The current Cathedral was begun in 1079, 13 years after William the Conqueror invaded England. During its construction it was the largest church north of the Alps. It was built in the Romanesque style of Normandy and later extended. The only parts of the Norman original to remain are the north and south transepts and the crypt. The construction of this new cathedral was well under way and had received its first dedication before the Anglo-Saxon minster was demolished with some of its stones being used in the new cathedral.
The first church at the site where Winchester Cathedral now stands was built around 648. It was a small Anglo-Saxon church, which later became known as Old Minster. This original modest church was enlarged between the years of 973-994. In the grounds to the north of Winchester Cathedral a red brick outline shows the position of original cruciform church and a grey outline shows the footings of the enlarged church.
The cathedral is impressive from the outside but when you step inside, the immense height and scale of the building inspires a sense of awe. Today, the cathedral contains many treasures and on entering the building you are greeted with the stunning beauty of the nave. The columns draw the eye towards the quire which is concealed behind a finely carved wooden screen.
Walking down the north aisle, and due to the number of people congregating, it is impossible to miss the grave of Jane Austen with its nearby brass commemorative plaque and memorial window. Not far from the grave in the nave is a carved 12th century font made from Belgian black Tournai marble. It depicts scenes from the life of St Nicholas who was Bishop of Myra in about AD300.
The oldest part of the cathedral is the crypt which was designed to raise the east of the cathedral to emulate the ‘holy hill’ on which Jerusalem and the temple were built. Beneath the crypt is a well in the place of the original high altar. Within the crypt is a modern sculpture called Sound II, designed by Antony Gormley. The crypt regularly floods so the sculpture was designed to stand in water and with cupped hands to hold water, the symbolism being that we should be still for a moment to ‘sound’ the depths of our own spirit.
Steps not far from the crypt were used by pilgrims in the last part of their journey to visit the shrine of St Swithun. After climbing the ‘pilgrim steps’ the pilgrims entered a tunnel through a still visible ‘Holy Hole’ so they could be closer to the Holy Relics. St Swithun was initially buried outside the Old Minster but was later reinterred inside that church on 15th July 971 against his original wishes. It is alleged that it rained for forty days giving rise to the legend, that if it rains on St Swithun’s day, it will rain for the next forty days. In 1093 his remains were once again removed to the present cathedral and it is thought that from 1150 his shrine was situated on a platform behind the high altar. The shrine was later moved to the location of the current memorial, the original having been destroyed in 1538 on the orders of King Henry VIII.
Near to the current shrine, above the ‘Holy Hole’ can be seen a series of Russian icons, painted by Sergei Fyodorov, from the left they depict; St Birinus, St Peter, Archangel Michael, Mary, Christ, John the Baptist, Archangel Gabriel, St Paul and St Swithun.
In front of the three chapels that are situated at the east end of the cathedral stands a small memorial statue of William Walker who is known as the ‘Winchester Diver’. In the early 1900s large cracks appeared within the walls of Winchester Cathedral, Soft peat and a high water table had caused the foundations to sink. A diver, William Walker was employed to underpin the foundations of the cathedral. William spent six hours a day for six years in water below the cathedral in order to shore up the foundations.
Behind the high altar stands a stunning Great Screen which was completed in 1745. Originally it was covered in brightly coloured statues of the saints but these were removed during the Reformation. The current statues were added in the 1880s and include representatives of the English church. If you face away from the altar you can see the intricately carved quire stalls designed to keep the monks warm and comfortable as they prayed, the symbolism depicted on the stalls assisting their prayers. The stalls date from the 1300s and feature mythical beasts, foliage, animals, the pagan ‘green man’ and motifs from everyday life. The fact that these were not Christian symbols means that they survived the Reformation.
One of the south transept chapels, The Chapel of St John the Evangelist and the Fisherman Apostles, drew me in. Within this chapel can be found the grave of Izaak Walton, who became famous as the author of ‘The Complete Angler’. The modern altar by Peter Eugine Ball is carved from an oak tree that was felled in a storm. It depicts scenes of swirling water and several types of fish that are mentioned in Isaak’s book. Next to the altar is a statue, also by Peter Eugine Ball, entitled Pieta, which depicts the deep grief and faith of the Mother of Jesus. The statues to either side of the altar depict the fisherman’s apostles Peter and Andrew as do the stained glass window which also incorporates Isaak Walton sitting next to Winchester’s River Itchen. The seats made of green oak by Alison Crowther feature gentle ripples and wave-like backs. This completes the theme of sitting by a riverside and being refreshed by the blessings of nature.
I took time to sit quietly and reflect in this tranquil space…
I would have liked to see the Winchester Bible and the Triforium Gallery but that was not possible on my two visits. Maybe next time…
I have shared just a few of the cathedral’s many treasures and now I leave it for you, if you choose to visit, to seek out your own treasures and pathway through the Cathedral of Winchester.
- More history and treasures of Winchester Cathedral can be found on the Cathedral’s website.
Information sources Winchester Cathedral Pitkin guide and Winchester Cathedral, A short guide – Official Cathedral Guide.