May 25, 2018
Categorised in: History
To celebrate our upcoming Stone Festival, we have been investigating some of the mysteries and people behind the stones of the cathedral and the stories they tell, to find out more about this incredible building. The seventh part of the series takes a journey in the footsteps of the pilgrims and what they saw of the cathedral stones.
Saint Swithun, patron saint of Winchester Cathedral, is one of the best known Anglo Saxon saints, famous for his posthumous miracles and healing abilities. St Swithun was originally buried in Old Minster, but was moved when the new cathedral was built. Some of his remains went to other churches, such as Canterbury Cathedral, but some of them remained in a reliquary in Winchester Cathedral.
His fame for healing and influencing the weather drew many pilgrims to visit his shrine during the 12th and 13th centuries. The shrine was placed in the retrochoir, which was built in the late 1200s. The retrochoir reflects the popular gothic style of the time, with pointed arches and windows. It also has much more decoration than older parts of the cathedral. There are stiff-leaf foliage decorations carved throughout and the first of the cathedral’s many roof bosses were added to the retrochoir in the 13th century. The floor is paved with decorative medieval tiles, many of which survive today.
The pilgrims would have been able to use the ‘Holy Hole’, a small tunnel built underneath St Swithun’s shrine, in order to get closer to his bones. Unfortunately, the shrine was abandoned during the reformation, and in 1538, it was destroyed by vandals during the night. Three years later, the Holy Hole was also blocked off.
If you visit the retrochoir today, you’ll be able to see a memorial to St Swithun that stands in the place of his shrine. The memorial was constructed in 1962, over a thousand years after St Swithun’s death and contains references to his many miracles. The Holy Hole remains blocked off, but you can still see the entrance which many pilgrims would have used to get closer to their patron. Much of the original decoration remains the same, and you can still walk over the original medieval tiles, which make up the largest surviving spread of this type of decorated tile in England today.