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(left) Estate agent panel; (right) stones from the Roman south gate, now stored inside Hyde Abbey Gateway
At the end of seven miles over the Downs, we come to the very ancient city of Winchester; not only the great church, which is so famous all over Europe, and has been so much talk'd of, but even the whole city has, at a distance, the face of venerable, and looks ancient a far off; and yet here are many modern buildings too, and some very handsome.
Daniel Defoe, A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journies - 1724-1727
It was a place of considerable note among the ancient Britons, and soon after the invasion of Julius Caesar, it became a Roman station, called Ventae Belgarum, and was probably one of their cities, as appears from the discovery of a pavement of brick, and some coins of Constantine the Great, found in digging the foundation of the Royal Palace.
Richard Wavell - The Winchester Guide - 1780 ed.
Winchester retains very little evidence of its Roman past. It was most likely founded in ca 70 AD to serve as capital of the Belgae, a tribe from today's Belgium.
(left) Westgate (XIIth-XIVth centuries); (right) High Street on the site of "Decumanus Maximus" (main east-west Roman street)
As the city it self stands in a vale on the bank, and at the conjunction of two small rivers, so the country rising every way, but just as the course of the water keeps the valley open, you must necessarily, as you go out of the gates, go up hill every way. Defoe
To the advantages which the city of Winchester has received by art, we may add, were it necessary, innumerable ones by nature, being situated in a delightful vale on the banks of the river Itchen, and in a fertile open country bounded by distant woods and interspersed with rising hills. (..) The present walls are reported to have been erected by Moleutius Dunwallo AD 341. On the south and east sides, for some distance, they remain entire, and many fragments of them are continued to a considerable extent on the north and west. (..) The circumference of the walls is near two miles. Wavell
The rectangular layout of Venta Belgarum and its Decumanus Maximus can still be noticed in today's Winchester, similar to what occurs at Colchester, which stands on the site of Roman Camulodunum.
British Museum: wall of the upper section of a Roman building near Meonstoke, SE of Winchester; (inset) assumed aspect of the building
There are no above ground Roman monuments in Winchester, but in 1988 the King Alfred's College (i.e. the University of Winchester) Department of Archaeology discovered the upper section of a fašade of a fallen ancient building in the environs of the town. It was part of a Roman rural villa and it had a secular purpose, perhaps it was a barn; it was built in opus listatum, a construction technique based on layers of bricks and stones which was typical of the Late Empire.
British Museum: Bacchus Mosaic from Thruxton, NW of Winchester; (inset-1) lower right corner of the mosaic, most likely portraying one of the Four Seasons; (inset-2) 1851 drawing of the mosaic
This floor mosaic was uncovered in 1823; it has lost its central medallion portraying Bacchus on a panther which we know after a drawing made in 1851, which showed also the word voto in the lower part. This led some art historians to assume that the hall was used by worshippers of Bacchus, four of whom (Quintus Natalius Natalinus Et Bodeni) paid for the floor mosaic. Today the accuracy of the drawing with respect to the word voto is not supported by the British Museum. Inscriptions mentioning the donors of floor mosaics became quite common in the IVth century, but they were related to public facilities, e.g. Palladius Street at Scythopolis or early Christian churches, e.g. at Aquileia, but that at Thruxton, the only one found in Britain, was inside a private building.
Ruins of Winchester Castle
Near the West gate of the city are some small remains of a strong and stately castle which according to tradition was built by the renowned king Arthur AD 523. (..) The West Saxon kings and many of our princes after the conquest resided and kept their court in this castle. Wavell
At first sight the ruins of a large building near Westgate call to mind opus caementicium, a construction technique which was frequently used by the Romans. They belong instead to a XIIIth century castle which was almost destroyed during the Civil War. It was not the only monument of the town to be damaged during that period because the Royalists and the Parliamentarians fought at Winchester for many years. In 1651 Cromwell's men destroyed the castle to prevent it ever falling into royalist's hands again. Only the Great Hall was spared.
