Winchester Cathedral: The tale of a remarkable church and its astonishing contents

There is perhaps no building in Britain that connects the modern visitor more immediately with the foundational figures of English history. John Goodall explains more; photographs by Paul Highnam.

From the outside, Winchester Cathedral is a curiously undemonstrative building. Nestling at the bottom of the valley of the River Itchen and without a great spire or tower, it’s only occasionally glimpsed even from the town itself. Yet it is an astonishing place, redolent with history and filled with treasures. Following the completion of a major restoration project, its claim to be one of the great historic buildings of Europe has never been clearer.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the first church or minster in Winchester was begun in 648 by King Cenwalh of Wessex. It stood at the south-west corner of what had been the walled Roman civitas of Venta Belgarum and possibly served a royal palace that stood beside it. The Kings of Wessex had converted to Christianity in the 630s, when King Cynegils was baptised by St Birinus at Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. In 660, St Birinus’s see was transferred to Winchester by Bishop Wine.

The most celebrated of Wine’s successors as Bishop of Winchester was a figure called Swithun. Little is known about him, but he was consecrated in 852 and, when he died in 863, he was prominently buried outside; his grave lay between the west door of the minster and a free-standing gatehouse tower. Soon afterwards, in 871, Alfred the Great assumed the throne of Wessex and, in the course of his reign fighting against the Danes, famously established effective control over England as a whole.

Winchester was physically transformed by this success. During the late 9th century, the regular street pattern of the modern city was laid out and Alfred’s wife, Lady Ealhswith, established a religious foundation within the walls, Nunnaminster (later St Mary’s Abbey).

Fig 8: The flooded Crypt of Winchester Cathedral. The Romanesque crypt with Antony Gormley’s Sound II (1986) reflected in the water that regularly floods the space.

Fig 8: The flooded Crypt of Winchester Cathedral. The Romanesque crypt with
Antony Gormley’s Sound II (1986) reflected in the water that regularly floods the space. ©Alamy

When Alfred died in 899, he was laid to rest in the minster at Winchester, which was by now firmly established as the main burial place of the royal line of Wessex (and, henceforth, of England’s kings until the Norman Conquest). In 901, however, his son, Edward the Elder, built a new minster immediately beside the old and transferred his father’s body into it. Set side by side, the Old and New Minster now developed in competition with each other.

In 964, in response to the church reforms of the 10th century, Bishop Aethelwold ejected the secular canons serving both minster churches and installed communities of Benedictine monks in their place. Bound up with this change was the recognition of Bishop Swithun as a saint. In 971, Swithun’s grave was opened and his bones were moved in a reliquary donated by King Edgar to the high altar of the Old Minster, where his shrine became a popular object of pilgrimage.

The monk Aelfric described the church interior in the 990s as ‘completely hung round, from one end to the other and on either wall with crutches and the stools of cripples who had been healed there’.

The site of the empty tomb was dignified by a huge tower, creating a building on a scale astonishing even in a European context. Fragments of sculpture, glass and glazed tiles from its opulent interior survive.

Alongside these changes, the whole south-east corner of the walled city was enclosed as a precinct comprising the two minster churches with their monastic buildings, Nunnaminster, a royal palace and an episcopal palace on ‘Wulf’s Island’ or Wolvesey.

The Nave at Winchester Cathedral: The Romanesque nave as remodelled and vaulted from the late 14th century. Bishop Wykeham’s chantry is visible on the right.

Fig 2: The Nave at Winchester Cathedral: The Romanesque nave as remodelled and vaulted from the late 14th century. Bishop Wykeham’s chantry is visible on the right. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life

When William the Conqueror arrived at Winchester in November 1066, it was the second city in his kingdom and already the burial place of 17 kings. As at Westminster and London, William occupied the Anglo-Saxon royal palace, but also began to build a castle. In 1070, he appointed a former canon of Rouen, Walkelin, the first Norman bishop of the see. Nine years later, in 1079, work began to what was, briefly, the longest church north of the Alps — originally 532ft long — on a site just to the south of Old Minster.

Bishop Walkelin’s Norman connections are clearly visible in the technical treatment and form of the new building, perhaps designed by a mason called William. It was laid out on a cross-shaped plan with a three-storey internal elevation: an arcade at ground level with a gallery and clerestory above. The monks’ choir was set beneath the crossing tower and the eastern arm of the building was raised above a crypt (Fig 8). It terminated behind the high altar in a semicircle or apse supported on circular columns.

