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Excavating Winchester: the dig that changed (urban) history

In 1960s Winchester, a team of volunteers launched one of Britain's most important and comprehensive archaeology projects of all time. We review the groundbreaking discoveries of the Winchester dig, which exposed the royal dynasty of Alfred the Great

The statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester set against a blue sky background
Published: September 6, 2022 at 3:00 pm
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On 27 February 1962, hundreds of people crammed into Winchester Guildhall for a public meeting. It was, in many ways, not such an unusual event: the foundation of a local committee, in this case the Winchester Excavations Committee. The meeting was, though, to have profound impacts, because it signalled, as The Times later said, the start of “one of the most important excavations worldwide of the 20th century” – nothing less than the beginnings of urban archaeology in Britain, and the recovery of a key to the pre-Conquest English past.

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Exterior view of the green roof of Winchester Guildhall in Hampshire
Exterior view of Winchester Guildhall in Hampshire, UK (Photo via Getty Images)

It had all begun – as some of the best archaeological stories do – with a rescue dig under a car park. At the turn of the 1960s, Trust Houses had announced plans to build a new hotel in the middle of Winchester, between High Street and the cathedral. Documentary evidence, brought together by the late Roger Quirk, indicated that this site was close to the location of the famous seventh-century Old Minster, and also of the New Minster founded by Edward the Elder to be a burial place for his father, Alfred the Great, and his dynasty. So the new development threatened the historic core of Winchester (Felix Urbs Wintonia: “the Fortunate City of Winchester”), England’s first “capital” and the principal seat of the Anglo-Saxon kings of Wessex.

A test dig in 1961 revealed 3 metres of undisturbed strata of material going back to the Roman era, spanning the entire Old English period – and there were signs of major buildings. “It was thought that the development was likely to be on the site of New Minster,” recalls Martin Biddle, who directed the Winchester excavations. “At that time there was no legal protection of any kind for the buried remains of the urban past – indeed, for any past except listed buildings.” Fortunately, he found allies on the city council, including the mayor, Dilys Neate, and in 1962 the Winchester Excavations Committee was established. It was a landmark moment in the unearthing of the city’s history.

International Effort

Nine more years of intensive excavation followed, the dig rapidly evolving from a rescue operation to a well-planned long-term campaign. The work was backed by two American universities, the Ministry of Works (as it then was), the Winchester and Hampshire Councils, the British Museum and the Society of Antiquaries – a fantastic combined effort that sustained the dig’s finances over so many years. In all, some 3,000 volunteers from more than 30 countries worked on the project, which won a United Nations award for international cooperation.

The dig captured the public imagination, spanning as it finally did some 2,000 years of history – from the Iron Age through the Roman-era town of Venta Belgarum, Anglo-Saxon Wintanceaster and Alfred the Great’s capital, to the Norman conquest and beyond. It was the most comprehensive excavation ever undertaken of an early English city.

What were the findings?

For all Old English history fans, as well as for scholars, the findings of the 1961 Winchester dig were thrilling. By chance, barely a month into the first season on Cathedral Green, the team discovered the base of the high altar of the Old Minster, founded around 650. They then exposed the foundations, enabling them to reconstruct a complete plan of the Old Minster, burial place of most of the early West Saxon kings. Subsequently they discovered the 10th-century New Minster and clues to the site of the royal palace, along with many other features: inscriptions, sculpture, metalwork, even fragments of wall paintings from the days of Alfred’s battles with the Danes. In a very real sense, this was the root of the English monarchy – after all, the current Queen traces her descent back to Alfred and his ancestors.

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The dig spanned some 2,000 years of history, from the Iron Age, the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons to the Norman conquest and beyond

I can remember the excitement I felt as a student when I bought the interim reports each year; I've still got the dog-eared copies over which we pored, as if a whole new category of knowledge was appearing before our eyes.

Among the eye-opening discoveries was the fact that a completely new street grid had been replanned inside the Roman walls as part of the massive reorganisation of southern English towns at around the time of Alfred the Great. Now we saw for the first time what these "kings of the Anglo-Saxons", as they call themselves, were actually doing in the late ninth and 10th centuries.

Previously, our understanding of urban history in this period had been limited to enigmatic documents such as the Burghal Hidage. This assessment list, dating from c914 AD, details more than 30 towns and forts, some of them reused Roman circuits and Iron Age forts, others newly built at that time. Thanks to the Winchester excavations, though, we could now clearly see the pattern of later Anglo-Saxon urban development. In fact, the discovery of the Winchester street plan even led to a reassessment of the London street plan of the ninth and tenth centuries.

Centre of gravity

Winchester was the showpiece for the dynasty. By the end of the 10th century, England's economic centre of gravity had shifted to London, but at the time of the Norman conquest Winchester was still the royal city. The project looked at the new Norman city, with its castles and cathedral – still today the longest nave in Britain – and charted, too, the medieval decline and the later emergence of the early modern city in the Georgian period. Never before had such a programme been undertaken and carried through in any city in Britain or mainland Europe. Not surprisingly, there is hope that Winchester will eventually be graced by a museum celebrating England’s first “capital”.

The dig, completed in 1971, was followed from the mid-seventies by an ongoing series of Winchester Studies publications; 10 are already available, with seven more still to come. These lavish volumes, fabulously printed and illustrated, are now being digitised, with previously published volumes to be made freely available (for more details, see winchesterstudies.org.uk/publications). Set alongside the archaeology, they provide an incredible range of literary, poetic, historical and documentary evidence for the city’s story.

