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A Brief History of Winchester

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A Brief History of Winchester
Winchester Castle | Wolvesey Castle | Westgate
Royal Hampshire County Hospital | Winchester Cathedral

Winchester, in the county of Hampshire, is arguably one of the most beautiful towns in southern England. The view from St Giles' Hill is a mouthwatering sweep of a town full of mediæval and Georgian buildings, including the cathedral, which have remained largely untouched to the present day. Winchester was also the home of the Domesday Book and, allegedly, the mythical King Arthur's 'round table'.

Roman Winchester - Rise and Fall

Winchester's history stretches back beyond the Roman occupation and definite evidence of habitancy dates back to the late Iron Age. There is much archaeological evidence suggesting that the area around what is now known as Oram's Arbour was an Iron Age oppidum1, and St Catherine's Hill to the south also appears to contain a hillfort. The archaeological evidence also points to early Roman occupation of Winchester, or Venta Belgarum as it was known in Roman England2.

There is no doubt that Venta Belgarum was a thriving Roman British city - strong evidence of public buildings have recently been discovered underneath what is now known as the Brooks Shopping Centre. The date of decline for Roman Winchester, as with many Roman towns, is hard to discern, but it is certain that the town was almost unoccupied by 480AD. That Winchester grew again in the Anglo-Saxon period is perhaps attributable to its topographical features and distance from the coast.

Ancient Winchester

Winchester was the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Wessex. This is not that special - many Saxon towns can often be described as 'capitals' because of the peripatetic nature of Saxon Kings. What is unique is that by the late 9th Century, Winchester was the main city in King Alfred's kingdom, and the core of the street layout of today can be attributed to Alfred.

Mediæval Winchester

As one of only two walled cities of Hampshire3, Winchester remained the capital of Wessex, and then England, until some time after the Norman Conquest. Indeed, the fact that it was walled stresses its importance. The West Gate survives and is worth a visit.

The exact date of transfer from Winchester to London is unclear, but there is no doubt that the Normans saw Winchester as a symbol of England's Saxon past - a past that they were keen to wipe out.

During this time, however, two castles were constructed in Winchester: one for the Bishop, called 'Wolvesey Castle,' and one for the King.

The King's Castle

The king's castle was built in 1067 by William the Conqueror, and held the Domesday Book. It was held by the Empress Matilda when attacked by King Stephen - Matilda is said to have escaped by pretending to be a corpse in a coffin. It was Henry II's favourite castle, and Richard I held his second coronation here. In 1207, Henry III was born in the castle. In 1216, Prince Louis easily captured the castle, after which it was extensively fortified. In 1486, Henry VII's son Arthur was born at Winchester Castle, and in 1603 it was there that Sir Walter Raleigh was sentenced to death.

The king's castle was, perhaps appropriately, Royalist during the Civil War (1642 - 1649), and was captured by Parliament and slighted. Sir Christopher Wren started to rebuild it as a palace for King Charles II, but this was not finished. Only the hall, one of the finest medæeval halls in England, remains. In it is kept the round table, supposedly the table at which the mythical King Arthur and his knights sat to eat and deliberate. However, no-one believes that this is the real round table: in 1976 it was thoroughly analysed by scientists and found to have been made in the reign of Edward I - much later than the time Arthur is supposed to have existed.

Wolvesey Castle

The other castle of Winchester, Wolvesey Castle, was built in 1110 by Henry of Blois, King Stephen's brother and Bishop of Winchester. The keep was built in 1138. It was destroyed when Henry II ascended to the throne, but was rebuilt by 1171 as a palace. The keep and north end of the hall survive to this day.

Winchester Cathedral

Work started on the current cathedral in 1079. It is built on the site of an older Saxon church, which itself was an important early Christian centre in Britain. Cynegils, a west Saxon king, was baptised here in 635, and King Alfred was buried on the site in 899. The construction was presided over by a Norman bishop, Walkelin, who replaced the previous Saxon incumbent soon after the Norman conquest.

The original Norman cathedral was finished in 1093, but it has been greatly altered over the years. The tower collapsed in 1107 and the blame was placed on William Rufus, an unpopular king buried underneath it. Various other changes have been made, too: the west face is only 600 years old, and buttresses were added. William of Wykeham also had a hand in modifications at one point. The nave is the longest in Europe, with a length of 556 feet. Other notables to be buried there include Jane Austen, who spent her final months living in the city, and King Canute. Mary I of England was married to Philip II of Spain in the Cathedral.

Winchester College

Winchester College, founded by William of Wykeham in 1394, has the longest unbroken history of any school in England. The charter was awarded in 1382, and building work commenced in 1387. It was opened to educate 70 poor scholars a year, and to provide for their needs. It still does this, although full fee-paying students, known as commoners, were allowed to enter the school in the mid 19th century. The college campus is set in a beautiful part of the city centre, and a number of the mediæval buildings remain, most of which are still actively being used. Of course, other buildings were added, and the school has architecture from several different periods. There are close links with New College, Oxford, which was also founded by Wykeham, and links with Eton, which is said to have been founded with soil taken from the college.

A Brief Decline

After Winchester's flourish as England's centre, the town began to decline, although it still earned a high status in the mediæval period, most notably as one of the largest and most powerful bishoprics in the Church of England. Winchester reached the nadir of its decline in the early 17th Century. There is much documentary evidence to suggest this decline, with several local letters attributing this to a wide variety of factors, from the decline in the price of agricultural commodities to an act of God. Winchester's plight was further exacerbated during the Civil War when the town faced many occupations and sieges and had many buildings destroyed.

Hanoverian, Georgian and Victorian Winchester

After the Interregnum, Winchester enjoyed a renaissance, firstly under the patronage of King Charles II, who planned and began to build a large palace. After Charles's death the Palace was abandoned but the town still enjoyed visits from the Hanoverian monarchs, and became something of a regional centre for aristocrats and merchants. Georgian Winchester flourished with many new buildings being built and many famous inhabitants including Jane Austen.

In the Victorian period the city continued to do well, largely because of the cathedral and Winchester College. Many notable Victorian buildings express this continued confidence, including the main building at King Alfred's College on West Hill, and the pomposity of its late Victorian Guildhall.

More Recent History

The 20th century began well for Winchester with the return of King Alfred's benign influence in the form of a statue on The Broadway. However, there is no doubt that for much of the first half of the century Winchester once more began to decline as larger urban areas prospered. In recent years, however, the interest has increased once more and Winchester is never without throngs of tourists seeking to view its ancient and varied story.

1A fort or other structure built to protect a small community.2Venta Belgarum means the town or area of the Belgae, the Briton tribe that occupied the Hampshire area.3The other was Southampton. Portsmouth did not build a wall until much later.

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