Winchester – The Capital City Of Wessex

From London, Hampshire
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[1] Winchester is such a historical city, that I can’t visit it without mentioning the Gauls, the Romans and the Anglo Saxons. They are the building blocks of this city. And their story promises to be a great tale, so much so that one man has greatness built into his name, and another is made a saint. So here is Winchester Part One.

Buildings In Winchester Cathedral Grounds
Buildings In The Cathedral Grounds Set The Scene For My Story From “Ye Olde England”
  • Start of Day – Waterloo Station (Zone One) or Clapham Junction (Zone Two), London
  • Cost Of Day Out – High
  • History Content – High

I start with the conquering Romans who come across a Gaulish Belgae tribe living, as they have done for the past 200 years, in an Iron Age settlement on a hill. One look at the basic amenities, and the Romans set to work immediately, doing what they do best. Which is to organise and to impose their rule.

The Remnants Of Medieval Walls in Winchester
My First View Of Winchester, Which Starts As A Roman Town

What a difference the Romans make! First they divert the river Itchen. Then they build a grid of roads in the centre. Followed by splendid houses, baths, temples and shops. And finally, they call the town Venta Belgarum – the capital of the Belgae people.

Houses Around Winchester
Winchester Flourishes Under The Romans

With stone fortifications in place, Winchester achieves the status of 5th largest city in Britannia. But when the Romans leave in a bit of a hurry in the 5th century, the vacuum of the retreating empire results in the decline of Roman strongholds such as Winchester.

Ruins of Wolvesey Palace in Winchester
Winchester Becomes A Tumbleweed City With The Fall Of The Roman Empire

With the invincible southerners out of the way, groups of Northern Europeans decide to boldly sail over the English Channel to lay claim. One such group of Anglo Saxons (who are they ?), establish themselves in the southern part of England. This of course, includes Winchester.

The Water Meadows Around Winchester's Rivers
The Anglo Saxons Settle In And Defend Winchester

The first thing the Anglo Saxons do is to rename Venta Belgarum to Wintancaester, a “ceaster” being Roman settlement in Anglo Saxon. They also form a kingdom in this part of the world, calling it Wessex. This is the beginning of the making of Kings of England and of English shire boundaries.

Wisteria In Wintancaester Now Known As Winchester
Over Many Seasons, The Name Wincaester Evolves Into Winchester

The second thing the Anglo Saxons do is to convert to Christianity. With that, they build a minster in Winchester around the mid 7th century. The minster is soon elevated to cathedral status, when the Bishop of Wessex moves his seat to Winchester a few years later.

The Cathedral Is A Famous Landmark in Winchester

[2] Winchester Cathedral is a tourist magnet. The cathedral building today actually dates from the Normans (1079). The story of the Normans is for later, but suffice to say, the cathedral must be visited to see the longest nave of any Gothic church in Europe.

The Very Long Nave of Winchester Cathedral

But there is a smaller, not to be missed chapel which lies just outside the cathedral. It dates from the 12th century, and is built into the medieval walls of the city just above [3] Kingsgate. It is thought its origins, given its position, is a church for travellers to offer thanks on arriving at the city walls safely.

Kings Gate, Winchester
The Medieval Kings Gate With A Church Built Into It

[4] St Swithun-upon-Kingsgate church is named after an Anglo Saxon bishop appointed by King Aethelwulf. St Swithun (plenty more about him here) is also patron saint of Winchester Cathedral. But having read his life’s story, this plain, whitewashed chapel is probably more in keeping with the man’s humility. He walks everywhere, forsaking horses. And holds banquets for the poor.

The Simple Interior And Exposed Ceiling Beams Of St Swithun’s Chapel

St Swithun performs miracles. There’s the incident of the lady who drops her eggs. St Swithun returns them whole to her basket. Then he appears in a dream to Queen Emma, wife of Aethelred the Unready but accused of adultery with Aelfwine, the Bishop of Winchester. St Swithun’s saves her as she walks unscathed over blades of fire outside Winchester cathedral.

Queen Emma Is Saved By A St Swithun Miracle During Her Trial By Fire Outside the Cathedral

When St Swithun dies in 862 AD, his death wish is to be buried outside where his grave can be tread upon by passers by, and be rained upon from raindrops from on high. Perhaps he should have written it down in Latin, and in Bold font, because in 971, his grave is moved to an elaborate shrine inside Old Minster.

Stained Glass In The Church Named After The Saint Who Wanted to Be Buried With No Fuss

Whilst the intentions of those who move St Swithun’s grave were probably good, stories abound that when his body is moved, the heavens open and it rains incessantly for 40 days. So it’s no wonder that St Swithun is the go to saint in the event of a drought !!

Flowers In The Deanery In Winchester
Enjoying The Flowers in The Deanery With No Rain Today, Thankfully !!

Whilst St Swithun is bringing love and joy, the Anglo Saxons on the other hand, are fighting the Danes, whom they call heathens. Aethelred’s son, a very young Alfred, wins a decisive battle against the Army of the Heathen People. He is crowned King of Wessex and he immediately makes Winchester the capital of Wessex.

One Of the Enttrances to The Cathedral
Winchester Becomes The Official Capital Of Wessex

So just why is Alfred great? Here’s a comprehensive list. It is also suspected that whilst he was warring with the Danes, and agreeing peace treaties, he may have suffered from Crohn’s disease all his life. But despite his poor health, he is an extremely intellectual King who encourages education, makes good laws and builds a navy.

Statue of King Alfred The Great In Winchester
[5] Statue of Alfred The Great– King From 871 AD

At this point, the story, and England, leave the Dark Ages. It’s nothing to do with dark grey rainy skies, but all to do with the scarcity of information between the Romans leaving around 450 AD and the Normans turning up in 1066. Much of Norman Winchester still remains, to be enjoyed by visitors like me.

Hospital of St Cross in Winchester
Hospital of St Cross In Winchester, An Example Of Medieval Splendour

Speaking of rain, I should end with the legend of St Swithun, which predicts the weather on St Swithun’s Day, on every 15th July, based on events mentioned earlier about his grave.

“St Swithin’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithin’s day if thou be fair
For forty days will rain na mair

I Enjoy Winchester’s Surroundings On A “Rain Na Mar” Day

I am just about to scoff at a medieval rhyming weather forecast as being a whole load of superstitious baloney, when I learn that since meteorological records began, there have only been two years when the legend of St Swithun did not get it right. So lesson learnt! Never underestimate a Bishop of Winchester.

Winchester Cathedral
Winchester Cathedral – I Learn That Their Bishops Are A Force To Be Reckoned With

And so my adventures around Winchester shall continue in Part Two. I think its time for me to find out more about the Normans and their powerful Bishops.

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Things You Ought to Know

  • Tube Map and City Mapper are free apps that provide London maps, route planner and train/ bus times from your nearest stop.
  • Transport for London is cashless. Only Oyster Cards, purchased at stations, or contactless cards are acceptable.
  • Catch a train to Winchester using Trainline’s website for train times, fares and advance ticket purchase. Discounted off-peak fare with Network Rail Card.
  • Starting your journey from Clapham Junction saves around £10 on the return ticket.
  • Winchester Cathedral (website) – open daily. Fee applies, but it includes a tour and the ticket is valid for a year.
  • St Swithun’s Chapel has no official website. I think it’s open daily, during the day time from about 10:00
Route of Winchester Part One
Route of Winchester Part One

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