Anthony Joisce illustrates Winchester

PUBLISHED: 17:28 22 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:52 20 February 2013

Anthony Joisce illustrates Winchester

Anthony Joisce illustrates Winchester

Anthony Joisce delves in to the history books to bring Winchester's past to life...

The city walls were neglected from the 16th Century and new openings made, rendering the medieval gates useless; in 1755 the upper floor of Northgate collapsed and was demolished in 1771, as was Southgate. Eastgate came down in 1791 and much of the wall had gone by 1800.

In the 18th Century Winchester settled down into more modest prosperity as a county town. The population trebled between 1801 an 1881, largely due to the coming of the railway. There ensued a frenzy of building work to accommodate the new Wintonions, and suburbs began to spread in all directions.

It is a regrettable irony that while the city escaped the bombings of the two World Wars, post war improvements led to the loss of some wonderful and interesting architecture. However Winchester remains rich in historical and cultural buildings. Everywhere you look there is something beautiful, and if you take the time to look carefully you might just find some evidence of past glories and ghosts of buildings now long forgotten.

Anthony Joisce delves in to the history books to bring Winchesters past to life

Winchester is in possession of what is possibly the richest architectural heritage in the country. With not only the cathedral, which is spectacular in itself, but the college, the church and hospital of St Cross, the great hall of the castle and the Episcopal palace at Wolvesy.

It lies in the more narrow part of the Itchen valley, where an east to west route can be traced back to prehistoric times. There were several prehistoric settlements in the valley and in the vicinity of the town there is not only the Iron Age hill fort at St Catherines Hill, but also evidence of another settlement inside a D shaped enclosure at Winnall Down, and a third was excavated in 1993 at Weeke.

In the Middle Iron Age, a settlement was established on the east facing spur of the chalk downland, above the flood plain, centred around the open space now known as Orams Arbour which, by 100BC, was enclosed by an earthwork ditch. There is evidence to suggest that the existing gateways lie on routes that were present hundreds of years ago, such as the beautiful West Gate. There is some evidence that the settlement had been abandoned before the Roman invasion of 43AD, and that they went on to establish their own settlement nearby, or possibly overlapping; they called it Venta Belgarum (Trading Place of the Belgae).

However, it is unlikely that they found themselves surrounded by a bustling, trading community. The reason for building here had far more to do with the military strategic value. The towns defences were erected on three uphill sides and the marshy valley below provided defence from the fourth >> direction. The final area of the Roman settlement was 138 acres, the fifth largest in Britain.

Roman Winchester may have been militaristic in character, but by 100 AD it had become an administrative centre. Administrative buildings were centred around the forum, immediately north of the current cathedral. Although much has changed since, the Roman influence can still be found in the layout of the city, and relics may still be found in the City Museum.

In the 14th century the citys character seemed to have changed from spacious residential surroundings to a more densely populated trading and industrial centre. The Notitia Dignataum, for example, mentions the weaving works and there is remaining evidence to suggest the presence of Germanic people in this era.

In the later 14th century bastion towers were added; a sign of the uncertainty of life in this period of Roman occupation. A second wave of Germanic immigration occurred in the 15th Century, a date well before the arrival of the Saxons in Britain, by which time urban life in Venta Belgarum had come to an end.

Some argue that the city continued to function into the Anglo-Saxon period with the Anglo Saxon chronicle claiming that Cenwealh, the king, built a church here in 648 (later called Old Minster) and that it may have been a chapel to a royal palace. What is certain is that by the 660s the church became a cathedral, when the West Saxon see was transferred from Dorchester on Thames.

The present layout of the streets, besides the Roman influence, dates back to the rule of King Alfred in the 1880s. The new street grid was set out, aligned with the Roman constructions and evidently set out to provide access to the walls for defence.

The 10th Century Monastic Reforms, which reached Winchester from continental areas such as Ghent and Fleury, had a considerable impact on the city. Bishop thelwold expelled the secular canons of Old and New Minster in 964, replacing them with Benedictine monks.

The development of the cult of St Swithun, in the 19th Century was central to the reform of Old Minster and at the same time King Edgar enclosed the three religious foundations within a boundary wall, following the requisition and demolition of several secular buildings; the present boundaries of the Inner Close probably date from this time. At about the same time the Bishops palace was constructed on Wulfs Island, or Wolvesley and together the Episcopal foundations took up more than one quarter of the walled city.

William the Conqueror arrived in 1066 and work began in 1067 on the construction of a new castle, though his base remained in the palace, just west of Old Minster. The conquest had a huge impact on the religious establishments of Winchester and in 1079 work began on a new cathedral, under Bishop Walkelin, brought over from Rouen.

By the late 13th Century the city also possessed four friaries, whose existence is now preserved only in place names such as, The Carmelite Friary on Kingsgate Street, the site of which was acquired by Winchester College. The Augustinians were housed on the east side of St Cross Road; the Franciscans on Middle and Lower Brook Street and the Dominicans on High Street.

Several institutions made provisions for health care, Henry of Blois founded the Leper hospital on the eastern downs, and Saint Cross Hospital. The Sustren Spital also administered to the sick, maintained by nuns and dependant on St Swithuns Priory. As it turned out all the hospitals were needed, as the population by 1100AD stood at 1300 houses according to a recording in King Henrys survey; this made Winchester second only to London.

With this power came great responsibility of which Winchester quickly adjusted to. The Royal Mint was based in the city, and if it had been down to King Henry then it would have remained in Winchester forever. However, the main industry was the weaving of wool and it was now that the river Itchen really began to play its part by providing the power for the mills. In the 13th Century there were at least nine water mills in Winchester until, unfortunately, the plague killed more than a third of Wintonians and wool trade and industry began to fail.

The Reformation brought further drastic changes to the city. St Swithuns Hyde, Nunnaminster and the smaller houses were all dissolved and some of the more conventional buildings were adapted for the cathedral which was once more staffed by secular canons; of the other religious buildings, only a few vestiges remain.

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