Whereas the Old Minster had been laid out on a true east-west axis, the new church respected the inherited street plan of the city. The Old Minster remained in use until work to the eastern arm, crossing and transepts was completed. Construction was sufficiently advanced for the monks to enter their new choir for Easter 1093 and, three months later, on July 15, St Swithun’s body was transferred to the new high altar. Nor were the other bones of kings and bishops forgotten, as we shall see. The next day, the bishop ordered the demolition of Old Minster.

Presbytery with flanking chantry chapels at Winchester Cathedral: The retrochoir. In 1476, St Swithun’s reliquary was moved from the far masonry platform to a shrine set between the chantry chapels of Cardinal Beaufort (left) and Bishop Waynflete (right). Destroyed in 1538, its position is today marked by an iron frame with candles.

Fig 5: Presbytery with flanking chantry chapels at Winchester Cathedral: The retrochoir. In 1476, St Swithun’s reliquary was moved from the far masonry platform to a shrine set between the chantry chapels of Cardinal Beaufort (left) and Bishop Waynflete (right). Destroyed in 1538, its position is today marked by an iron frame with candles. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life

Work to the western parts of Walkelin’s church probably continued into the 1120s, delayed by the collapse of the central tower in 1107 (a catastrophe seen by some as a judgement on William Rufus, who lay buried beneath it). By the time it was completed, New Minster had also disappeared, the monastery having transferred to Hyde in 1110. The cathedral now stood in its present isolation.

The liturgical arrangements of the new cathedral were clearly shaped by those of Old Minster. Certainly, it seems possible to infer a similar disposition of altars within the two buildings. It was presumably also in deference to its predecessor, with its great tower constructed over the empty tomb of St Swithun, that the nave of the Norman church also terminated in a vast western structure. This survived until the 14th century, when it was demolished to create the present and more conventional west front. Otherwise, Walkelin’s great church still substantially survives within the fabric of the present building.

It was probably following the return of Bishop Henry of Blois from exile in 1158 that the great font of Tournai marble was installed in its present position in the nave. More certainly, Bishop Henry transferred the reliquary of St Swithun and the bones of the early kings and bishops of Wessex from the Old Minster to an elevated platform behind the high altar. A passage within the platform, entered from the encircling aisle of the apse, allowed pilgrims access to the shrine platform from beneath. A 14th-century re-configuration of this ‘holy hole’ survives in the platform behind the high altar.

The High Altar (Great Screen) at Winchester Cathedral: The high altar reredos, probably begun in the 1440s and restored in 1885–91, which originally featured a gold and silver retable and naturalistic sculpture of superlative quality.

Fig 6: The High Altar (Great Screen) at Winchester Cathedral: The high altar reredos, probably begun in the 1440s and restored in 1885–91, which originally featured a gold and silver retable and naturalistic sculpture of superlative quality. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life

In the early 13th century, an extension to the east end of Bishop Walkelin’s church was begun, creating a spacious retrochoir behind the high altar and lengthening the building to a spectacular 591ft. Again, the earlier liturgical plan with three eastern chapels, including the decorated Guardian Angels’ Chapel (Fig 4) and a central Lady Chapel, was preserved. Construction progressed from east to west, so that the new interior could be completed before the connecting demolition work took place. Work followed to the renovation of the choir and its stalls.

In about 1350, attention turned to the modernisation of the nave. This work was begun under the patronage of Bishop Edington, born on the site of one of King Alfred’s greatest victories. The lion’s share of it, however, was undertaken by his successor, the great architectural patron William of Wykeham, and his master mason William Wynford.

Walkelin’s nave was far too monumental to demolish easily, a common enough problem in England where so many great churches had been rebuilt on a vast scale after the Norman Conquest. The response was to subsume the existing three-storey elevation into a completely new two-storey design (Fig 2). In the initial stages of the work, the Norman piers were recut with Gothic mouldings. Latterly, these were simply re-clad with new masonry. In time, both Edington and Wykeham were buried in the nave that they transformed, inside screened chapels (Fig 1). Such structures were a new departure in English architecture, allowing masons to demonstrate their skills in creating virtuosic miniature works of architecture.

