Britain has an extensive network of Cathedrals, this collection of articles explores the history of some to the most popular churches to visit and explore. This piece focuses on Winchester. Odyssey is an Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers.
10 Oct 22 · 7 mins read
Winchester Cathedral, United Kingdom
The magnificent cathedral in the city of Winchester, England, is one of the largest of its kind in Northern Europe. And with an overall length of 170 m, it is the longest medieval cathedral in the world. Its rich, fascinating history spans more than 1000 years, having served as a site of monasteries, pilgrimages, burials of Saxon and Norman kings, and even the wedding of Queen Mary I to Philip of Spain. The cathedral as it stands today was built from 1079 to 1532 and consists of Norman transepts and tower, an Early English retrochoir, and a long and very wide Perpendicular Gothic nave.
This article explores the history and architecture of Winchester Cathedral as background reading for Odyssey Traveller’s tour to Winchester. We visit Winchester during our Medieval England Tour – a small group tour especially designed for the active mature-aged and senior traveller. On this tour, you’ll spend 22 days we our tour director and local guides travelling from Canterbury to Cambridge, passing through Winchester, Salisbury, Bristol, Hereford, and Norwich along the way. Castles, villages, Cathedrals and churches all feature in the Medieval landscapes visited.
Much of the information used in this article is extracted from Simon Jenkin’s England’s Cathedrals.
History of Winchester Cathedral
The first Christian church in Winchester was a small cross-shaped stone building just north of the present building, built c. 648 by King Cenwalh of Wessex, and dedicated to St Peter and St Paul. Known as the Old Minster, it became a cathedral when Winchester became a bishop’s see in 662. It consisted to two main rooms with square side chapels, with an apse and then a tower on the western end added during the 700s.
Invading Danes in the 800s damaged the Old Minster. When it was repaired later in the century, it became a Benedictine monastery, with Swithun chosen as the patron saint. He was canonised for performing such useful miracles as repairing a basket of eggs which a woman dropped on her way to market. His bones, housed in an ornate reliquary, were originally buried in the graveyard outside the church. Pilgrims soon flocked to the site, with the bones becoming famous for their healing powers, When the bones were moved from outside the church to inside (on 15 July 971), a violent storm is said to have occurred, with rain for forty days.
In 871, when Alfred the Great was crowned King of Wessex, he established Winchester as his capital. The cathedral therefore took precedence over London; here, kings were crowned, power resided, and treasure stored. King Alfred began building the New Minster here to the north of the Old, completed after his death in 901 by his son Edward the Elder. Alfred’s body was moved to the New Minster upon its completion. From here on, the two monasteries existed side by side, with the monks virtually intertwined with one another.
After the Norman Conquest in 1066, William the Conqueror began to replace the Anglo-Saxon bishops with his own Norman bishops. The first Norman bishop of Winchester, Walkelin, was installed in 1070. As early as 1079, Walkelin began work on a huge new Norman cathedral on the site of the present building. Upon its consecration in 1093, the Old and New Minsters were demolished.
With the new cathedral’s nave at 558 feet, it was to be (and remains) the longest medieval nave in the world. Unfortunately, Walkelin paid no thought to foundations. The ground on which the cathedral was built was so damp that still today the crypt is regularly under water during rainy months. The tower was also unstable, falling into the transept as early as 1107, with no one daring to replace it since. Nevertheless, the standard of much of the building was very high, with much of it surviving in the present building. Most notably, the transepts have an appearance almost as Walkelin left them.
Winchester’s story then followed a similar pattern amongst English cathedrals of gothic rebuilding. In the early 13th century, the eastern arm was rebuilt in the Early English style to meet the needs of Saint Swithun Pilgrims. This was followed in the mid-14th century by the building of a new Perpendicular Gothic façade, featuring a huge west window, under Bishop Edington, and then a Perpendicular rebuilding of the nave under the patronage of William Wykeman. Then from 1450 to 1528 took place a major rebuilding and expansion of chantry chapels in the retrochoir, the replacement of the Norman east end with a Perpendicular presbytery, and the extension of the retrochoir into a Lady Chapel.
The inside view of Winchester is breath-taking. On entering, visitors are immediately confronted with Wykeham’s nave, its west wall entirely composed of tracery glass. The tracery is filled with medieval fragments and beneath stand statues of James I and Charles I. In the west bay of the nave is a font of black Tournai marble; on the nave’s south side is the jutting box of Wykeham’s chantry.
