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Winchester has one of the darkest and most fascinating histories on record—more than 2,000 years of death, disease, and destruction. Containing dozens of true stories, including the tale of William Walker, the diver who spent five years in pitch-black water under the cathedral; the Queen who walked on fire; with ‘sufferings she could not describe’ concerning the life and dolorous death of Miss Jane Austen; and the secret histories of Winchester’s most famous buildings. You’ll never see the city in the same way again!
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Bloody British History
By Don Bryan, Geraldine Buchanan, Clare Dixon, James King
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Don Bryan, Geraldine Buchanan, Clare Dixon & James King
All rights reserved.
The city of Winchester lies in the valley of the River Itchen, a beautiful chalk stream that rises from springs near Cheriton, a few miles to the north-east. Ancient trackways, used for thousands of years by our ancestors, dropped down to cross a ford over the river. These ancient routes are still used as long-distance footpaths, and the approach to the ford is Winchester's modern High Street, making it one of the oldest streets in Britain.
It is in the area around this ford that an Iron Age tribe called the Belgae created a settlement to the west of the modern city, now called Oram's Arbour. It is thought that this enclosure was not a main habitation site but that the Iron Age farmers lived and worked in farmsteads scattered around on the chalk downland encircling Winchester. They may have used the settlement as a market, since when the Romans conquered the area they called their new city Venta Belgarum – 'the market place of the Belgae people'. Under the Romans, Winchester grew to be one of the most important cities in Roman Britain, although there is virtually nothing left of their city above ground.
When The Brooks Shopping Centre was planned in the 1980s a large excavation was undertaken by the Winchester Museum Service and volunteers. During this excavation it was discovered that the Romans had physically moved the River Itchen from The Brooks area to where it flows today at The Weirs, to the east of Winchester. Huge timber drains were discovered during The Brooks excavation; these would have been used to drain the area for further expansion of the Roman city in the third century AD. It was at this time that a 3m-wide stone wall was built around the city, replacing earth ramparts and ditches.
Roman law forbade burial within the city, with the exception of infants, so that the dead did not physically or spiritually pollute the world of the living. The largest Roman cemetery is to the north-west of Winchester. It occupied the area between the Silchester and Cirencester Roman roads, now the Andover Road and Worthy Lane. Known as The Lankhills cemetery, it was one of the largest in southern Britain with hundreds of graves spanning the Roman period. Other smaller cemeteries surrounding the city have been recorded over the years.
When the Roman Army left Britain around AD 410 many of their cities became totally abandoned. This was the case with Winchester. The decay can be seen in archaeological levels across the city and may have continued for nearly 200 years, before a new people occupied the area. These were the Saxons, one of many Northern European tribes who invaded Britain in the fifth century. According to legend, one of the last British kings, King Arthur, fought a rearguard action before being killed at the Battle of Camlan. A fifteenth-century writer places Camelot at Winchester, and of course we do have King Arthur's Round Table hanging in the Great Hall at Winchester.
Birinus, one of the missionaries who had followed St Augustine to England, arrived in Hamwic (Southampton) in 634. Not long after, a church was established at Winchester by King Cenwalh, his father King Cynegils having been baptised by Birinus in 635. Bishop Wine was appointed first Bishop of Winchester in 660 and in 678 the original missionary base was moved from Dorchester on Thames to Winchester.
Our knowledge of what happened in Winchester for the next 150 years is limited, but by 828 the Royal House of Wessex had been established by King Egbert, the grand-father of King Alfred. It is thanks to Alfred himself that our city became the capital of England.CHAPTER 2
KING ALFRED: GREAT AGAINST VIKINGS
The only English king to be called 'Great', though he was never king of all England.
When Alfred was born in 849 in Wantage, in Berkshire, there were four kingdoms in England: Wessex, Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia. At the time of his death in 899, Wessex was the only independent English kingdom left. The rest of the country was under the influence of the Vikings who had first raided Northumbria 100 years earlier.