The next major project was the aggrandisement of St Swithun’s shrine. It was probably Cardinal Beaufort, one of the richest prelates in Christendom, who planned a new reredos behind the high altar (Fig 6). This huge screen, incorporating highly naturalistic sculpture, as well as a gold and silver retable, was probably begun in the 1440s and completed in the 1470s by Bishop Waynflete. The astonishing chantry chapels erected for both men stand nearby in the retrochoir and, in 1476, the shrine of St Swithun was moved between them (Fig 5). Possibly related to this was the re-ordering and decoration of the adjacent Lady Chapel (Fig 3).

Vault of eastern chapel at Winchester Cathdral: The Guardian Angels’ Chapel vault with its 13th-century decoration

Fig 4: Vault of eastern chapel at Winchester Cathdral: The Guardian Angels’ Chapel vault with its 13th-century decoration. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life

Soon afterwards, there followed the last major medieval works to the cathedral overseen by Bishop Fox (1501–28). With the help of the mason Thomas Bertie, he rebuilt and vaulted the choir aisles and erected a high vault in timber over the eastern arm. In 1525, he also enclosed the choir with screens. Bones of several of the kings and bishops of Wessex were ranged in chests along the top of them (Fig 7). His superb chantry, erected in 1513–18 in the retrochoir, incorporates a miniature version of the high vault of St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

In 1538, amid the Reformation, St Swithun’s shrine was torn down and, the following year, the priory was dissolved and replaced by a collegiate foundation. In 1554, Queen Mary married Philip of Spain in the cathedral and what has been identified since the 17th century as the X-frame chair she used on the day survives (although in need of restoration). Her Lord Chancellor, Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, died the year after and is buried in a remarkable chapel incorporating Classical detail in the retrochoir.

The 17th century saw important changes to the interior, including the erection of a choir screen by Inigo Jones in 1638–39 and the destruction of much medieval glass and imagery by Parliamentarian soldiers in December 1642. In the 18th century, many visitors commented on the neglect of the cathedral and the town; Daniel Defoe described the latter in about 1724 as ‘a place of no trade… no manufacture, no navigation’.

Major restoration followed in the early 19th century under the direction of architect William Garbett and then John Nash. Many visitors today come to see the tomb of Jane Austen, who was unobtrusively buried in the north nave aisle in 1817. In the early 20th century, the medieval foundations of the cathedral began to fail, after which architect T. G. Jackson and engineer Francis Fox supervised the underpinning of much of the structure between 1905 and 1912. As part of this work, diver William Walker famously laboured underwater to create new concrete foundations to the retrochoir and then much of the rest of the cathedral.

Winchester Cathedral: The reredos of Bishop Wykeham’s chantry. Its sculpture of 1897 by Sir George Frampton is being admired by three tiny praying figures, restored to resemble monks, on the Bishop’s tomb below.

Fig 1: The reredos of Bishop Wykeham’s chantry. Its sculpture of 1897 by Sir George Frampton is being admired by three tiny praying figures, restored to resemble monks, on the Bishop’s tomb below. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life

Now, the building has just emerged from another major restoration project, overseen by the present cathedral architect Nick Cox. As part of the work, and with the help of an £11.2 million National Lottery Heritage Fund grant, a three-storey museum space has been created in the south transept. The exhibition ‘Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation’, which opened in May, presents the history of the building and features some of the cathedral’s greatest treasures, including the Winchester Bible, as well as giving access to the 17th-century Morley Library.

There is also a display about the technical examination of the bones from the 16th-century funerary chests by a team from Bristol University. Working on more than 1,300 bones, experts have been able to record at least 23 partial skeletons. Astonishingly, given their rough treatment (in 1642, the Parliamentary troops reputedly threw them round the building), scientific analysis shows that they could plausibly have belonged to the bishops and kings of Wessex.

North Aisle toward the north east chapel, Winchester Cathedral: The presbytery aisles. Thomas Bertie’s choir screens are dated 1525 and are surmounted by six mortuary chests.

Fig 7: North Aisle toward the north east chapel, Winchester Cathedral: The presbytery aisles. Thomas Bertie’s choir screens are dated 1525 and are surmounted by six mortuary chests. ©Paul Highnam / Country Life

Included in the collection and replicated in the exhibition is one female skeleton, probably that of Emma of Normandy, queen to Kings Ethelred and Cnut, and the woman through whom William the Conqueror claimed the English throne. It’s a staggering encounter for a modern visitor in a building that so powerfully conveys in architecture the transformative effect of his invasion of England nearly 1,000 years ago.

Acknowledgements: John Crook