By Tim Lambert
Winchester began as a Roman town. It was built around 70 AD. The Romans called the new town Venta Belgarum which means the capital of the Belgares (who were the local Celtic tribe before the Roman conquest). Roman Winchester was made a civitas or regional capital.
Roman Winchester was built with its streets laid out in a grid pattern. In the middle of the town was the forum. This was a marketplace lined with shops and public buildings. An important building in Roman Winchester was the public baths. Romans went to the baths not just to get clean but also to socialize. There were also temples in Winchester.
At first, the buildings in Winchester were made of wood but by the third century, some were replaced with brick and stone. Wealthy people in Winchester lived in splendid houses with glass windows, mosaic floors, and walls painted with murals. However the poor lived in simple wooden houses.
At first, Winchester was protected by a ditch and an earth rampart, probably with a wooden palisade on top. However, at the beginning of the 3rd century, Winchester was given stone walls. Winchester now covered 144 acres, which made it the 5th largest town in Roman Britain. There were also suburbs outside the walls. However, like other Roman towns, Winchester declined in the 4th century.
The last Roman soldier left Britain in 407. Town life then broke down. Winchester seems to have been abandoned. When the Saxons arrived in the 6th century a small number of them may have lived in wooden huts within the walls and farmed the land outside. However, Winchester ceased to be a town.
The Saxons called a Roman settlement a caester and they called Venta Belgarum, Venta Caester. In time this was changed to Wintancaester and eventually became corrupted to Winchester.
From 597 monks from Rome began the task of converting Southern England to Christianity. In the mid 7th century a Minster church called the Old Minister was built inside the Roman walls of Winchester. (A Minster church is one with a monastery attached). It was later known as the Old Minster.
In 676 the Bishop of Wessex moved his seat to Winchester and the Old Minster became a cathedral.
In the 9th-century Alfred the Great revived the old Roman town. To defend his kingdom he formed a network of fortified places where men could gather to fight the Danes whenever necessary. Alfred often repaired and revived old Roman towns for this purpose. Winchester was rebuilt with the streets laid out in a grid pattern and people were encouraged to come and live there. Soon Saxon Winchester was flourishing.
In 901 Alfred’s successor founded a second Minster church in Winchester, called the New Minster. In 903 Alfred’s widow founded a nunnery known as the Nunnaminster. (It was later called St Mary’s Abbey). Later in the 10th century, the monastery attached to the Old Minster church was reformed and became St Swithun’s Priory.
In the 10th century the New Minster, St Swithun’s Priory, and the Nunnaminster were centers of art and learning. They were famous for their illuminated manuscripts (decorated books), jewelry, embroidery, and metalwork.
From the 10th century, there was a mint in the town. Winchester may have had a population of about 8,000 and there were suburbs outside Westgate and Northgate. There was also a Royal Palace in Winchester. It was probably built in the early 10th century.
Winchester in the Middle Ages
William the Conqueror rebuilt the Royal Palace in Winchester. The new palace was twice the size of the old Saxon palace. William also built a castle in the west of Winchester. Sixty houses were demolished to make way for it. At first, it was made of wood but in the early 12th century it was rebuilt in stone.
After 1079 the Normans demolished the Old Minster Cathedral and built a new cathedral on the site. Early in the 12th century the Nunnaminster (St Mary’s Abbey) was rebuilt. The New Minster monastery was moved to a new site north of Winchester. It became known as Hyde Abbey.
In the Middle Ages, the church ran the only ‘hospitals’. In 1136 the Hospital of St Cross was built in Winchester. Wolvesey Castle, the Bishop’s residence was built early in the 12th century.
In the 13th century, the friars arrived in Winchester. Medieval Friars were like monks except instead of withdrawing from the world they went out into the world to help the poor and the sick and to preach. The Dominican friars (known as black friars because of their black costumes) arrived about 1230 and lived in a building between the River Itchen and Busket Lane. Franciscan friars (called grey friars) arrived in Winchester about 1230 and lived near Eastgate. Carmelite friars followed them in about 1278. They lived near St. Michael’s church. Augustinian friars arrived in Winchester about the same time as the Carmelites and lived near Southgate.
