WINCHESTER CASTLE AND THE GREAT HALL - THE 13TH CENTURY HOME OF AN 'ARTHURIAN' ROUND TABLE

The Great Hall and a few passageways are all that remains of Winchester Castle, one of the earliest castles built by William the Conqueror. It was once home to the Domesday Book, was where Sir Walter Raleigh was tried for treason and was where the infamous Judge Jeffries conducted his Bloody Assizes. It is also home to a 13th century Arthurian roundtable which has hung on the wall for about 700 years.

The Great Hall and Queen Eleanor's Garden
Queen Eleanor's Garden and the Great Hall

A Brief history of Winchester Castle and the Great Hall

Winchester Castle was built for William the Conqueror as one of his first castles in England,

on the site an old Roman fort. Venta Belgarum, as the Romans knew present day Winchester, was a city of great importance, but was left to decline around 380AD. It wasn't until the middle of the 7th century that a Christian church was built within the walls of the city. In 802, King Egbert was crowned King of Wessex and made Winchester his capital. The city began to thrive again and became a centre of art and education.

The front of the great Hall

When William the Conqueror invaded Britain in October 1066, Winchester along with other significant towns in the south, had surrendered to him by November. Crowned in Westminster Cathedral on Christmas Day that year, he then came to Winchester for a second coronation. It was the following year that he ordered the building of the royal castle, using parts of the old Roman walls.


The castle was the seat of government for Norman kings for the next 100 years, being rebuilt and fortified several times. William's fourth son managed to get rid of one of his brothers, William Rufus in mysterious circumstances in the New Forest and rushed to Winchester to be pronounced King Henry I, occupying the castle and seizing the treasury.


Henry II built a stone keep to house the Domesday Book, which was also known as Liber de Wintonia - Book of Winchester. Winchester, as with London, was not included in the book due to its tax-exempt status.

Inside Winchester's Great Hall
Inside the Great Hall - one of the finest surviving aisled halls from the 13th century

It was Henry III, who was born in Winchester Castle, who made significant changes to the castle, and it was he who added the Great Hall, sometime around 1235. Work started in 1222 under the charge of Master Mason, Elias of Dereham, who is better known for his work building Salisbury Cathedral and Clarendon Palace.


The site continued to be used as a royal residence until a fire gutted the royal apartments of the palace in 1302. The required repairs were so extensive that it took a long time for them to be completed; instead royal visitors to Winchester would stay at the Bishop's Palace, nearby Wolvesey Castle. It was around this time that the seat of power started shifting towards London.

The Round Table hanging on a wall in the Great Hall
The Round Table has been in this hall for over 700 years

The castle was still used in early Tudor times. Henry VIII entertained Emperor Charles V in the Great Hall, Queen Mary married Phillip of Spain in Winchester and because of an outbreak of plague in London, Sir Walter Raleigh went on trial in the Great Hall for his part in the plot to depose James I - he was then imprisoned in the Tower of London.


After the Civil War and the sacking of Winchester, the castle was destroyed under Cromwell's orders in 1649.


The Great Hall was the only part which escaped the destruction. It was often used as a court, and was where the notorious Judge Jeffreys condemned people such as Alice Lisle to death for their parts in the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685. She was executed just outside what is now the Winchester City Museum and a plaque commemorates the spot.


The rest of the site was offered to Charles II, who commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to design a magnificent palace called The King's House to rival that at Versailles, but Charles died soon after and although it had been completed, it did not become a royal residence. Instead it housed refugee priests during the French Revolution, and was converted to barracks in 1809. It burnt down in 1894 and only one wall remains.

The Great Hall was used as a county court until 1874, and again from 1938 - 1974. One famous trial which took place within its walls was in 1953, when the then Lord Montagu of Beaulieu was one of three men on trial for indecency in a court case which was to become groundbreaking for LGB rights.


Restored in 1975 with Queen Eleanor's Garden open in 1986, and The Long Gallery added ten years later, the Great Hall is now a major tourist attraction as well as filming location and wedding venue.


