Winchester Cathedral is the magnificent centrepiece of the ancient Hampshire city of Winchester. Built over a timespan of 500 years from 1079 to 1532, it is the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe and the longest medieval cathedral in the world. It is dedicated to numerous Saints, the most famous of which is Saint Swithun, and is the resting place of many ancient kings and warriors as well as literary icon Jane Austen.
The cathedral is packed with memorials and monuments, has a Gormley statue in the crypt, a museum in the upper floors and a truly stunning reredos. It is a very popular tourist attraction and should be on everyone’s list when visiting the beautiful city of Winchester.
Winchester Cathedral is a truly stunning building. It is less prepossessing from the outside compared to somewhere like Salisbury Cathedral, and when you first walk in it looks like a standard cathedral, but once you reach the back with the Great Screen and the quire, you realise just how breathtaking it is. There are lots of little chantry chapels to explore, and the addition of a museum area in the upper floor provides a unique perspective of both the building and its contents.
A Brief History of Winchester Cathedral
The earliest church in Winchester was actually built in 648 and was a small, cross-shaped building, just north of the current cathedral near the walls of the Roman city of Venta Bulgarum. This was known as the Old Minster and was the first cathedral in the Winchester bishopric which controlled a vast area from the channel to the Thames. Next to the Old Minster was constructed a New Minster, begun by Alfred the Great and completed in 901. The two ministers co-existed side-by-side for many years.
After the Norman invasion, work started on a huge Norman cathedral, both minsters were demolished and their tombs were moved into this new building. Work continued on the Norman cathedral over the years - at one point in 1107 the central tower collapsed - it was reconstructed, but never reached the heady heights which were probably once planned for it.
Much of this original building still survives as the cathedral we see today, with further expansion scheme over the centuries. A retrochoir was added in 1202, built to house the tomb of St. Swithun and in the 14th century a Gothic west window was added. The nave was remodelled, the wooden ceiling replaced and many chantries have been added.
With the dissolution of the monasteries the Priory of Saint Swithun surrendered to the King in 1539, and the shrines and altar were destroyed, including the shrine to Saint Swithun. The monastic buildings were closed and demolished during the 16th century. A choir screen was added by Inigo Jones in 1638. Much of the medieval glass and imagery was destroyed by Cromwell and his forces, including the huge West window.
After falling into some neglect, the cathedral was restored again in the early 19th century, but by the early 20th century it was in serious danger of collapse, with huge cracks opening up and extensive flooding in the crypt. An extensive restoration program began. Due to all of the flooding in the trenches, built to try to restore the cathedral, bags of cement had to be laid to plug up the water. Between 1906 - 1911 a diver, William Walker, spent about six hours a day, every day for six years, diving into septic water full of bodies and graves, to reinforce the foundations, before the water could be pumped out. He died a few years later of the Spanish flu, and his gravestone bears the inscription, "The diver who with his own hands saved Winchester Cathedral".
Must-see highlights of a visit to Winchester Cathedral
Kings & Scribes
Kings & Scribes is an exhibition which was curated in 2019 containing of some of the artefacts and stories connected to this church which was once the centre of Anglo-Saxon royalty. It is thought there are at least 12 royals buried here, from before the Norman Conquest. The exhibition is laid out over three floors in the south transept, all easily accessible by lift. It also gives you the excellent opportunity to look down over the interior of the building, so that you can see it from a very different perspective.
It is a fascinating exhibition and includes some wonderful ancient objects. As well as the mortuary chests (see below), there are statues which once adorned the cathedral, many of which were destroyed, sawn up and used as building blocks. These have been rescued over the years during various renovations and are now in the exhibition.
There are musket balls from the 1640s, a King James Bible, gilded cherubs from the 1665 organ, a replica of the original shrine to St. Swithun and even a remnant from his original shrine from its foramina (holes where the pilgrims could put their hands in to get closer to his body), an indulgence from 1254 and so much more.
Before the Norman invasion, Winchester was the seat of the Wessex Royals, along with some early Norman rulers. There are six mortuary chests, which contain a mixture of people thanks to the destruction caused by the English Civil War. The bones were originally interred in the Old Minster and then transferred by Henry of Blois after its destruction to the new cathedral. He had them raised in their lead coffers around the high altar. These were placed in the painted oak mortuary chests in the 14th century which were in turn placed inside new chests in the 15th century. The 15th century chests can still be seen in their positions high up around the altar.
The contents of the boxes have been examined by archaeologists who have found the remains of 23 separate people co-mingled within, include one female who is thought to be Queen Emma, wife of two Saxon Kings, Æthelred the Unready and King Canute.
Other occupants include King Cynegils 611-643, King Cenwalh 643-672, King Egbert 802 - 839, King Ethelwulf 839 - 858 and King William II, otherwise known as William Rufus.
William Rufus was the third son of William the Conqueror and was killed hunting in the nearby New Forest, quite possibly by his brother Henry who bolted to Winchester to seize the treasury and be crowned King within a matter of days.
Rufus was buried underneath the tower and was blamed for its collapse in 1170, as he had been an unpopular ruler. You can visit the Rufus Stone which supposedly marks the spot where he was killed, which is less than 20 miles away and in a beautiful part of the forest.
St Swithun's shrine
Swithun was a bishop of Winchester from 852 to 863. When he died he was largely forgotten about until about 100 years later when his grave was moved and he was adopted as patron saint for the cathedral's Benedictine Monastery.
In writings from long after his death, he was attributed various saintly qualities, becoming known for his piety. It was said that when he held feasts he would invite the poor rather than the rich and that he performed the miracle of restoring a basket of broken eggs, as well as building a bridge nearby to allow the poor to reach the market easily. On his deathbed, he asked to be buried outside the cathedral, where people could walk on him and raindrops could fall on him.
