lit his pipe!
Concrete was lowered to him, with which he underpinned the walls in conjunction with bricks. It is estimated that this redoubtable diver handled personally about 25,800 bags of concrete, 114,900 concrete blocks and 900,000 bricks.
On completion of the great conservation task the King and Queen attended a thanksgiving service at which the Archbishop of Canterbury preached. Both Monarch and Prelate personally congratulated the diver, who was admitted to Membership of the Royal Victorian Order, the order of chivalry which is exclusively in the gift of the Monarch. William Walker, M.V.O. has, since 1962, been commemorated by a figure in the retro-choir, but his name will never be forgotten for a more spiritual reason: each year at the Festival of St. Swithun, thanks are offered to God for all those who worked to save the building, and among them is named “William Walker the diver”.
Of the two remaining gatehouses to the medieval city, one is a small museum, the other a church.
The Westgate, at the top of High Street, is mainly 13th century, though its handsome machiolated western face, with portcullis grooves, gunports and heraldic blazons, was rebuilt later.
Commercial history is to be found among the exhibits occupying a room above the gate. The wool staple was established at Winchester in the reign of Edward III, and here are wool weights of that time. There is also a set of Elizabethan troy weights, for gold and silver, and pound weights. The gallon, bushel and yard measures belong to an earlier Tudor date.
The other existing entrance to the walled city is on its southern side: the 14th-century Kingsgate, in St. Swithun Street.
Above the archway is the uniquely-sited church, appropriately called St. Swithun-upon-Kingsgate.
Until the Reformation, when it became a parish church, this little place of worship served the spiritual needs of those who worked at St. Swithun’s Priory, nearby. The timber-framed staircase and the bell-cote are late 15th century.
Winchester’s two medieval gates could hardly be more dissimilar in appearance, yet each offers an example of that feeling of continuity with adaptability which adds lustre to the entire city.
The city is rich in museums which enshrine objects from its long story from pre-history to the present day. Among the major ones is the City Museum, in The Square, adjacent to the Cathedral, which is particularly rich in items of the Saxon period in stone and ivory, also coins minted at Winchester in the pre-Conquest reigns of Athelstan, Edgar, Ethelred, Canute and Edward the Confessor.
It also brings us up to the last century with a fascinating local collection of everyday domestic objects.
Military history comes in abundance at two museums – those of the Royal Green Jackets and of the Royal Hampshire Regiment. The former, in Romsey Road, illustrates the histories of the Rifle Brigade, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. At the entrance is a splendid painting of a gruelling four-day rearguard action in the defence of Calais in 1940.
Americans may be amused to see among the medals – they include twenty-four Victoria Crosses — the earliest medal, dating from the battle of Bunker’s Hill in 1775, the year preceding American Independence. Among the weapons, silver, banners and other trophies is the Duke of Wellington’s uniform which he wore as the Rifle Brigade’s Commander-in-Chief, a post he occupied for thirty-six years.
The Royal Hampshire Regiment’s museum is at its headquarters in Southgate Street, in a fine 18th-century house given to the nation by its occupier, Peter Serle, Colonel of the South Hampshire Militia. When the Militia became the county Regiment in 1881, Serle’s house was made its headquarters.
A special feature among the exhibits of this distinguished Regiment are models of the invasion beaches, illustrating the Allied landings in Normandy, and later in Sicily, in the war of 1939-45.
“The College of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Winchester near Winchester” (for it is just outside the old city wall) is the full title of the world-renowned Winchester College, founded in 1382 by the great Bishop William of Wykeham, whose motto it bears: Manners Makyth Man.
Like its near neighbour, the Cathedral (which can call upon some 400 voluntary helpers for visitors) the historic College is no exclusive precinct: five guided tours are available daily, with certain exceptions, from April to September.
The College, which maintains close association with Wykeham’s other foundation, New College, Oxford, originally consisted of seventy poor Scholars, sixteen choristers, a Warden and Headmaster, ten Fellows, three chaplains, three chapel clerks, an usher (a lowly form of assistant master) and up to ten Commoners. Thus the ratio of poor Scholars to Commoners was 70:10, but in the 17th and 18th centuries fee-paying Commoners were increased and when new boarding houses were built in the 19th century, the number soared.
In 1855 the original seventy scholarships were open to intellectual competition. Each year, as boys reach the age of leaving, some fifteen of the coveted competitive scholarships are awarded to fill the vacancies, and so making up Wykeham’s original “seventy poor Scholars”. There are now ten Houses (and some three-score assistant masters) at Winchester, and although there is a fee for Scholars, it is about one-third of that for boarding Commoners, and may be wholly or partly remitted on grounds of need.
The seventy Scholars have a House of their own: they live together in College, the original part of Wykeham’s buildings.