The Vikings may have gone as traders to other parts of Europe but they came to England to attack and loot; Winchester was first attacked in 860. However, the Danish Great Army which arrived in 866 had a further objective. They were not just content to raid and go home with their booty and captives as winter approached: they were coming to invade and settle.
Alfred the Great was the youngest of five sons of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, who reigned from 839-848, so it was unlikely that he would ever become king. However, all four of his brothers died young – after three had already had a turn at being king. Surprisingly for the time, none of their deaths seemed to have involved foul play by their youngest brother.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Alfred's first battle was in 868 when he and his brother, King Æthelred, came to Nottingham to assist the Mercians against the Danes. After Danish success against Northumbria and East Anglia in 870, Wessex itself was invaded. In that year Æthelred and Alfred fought nine battles. They were heavily defeated at Reading, after which the Danes set off westwards along the Great Ridgeway to make further inroads into Wessex. Here they were met by the Wessex army, at Ashdown near the Uffington White Horse in Berkshire. Alfred won victory by leading a ferocious charge uphill 'like a wild boar'. The Danes fled and after the battle 'the whole breadth of Ashdown was covered in bodies'.
However, there were further defeats ahead. Alfred's brother, King Æthelred, was seriously wounded at the Battle of Meredun (thought to be Merdon on the road to Romsey, 5 miles from Winchester). Alfred became king of Wessex when Æthelred died of his wounds a few weeks later, with a kingdom consisting of Kent, Sussex, Berkshire, Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Somerset and the lower Severn valley. The year 871 ended in defeat for the twenty-one-year-old king at Wilton in Wiltshire, but he was able to buy the Danes off and they turned to attack Mercia. However, Alfred knew that this would only be a temporary truce.
The Danes came back in 876 and again Alfred was able to force the Danish leader, Guthrun, to leave Wessex. Admittedly he had the help of the elements, as a Viking fleet was destroyed by a storm off Swanage in Dorset. In January 878, Guthrun made a sudden attack on Chippenham where Alfred was celebrating Twelfth Night, and Alfred was forced to flee to the Isle of Athelney in Somerset. This is where the eleventh-century story of Alfred burning the 'cakes' in a poor woman's hovel is based. Alfred was at the lowest point in his entire reign but seven weeks after Easter, with men summoned from Hampshire, Somerset and Wiltshire, he resoundingly defeated the Danes at Edington in Wiltshire. Guthrun was forced not only to agree to withdraw his army from Wessex, but also to become a Christian.
Alfred was not just a brave warrior and an effective war leader. Between 878 and 892, he reorganised the army on a shift system so that it could be permanently in the field, without as much impact on the working lives of individual part-time soldiers. Also, in an attempt to defeat the Vikings before they got to Wessex's shores, Alfred designed and commanded better and larger ships.
The military reform that had the most profound effect on Winchester was Alfred's creation of fortified towns with permanent garrisons. Where remnants of Roman walls already existed, as at Winchester, he repaired them. The hope was that these garrisons could hold any Viking incursion until the main army arrived. In his reign a new street plan was created for Winchester, using as the main axis the line of the old Iron Age trackway which had become the Roman High Street, as it still is. At right angles to the High Street, other roads were built at regular intervals in the direction of the north and south walls. Parallel service lanes were created behind the High Street on both sides. These can still be traced in St Clements's Lane and Market Lane on the south side, and George Street on the north. Alfred wanted his fortified towns to become prosperous so they could contribute to the cost of armies and garrisons. In Winchester's case this prosperity was probably based on a growing consumer demand from the Church and presumably from frequent visits by the royal court, as well as a growing wool and cloth industry.
Whilst these reforms were being put into place, the years from 878 to 885 were, fortunately for Alfred and Wessex, relatively quiet. However, from 885 Alfred had to work hard to defend Wessex's eastern boundary from Danish attack, as the wide Thames estuary was a very tempting route for them. So he seized London in 886, then part of Mercia, but diplomatically left it in the charge of the Mercian ealdorman, Æthelread, to whom he gave his daughter Æthelflaed in marriage.
