Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Winchester Cathedral (Winchester)

The cathedral of the Holy Trinity, St. Peter, St. Paul and St. Swithun at Winchester is one of the great cathedrals of England. It stands in a sea of green at the centre of this ancient city, and is the longest Gothic church in Europe at 556 feet.

The see was founded in 635 at Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, and moved to Winchester in 679.

It was fitting that there should be a Saxon cathedral at Winchester, which preceded London as the capital of England. By the time of the Norman Conquest, however, the old cathedral was falling into disrepair, and in 1086 William the Conqueror ordered the building of a replacement, on an adjacent site.

Bishop Walkelyn was responsible for most of the new building, over a caomparatively short period. The crypt and transepts of Walkelyn's cathedral are still intact.

In 1120, the body of William Rufus was brought here on a cart for burial beneath the central tower. It is just about possible that his death from an arrow wound in the New Forest might have been accidental, and that his brother Henry I just happened to be close at hand to seize the crown.

In any event, the tower fell in 1107, and the monks insisted that this was because such an impious man should have been buried in God's house. The homosexual William was very likely an adherent of a non-Christian religion, and was thoroughly disapproved of within the church, for which he himself had little time.

The squat replacement tower completed in 1120 looks a little incongruous at first sight, but it is supported by the most massive crossing piers of any English cathedral.

The retrochoir was added by Bishop de Lucy about 1200, and the 14th century William of Wykeham transformed the interior by decorating the Norman fabric in the Perpendicular style.

Mortuary chests in the choir contain the bones of many of the old Anglo-Saxon and Danish Kings of England, including Egbert, Ethelwulf, Edward the Elder, Edred, Edwy, Cnut and Harthacnut.

Among the magnificent chantry chapels are those of William of Wykeham; Cardinal Beaufort, the son of John of Gaunt, who was largely responsible for the condemnation and execution of Joan of Arc; and William of Wayneflete, founder of Magdalen College at Oxford.

St. Swithun's remains were transferred to the cathedral in 1093. Earlier, on his death, he was buried outside, so that the sweet rain of Heaven could fall upon his grave. But on the 15th July 971, his wishes were overruled and he was brought inside. It is said that the heavens wept for forty days, giving rise to the folklore belief about the result of rain on St. Swithun's Day.

Near the shrine of St. Swithun is an unusual collection of nine Russian icons of saints, painted by Sergei Fyodorov.

It was at Winchester Cathedral that Mary I married Philip of Spain.

A simple floor slab marks the final resting place of Jane Austen, who died in 1817. The inscription fails to mention that she was a writer. Also buried here was Izaak Walton in 1683.

The black Norman font came from Tournai in Normandy, and was created about 1150. It has scenes from the life of St. Nicholas.

The cathedral also has a fine collection of mediaeval wall paintings, in the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre and in the Lady Chapel.

The Library has a valuable collection of books and documents, including the beautiful illuminated Winchester Bible, dated about 1160.

At the beginning of the 20th century it was discovered that the whole cathedral had been built on a raft of timbers resting on a bed of peat, and was consequently in great danger of collapse.

The danger was averted by the heroic diver William Walker, who worked singlehanded for six years in the dark and in 14 feet of water to replace the peat with concrete. There is a memorial to him in the cathedral, and a poignant statue by Antony Gormley in the crypt.

In the 1960s, the New Vaudeville Band had a big hit record with "Winchester Cathedral" ("you stood and you watched as my baby left town").

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