The history of Winchester reaches back into prehistory. From an Iron Age oppidum, it changed into the Roman town of Venta Belgarum. Later, until the Norman conquest in 1066, it turned into one of the most important cities in Anglo Saxon and Early Medieval England, playing the role of a Royal Centre and heart of the realm
Winchester is located in Hampshire. With varied geography, it boasts of upland, chalkland, as well as numerous south-flowing rivers running into areas of marshes and downland. With 45% covered by the national parks, the New Forest, and parts of the South Downs, the prehistoric, Roman and medieval landscape offered a lush and fertile landscape with ridges for settlements, plenty of water, forests and meadows.
The three Late Iron Age Hillforts, Oram’s Arbour, St. Catherine’s Hill and Worthy Down, testify to this richness. All were located on either side of the River Itchen – the River of the Jutes (the Ingaevones, Ingvaeones or North Sea Scandinavians). The settlement, which later turned into Winchester, was located near a holloway-crossing of the river, which led to the south coast.
Winchester itself is located on the lush chalklands surrounded by farmland. Reaching into the lower slopes of the valleys, the town opened up to the marshy downlands offering ample grazing for vast flocks of sheep. On the clays to the north and east, a pastoral economy characterised by forest grazing, assarting, and farming of the small enclosed plots governed the lay of the land. Balancing this were the Forest Laws governing the use of the Royal Forests (New Forest). Here, expansive open grazing for the numerous small-holders was prevalent. In between, private chases and deer parks were recorded in Domesday Book.
Elsewhere, freshwater fishing and fish ponds supplied ample delicacies for the Bishop’s table, as did the managed rabbit warrens, some of which may still be detected on the western edge of the New Forest. Along the rivers, watermills were plentiful, leading the water to the coastline with its commercial links to Northern France.
Before the incursion of the Jutes – however, we should understand this group of Scandinavian migrants – the place was inhabited by the British Belgae tribe, which according to Caesar, had migrated from the present-day Netherlands. After the Roman conquest, Winchester served as the local capital of the former tribal area. Around AD 200, the town was furnished with stone walls, enclosing an area of 58 ha, making it a second-tier town in Roman Britain. To compare, the walled city of Cologne covered approximately 97 ha, while Trier covered about 150 ha, and London 130 ha. Outside the walls, a limited suburban area was peopled with craftsmen and squatters. In the later fourth century, Winchester began to decay. However, the Christian cemeteries continued to be in use, and a Christian religious centre may have continued to offer its services.
Later, the town became known as Wintanceaster, the fortified Venta. First mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle in 648, we are told King Cenwalh of Wessex had the Old Minster erected and consecrated to St Peter and St Paul, and from the late 660s, a West Saxon diocese was established. Later, a significant transformation in the town’s layout occurred in the late 9th century, when King Alfred the Great (AD 848 -899) changed the Roman grid and the fortifications to provide protection against the Vikings. After peace was established, two new ecclesiastical institutions were founded, the new Minster and the convent called Nunnminster. Somewhat later, the Old Minster was enlarged in order to provide a home for the local Saint Swithun († AD 863). At that time, St Swithun was appointed as patron of the monastic reform movement launched by Æthelwold of Winchester (AD 909704-984) and Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury (AD 909-988).
A Royal Centre in Anglo-Saxon England?
From AD 839 to 1042, Winchester functioned as the royal necropolis of the kings of Wessex and later England. Even some of the early Normans, William II († 1100) and his brother, Richard Duke of Bernay, were buried in the Cathedral. During this period, Winchester played the role of major royal and ecclesiastical centre of the Kingdom of Wessex and later England.
Was Winchester the centre for the royal administration in the 7th and 8th centuries? Or was it just one of several important proto-capitals? The answer to this question depends on how e understand the sources and archaeology. However, there is no doubt Winchester played the role of a linchpin in the Kingdom of Wessex.
Later, after the Norman conquest, we are well served by the numerous records preserved in the Diocese’s archives. For decades, historians have sifted through this material, providing us with a picture of a royal hotspot waning in the 13th century, when the royal administration was finely relocated to London. After this, an economic decline set in cupped by the demographic depletion fostered by the plague – on average for the years 1348-9, calculated to 35%.
Today, Winchester is a local and very affluent town in one of the wealthiest counties in England.
An historical map of Winchester from medieval times to 1800
Biddle, Martin • Keene, Derek J. [Publ.]. – Oxford (2016)
Collection of Essays: Winchester: St. Swithun’s “city of happiness and good fortune”: an archaeological assessment
Ed by Patrick Ottaway, Tracy Matthews, Kenneth E. Qualmann, Stephen Teague, and Richard Whinney.
Dome – Gräber – Grabungen: Winchester und Magdeburg: zwei Kulturlandschaften des 10. Jahrhunderts im Vergleich
By Stephan Freund and Gabriele Köster
Early Medieval Winchester: Communities, Authority and Power in an Urban Space, c.800-c.1200.
Ed by Ryam Lavelle, Simon Roffey, and Katherine Weikert,
Oxbow Books (2021)
Monastic reform and lay religion in Aethelwold’s Winchester
By Christopher Tolin Riedel
Boston College 2015
The Cult of St Swithun
By Michael Lapidge
Series: Anglo-saxon Minsters of Winchester
Archaeopress 2022 (Calerendon 2003)
The Land of the English Kin: Studies in Wessex and Anglo-Saxon England in Honour of Professor Barbara Yorke
Ed by Alexander Langlands and Ryan Lavelle
The People of Early Winchester
By Caroline M Stuckert
Oxford University Press (2017)
The potential of structural analysis in archaeological simulation and interpretation: a case study of medieval Winchester Cathedral precinct
Miles, James Edward.
PhD: University of Southampton (2017)
The search for Winchester’s Anglo-Saxon minsters
By Martin Biddle
Winchester city in the making: Archaeological excavations between 2001 and 2007 on the sites of the Northgate House, Staple Gardens and the former Winchester library, 2011.
By B Ford, S. Teague, S., Biddulph, A., Hardy, A. and Brown.
Oxford Archaeology monograph 12.
Winchester’s Anglo-Saxon, Medieval and Later Suburbs
By Patrick Ottaway and Kenneth E. Qualmann