Voted the best place to live in Britain back in 2016, Winchester appears on the outside a sleepy yet historic market town. After all, Colin Firth comes from here, but though the town might be better known these days as the place of rest for Jane Austen, the cathedral which has housed her grave for the last 200 or so years has a very dark side.
The great King and Queen burial mystery to be revealed
Some of you may be aware of the four wooden chests that are supposed to house the bones of the first kings and queens of England. In this, it is thought that the true identity of these bones will be at last uncovered.
Why are there so many early monarchs buried at Winchester? Because during Anglo-Saxon England, Winchester was the capital and hugely important. People travelled across the country to the Cathedral on pilgrimages to see the tomb of St Swithun, the Cathedral’s patron saint. When he was originally buried in the Old Minster, when the Cathedral which stands today was built, his tomb was moved inside the new building on the 15 July 971.
It then rained solidly for 40 days and nights (hence the curse, it is said now, that if it rains on the 15th July, it will rain for 40 days and nights thereafter.) A curse that may well have some proof after the smashing up of his shrine by King Henry VIII’s men in the middle of the night in 1538.
Winchester Cathedral was, and still is, one of the largest Cathedral in Europe and the longest in its Gothic style. It is thought that it is also the burial-place for two of the four Danish Kings who once ruled England. Also, King Canute is thought to be there and his son Harthacanute. The last king to be buried at Winchester is thought to be William II in 1100.
I say’ thought’ because we are not entirely sure. During the destruction of the Cathedral during the Civil War in 1642, the Roundheads charged violently through the Cathedral smashing up everything in sight. They found the caskets housing the kings, queens and possibly, the bones of three bishops too, using the bones they found to smash the stained glass windows.
When the local people finally came back in to literally tidy up the mess, the bones had been scattered everywhere. Attempting to carefully place what bones they could find back in the caskets, it was later discovered that there were six skulls in one casket and a lot of leg and arm bones in another. The monarchs and their bishops had been completely mixed up!
It is hoped that this year, concluding the birth of the nation project, the University overseeing the carbon dating of the bones and identification may well announce to the world exactly who we have in the caskets. A very important announcement indeed when it does finally take place.
The deep-sea diver who spent almost six years in the dark to save the Cathedral from flooding
When cathedrals were built hundreds and hundreds of years ago, British builders, most of the time, weren’t the best in the business. Many buildings still around today from Norman times (and there aren’t that many) have been built on top of and extended far more than they were every supposed to take often resulting in either complete or partial collapse. Cathedrals, in the particular have played victim to such dilapidation and Winchester was no exception.
At the turn of the 20th century, cracks had started to appear where the river Itchen close by had started to make its way through the foundations of the building. Where some underpinning had been attempted in the past to stop the whole thing falling down, more damage appeared to have been the result.
A naval trained deep-sea diver by the name of William Walker and a colleague were sent to do the job. Why a dead sea diver? Because the foundations were flooded full of silt and peat-dyed cold water. To hold the building up, concrete needed to be set under it and tonnes of it. What’s more, it had to be done by hand. There were no machines at the time which could do the job.
Every wall on both the south and east of the Cathedral needed to be underpinned or the whole place would collapse. No could get under the Cathedral to do the work without drowning. Walker’s colleague gave up after two weeks complaining that the job could not be done.
The conditions were so dark, cold and bleak that he had said that the job wasn’t going to ever be successful. Yet, Walker soldiered on, with bare hands, 20 foot down under the Cathedral, completing the job. It took him from Monday to Friday, every week, for six hours a day, for five and a half years. There is more to find at the Cathedral about its extraordinary history and the people who now lay within its walls. I recommend you go as soon as you can as it’s well worth the visit.
Goth points: 8 out of 10 – for its dark past and it’s beautiful leaning yet imposing and frightening architecture. Small children give this place a wide berth from the outside.
Goth day out? Yes, I recommend rocking up for one of the free tours – link below. The guides are a wealth of information about the place you won’t find anywhere else.
Ticket prices: £7 per adult and student concessions are available. Any ticket will get you free entry for the next 12 months from issue. We like these kind of tickets.
How to get there: Winchester is off the A34 in Hampshire. It can be found from the M3 too. Once you have parked (parking is fairly cheap in town and there are plenty of multi-storey car parks) all notable places of interest are sign posted on every street corner so you can’t get lost. Tourist information is in the Guild Hall which is also sign posted so you won’t miss that either.
Cool links if you want to find out more:
Goth posts and pages: