Winchester City Museum is a small museum next to the cathedral, which tells the story of this city, once the fifth largest in Roman Britain, the seat of government of Norman Kings and the heart of King Alfred's Wessex. The museum may be small but it is well laid out and packed with fascinating artefacts, making it an essential place to visit for any traveller to the city.
Housed in a rather lovely flint and stone building right next to Winchester Cathedral, the City Museum has been here since 1903. Over three floors it covers the history of this once important city - from its Iron Age origins through the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Jane Austen to the Victorians.
The story starts on the top floor of the museum. Just 30 years after the invasion of Britain in 43AD, the town of Venta Belgarum (modern day Winchester) was formed, absorbing its Iron Age predecessor and becoming the fifth largest city in Roman Britain. By the beginning of the 3rd century, its earthen and timber defences were reinforced with stone, and the previous wooden dwellings were being replaced by those made of stone and flint, with underfloor heating. The city was in an ideal location and received ceramics, glass and other commodities from across the Roman Empire.
The museum has several items from this era which were found during archaeological excavations, from everyday domestic items such as buttons, bone combs and rings to the wonderful mosaics used in the larger villas just outside the city; British farms which had been developed as Roman villas complete with bath suites and hypocausts.
One such villa was at Sparsholt, midway between Winchester and Old Sarum. This luxury country estate had mosaics and colourful plaster walls. One mosaic was found almost entirely intact and is on display in the museum - a magnificent geometric mosaic which forms the centerpiece of the Roman room. Nothing remains of Sparsholt Villa, although you can see a recreation of one wing of it at nearby Butser Ancient Farm.
Excavations show that the Roman occupation of Winchester came to an end around 380AD, with buildings falling into ruins and civic amenities ceasing. Someone buried a hoard of bronze coins and a necklace by a wall which they never managed to retrieve.
The second floor of the museum is the Gallery of 1000 years, covering the Anglo-Saxon and Medieval periods of life in Winchester. The city's revival began in the 9th century with St. Swithun and the Kings of Wessex and it soon became one of the principal towns of England in the 9th century, the closest thing to a capital city. Known as Wintanceaster it was a religious monastic centre and high status town with a royal palace.
Artefacts on display include an amazing reliquary known as The Winchester Reliquary, decorated with gilt-bronze sheets. Made in the 9th century, it held religious relics and was carried in processions on religious festivals.
King Alfred encouraged the arts and the growth of religion, resulting in the Winchester School style of manuscript illumination, with acanthus leaves, tendrils and foliage. This reliquary is decorated with acanthus leaves and is the only Anglo-Saxon reliquary found in the country, discovered during an excavation of a cesspit dated to 925.
Winchester was at the height of prosperity after the Norman Conquest, with the city population growing to over 10,000 and becoming a centre of international trade. The city had its own mint, started by King Alfred and continued by the Norman kings.
The city became a major religious centre in Medieval times, wielding enormous power across the south of England including London. The Bishop's Palace at Wolvesey Castle (which you can visit) was both a palace and a fortification. When Winchester Cathedral was built, it was one of the largest in Europe at the time. Pilgrims travelled from afar to visit the shrine of St. Swithun.
Medieval artefacts include a 12th century bronze horn, tools from a medieval kitchen, a loo seat from the home of a wealthy trader, a child's leather shoes which survived in a waterlogged site and all other types of paraphernalia of medieval life.
The fortunes of the city started to decline after the first Plague in 1348, with the population reduced by a third. In 1382, Bishop Wykeham opened Winchester College as a school to educate new clergy, to replace those lost in the plague. Poverty struck with the loss of trade, and the 100 Years War further reduced the city's importance globally. Money, power and population shifted to London, and the city went into a steady decline.
The bottom floor of the museum is dedicated to more recent history from the 19th and 20th century. The centrepiece is a huge model made of Winchester made by a former county councillor, depicting Winchester in 1870. Other displays include an original, full sized shop front of Foster & Son Tobacco Blenders, which opened in 1871 and closed in 1980, having barely changed in all that time. There is a wonderful medicine chest filled with little drawers all labelled with their medical contents, and jars for leeches, as well as a penny farthing and commemorative items from the Millenary celebrations for King Alfred.
A highlight incudes a few items which belonged to Jane Austen. Jane Austen died in Winchester, having moved here in 1817 to seek medical care.
She died after just two months and is buried in Winchester Cathedral. The house she lived in is right next to Winchester College, and will soon be opened up as a tourist attraction.
On display in the museum are two small purses, both of which were hers, one of which she made. There is also a manuscript of a poem written in one of her notebooks, and a spool case which belonged to her and is engraved with her initials.
It is a well presented, informative museum, with plenty of hands-on and interactive things for kids to do, and it provides an absorbing introduction to this historic city.
VISITING WINCHESTER CITY MUSEUM
How to get to Winchester City Museum
Postcode: SO23 9ES
Public Transport: The museum is a ten minute walk from the train station or catch a bus to Winchester city centre.
Parking: If you are driving, it is best to use one of the Park & Ride sites. They always have spaces, are clean and have a regular bus service.
When is Winchester City Museum open?
Daily, 10am - 5pm
How much does it cost to visit Winchester City Museum?
Tickets cost £5 per adult (or £6 to include a visit to the nearby Westgate Museum) and are valid for a whole year.
Are there any facilities at Winchester City Museum?
Being in the centre, there are plenty of places to eat just right outside the door.