Review – Winchester Cathedral and City Museum

4 mins read

A visit to Winchester’s cathedral and City Museum offers a chance to explore the ecclesiastical life and early days of this historic Hampshire city, as Lucia Marchini finds out.

The south transept of Winchester Cathedral
The south transept of Winchester Cathedral, where the exhibition Kings and Scribes is housed. [Image: Winchester Cathedral]

Over the centuries, the splendid stones of Winchester Cathedral have undergone successive changes. Elements of the Romanesque building (started under Norman rule in 1079), which was later remodelled according to a Gothic design, are easily visible around the cathedral, but, like many ecclesiastical structures, further changes came as the Reformation in the 16th century, the Civil War in the 17th century, and the subsequent Restoration of the Monarchy all left their mark. A long life sitting on peaty soil and a high water-table have also had an effect: more recent vestiges can be seen in some of the cracks and the lean of the wall in the eastern end of the cathedral. In their attempts to underpin the subsiding walls in 1906, the project engineer and architect called for the assistance of deep-sea diver William Walker, who filled the flooded excavated trenches deep beneath the cathedral with bags of concrete, ultimately saving much of the building.

Kings and Scribes: the birth of a nation, a permanent exhibition that opened at Winchester Cathedral in May last year, explores the building’s fascinating long history and Winchester’s prominent place in English history (as Alfred the Great’s capital) in an atmospheric setting over three levels in the south transept. Displays tell of the building’s construction and later preservation work, and include souvenirs made from wood recovered during the early 20th-century rescue works. Traces of Winchester’s Anglo-Saxon Old Minster can be seen among the fine stonework exhibited. One carving, now known as the Sigmund Stone, depicts an episode from the heroic deeds of Sigmund as told in the Norse Völsunga Saga. The Sigmund Stone was part of a narrative friezeinstalled in the Old Minster by king Cnut (who married Emma, the widow of Æthelred the Unready) that seems to highlight shared origins of the royal houses of Wessex and Denmark, which both traced their ancestry back to Scyld.

Among the other stoneworkon display are some of the sculptures that once adorned the cathedral’s great screen of 1475-1490, including, for example, afigure of the Virgin Mary and Christ child, which still retains small amounts of its originalpainting, giving a glimpse of the colour that once filled the building. The sculptures are all broken, as the screen was destroyed during the Reformation.

A sculpture from the cathedral's screen
The cathedral’s screen was destroyed in the Reformation. [Image: Winchester Cathedral]

Some of the activities related to this sacred space are also explored in the exhibition, and here we encountermore medieval colour: this time in the form of the stunning work of scribes and manuscript illuminators who created sumptuous works such as the 12th-century Winchester Bible. Recent analysis identified the pigments they employed and a dazzling array of samples in their various states – as well as the finished product – are on display; there is lead white, orchil (or orcein, a purple pigment made from a local lichen), vermilion from cinnabar, gold, and, the most expensive, blue from lapis lazuli mined in Afghanistan.

New (ongoing) research is showcased elsewhere in the exhibition, where the cathedral’s painted mortuary chests are put under the spotlight. Perched above the presbytery screens are these six mortuary chests, which are thought to contain the remains of prominent Anglo-Saxons – kings and bishops – originally interred in the Old Minster. The remains were disturbed during the Civil War, after which they were put back in the chests in a haphazard fashion. Study of the bones so far has found that they mainly date to the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman period, in keeping with the names labelled on the chests (CA 353). Not mentioned on the chests, though, are two adolescent boys, who died between 10 and 15 years old in the mid-11th to late 12th century, perhaps royals like other named occupants of the containers. One individual we have more clues about is an older woman whose bones are scattered among several chests. These may be the remains of Queen Emma, aforementioned spouse of Æthelred and then Cnut.

Winchester City Museum [Image: Hampshire Cultural Trust]

The nearby Winchester City Museum reveals other aspects of the lives of Winchester’s inhabitants, tracing the area’s history back to long before the building of the Old Minster. Journeying from the Iron Age to the modern day, visitors encounter tools, traded items, a humble wooden toilet seat from the house of a medieval mayor, leather shoes, purses, and a spool case belonging to the novelist Jane Austen, who died in the city, as well as some exquisite examples of ecclesiastical art from Wintanceaster (Saxon Winchester).

Before Wintanceaster, there was Roman Venta Belgarum, to which the museum’s top-floor gallery is devoted. The centrepiece of the room is a mosaicfrom Sparsholt Villa (see CA 12 and 300), but cases hold smaller finds that build a picture of Roman activity here: seeds and fruits from the waterlogged groundtell us what people were eating, imported glassware and ceramics bear witness to trade across the empire,and an array of brooches and other jewellery give a glimpse of how people presented themselves. Their makers’ work appears to have beenappreciated in later centuries as coins (pierced to be used for ornamentation), brooches, belt-fittings, and knife-handles have been found in Anglo-Saxon graves too.

The bronze sculpture
The Silkstead Head: a bronze sculpture that shows a blend of Roman and Celtic styles. [Image: Hampshire Cultural Trust]

One beautiful bronze object brings us facetoface with one of Hampshire’s erstwhile inhabitants. A small sculpture found in Silkstead Sandpit at the village of Otterbourne shows the head of a young girl using a blend of traditions. A Roman hairstyle is executed in a somewhat stylised fashion, while the eyes, enhanced with black stones, have an almond-like shape, seen elsewhere in Celtic art. In the medieval gallery, we get a glimpse of another woman whose head was sculpted in the 13th century. The head was originally part of a corbel or arch over a door, but was found reused in the 15th-century foundations of a building at Winchester’s Benedictine Hyde Abbey. The painton her eyes and lips is still visible, and her headdress hints that she was a wealthy noblewoman, perhaps a patron of the Abbey. Through such portrayals and the personal effects on display, the museum bringsus close to people from across Winchester’s past.

Further information
Tickets to Winchester Cathedral include entry to Kings and Scribes: the birth of a nation and cost £9.50 for an adult (valid for re-entry for a year). The cathedral is open to visitors 9.30am-5pm Monday-Saturday and 12.30-3pm Sunday. Kings and Scribes is open 9.45am-5pm Monday-Saturday (1 April to 31 October), 10am-4pm (1 November to 31 March), and 12.30-2.30pm Sunday. More info:
Winchester City Museum is open 10am-4pm Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-4pm Sunday (closed Monday). Adults: £5; children (6-16): £2.50; under-5s: free; family tickets available. All tickets are valid for re-entry for a year. See for details.

This review appeared in CA 362. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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