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Winchester Cathedral: "A Pretty Easy Way of Dawdling Away One's Time"

by John P. Seely

Winchester CathedralWinchester Cathedral is one of the world's greatest churches, and arguably England's most magnificent cathedral. Its grandeur is enhanced by its setting in Winchester, a delightful, modest city of broad streets and narrow alleys with history written at every corner, lying in a hollow in the downs in the ancient heart of the southern English countryside. The cathedral itself is a treasure house of art, both ancient and modern, and housed in a magnificent, light-filled, powerful edifice that is built in a style uniquely English, perpendicular -- Gothic, a rather clumsy term for such elegant architecture.

Once an important walled Roman town, Venta Belgarum, it later became the Saxon capital of Wessex, Wintanceaster, before becoming the capital of England under King Alfred the Great. By the end of the 10th century, Winchester could boast of being home to the greatest ecclesiastical complex north of the Alps. Winchester was a royal city under Wiliam the Conqueror and his treasury, the Hoard, was kept here.

The first church in Winchester was built by King Cynegils, first Christian king of Wessex. He was converted to Christianity by St. Birinus who had been sent by Pope Honorius to complete the conversion of the English that St Augustine had begun. His son, Cenwalh (or Coenwealh) endowed more lands and later built a new church. This first became a bishop's seat in the 670s and St Birinus' remains were later moved here. This cathedral, the Old Minster, was built on the site of a much earlier Roman church which had later been used for pagan worship by the Saxons. (If this seems confusing remember that England, Christian under the Romans, was sacked by marauding pagans, the Vikings, who drove the original Celtic inhabitants from their lands to the more inaccessible corners of the British Isles. It was these newer "English" that now needed converting.)

King Alfred Statue WinchesterAlfred became King of Wessex at a time when England was suffering again from wave after wave of marauding, pillaging Vikings. After one particularly ferocious, and completely unexpected, raid in the winter of 878 led by Guthorm of East Anglia, Alfred was left perilously close to defeat. By hiding in Athelney Marshes, he managed to rally his supporters and led an attack that defeated the Danes at the Battle of Edington. As part of the peace treaty, Guthorm converted to Christianity and was allowed to return to East Anglia. Alfred then took steps to secure his kingdom. He built a series of fortified strongholds (burhs) and constructed the first English fleet. Consequently he is often remembered today as the father of the British Navy.

Several anecdotes have come down to us, which, even if not true, demonstrate Alfred's character. He is probably best remembered by schoolboys, not for wining any battles, but by not being any good at cooking! This is said to have occurred whilst he was in hiding in Athelney. According to the story, he begged shelter in a peasants hut. The housewife, not recognizing him, asked him to mind some cakes she was cooking, but being understandably rather preoccupied with weightier affairs, he allowed the cakes to burn, and then had to put up with being scolded, something he is supposed to have taken good-naturedly.

Glover & Miles writing in their 17th century book The Kings of England had this tale to tell of Alfred, who, whilst in Athelney,

"....despaired not, but, in the habit of a minstrel going forth, thence came to the camp of the Danish king accompanied but with one trusty servant only; where he, tarrying certain days, was suffered to go into every place and to play upon his instruments, as well before the king as others, so that there was nothing in the camp secret which he understood not."

Winchester CathedralHe then went on to successfully attack and capture the Danish camp "....and slew of them a great number."

Alfred was a scholar and educator as well as a soldier and strategist. He laid the foundations of English Literature, translating many books into Anglo-Saxon to make them more accessible. Translations included such medieval favorites as The Consolations of Boethius, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation and the History of the World by Orosius. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the first great vernacular history of England, owes its origins to Alfred the Great who first conceived of the idea of a national history written in English.

On his death, Alfred was first buried at Old Minster, but after his ghost was seen walking around at nights, his remains were moved to the New Minster. This was built close by the Old Minster in 892 by his son, Edward the Elder. Today, in the churchyard of St Bartholomew's, by the remains of the New Minster and just below the east end, lies a simple grave marked only with a cross. This is popularly thought to be where King Alfred the Great is buried, though without any real justification.

In 960, Old Minster was reformed and a Benedictine Monastery added, St Swithin's priory. This survived the next 600 years until its destruction during the Reformation. The two minsters and a convent, Nunnaminster, founded by Alfred's widow were enclosed in walls in 964 to isolate them from the growing city.

By the time the Abbey was closed by order of Henry VIII, Nunnaminster was among the largest in England. The abbey site was gifted to the city by Queen Mary on the occasion of her marriage to Phillip II, King of Spain at Winchester cathedral. A private house, now the Lord mayor's residence, was later built on part of the site, and the guildhall was built on another section. The ruins of the abbey were partially excavated in the 1980s and can be visited today.

St. Swithin's day, gif ye do rain,
for forty days it will remain;
St. Swithin's day an ye be fair,
for forty days 'twill rain nae mair.