This move against London resulted in yet another peace treaty with Guthrun. England was divided along the line of Watling Street between Wessex and the rest of England, now known as the Danelaw. Guthrun was in charge of the Danelaw but acknowledged Alfred as his overlord; a step in the direction of the Wessex monarchs becoming kings of all England.
Despite this agreement, there was intermittent fighting against many Danish leaders for the rest of Alfred's reign. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, after one attempted Danish attack in 896, 'The sea cast two ships on to the land, and the men were brought to Winchester to the king, and he ordered them to be hanged'. This is the only reference to the living Alfred ever being in Winchester, a town over which he had so much influence.
After Alfred died in 899, he was initially buried in Winchester's Old Minster and then re-interred in the new enlarged minster alongside, which was built to reflect the increased power of the Wessex kings. His work in defending and expanding Wessex's power was carried on by his son Edward the Elder and grandson, Æthelstan, who was the first monarch to be recognised as King of all England.CHAPTER 3
ST SWITHUN'S RESTLESS BONES
Who was St Swithun? In modern times, he is seen as the unofficial patron saint of weather forecasters. If it rains on 15 July, it will rain for forty days, so folklore says.
Swithun was Bishop of Winchester from 840 until his death in around 863. He appears to have led a blameless and virtuous life, and may have been a tutor to the young Prince Alfred. He had the bridge over the River Itchen rebuilt. He is alleged to have made whole some eggs that a poor woman had dropped when crossing the new bridge, hence the adjacent pub is named Bishop on the Bridge.
It is what happened to his bones after his death that caused problems. He wanted to be buried in the graveyard outside the Old Minster, to be amongst the common folk, where people could walk over his tomb to show his humility. He got his wish and was buried outside the west door; however he was not to be left in peace.
Many miracles began to occur by his tomb; he seemed particularly to favour the lame and the blind. As the cult of the locally canonised St Swithun grew, it was felt in the next century that his body should be in a less humble position. On 15 July 971, the saint's bones were taken out of his stone coffin, put into a temporary shrine and carried in solemn procession to the High Altar of the Old Minster. Wulfstan, a choir boy who went on to become one of the principal Anglo-Saxon poets, said that it poured with rain all day; the locals said it was the saint weeping in sorrow. This is the origin of the story that if it rains on 15 July it will rain for the next forty days. Miracles continued and his bones were not allowed to rest in peace or even to stay intact. In 974, the bones were disturbed again and split in two; part remained in a shrine on the High Altar, the rest were placed in a reliquary covered with gold, silver and gems. This was moved into a permanent shrine over his original burial site with a purpose-built chapel around it, in what had become part of the extended Old Minster.
It gets worse. When Bishop Alphage of Winchester became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1006, he took St Swithun's head with him to impress his new diocese. An arm may have gone to Peterborough. The reliquary containing the now headless collection of bones was given pride of place when the cathedral was rebuilt by the Normans, and in 1093 it was installed behind the High Altar.
Pilgrims could get close to the saint's bones and other holy relics by crawling into a 'Holy' Hole beneath them. In the twelfth century Reinhald, probably a Winchester monk, travelled to Norway, reputedly taking Swithun's other arm with him. The arm was placed in the new Stavanger Cathedral. Meanwhile in Canterbury, Alphage's successors, who had no links with Winchester, had lost interest in the saint's skull so somehow it ended up at Evreux in Normandy. The remaining relics at Winchester were moved again in 1476, when a new shrine was built in the retrochoir behind the High Altar. Finally when that shrine was demolished in Henry VIII's reign in 1538, the remaining bones were scattered.
The site of Swithun's original grave is now marked by a modern stone slab, given by Stavanger Cathedral, to the left of the west-front of the cathedral. Would reuniting St Swithun's bones today improve the quality of our summers?CHAPTER 4
QUEEN EMMA WHIPS THE KING!
For almost 100 years after the death of King Alfred, his successors continued the expansion of the West Saxon kingdom and consolidated England's nationhood. The House of Wessex reached its zenith with the coronation of Alfred's great-grandson Edgar in 973. The nation was growing in prosperity and stature and the Danes had been subdued.