Great Hall of Winchester Castle: (left) interior; (right) King Arthur's Round Table
At the west gate of this city was anciently a castle, known to be so by the ruins, more than by any extraordinary notice taken of it in history: What they say of it, that the Saxon kings kept their Court here, is doubtful, and must be meant of the West Saxons only; and as to the tale of King Arthur's round table, which, they pretend, was kept here for him, and his two dozen of knights; which table hangs up still, as a piece of antiquity, to the tune of 1200 years, and has, as they pretend, the names of the said knights in Saxon characters, and yet such as no man can read: All this story I see so little ground to give the least credit to, that I look upon it, and It shall please you, to be no better than a FIBB (trivial lie). Defoe
The Roman Amphitheatre of Caerleon was another location which was associated with King Arthur's Round Table in the popular imagination.
Ruins of Wolvesey (the name of a former islet in the River Itchen) Castle
The gardens behind the Cathedral are extremely delightful being watered by a branch of the river Itchen remarkably clear and rapid disposed in an elegant taste and opened on the east to a prospect of the extensive ruins of Wolvesey castle and other striking objects. Wavell
The old palace of the bishop having been ruin'd by that known church incendiary, Sir William Waller, and his crew of plunderers; who, if my information is not wrong, as I believe it is not, destroyed more monuments of the dead, and defac'd more churches, than all the Round-heads in England beside. Defoe
Ruins of Wolvesey Castle: (left) a tower; (right) a latrine
Wolvesey castle was a palace belonging to the Bishops of Winchester, the ruins of which demonstrate the magnificence and splendor of its original state. It was built AD 1138 by Henry de Bloys, Bishop of Winchester, nephew to King Henry the First and brother of King Stephen, and it stood till the civil wars (..) when it was demolished by the Parliament's forces under Sir William Waller, who left no part standing that could afford them plunder. (..) Camden (*) observes that in his time it was very spacious and surrounded with many towers. The residence of the Saxon Kings is by some conjectured to have been on this spot. Wavell
(*) William Camden (1551-1623) was an English antiquarian and historian who wrote Britannia, a topographical and historical survey of Great Britain and Ireland.
St. Bartholomew's with the tower built with stones from Hyde Abbey
I cannot omit that there are several publick edifices in this city, and in the neighbourhood; as the hospitals, and the building adjoining near the east gate; and towards the north, a piece of an old monastry undemolish'd, and which is still preserved to the religion, being the residence of some private Roman Catholick gentlemen, where they have an oratory, and, as they say, live still according to the rules of St. Benedict. This building is call'd Hide-House; and, as they live very usefully and, to the highest degree, obliging among their neighbours, they meet with no obstruction or disturbance from any body. Defoe
St. Bartholomew's: capitals from the cloister of Hyde Abbey (ca 1125-1135); another capital is shown in the image used as background for this page
This monastery had often rivalled the cathedral while it stood in its old place. (..) It having been celebrated and famous for the sepulchres of divers princes there interred (..) where they rested in quiet, till the general havock of religious houses, which storm fell so severely on Hyde, that there continue not at this day the least remains of the grandeur of this once magnificent abbey, but the name. (..) Of the monastery nothing remains except some out buildings toward the street and one gate way. (..) The church of St Bartholomew now called Hyde church originally stood within the precincts (..) and the tower of St Bartholomew was probably built with the same stone collected from the ruins of the abbey. Wavell
The Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s was, together with the Civil War, the event in the history of England which caused the greatest damage to its artistic heritage. The ruins of the abbeys often resemble those of ancient monuments, e.g. at St. Botolph's in Colchester and at St. Augustine's in Canterbury.
