24 November 2013


Winchester - Ancient and Glorious

According to my Touring Club Italiano guide to London (which I recommend if only for its maps) Winchester is Una delle piu antiche e gloriose citta dell'Inghilterra..... rich in gothic monuments around the splendid cathedral.

There was an iron age settlement here and subsequently the Romans colonised it as Venta Belgarum (because the local tribe was known as the Belgae).  In about 828 Winchester became the capital of England and Alfred the Great developed the city.  He was buried in the Old Minster in 899, where Saint Swithun had been Bishop from 852 to his death in 862.

By the turn of the first millennium the priory church was the burial place of the West Saxon kings, an important cathedral and a place of pilgrimage and healing, cared for by a community of Benedictine monks.

But with the advent of the Normans great changes came about, and the old Minster was demolished and a new one, the foundation of the present cathedral, was consecrated in 1093. 
In 1100 it became the burial place of William Rufus, William the Conqueror's son, killed by an unknown bowman when hunting in the New Forest.  His sarcophagus lies in the centre of the gothic choir.

For several hundred years the monastery flourished, and in the twelfth century the magnificent Winchester Bible, decorated in gold and lapis lazuli, was created.  This, and two thousand other precious books, can be seen in the Morley Library in the South Transept. 
In 1382, Bishop William of Wykeham founded Winchester College, and he was also partly responsible for the transformation of the nave from Romanesque to perpendicular gothic. 
With its soaring columns and intricate vaulting, this is one of the glories of all architecture, and it is also, at 167 metres in length, the longest medieval cathedral in Europe.

With the dissolution of the monasteries (1536 - 39) under Henry VIII many of the monastic buildings were destroyed, though the Priory Church, as a Cathedral, was spared. 

In 1642, however, the Cathedral was not so fortunate, as Cromwellian troops deliberately smashed the stained glass in the West Window.  It was so damaged that no attempt to reassemble the whole was made.  Instead, using fragments that had been saved, a mosaic of the original glass was put together in 1660, which created both a wonderful light effect and a fitting memorial to earlier times.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the Cathedral was again threatened with disaster, this time from the natural world.  Winchester lies on peaty ground in the valley of the river Itchen, which was once used as a defensive moat for Wolvesey Castle, the old Palace of the Bishops.  The Norman crypt still floods when the water table rises and the well overflows, bathing the feet of Anthony Gormley's statue.  But in 1900 cracks large enough for owls to nest in were appearing in the walls, and chunks of masonry had begun to fall.  Architects and engineers struggled with the problem, finding that excavations rapidly filled with water.  In 1906 however project engineer Francis Fox had the innovative idea to bring in a naval diver.  And so, for six years, William Walker worked under the cathedral, in up to six metres of dark muddy water, excavating and underpinning the medieval walls, until the danger was passed.  By 1911, a team of 150 workmen had packed the foundations with some 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks. 

The Cathedral commemorates many, including Lancelot Andrewes, who was Bishop here from 1618 - 1626, though he is better known as a writer of sermons and as the general editor of the King James' Bible.  Among others are Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler, and Jane Austen who died within sight of the Cathedral on July 18th, 1817.

There are also memorials to the men, and women, who have through the centuries cared for the cathedral and the many pilgrims and visitors who come here (currently there are about 300,000 visitors a year). 

The building is a testament to the faith of those who created it, but also an expression of great hope.  Whatever one's private thoughts, nothing can deny the glory of the leaping vaults that both lead us to the heavens and protect us from the elements.

Outside the river Itchen flows on, under the City Bridge, said to have been first built by St Swithun.

And several of the medieval gateways still survive.  This one is Kingsgate, which has a tiny church dedicated to St Swithun above it.

And then there is the Prior's gate into the Cathedral Close, which opens by the medieval Cheyney Court, where bishops met to hear law suits relating to their properties.  

In the centre of the city there is the Buttercross, which has stood there since the 15th century.....

Then, not far from Westgate, defending the western approaches to the city, are the remains of Winchester Castle, with its 13th century Great Hall, which has housed a vast Arthurian round table for seven hundred years.

The Horse and Rider statue in the High Street, has not been here so long, having been made by Elizabeth Frink in 1975, but it nicely returns us to a bronze age, when this land was perhaps first occupied by man as he developed mastery of the beast.


And back on St Giles' Hill, I once again survey the lie of this land, with its great cathedral dominating the town. 

While beneath the towering walls, a solitary figure reads, and thinks, while the waters rise and fall with the seasons.  At the beginning of The Journey of the Magi T S Eliot drew inspiration from one of the Epiphany Sermons of Lancelot Andrewes.  Perhaps this is what the figure reads:

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a Journey, and such a long journey:

The way deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.


Lord, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us
That in thy light we may see light
The light of thy grace today
The light of glory hereafter
Lancelot Andrewes
1555 - 1626
Bishop of Winchester 1618 - 1626
Preacher, Pastor, Man of God


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