Winchester Cathedral


Winchester Cathedral

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 Crypt with Sound II by Antony Gormley

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.


Icons by Sergei Fyodorov and the tunnel entrance

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.


William Walker by Glynn Williams

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.


The Quire

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.


The Chapel of St John the Evangelist and the Fisherman Apostles

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.

Information sources Winchester Cathedral Pitkin guide and Winchester Cathedral, A short guide – Official Cathedral Guide.


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Alfred the Great

Winchester is a city with many fine architectural buildings.  As you enter the city a huge statue of Alfred the Great looms overhead looking out over the Guildhall and Abbey Gardens towards the city centre.

Winchester Cathedral Knave

Winchester Cathedral nave

The Cathedral has a prominent position within the city. The New Minster was built close to the Old Minster whose foundation lines can today still be seen marked out in brick on the grassy green next to the Cathedral (New Minster). From the outside the Cathedral is relatively modest but as I stepped through the door the immense size and beauty of it took my breath away.  On further exploration the Cathedral’s secrets reveal themselves. Some of these are the 14th century font made of Tournai marble, the mortuary chests holding remains of pre-conquest Wessex monarchs, the memorial to St Swithun and the pilgrim steps where pilgrims filed to reach the Shrine of St Swithun before crawling through the still visible ‘holy hole’ that allowed them closer access to the holy relics of St Swithun.

The Cathedral is home to the Winchester Bible which is a fine example of 12th century illumination. Sadly I wasn’t able to see it on my visit as the Triforium Gallery in which it is housed is now closed for several months for refurbishment.

The Cathedral’s Norman crypt often floods. In the crypt is a statue by Antony Gormly, entitled ‘Sound II’. It was designed to stand in water.

Cheyney Court

Cheyney Court

Not to be missed is the adjacent Cathedral close with its interesting buildings; the Deanery fronted by a 13th century vaulted porch; the Norman Chapter house ruins; Pilgrims’ Hall and School, Priory Stables (now part of Pilgrims’ School) and the most striking of the buildings, the 16th century Cheyney Court. Joined to Cheyney court is the 16th century Priory Gate, above which is a tiny room originally intended for the Cathedral’s organist.

Just outside Priory Gate is Kingsgate, one of two remaining medieval gates into the city. On top of the gate is the small church of St Swithun upon Kingsgate, a rare example of a church located above the gates of a city. Hidden away nearby is a Victorian post box still in use today. Opposite the post box is the Wykeham Arms which is furnished with old desks and memorabilia from the nearby Winchester College.

I recommend taking a guided tour around the college. The knowledgeable guide told us about the history and traditions of the college and its connection with the wider history of the area. The guide also pointed out many interesting architectural features that are hidden within the college. Not far from the college is the residence of the Bishop of Winchester, which is all that remains of the 17th century New Bishop’s Palace. The ruins of the first Bishop’s palace (Wolvesy) are situated next to the current Bishop’s residence.

The Pentice

The Pentice

More architectural gems can be found in Winchester High Street, where old and new buildings stand side by side; the 15th century Butter Cross, the Old Guildhall (now Lloyds bank), The Pentice (an attractive walkway that was created in the 16th century when upper floors of the timber framed houses were extended). It is in this street that you will find the quaintly named God Begot house which stands on the site of the ancient manor of God Begot.

At the top of High Street stands Westgate, the second of the two fortified gateways that once formed part of the city wall is now a museum.

The Great Hall

The Great Hall

Just behind the gate is Henry III’s Great Hall.  It dates from 1235 and it is all that remains of Winchester Castle.  The Great hall has breath-taking proportions as does ‘King Arthur’s Table’ which is mounted on the wall at one end of the hall. The table was probably created around 1290 for a tournament to celebrate the wedding of one of Edward I’s daughters.  Just outside the hall is a reconstructed medieval garden based on illustrations from a 14th century manuscript. The steps from the garden lead to Peninsula Barracks, the home of five of Winchesters military museums; The Adjudant General’s Corps, the Light Infantry, the Gurkhas, The King’s Royal Hussars and the Royal Green Jackets. The museum of the Royal Hampshire Regiment can be found nearby.

Another of Winchesters museums, the City Museum, is located in ‘The Square’ which overlooks the Cathedral. The museum illustrates the history of Winchester and has a fine example of a 2nd century Roman mosaic pavement and 4th century wall paintings. The square is also a good place to dine whilst overlooking the cathedral and its grounds.  Nestling away between offices and shops in the square is the tiny 15th century church of St Lawrence. Easily missed, this is the church that each new Bishop comes to for private prayer before his enthronement in the cathedral.

Time did not permit me to walk along the water meadows to St Cross with its hospital that has provided sheltered accommodation for elderly gentlemen since it was founded in 1136 along with its 800 year old tradition of the ‘Wayfarers Dole’. Maybe next time…

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