He was moved to an indoor shrine on 15 July, a day of intense rain which showed his displeasure at being moved indoors, and it is since he was moved that the miracles are believed to have started happening, with all sorts being attributed to him. He was installed into a magnificent shrine, with the retrochoir being built to accommodate all of the pilgrims who came to see his resting place. His shrine was destroyed in the Reformation, and a modern day depiction is all that remains on the site of his shrine. You can see a facsimile of the original shrine in the Kings & Scribes exhibition.
He is the patron saint of rain and a nursery rhyme depicts what most now remember him for - his ability to predict the weather, for if it rains on St Swithun's Day, 15th July, it is thought it will continue to rain for the next 40 days. Apparently there is some meteorological truth in this, due to the position of the Jet Stream on that particular day each year.
St. Swithun's day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithun's day if thou be fair
For forty days 'twill rain nae mare
Tournai Marble Font
The Tournai marble font is one of only seven in the UK, although there are more in Northern Europe. Made from black limestone found in the Tournai region of Belgium, this one was brought to Winchester in the 12th century, where it has been used as a baptismal font ever since.
Carved from a single block of black limestone, the font is decorated with scenes from the life of St. Nicholas (otherwise known as Santa Claus), one of which includes the earliest depiction ever of a fixed stern rudder ship.
The font was brought over by Henry of Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror and Bishop of Winchester from 1129 - 1171. He also brought over three other Tournai fonts which you can see in other churches in Hampshire.
The Great Screen
The reredos, otherwise known as the Great Screen, was built between 1455-75. The statues were destroyed during the 16th century Reformation, so the ones you see there today were added in the 19th century (which explains why you can see Queen Victoria amongst the Saxon Kings). Some of the original statues are on display in the Kings & Scribes exhibition, many missing body parts.
It is a truly outstanding piece of decorative architecture and one that caused me to actually gasp when I rounded a corner in the cathedral and saw it for the first time. It is huge, highly ornate and incredibly detailed, being almost too much to take in in one viewing. My photographs do not do it justice and I would urge you to see it for yourself.
It is located behind the quire, the oldest of the great medieval quires in England which remains largely unaltered and covered in beautifully carved animals and foliage. With an ornate pulpit, blue and gold decorations amongst the dark wood and the glistening lamps, it is all a truly spectacular sight.
The crypt is one of the earliest parts of the building, dating from its original Norman construction. It is underneath much of the eastern part of the cathedral but only a small part of the many aisles and areas can be seen by visitors.
You descend through a small door which leads onto a raised platform, fenced off from the vaults, and from there you can see down an aisle of the crypt.
The ancient brickwork and stone vaulted ceiling are impressive, and standing at the bottom is Sound II, a life-sized sculpture by Anthony Gormley, of a man standing and staring into his empty cupped hands. It often floods in the crypt, so he stands submerged in water, and a hidden tube in the sculpture fills his cupped hands.
Even without flooding, the statue looks striking, creating an evocative atmosphere within the empty crypt.
The Floor tiles
Winchester Cathedral has an impressive array of medieval floor tiles which you will see at various places around the building. Tile makers were skilled craftsmen who would travel around the country producing tiles for cathedrals, churches and palaces. Hampshire was rich in fine clays and remains of main potteries have been found in the county.
Tile were made in wooden moulds with carved wooden stamps pressed into the clay, dried and then the imprint filled with a white slip, cut and glazed (often in beer to give it that rich brown colour) and then finally fired in a wood burning kiln. The ones you see on the floor of the cathedral are a mixture of original tiles and modern reproductions. Some of the earliest date from the 13th century and can still be walked on.
The grave of Jane Austen
Jane Austen lived in the Hampshire village of Chawton from 1809 - 1817, where her brother owned Chawton House. She suffered from ill health, particularly towards the end of her life, and in 1817 she moved to Winchester to seek medical help, staying in 8 College Street next to the cathedral, (and soon to be opened to the public as a tourist attraction). She only stayed a few months in the city, dying in July 1817 at the age of 41. Her brother had clerical connections within the city and was able to arrange for her to be buried in the cathedral.
You can find her in the north nave. Her original memorial made no mention of her literary works, so a brass plaque was added in 1872 to redress this, and a memorial window was unveiled in 1900.
Visiting Winchester Cathedral
Getting to Winchester Cathedral
Train: There are regular trains from cities such as London and Bath. Book your tickets 12 weeks in advance to get the largest discounts. Winchester train station is a 12 minute walk to the cathedral, or you can get a taxi from the taxi rank outside the station - no pre-booking required.
Bus: There are regular buses into and around Winchester with the nearest bus stop being the actual bus station. Find your bus >>
Car: If you are coming from out of town, consider using one of the Park & Ride sites, they are well maintained and have regular buses to take you in and out of the city.
Cathedral opening hours: Monday - Saturday, 9.00 - 5pm, Sunday 12pm - 3pm
Ticket Prices: Tickets are £9.95 for adults, under 16s go free. Buy them on the door.
5. Where to eat when visiting Winchester Cathedral
The cathedral has a good café just outside the cathedral entrance, with a lovely garden area. There are also countless restaurants just outside the cathedral grounds.
7. Where to stay when visiting Winchester Cathedral
There is a lot to do in Winchester and you may want to stay at least a couple of days to enjoy all of the history which is on offer. Have a look on Booking.com (below) who give you the advantage of free cancellation up to 24 hours before you stay for most of their properties.