One aspect they highlight is that England was part of the growth of urban medieval Europe between the 10th and 12th centuries. During that period, perhaps 15 per cent of the population lived in towns and cities. Winchester housed a substantial concentration of people in an estimated 1,300 tenements, with perhaps as many as 13,000 inhabitants at its peak in the 12th century.

With a population of around 20,000, London was England's biggest city. Though small by later standards, it was throned with merchants from all over northern Europe, one of the law codes of King Æthelred, dated to around AD 1000, singles out those of Rouen, Flanders, Ponthieu, Normandy and Frankia, as well as others from specific towns in the Low Countries and "the men of the emperor" (Ottonian Germany), who had especially wide-ranging privileges. Other tolls reveal that goods brought to London included timber, fish and wine from France.

Winchester in the 10th century

Winchester, the dig showed, shared in this growth. The work also revealed the beginnings of civil society in England. In the 10th century, there was more money, more mobility and – despite the impression given by the harsh laws of Edgar (king of the English 959-75) – more freedom. This information comes especially from hitherto unexamined sources published in the Winchester Studies series.

For example, a text describing manifestations of popular piety at the shrine of Saint Swithun in Winchester between 969 and 971 gives us the records of a popular cult just as it took off. Along with stories of miracle cures at the shrine – people recovering their sight or throwing away their crutches – these accounts are invaluable for the incidental details they reveal about the lower reaches of society as well as the middle classes. They show that in Edgar's time it was possible for people to travel across England to buy and sell, to go on pilgrimage, or, if free, to seek work. People came to Winchester from London, East Anglia and Essex, Somerset, Northumbria and France. Even an English resident in Rome was lured home by stories of life-changing cures at the revamped shrine of Saint Swithun.

St Swithun's Shrine Memorial at Winchester Cathedral (Photo by: Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The people who congregated in this rich West Saxon city, with its royal churches and markets, represent a cross section of wider 10th-century English society: blind beggars, merchants and moneyers, bell-founders and even a “skilled physician”. There were many foreigners, too; indeed, Edgar was criticised for inviting too many immigrants. It was not only in London that Flemish and Frankish merchants congregated; here in Winchester, a wealthy moneyer called Flodoald (a name from Normandy or Picardy) and his brother lived in the city, perhaps with his whole family. This is the kind of merchant implied in Æthelred’s laws, which regulated wine imports from that part of France. The Anglo-Saxon world was changing.

What we know about Winchester after the Norman conquest...

The Norman conquest initially struck a huge blow to this rich and diverse urban milieu. In Winchester, the area taken to make space for construction of the new Norman castle (including its ditches inside and outside the city wall) totalled nearly 4.5 hectares. Thanks to the work of the Winchester Excavations team, our knowledge of the post-Conquest city’s citizens now grows exponentially. For example, the first volume of the Winchester Studies examines the “Winton Domesday” (c1110). This house-by-house survey of the city shows where people lived and what jobs they did – staggering detail for a medieval population, encompassing people ranging from slaves and servants to merchants, priests and nobles. This enables us to link the lives of the real people in the survey with what the archaeologists find in the ground – sometimes down to the very house.

Astonishingly, it’s possible to place medieval Winchester’s inhabitants in their very houses and shops along the street

Thus on the north side of High Street, going towards the West Gate, the survey records properties as they had been in 1066. We find Edwin “Good-soul” in the second property, Leofwine the shoemaker in the sixth house, Wulfric the priest in the 10th tenement. Nearby was “the guild hall of the cnihtas [the knights or thegns]”, where they used to “drink their guild” – that is, hold their feasts – “held freely from King Edward [the Confessor]”. Further on were Ælfwin the moneyer and Leofflaed, daughter of Ecregal. There were shopkeepers, a herring-monger, priests and beadles – all members of the old community of England on the eve of the Conquest. Astonishingly, it’s possible to place the city’s inhabitants in their very houses and shops along the street. No other town in Britain has ever had this treatment – and maybe no other ever will.

The Winchester Excavations Committee continues to prepare its publications, and is now raising money to fund the production of the remaining volumes as well as digitising the entire output. This charity, with small teams based in Winchester and Oxford, is still led by the ever-dynamic Martin Biddle.

Our most famous living archaeologist, Biddle turned 85 this June; he was not yet 25 when the Winchester Excavations Committee was founded in 1962. At the age of 12, he dug for eminent archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler at Verulamium (the Roman town just outside modern St Albans); at just 20 he excavated at Jericho for Kathleen Kenyon, another hugely renowned archaeologist. His later projects include amazing detective work on the reputed burial place of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In the 1970s and 80s, he turned his attention to Repton in Derbyshire, with its incredible mass burial of Viking dead. He solved the riddle of the origin of “King Arthur’s Round Table” in Winchester, dating it to the late 13th century, and addressed many other conundrums. Not least of these efforts was his brilliant untangling of late Roman St Albans, proving continuity from the Roman period to the Anglo-Saxons. No one in our lifetime has done more to expand our knowledge of Britain’s early history.

The remains of Roman architecture at Verulamium with a park bench in the foreground
Roman architecture remains preserved in Verulamium Park in St Albans (Photo: Getty Images)

But Winchester is still his baby. It took 10 years to dig and another 50 to publish the results – and the work is still ongoing. No other excavation has contributed more to our understanding of the urban past in Britain, bringing a lost world back to life. So we should celebrate Martin for a career of incredible exploration throughout which his drive, his expertise and his curiosity have never flagged. “I was lucky enough to be there at the start,” he says – never imagining, perhaps, that from those small beginnings in the car park by the cathedral would emerge one of the greatest urban archaeology projects in the world.

Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester. His latest book is a new edition of In Search of the Dark Ages (BBC, 2022)

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This article was first published in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

Authors

Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester

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