Winchester is a place that strikes you with a real sense that ‘it happened here’. When I came to live and study in the city just over 20 years ago, this magical realisation came while I was reading about 10th-century bishops and Anglo-Saxon kings. The historic figures on the pages in front of me had actually lived and breathed just a few hundred yards from where I was sitting. Sure, stuff happens anywhere, and big stuff tends to happen in cities, but the small size of modern Winchester’s city centre means that history still feels like a real presence on its streets.
When you walk these streets you can look up to the same hills seen by generations of Winchester’s inhabitants. There’s the Iron Age hillfort of St Catherine’s hill to the south-east, and to the west the site of another Iron Age settlement at Oram’s Arbour. And the imposing St Giles hill, where the bishops of Winchester enjoyed the income from hosting a yearly produce fair throughout the Middle Ages, looms over the east side of the city, incidentally providing a handy viewpoint for the cost of a short stroll. These hills, and the river Itchen, which carves a meandering course through the valley and the neighbouring Water Meadows, help to make the city of Winchester what it was and what it is today.
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A provincial Roman capital
A British settlement before the Roman conquest of AD 43, Venta Belgarum (the ‘place of the Belgae tribe’) soon became a provincial Roman capital. Walls and ditches were put up and a forum established at the heart of the city, close to where the cathedral was later founded. Though as with many Romano-British towns, Venta Belgarum was largely abandoned as the Roman empire crumbled in the fifth century, the name Venta lived on to be added to the Anglo-Saxon word ceaster, meaning ‘walled city’. So, it became Wintanceaster.
Though there are some signs that parts of the old Roman city was occupied in the early Saxon era, it wasn’t until the seventh century that an Anglo-Saxon royal dynasty, the Gewisse, relocated the seat of their new bishop southwards from Dorchester-on-Thames. The old Roman city proved to be a perfect location for a succession of bishops but few others were likely to have been here permanently, as kings at this time tended to move from place to place.
It was not until the ninth century that Winchester seems to have been recognised as being more than a seat of bishops.
Ironically, given the statue of King Alfred that looks up the high street, there isn’t much direct evidence that the famous king even set foot here. During his reign (871–99), however – a time when the kingdom of Wessex survived Viking attacks that brought other royal houses crashing down –Winchester became a sort of ‘flagship’ in a town-building programme across Wessex. Old Roman walls were rebuilt, new roads carved through old debris, and one of the most important mints in the kingdom was established. The city went from strength to strength as a centre for Anglo-Saxon kings and bishops in the following century as Wessex became England.
A role in the Norman conflict
The surrender of Winchester – and the royal treasury it contained in the hands of Edward the Confessor’s wife, Edith – was one of the moments that marked the Norman conquest of 1066.
William the Conqueror had recognised the city’s potential to dominate the south of England. A castle was established overseeing one of the city’s main gates and the roads leading to it, and a new palace was built close to the cathedral. The castle, home of the royal treasury for some years, was to house the ‘Book of Winchester’, or Domesday Book, which had been compiled here as the Conqueror’s great royal project in 1086.
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From 1079 Winchester’s cathedral underwent a grand renewal programme,with an enormous new church established a little to the south of its Anglo-Saxon predecessor. That ‘Old Minster’ was demolished toward the end of the 11th century. The grandeur of the new church was fitting for one of William’s grandsons, Henry of Blois, who had been appointed bishop in 1129. As brother of King Stephen, Henry was to prove a powerful ally in the war against Stephen’s cousin, the Empress Matilda, but in 1141 the bishop fled the city, leaving his troops besieged in his palace, Wolvesey Castle.
Winchester recovered quickly, however, and Bishop Henry brokered a peace treaty here, ending the civil war in 1153. Wolvesey’s ruins stand to this day and the bishop’s patronage of the city can be seen in renewal of parts of the cathedral as well as Henry’s surviving hospital at St Cross, a short walk to the south of the city. However, the royal treasury moved to London and with it, much of the sense of Winchester as a seat of power.
A royal city
The interests of another ‘Henry of Winchester’, the future King Henry III born in Winchester castle in 1207, meant that Winchester’s importance as a royal city continued, and it was during Henry’s reign that the magnificent Great Hall was added to the castle. Henry’s projects were expensive, and the king recognised the importance of Winchester’s Jewish population, whose homes and businesses were in the shadow and capricious ‘protection’ of the royal castle, along what is now called Jewry Street.
However Winchester’s Jewish population suffered during massacres in 1265, in the Barons’ Wars at the hands of Simon De Montfort’s son. And when Henry III’s son, Edward I, came to the throne in 1272, the new king’s attitudes to England’s Jews were far less tolerant than his father had been. It was only a short time before the survivors, like those of many English towns, were expelled from the kingdom. Jews were not allowed to return to England until the 17th century and it wasn’t until the 20th century that Winchester would once again have a significant Jewish population.
In the 13th century, Edward I was looking to a British past mixed with the legends current in his own day. The Round Table built for Edward I still resides in Henry III’s Great Hall, where it attests to a desire to project an Arthurian past upon English kingship. Years later, in 1522, this message was not lost on Henry VIII, who showed off a newly-painted Round Table to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in a visit to the city. A generation later, in 1554, Henry’s daughter Queen Mary recognised the importance of the Great Hall and the city as a suitable place for the pomp and ceremony of her wedding with King Philip of Spain.
However, despite the interests of kings and queens it was bishops of Winchester, whose wealth lay across the south of England, who dominated the city. Bishop William of Wykeham (unusually for his day, he was from a poor background himself) established Winchester College, a school for 70 poor scholars, in 1382. This was an opportune time for a bishop to make his mark on Winchester, a city that had not escaped the ravages of the Black Death of 1348–9, in which as much as half of Europe’s population may have died.
A royalist stronghold
A royalist stronghold in the 17th-century civil wars, Winchester’s control swung between king and parliament between 1642 and 1645. Again the city suffered in sieges, and parliamentary forces are said to have sacked the city. Damage is still visible in the cathedral – many of its priceless manuscripts were destroyed and scattered in a Puritan purge following Winchester’s capture – and in the years of Cromwell’s Protectorate an order was given to level many of the walls and towers of the castle in order to prevent it posing a threat in the future. It did not cut Winchester’s royal links, however. Following the accession of Charles II, the loss of so much of the castle allowed for Sir Christopher Wren to plan for a new royal palace with a wide avenue sweeping down to the cathedral.
Charles died before plans could be fulfilled, but the echoes of the first of the new buildings can be seen in the architecture of the former military barracks on the castle site. They are a sign of how the city might have changed radically. The relative economic decline of the city in the 18th century meant that while Winchester’s prime position south of England made it an important military centre right up to the 20th century, the layout of the city itself and its buildings have retained much of their historical character.
It was to this city that an ailing Jane Austen came for medical treatment in 1817, spending her final days in a house on College Street. Though her last complete work, a satirical poem entitled ‘Venta’, on Winchester’s races and the polite society who attended them, is not normally considered among Austen’s literary canon, a sense of Winchester’s ever-present past shines through.
A visit to Winchester today helps you to understand why.
Ryan Lavelle is a professor of early medieval history at the University of Winchester. He has authored a range of books on Anglo-Saxon England in the Viking age, and was a historical advisor on the BBC series The Last Kingdom. His most recent book is Cnut: The North Sea King.