At the crossing, we are transported back to Walkelin’s Norman cathedral. Here, three tiers of arches rise to the roof, each tier a complex of single and double spans, without decoration. On to the north transept, this would have marked the first entry of pilgrims to St Swithun’s shrine. It starts with the 12th century Holy Sepulchre Chapel whose wall paints of c. 1170 are in excellent preservation. They depict the deposition from the cross and the burial in the tomb. Also in the north transept is the Epiphany Chapel, with a set of four windows.
Steps from this transept lead down to the crypt, also dating to Norman times. It extends underneath much of the eastern end of the building. As it still regularly floods due to the high-water table, Winchester can be seen here, in effect, floating on water. A prominent stature in the crypt by Antony Gormley depicts a life-sized man gazing at an image of himself in his cupped hands.
Back in the south transept is the Fisherman’s Chapel. The 1996 altar by Peter Eugene Ball is carved from a solid trunk of oak, adorned with swirls of water and fish. Next door, the Venerable Chapel’s modernist altar has an electronic frontal by Rachel Schwalm that glows. In the centre of the transept is a Victorian monument to Samuel Wilberforce, son of the reformer; it is by Geroge Gilbert Scott at his most lavishly neo-Decorated.
Scott’s work on the choir screen is more scholarly – an immaculate exercise in gothic revival. Depending on the light, the screen forms either a delicate backdrop to the nave altar or a dramatic silhouette against the presbytery beyond.
Over the sanctuary looms a stone reredos. Its statues were smashed in the Reformation and were restored by J. D. Sedding in the 1870s. On the screens to the north and south of the sanctuary are mortuary chests said to contain the bones of Saxon kings buried in the old cathedral, including Egbert and Canute, apparently to emphasise Winchester’s historic primacy. The bones were scattered in the Civil War, but afterwards lovingly gathered up and put back, albeit at random.
Beyond the sanctuary is Winchester’s retrochoir – an early Gothic chamber of clustered piers and rhythmic vaults. Built for St Swithun’s shrine, it is crowded with chapels and chantries of later bishops of the church. Much of the floor is laid with the most expensive spread of medieval tiles in England. The retrochoir is dominated by Winchester’s four principal chantries, each a distinctive example of late Gothic design.
The retrochoir culminates in the Perpendicular Lady Chapel. Its west window is a minor version of the west window, its roof a starburst of liernes and bosses. On either side are the Guardian Angels Chapel and Bishop Langston’s chantry.
Tour of Winchester Cathedral
Odyssey traveller visits Winchester Cathedral during our 22-day Medieval England Tour. This small group escorted tour travels from Canterbury to Cambridge, passing through Winchester, Salisbury, Bristol, Hereford, and Norwich along the way.
Castles, villages, Cathedrals and churches all feature in the Medieval landscapes visited. This includes visits to not only Winchester Cathedral, but also those in Wells, Canterbury, Salisbury, Bristol, Hereford, Leicester, Norwich, Ely, and Worcester! On our guided tour of Winchester’s city centre, we also visit other sites including the Great Hall and the Westgate Museum.
Odyssey Traveller also visits several English cathedrals during our 22-day Seven Ages of Britain Tour. On this tour, be amazed by the splendour of Norman cathedrals in Durham, York, Ely, and Norwich, as well as the spectacular views of London’s Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping, and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.
Articles about Britain published by Odyssey Traveller.
- Understanding British Churches
- Studying Gargoyles and grotesques
- Georgian Architecture
- London’s Victorian Architecture
- Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England
- Landscapes of Medieval England
For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.
External articles to assist you on your visit to Britain.
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Small group tours Medieval England
A small group tour of England focused on Medieval England and Wales. Spend 21 days on this escorted tour with tour director and local guides travelling from Canterbury to Cambridge, passing through Winchester, Salisbury, Bristol, Hereford and Norwich along the way. Castles, villages, Cathedrals and churches all feature in the Medieval landscapes visited.
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Britain has an extensive network of Cathedrals, this collection of articles explores the history of some to the most popular churches to visit and explore. Odyssey is an Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers.
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Britain has an extensive network of Cathedrals, this collection of articles explores the history of some of the most popular churches to visit and explore. Odyssey is an Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers.
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