Sarcophagi at Nunnaminster, a nunnery behind the Cathedral, which also was dissolved; the sarcophagi were found during archaeological excavations in 1981-1983
A Benedictine nunnery called St Mary's abbey was founded by Ealhswith, the wife of king Alfred AD 900. It was situated near the house of the (..) present public spirited and worthy Mayor of this city, in whose garden the only remains of this edifice is to be seen, which is now reduced to one small heap of stones. This piece of antiquity is however carefully preserved, and may be seen by the curious traveller. It originally consisted of an abbess and twenty one nuns and was valued at the dissolution at 175l 7s 2d. Wavell
(left) Winchester College seen from the Cathedral's Close; (right-above) coat of arms of Bishop Wykeham on the vault of the entrance; (right-below) a nearby pub showing the coat of arms inside the Order of the Garter
William of Wickham was a courtier before a bishop; and tho' he had no great share of learning, he was a great promoter of it, and a lover of learned men: His natural genius was much beyond his acquir'd parts, and his skill in politicks beyond his ecclesiastick knowledge: He is said to have put his master, King Edward III. to whom he was Secretary of State, upon the two great projects which made his reign so glorious, viz. First, upon setting up his claim to the crown of France, and pushing that claim by force of arms, which brought on the war with France, in which that prince was three times victorious in battle. Upon setting up, or instituting the Order of the Garter; in which he (being before that made Bishop of Winchester) obtain'd the honour for the Bishops of Winchester, of being always prelates of the Order, as an appendix to the bishoprick; and he himself was the first prelate of the Order, and the ensigns of that honour are joyn'd with his episcopal ornaments. Defoe
Winchester College Outer Court
The college in this city, is a noble foundation indeed: The building consists of two large courts, in which are the lodgings for the masters and scholars, and in the center a very noble chapel; beyond that, in the second court, are the schools, with a large cloyster beyond them, and some enclosures laid open for the diversion of the scholars. There also is a great hall, where the scholars dine: The funds for the support of this college are very considerable; the masters live in a very good figure, and their maintenance is sufficient to support it: They have all separate dwellings in the house, and all possible conveniences appointed them. This school has fully answer'd the end of the founder, who, tho' he was no great scholar, resolv'd to erect a house for the making the ages to come more learned than those that went before; and it had, I say, fully answer'd the end, for many learned and great men have been rais'd here. Defoe
Winchester College: ceiling of the Chapel
The chapel is an hundred and two feet long and thirty three broad and is equal to most and superior to many in our Universities whether we regard its dimensions, its furniture or the solemnity which strikes us at our entrance. (..) The roof is covered with a cieling of wood in imitation of arched stonework. Wavell
Winchester College is still operating with some 700 pupils; visits to the premises are limited in frequency and scope in order not to disrupt academic activities and the taking of photographs is restricted because of security reasons.
Winchester College: Fromond Chantry: original 1393 stained glass window from the Chapel
The east window is painted with the genealogy of Christ represented in the most lively colours. (..) The rest of the windows are finely ornamented with the portraits of Saints with their names written under them. Wavell
In the 1820s the original stained glass windows of the Chapel were replaced by copies and for the most part destroyed. Some of them were recovered and after restoration they were reconstructed in 1951 inside Fromond Chantry, a chapel in one of the cloisters.
