England has many beautiful cathedrals, but in my opinion, Winchester Cathedral is without doubt the most beautiful. Its scale, architecture and setting make it unrivalled. And, if that wasn’t enough, the cathedral happens to be in England’s most preserved and picturesque city.
Winchester has been a place of importance for over 2 millennia. After the conversion to Christianity, the people of Wessex built a place of worship on the sport where the present cathedral now stands. The recorded church is from about AD 169 when Lucius, ‘King of the Britons’, converted to Christianity. He made Winchester is seat of power and the cathedral the centre of worship for his people.
Not much is known about the first church; it was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the next few hundred years as pagan and Christian warlords fought for control over the area. This era of uncertainty was finally ended in 635 when king Kynegils defeated the Saxon king, Cerdic. The king destroyed the pagan temple ‘Dagon’ and laid the foundation stones for his Christian church. From that day onwards, there as been a Christian place of worship on this same spot.
King Alfred the Great was probably the most famous patron of the cathedral. Alfred – after many setbacks – defeated the Danes thus preventing the southern half of England from Viking rule. Upon his victory he was crowned King of England in the cathedral and made Winchester his home and capital of the ancient kingdom of Wessex. Nothing now remains of Alfred’s cathedral.
Winchester was once the ancient capital of England and, even after it was surpassed by London, it remained an important city. Many of the Bishop’s of Winchester were men of importance and wealth. One it’s greatest bishops was William of Wykeham. He became bishop in 1366 and was twice Chancellor of England, Founder of Winchester College and New College Oxford.
But perhaps the most famous bishop of Winchester was St Swithin. Not much is known about him except that he became bishop in 852. We do know that he died on July 2 862 and was buried, at his request, in the churchyard so that “the sweet rain of heaven may fall upon my grave”. Later his body was removed for reburial, which was against his dying wish. Legend has it that it rained for 40 days. To this present day we have the superstition that if it rains on St Swithin’s day we are in for 40 more wet days.
Building of the present day cathedral began in 1079. It was built in the baroque style. The cathedral’s diocese once stretched from London to The Channel Islands. The cathedral was originally occupied by Benedictine monks, however they were removed during the Reformation; you can still see parts of the remains of the monastic buildings in the Cathedral Close.
Central to the life of the monks was the opus dei (the Work of God), the regular offering of prayer, which they sang in the choir. This tradition still carries on at the cathedral. The choir is now comprised of boys from the Pilgrim’s School, which is adjacent to the cathedral. The Winchester choir now enjoys a world wide reputation for its music.
Many famous people have been connected with Winchester College. Queen Mary married Philip of Spain in the cathedral. For people nowadays, the most famous person associated with Winchester Cathedral is Jane Austen, the novelist. Jane Austen was born in Hampshire and lived most of her life in the county. She spent the last year of her life in Winchester. Her tomb is inside the cathedral.
The power and wealth that once belonged to Winchester Cathedral is still palpable but today it has a gentile and tranquil character to it. It still serves as a place of worship for the local population as well as a beautiful spot in which to picnic in its delightful gardens.