What to see in the Great Hall


The Round Table

A close up of the Round Tbale

The Winchester Round Table was made from English Oak around 1290, probably for a Round Table Festival in honour of the marriage of one of Edward I's daughters. Edward I was a fan of the Arthurian Legend who regularly attended Round Table events.


These were held across England and Europe in the latter Middle-Ages and involved jousting, feasting and general merriment, with guests often dressing up as characters from the legends.


The artwork however was done under the orders of Henry VIII, who had it painted with 24 sections to represent each of Arthur's Knights, with himself as King Arthur and a Tudor Rose right in the middle.


The table originally had legs, but was hung on the east wall possibly around 1348. It was moved to its present location on the west wall in 1873.


The Long Gallery

The Long Gallery is a relatively recent addition to the Great Hall. It is filled with information about the history of the Great Hall, with copies of medieval illustrations and manuscripts which detail Sir Walter Raleigh's trial, the Civil War and the Kings and Queens who ruled there.

A view down the long, narrow gallery
The Long Gallery is aptly named

Queen Eleanor's Garden

Outside the Great Hall is a garden which has been recreated as a medieval garden, based on a 13th century herber garden. Herber gardens were small, enclosed gardens which usually contained perfumed and medicinal flowers. This one was opened in 1986 by the Queen Mother. It has a tunnel arbour made with willow, grave vines and roses to shield ladies' pale skin from the sun, a water channel which symbolised everlasting life in Christianity and a turf seated conversation area.

If you look on the wall behind the arbour, you will see all that remains of the King's House. It had been converted to barracks by 1809 and was destroyed by fire in 1894. The black streak down the wall are melted pitch from the roof, which ran down this wall and are still clearly visible today.


The West Wall and the Wedding Gates

The Great Hall is connected to the law courts by a huge archway, which in 1983 was fitted out with two large gates made to commemorate the wedding of Price Charles with Lady Diana Spencer. Made from stainless steel they are considered ground breaking forge work of the 20th century. The key to open them is the shape of a W to commemorate their son, William.

On the whole of the west wall is a 'family tree' with the names of parliamentary representatives for Hampshire from 1283 - 1868. There are a few gaps amongst all the names from times of political upheaval or the plague. These were painted when the Great Hall underwent restoration in 1874 and are a really striking addition.


The Castle Passageways

Steps leading underground

Outside the Great Hall and free for anyone to enter, are all that remains of the rest of Winchester Castle. Steps lead down to a dark and gloomy passageway which were once underneath one of the castle's towers and which led out to the dry moat.


There is not much left to see, you can only peer through locked gates into the darkness beyond, but they do give you a good impression of how big the castle must once have been.


The World War I Memorial Bench

The memorial bench outside the Great Hall
'A Promise Honoured'

During World War I, Winchester was a major army depot and one of the largest military transit camps in the UK at the time, with over 2 million soldiers passing through the area during the conflict. Soldiers would arrive at the camps of Morn Hill and Winall Down in the hills around the city and once a division was fully assembled, they would take the trains to Southampton and then on to the front lines in France and Belgium. In 1917, the camps were transferred to the US Army for the transit of their soldiers, with nearly a million passing through.


In 1919, the Mayor of Winchester made a promise to commemorate the American soldiers billeted in the hills around the city, and in 2014 the promise was finally fulfilled. This bench made of Portland stone is just outside the Great Hall and shows a soldier's kit left on a railway bench.


VISITING THE GREAT HALL


How to get to The Great Hall


Postcode: SO23 8UJ

what3words: grills.additives.amber


Public Transport: Winchester is fully served by buses within the city and from cities such as Salisbury and Southampton.


Parking: Use the Winchester Park & Ride if you are driving into town


When is The Great Hall open?

The standard hours are 10am - 5pm but check their website as they sometimes close for functions.


How much does it cost to visit The Great Hall?

£4 per person


Are there any facilities at The Great Hall?

There are is no café but it is in the centre of town and there is a lot of choice nearby..