St. John's Hospital Almshouses
The Hospital of St John (..) appears to have been founded in the year 1289 by John le Devenishe who gives us the following account of it. "John le Devenishe, citizen and alderman of the cittie of Winchester, founded the Hospitall of St John Baptist (..) for the only relief of sick and lame souldyers, poor pilgrims, and necessitated way faring men to have their dyett and lodging their fit and convenient for one night or longer as their abilities for trayvayl gave leave without any expence or payment therefore." (..) On the north side of this Hospital stands the commodious college founded and amply endowed by William Lamb Esq AD 1554 for six poor citizen's widows who reside here in comfortable habitations with every suitable convenience. Wavell
Holy Cross Hospital Church seen from the garden
The hospital on the south of this city, at a mile's distance on the road to Southampton, is worth notice. Tis said to be founded by King William Rufus, but was not endow'd or appointed till later times by Cardinal Beaufort. Every traveller that knocks at the door of this house, in his way, and asks for it, claims the relief of a piece of white bread and a cup of beer; and this donation is still continued; a quantity of good beer is set apart every day to be given away; and what is left, is distributed to other poor, but none of it kept to the next day. Defoe
The buildings belonging to this foundation consist of one extensive irregular court which has a beautifully rural effect and all together exhibits a piece of venerable antiquity. Wavell
Holy Cross Hospital Almshouses
The founder's institutions requires that thirteen poor men so decayed and past their strength that without charitable assistance they cannot maintain themselves, shall have continual habitation in the Hospital, and be provided with proper cloathing and beds suitable to their infirmities. That they shall have a daily allowance of good wheat bread, good small beer, three messes (a portion of semi-liquid food) each for dinner and one for supper. But in case any one of these shall happen to recover his health and strength he shall then be respectfully discharged and another admitted in his place. (..) On six holidays in the year they had white bread and ale, in the same quantities; and one of their messes was roast meat, or fish of a better sort; and on the eves of those holidays, and that of the founder's obit, they had an extraordinary allowance of four gallons of ale among them. (..) The lodging rooms of the poor people adjoin to the church, at the west end of the south ile, and after forming an angle, extend from North to South, and form the whole western side of the court. Wavell
Holy Cross Hospital: (left) gatehouse; (right) entrance to the Church
How the revenues of this hospital, which should maintain the master and thirty private gentlemen, who they call Fellows, but ought to call Brothers, is now reduc'd to maintain only fourteen, while the master lives in a figure equal to the best gentleman in the country, would be well worth the enquiry of a proper visitor, if such can be nam'd: Tis a thing worthy of complaint, when publick charaties, design'd for the relief of the poor, are embezzel'd and depredated by the rich, and turn'd to the support of luxury and pride. Defoe
Such was the original institution and economy of this Hospital, which though hitherto well observed in general, and constantly maintained with regard to the abovementioned particulars, yet in process of time it was materially injured by the avarice of several of its masters. Wavell
Holy Cross Hospital: Romanesque interior of the Church
The church, which is a curious remain of Saxon Architecture, was built in the reign of King Stephen by the first founder; it is in the form of a Cross and consists of three iles with a transept or cross ile. The roof is remarkably lofty and is supported by round massive pillars with round headed arches stronger than the Doric or Tuscan. (..) The great west window of this church is built in a very ornamental stile and was formerly an elegant one, as is obvious from the remains of some curious painted glass with which it was once furnished. There remains nothing in it at present legible or at least intelligible. (..) A window in the east side of the north transept was formerly ornamented in the same stile. Wavell
The windows in the older buildings were regarded as mere holes in the wall to admit light, and seldom treated architecturally. From being cut square through the wall, the next step was to splay them on the inside, so as to diffuse the light more widely in the building. Having got so far the builders began to decorate them. (..) They are orderly disposed in three tiers between the flat pilaster buttresses and gradated in importance as they rise storey by storey. At the Church of the Hospital of S. Cross (..) the middle tier has four lights, coupled in pairs.
Thomas Graham Jackson - Gothic Architecture in France, England and Italy - 1915
Holy Cross Hospital Church: (left) transept with windows having a chevron (or saw tooth) decoration, a characteristic feature of Romanesque architecture (see other examples in France e.g. at Saintes and Le Mans, in Sicily and in churches built by the Crusaders, e.g. in Lebanon); (right) Bird Beak Window
Move to page two and see the Cathedral.
Plan of this section:
Aquae Sulis (Bath Spa)
Isca Augusta (Caerleon)
Noviomagus Reginorum (Chichester) and nearby Fishbourne Palace
Portus Adurni (Portchester)
Venta Belgarum (Winchester)
Verulamium (St. Albans)
Roman Villas on Vectis (Isle of Wight)
Roman Villa of Lullingstone
Roman Villa of Bignor
Roman Villas in Dorset/Somerset