Winchester in (the county of) Hampshire is, arguably, one of the most beautiful towns in southern England. The view from St Giles' Hill has a mouth-watering sweep of a town full of Medieval and Georgian buildings, including the cathedral (which possesses the longest nave in Europe), that have remained largely untouched until 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 Roman occupation, with definite evidence of habitancy dated 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 oppidda, 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 Belgaerum as it was known in Roman England Venta Bulgaerum meaning the town or area of the Belgae, the Briton tribe that occupied the Hampshire area. There is no doubt that Venta Belgaerum was a thriving Roman British city, with strong evidence of public building having been recently discovered underneath what is know known as the Brooks Shopping Centre. The date of decline for Roman Winchester as with many Roman towns is again 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 the distance from the coast.
Winchester was the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Wessex. This is not a unique feature, 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 became the main city in King Alfred's kingdom, and the street plans that can still be drawn today are attributed to Alfred's plans.
As one of only two walled cities of Hampshire (the other being Southampton; Portsmouth did not build a wall until much later) Winchester remained the capital of Wessex, and then England, until some time after the Norman Conquest. Indeed, the fact that is 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 Conquerer, 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. It was a Royalist castle in the Civil War, 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 Medieval halls in England, remains.
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.
After Winchester's flourish as England centre, the town began to decline, although it still earned a high status in the medieval period most notably as one of the largest and most powerful bishoprics in the Church of England. Winchester reached the bottom 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 English Civil War (1642-1649) 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' 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 its Cathedral and public school 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 in favour of larger urban areas. In recent years however the interest has increased once more and Winchester is never without throngs of tourist seeking to view its ancient and varied story.