It was Edgar's son, Æthelred 'The Unready', who turned triumph to disaster for England. It was this Æthelred that married the very beautiful Emma, 'the pearl of Normandy'.
In the High Street, near Winchester's City Cross, stands a building called 'God Begot House'. The present building, heavily restored, dates to the sixteenth century. It has been used for a variety of purposes and today is a popular restaurant. This area of Winchester was once a Royal Manor, which in the year 1012 was given by King Æthelred to his wife Emma. They had been married at Canterbury Cathedral in 1002, and in 1003 a son was born. He was to become Edward the Confessor, King of England.
It was here at God Begot that Emma had a two-storey house built, which became her home in Winchester. It may have been in this house that Emma gave birth to a second son, Alfred, in 1013.
These were troubled times as the Viking army was in England, attacking many towns. This force was under the control of Sweyn and his son Canute. The Royal Family were forced to leave England in 1014 but returned later that year. Æthelred died just two years later and Canute married Emma. In 1019 Emma gave birth to another boy, Hardecanute, the son of Canute. Hardecanute took precedence over Æthelred's sons, Edward and Alfred, who at this time were in Normandy.
In 1035 Canute died and his son Hardecanute became king briefly, until he too died, so the crown went to Edward the Confessor. After he became king, Edward appears to have had little confidence in his mother, probably because she favoured the children of her second husband instead of supporting Edward's claim to the throne. What follows is a summary of the legend surrounding Emma some years after the death of both her husbands.
Robert, Archbishop of Canterbury, persuaded Edward the Confessor that his mother had been guilty of too close a relationship with Alwine, Bishop of Winchester. This was despite Alwine having been dead for three years!
As a result of this accusation, most of Emma's land was confiscated and she was sent to Wherwell Priory near Andover in North Hampshire.
She was not very strictly confined there and was at liberty to write to certain bishops whom she trusted, saying she was far more shocked at the scandal surrounding Alwine than at the allegations made against her. She said she was even willing to submit to the ordeal of burning iron in order to prove the bishop's innocence. The bishops surrounding the king advised him to let the trial by ordeal go ahead, but the archbishop felt that this was not enough. He wanted Emma to make a double purgation in order to prove both her innocence and that of the bishop. He advised the king that she should walk over four burning ploughshares for herself and five for the bishop in order to prove their innocence. Preparations were made accordingly and Emma spent the night beforehand in prayer at the shrine of St Swithun in the Old Minster at Winchester, where the 'ordeal of burning iron' would take place. The saint appeared before her and said, 'I am St Swithun whom you have invoked; fear not, the fire shall do you no hurt.'
Excerpted from Winchester by Don Bryan, Geraldine Buchanan, Clare Dixon, James King. Copyright © 2013 Don Bryan, Geraldine Buchanan, Clare Dixon & James King. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Pre-828 Early History,
849-899 King Alfred: Great Against Vikings,
c. 863-1538 St Swithun's Restless Bones,
985-1052 Queen Emma Whips the King!,
1066-1100 Dispatched in Hastings,
1100 Murder Most Foul?,
1100-1135 Drowning and Dismemberments,
1135-1154 Two Matildas, One Country,
1199-1272 The Troublesome Reigns of John and Henry III,
c. 1300 Grime Doesn't Pay,
1300s onwards Dishonesty and Death at the Hospital of St Cross,
1320-1648 Gruesome Executions,
1348-1667 Black Death Decimates Winchester,
1394 Winchester College,
1485-1547 Legitimising the Tudors,
1534-40 End of an Era,
1554 An Unhappy Match,
1547-1603 Torture, Imprisonment and Death in the Name of Religion,
1642-1651 A Royal Pain: Another Civil War,
1685 Death to Dame Alice Lisle!,
1738-1867 Hangings, Burnings and Poor Fanny Adams,
1680s onwards Sickness and Soldiers in the King's House,
899-1999 More Wandering Bones,
1817 What Killed Jane Austen?,
1800s Disease, Drains and Diarrhoea,
1906-1911 William Walker MVO – 'Diver Bill',
1770-1908 A Few More Riots!,
1914-1945 Two World Wars,