Winchester Cathedral. The Bones Caskets in their new surroundings © Winchester Cathedral
Winchester Cathedral. The Bones Caskets in their new surroundings © Winchester Cathedral

Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation

May 2019, a long-awaited exhibition at Winchester Cathedral will tell the story of the birth of the English Nation.

Winchester Cathedral is a living monument to the heritage of England and is one of the most historically significant buildings in Britain. From the time of Alfred the Great until after the Norman Conquest, Winchester was England’s capital, and the Cathedral was its royal chapel. Much of England’s early history was based here where twelve English kings are believed to be buried. Arguably, Winchester can lay claim to be the first Royal Mausoleum.

The opening of Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation marks the culmination of an ambitious seven-year project to unlock the Cathedral’s stories and treasures by inspiring active engagement in the interpretation and exploration of our heritage.
Thanks to funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and other generous supporters, a spectacular three-level exhibition space in the South Transept will take visitors on a journey through over 1,000 years of history, while offering awe-inspiring views of the Cathedral.
There will be four new galleries to explore:

Decoding the Stones

Old and New Minster in Winchester © Hayfield Studio
Old and New Minster in Winchester © Hayfield Studio

Winchester was a town of Roman origin, called Venta. Built around AD 70, the layout mirrored a typical Roman city with rectangular grids, water led via an aqueduct, and later c 300 – 350, completed with walls and gates. After the Romans left Britain c. 400, and migrating Anglo-Saxons filled the vacuum, little is known. Around 650 the first church – the Old Minster – was built near the Roman Forum, serving a re-christened community. About two centuries later, the interior of the city was reorganized. As part of this planning process, the southeast quarter was reserved to the palaces of the king and bishop, as well as the Old and later the New Minster or Benedictine Abbey Church (founded 901), as well as a convent (Nonnominster).

The Old and the New Minsters were located next to each other and continued to be in use until 1071 when the old churches became doomed to make way for the new Norman Cathedral, consecrated in 1093. The following year, the Old Minster was demolished, with the new Minster following in the building history of these different monuments and edifices is convoluted, and primarily revealed through archaeology hampered by the foundation of the “third” Minster, the current Norman Cathedral. This edifice, again, was rebuilt at the beginning of the 15th century, leaving us with the present Cathedral.

A large part of the new exhibition tells the story of these different churches and presents the results of the large-scale archaeological excavations, which have been undertaken during the last 60 years.

A Scribe’s Tale

Winchester Bible. Initial showing Henry of Blois donating the manuscript © Winchester Cathedral

The Winchester Bible is the largest and most beautiful of all surviving 12th-century English bibles. Hear the incredible story of how and why the Winchester Bible was made in the Cathedral, and admire its exquisite illuminated initials and elaborate decorative schemes.

The bible is believed to have been commissioned in 1160 by Henry of Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror, and Bishop of Winchester. Never completed, its Romanesque designs are famous. It is believed a scribe worked on the manuscript for more than four years before six artists began to decorate the volume with its sumptuous illuminations. The text was handwritten on 468 sheets (folios) of calf-skin parchment, each measuring 23 by 15.75 inches (583 x 396 mm). These sheets were folded down the centre, making 936 pages in all.

The bible underwent a significant conservation in 2014 and will be on view in the former calefactory alongside a digitized version allowing visitors to flip the pages as well as zoom in on details.

The Birth of a Nation

The presumed skeleton of Emma, queen of England © Winchester Cathedral
The presumed skeleton of Emma, queen of England © Winchester Cathedral

Winchester was the main royal seat of the kingdom of Wessex since the 9th century, and numerous royals were interred inside the Old Minster, The New Minster, and later the Cathedral to which the royal and saintly remains were transferred after the demolition.

For anyone wishing to acquaint themselves with this early Anglo-Saxon history, the new gallery will tell the story of the kings, queens, and bishops buried and reinterred there, to finally end up in the famous bone-caskets, which since 2015 have undergone restoration, while the contents – 1300 bones – have been sorted, measured and studied.

One new exhibit is a 3D print of the bones of what is likely Emma of Normandy, wife of Ethelred and Cnut the Great. Winchester played a unique role in shaping early English history and visitors are invited on an intriguing journey of discovery, exploring the secrets hidden within the Cathedral’s mortuary chests.

The Mezzanine and Library

Finally, a new exhibition space offers a peek into the records kept in the archives of the Cathedral, detailing the realities of monastic life at Winchester Cathedral Priory. The Mezzanine also provides access to the remarkable 17th-century Morley Library and its outstanding collection of books, which have remained in their current location for over 400 years.

VISIT:

Kings and Scribes: Birth of a Nation
Winchester Cathedral
9 The Close
Winchester, Hampshire, United Kingdom

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