Between 1135 and 1154 there was a civil war in England between Stephen and Matilda. In 1141 a battle was fought in Winchester, which became known as the rout of Winchester. The bishop of Winchester fell out with Matilda and his men took refuge in Wolveseyncastle. Matilda’s army then occupied the town of Winchester and laid siege to the castle.
However, Stephen’s army surrounded Winchester. So there was the strange situation of an army in Wolvesey Castle, under siege from an army in the town, under siege from another army outside the walls! Matilda’s army eventually decided to fight their way out of Winchester and went out through the town gates. But during the fighting parts of the town were set alight and burned.
More trouble followed in 1264 when there was a civil war between the king and his barons led by Simon De Montfort. The people of Winchester supported the king but the monks in the town supported De Montfort. In 1264 they came to blows when the townspeople found out the monks were planning to let De Montfort’s men into the town through the Kings gate. The townspeople killed several monks and set fire to the Canon gate. The flames spread to the Kings gate and its adjoining houses. The next year, in 1265, De Montfort’s men captured Winchester. They pillaged shops and killed many Jews.
In the 13th century, Winchester castle was rebuilt and ‘modernized’. The square keep was replaced with a round one. In 1236 panes of glass were installed in the windows. (Glass windows were the height of luxury in those days and few people could afford them).
In the Middle Ages, the main industry in Winchester was making wool cloth. First, the raw wool was cleaned and thickened by pounding it with a mixture of water and clay called fullers earth. The wool was pounded by wooden hammers worked by watermills. When the wool dried it was dyed.
There were also many weavers, dyers, tailors, and drapers in Winchester as well as butchers, grocers, carpenters, tilers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, and goldsmiths.
In Winchester, there were weekly markets. There was also an annual fair. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but people were held only once a year. People came from all over Hampshire to buy and sell at a Winchester fair. The Winchester fair began on the feast of St Giles at the end of August and lasted for 16 days. The fair was held on a hill east of the town which became known as St Giles Hill.
By 1200 Winchester had a mayor. However, Winchester declined during the 12th and 13th centuries as London grew bigger and became the new capital. In the mid 13th century the royal mint was moved from Winchester to London.
In 1348-49 disaster struck Winchester. The Black Death may have killed half of the population of the town. The plague returned to Winchester in 1361 then again, at intervals, for centuries.
In the 15th century, Buttercross was built in the High Street.
However, in the 15th century, Winchester declined. The cloth industry faced increasing competition from other towns. The population of Winchester may have fallen to about 4,000 by 1500.
By the 16th century, Winchester had dwindled to being a not very important town. In 1518 the number of annual fairs was increased to 3 to try and stimulate trade but with little success.
In 1538 Henry VIII closed the St Mary’s Abbey (Nunnaminster), Hyde Abbey, and St Swithun’s Priory. He also closed the friaries in Winchester. All the land owned by these establishments was sold and their buildings were ‘cannibalised’ to provide materials for new ones. However, the hospital of St John Cross continued to function.
In 1554 Queen Mary married King Philip of Spain in Winchester.
During the 16th century, there was a problem of unemployment as the population of England rose and there weren’t enough jobs for everyone. In 1579 Winchester council opened a house of correction where the unemployed or ‘rogues’ and ‘sturdy vagabonds’ were to be housed and taught a trade like hat making or glove making. The experiment failed because existing craftsmen resented this new competition.
The plague continued to break out in Winchester during the 17th century. It struck Winchester in 1603 and again in 1625. The last outbreak of the plague in Winchester was in 1665-66. Meanwhile, in 1607 Peter Symonds opened an almshouse in Winchester.
In 1642 civil war began between King and Parliament. During the civil war, Winchester changed hands several times. Most of the people in Winchester supported the king and at first royalist soldiers occupied the town.
However, at the end of 1642 parliamentary soldiers attacked and quickly captured Winchester. The town council paid the parliamentary soldiers 1,000 pounds in return for an agreement that they would not loot the town but some soldiers did so anyway. They also vandalized the cathedral. The parliamentary soldiers then moved on leaving Winchester undefended.
