Fifteen centuries of English history lie behind the massive Cathedral you see today. It stands at the heart of historic Winchester, once the seat of Anglo-Saxon and Norman royal power, on the site of an early Christian church. It’s been a place of worship ever since.
A royal Anglo-Saxon church
Today’s Cathedral has its roots in the seventh century, when England’s pagan monarchy first became Christians.
In 635, Cynegils, king of the West Saxons, was baptised. Just over a decade later, his son Cenwalh built the first Christian church in Winchester, the heart of Anglo-Saxon Wessex.
This small, cross-shaped church became known as Old Minster. You can still see where it stood, its outline traced in red brick, just north of the present building.
Soon, Old Minster became a cathedral, housing the throne (cathedra) of a bishop who held sway over a huge diocese that stretched from the English Channel to the river Thames.
This was now the most important royal church in Anglo-Saxon England. It was the burial place for some of the earliest kings of Wessex, including King Alfred the Great.
Here too King Cnut, who ruled England and Denmark in the early 11th century, chose to be buried, and was joined by his wife Queen Emma on her death in 1052.
A place of pilgrimage
By the 10th century, Old Minster was the priory church of a community of monks, living a simple life of frequent prayer under the rule of St Benedict.
Here, eight times a day, the monks would pray and chant – the beginnings of the great English choral tradition that remains one of the nation’s treasures today.
The church was made bigger and grander by its 10th-century bishop, Aethelwold. The bones of St Swithun, a former bishop, were dug up from its forecourt and housed in a splendid new shrine inside.
St Swithun’s fame spread far and wide. All round his tomb, the walls were hung with the crutches of people he’d healed.
By the year 1000, Old Minster was a multipurpose building – a mighty Cathedral, a thriving priory church, a healing place of pilgrimage, and the final resting place of West Saxon kings.
The Normans arrive
But huge changes lay ahead, as England’s Saxon leaders were abruptly toppled by a great new military power.
In 1066, William the Conqueror successfully invaded England from his duchy of Normandy. He was anointed king at Westminster Abbey, and quickly moved to take control of the Church.
He replaced Winchester’s last Saxon bishop with his own royal chaplain, Walkelin. The French bishop set about building a huge new church in the Norman Romanesque style.
After 450 years, Old Minster was demolished. Its stones were used for the new Cathedral, consecrated in 1093 with a great ceremony attended by almost all England’s bishops and abbots.
You can still the Norman roots of our present Cathedral in its massive, round-arched crypt and transepts today.
A thriving medieval Cathedral
The Norman Cathedral flourished. William Rufus, William the Conqueror’s son, was buried here in 1100.
You can still see the remains of its great monastery, St Swithun’s Priory. These include the 14th-century Pilgrims’ Hall where visitors stayed, and the site of the monks’ dormitory, now a tranquil garden.
Sumptuous works of art were commissioned. A glorious new font celebrating the work of St Nicholas was installed. In the 12th century, a magnificent illuminated Bible was made for the monks to use in their daily worship. You can still see the Winchester Bible in the Cathedral Library.
In the centuries that followed, wealthy and powerful bishops put their stamp on the Norman cathedral. They remodelled it with soaring gothic arches the 14th century, making it even more ornate in the 15th and 16th centuries.
They also commissioned their own chapels, where priests would say daily masses over their tombs to speed their souls into heaven. These fine chantry chapels remain one of the great glories of our Cathedral.
A new Church of England
The dissolution of England’s monasteries during the 1530s under Henry VIII, in his dispute with the Catholic church of Rome, was a catastrophic upheaval. All were swept away. A few, including Winchester, were re-founded as cathedrals.
After nearly 600 years, Winchester’s great Benedictine monastery, St Swithun’s Priory, had come to an end. The shrine of its patron saint was ransacked under cover of darkness, and its cloister demolished.
In the 1550s, Roman Catholicism was briefly revived by Henry’s daughter Mary Tudor, who married her Spanish husband in the Cathedral. But from then on, the reformed Church of England held sway.
It brought with it a new prayer book written in English so all could understand, and a new pattern of worship based on Mattins, Holy Communion and Evensong. These great Anglican services still form the basis of our worship in today.
To the present day
By the early 16th century, much of the Cathedral you see today was complete.
New secular names became linked to this place, to add to those of mighty kings and bishops, from the 17th-century angler Izaak Walton to the great early 19th-century English novelist Jane Austen.
The 19th century saw much restoration work, including new stone statues for the huge 15th-century Great Screen behind the altar. The Cathedral’s Organ, a cut-down version of a huge organ displayed at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, was bought.
By the early 1900s, there were fears that the east end of this ancient building would collapse, after centuries of subsidence. Deep-sea diver, William Walker, worked under water in total darkness for six years to stabilise them.
Today, after 12 centuries, this great Cathedral church remains the seat of the Bishop of Winchester and centre of the Diocese of Winchester. Its beautiful spaces continue to echo to the sound of daily prayers and glorious sacred music.
It is also a thriving attraction for visitors all over the world, a precious heritage that we seek to conserve for future generations. Please visit us – you’ll find a warm welcome.
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