Winchester CathedralEvery Cathedral needs its saint and Winchester is no exception. St Swithin (or properly Swithun) was born in Wessex and educated in the Old Minster. He was named bishop of Winchester in 852 but apart from being remembered for his humility and services to the poor, little else is known about him. The only miracle attributed to his life is when he restored an old woman's dropped basket of eggs. He died on July 2 862 and was buried at his request in the churchyard so that "the sweet rain of heaven may fall upon my grave".

His body was to have been removed for reburial on July 15th 972 following his canonization, but was delayed by violent rain, probably the origin of the superstition that if it rains on St Swithin's day we are in for 40 more wet days. His remains were eventually successfully placed in a splendid shrine in the church. From that moment on, miracles were reported and Winchester became a place of pilgrimage. His relics were moved into the new Norman cathedral in on July 15, 1093. Then, on the night of September 21st, 1538, his shrine was demolished by officers of the reformation. His remains were removed and subsequently lost.

Once the Normans had settled in following their successful invasion of England in 1066, they consolidated their reign by embarking on an extensive rebuilding of England's Cathedrals and churches using the Norman-Romanesque style they brought with them. The Saxon bishop of Winchester was replaced by a Norman bishop, Bishop Walkelin, who oversaw the building of an ambitious Norman Cathedral, gradually demolishing the Old Minster as work progressed. Walkelin's cathedral was to be the longest in the world at that time, in fact it was13 meters longer than the present church.

The foundations of the Old Minster were excavated in the 1960s and the outline of the walls marked out in brick. Standing at the west entrance to the nave, the original church lies at an angle slightly to the north east of the modern structure but sharing the same nave. It's as if the Norman church was dropped onto foot of the original, but somewhat askew.

The Cathedral at heart is Norman but has been altered and added to many times in its life. In particular, the nave was completely remodeled in the 14th century under the supervision of Bishop William of Wykeham, an influential statesman and Chancellor of England, often considered the father of the public school system.

Winchester CathedralTowers have been proposed, replaced and removed several times, sometimes due to poor workmanship as in the case of the central tower, which collapsed in 1107. The ground has a high water table, a common problem when building on a marsh, and this has caused many structural problems over the years. Winchester is probably the only cathedral in the world that had to employ a deep-sea diver as part of a team working for 6 years to underpin the walls, starting in 1905. If you want proof of the high water table, go into the original crypts under the eastern arm in winter, and they will be flooded. A powerful piece of modern sculpture stands in the middle of the flooded floor.

Some of the more unusual items to be seen in the cathedral are the wooden mortuary chests containing the relics of pre-conquest Kings and Bishops. Bones were placed in these chests in the 1520s but got mixed up when Cromwell's Parliamentary soldiers rode their horses into the cathedral and started to vandalize it, taking down the mortuary chests and using the bones as missiles to break the stained glass windows. Of course the bones got mixed up when they were eventually returned to the chests. The windows fared little better, and when repaired the glass was replaced haphazardly; you can still see this today.

A mere list of the treasures to be seen in Winchester would make boring reading but mention must be made of the Winchester Bible, a beautifully illuminated 12th century bible that was produced here and is on permanent display.

Izaak Walton (1593-1683), author of one of the most delightful English books, The Compleat Angler, is buried in the fisherman's chapel. Although written during the upheavals of the civil wars it is a gentle discourse on the pleasures of fishing and the beauties of nature. It is written in the form of a discourse between a fisherman, a hawker and a hunter who find they traveling together. Despite its age, it is still very accessible to the modern reader. If you need to know how to tie a frog on a hook or how to gut a pike then this is the book for you.

Some of his philosophies are still relevant today, as here when he talks about contentment:

Can any man charge God, that He hath not given him enough to make his life happy? No, doubtless; for nature is content with a little. And yet you shall hardly meet with a man that complains not of some want; though he, indeed, wants nothing but his will; it may be, nothing but his will of his poor neighbour, for not worshipping, or not flattering him: and thus, when we might be happy and quiet, we create trouble to ourselves.

After the restoration of the monarchy life gradually became more peaceful. Winchester became such a quiet backwater that in the 18th century, Canon Edmund Pyle could write that being at the cathedral was "a pretty easy way of dawdling away one's time: praying, walking, visiting, and as little study as your heart would wish."

More Information:

Winchester Cathedral

A Walk Around Winchester Cathedral

City of Winchester: Winchester Cathedral

Winchester Cathedral Timeline

King Alfred the Great

The Anglo Saxons: Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great

John Seely is a freelance writer living in Thailand, who returns regularly to England. He writes regularly for local magazines and has also been published in International Living, Transitions Abroad and Gonomad. Samples of his work can be found at http://www.johnpseely.com/Travelarticles.htm.
Article © 2006 John Seely
Interior photos (screen and tomb) © 2007 Moira Allen; candlelabra photo courtesy of Britainonview.com; all other photos courtesy of the City of Winchester Tourism Board.


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