In November 1643 a royalist army occupied Winchester. In March 1644 they went out to fight the parliamentarians at Cheriton Down in Hampshire and were defeated. The royalists abandoned Winchester town but left a garrison to man the castle. The parliamentarians took Winchester town again but made no attempt to capture the castle. Once again the parliamentary army moved on leaving Winchester undefended. Then, finally, in September 1645, Oliver Cromwell led an army that occupied Winchester town and, a few days later, took the castle.
In 1649 the members of the town council were removed from their posts because they supported the king. In 1651 Cromwell’s men destroyed Winchester castle to prevent it from ever falling into royalist’s hands again. Only the great hall remained.
King Charles II 1660-1685 often visited Winchester and was fond of the town. He decided to build a royal palace in Winchester, but this building was never finished and after his death, his idea was abandoned. Wolvesey Castle, the bishop’s old residence, was now in ruins and was replaced by a palace in the late 17th century.
During the 18th century, much of Winchester was rebuilt. Many Georgian houses were built and some old houses were given a Georgian facade. Otherwise, Winchester changed little. The population was about 4,000 early in the 18th century and was still less than 6,000 in 1800. Winchester was a quiet market town and had declined a long way from when it was the capital of England.
In 1724 Daniel Defoe wrote that Winchester was a ‘place of no trade, no manufacture, no navigation’. On the other hand ‘here is a great deal of good company the abundance of gentry being in the neighborhood, it adds to the sociableness of the place. The clergy here are generally speaking very rich and numerous’. In 1755 Horace Walpole called Winchester ‘a paltry town and small’.
However, there were some improvements in Winchester. The Guildhall was rebuilt in 1711. The Royal Hampshire County Hospital opened in 1736. A theatre opened on Jewry Street in 1785.
In 1771 a body of men called the Paving Commissioners was formed with powers to pave and light the streets with oil lamps. In the 18th century North, East, and Southgate were demolished to make it easier for traffic to enter and exit Winchester town centre. City Mill was built in 1744.
Winchester in the 19th century
Jane Austen died in Winchester in 1817.
A Corn Exchange, where grain was bought and sold opened in 1838 (this building is now the library). Winchester prison was built in 1846-49. In 1857 a Market Hall was built where fruit and vegetables were sold.
The first museum opened in 1847. A new guildhall opened in 1873. An art school and public library were added to the building in 1880. The Royal Hampshire County Hospital was moved to its present site in 1868.
In 1840 a teacher training college opened in Winchester (later King Alfred’s College). In 1847 Winchester gained gas street lighting. In n1855 a water company was formed and the next year the first piped water flowed through the town.
But there were no drains or sewers in Winchester until the 1870s. A pumping station began operating in Garnier Street in 1878 but it was some years before all houses were connected to a sewer.
Prosperity returned to Winchester in the 19th century. This was largely because of the railway, which reached Winchester in 1840. This made it possible for tourists to travel easily to Winchester. The railway also encouraged new industries to move to the town.
The population of Winchester grew rapidly. From less than 6,000 people in 1801, it rose to over 13,000 in 1851 and over 17,000 in 1891. In 1898 Westgate was made into a museum.
Winchester in the 20th century
In 1901 a statue of King Alfred was erected to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of his death. (Historians now believe Alfred actually died in 899).
In 1908 a riot occurred in Winchester. A Russian gun, captured in the Crimean war stood on Broadway. The mayor decided to remove the railings around it, which gave rise to a rumor that the gun was going to be removed. The result was a riot during which many windows were smashed.
In 1914 the first cinema opened in Winchester. A war memorial was erected in 1921. In the 1920s a council house estate was built at Stanmore. By 1939 the council had built 1,200 houses. A new bypass was built in the 1930s. It opened in 1938 and closed in 1994 when the M3 was completed.
In 1939 hundreds of schoolchildren from Portsmouth and Southampton were evacuated to Winchester (although most soon returned home). In 1940 and 1941 some people from heavily bombed Southampton slept at night in cellars and tunnels under a brewery depot on Hyde Street.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Winchester town center was redeveloped. In 1956-57 St Georges Street was widened. In 1956 the junction of Jewry Street and High Street was widened.
At the same time, parts of Lower Brook Street and Middle Brook Street were demolished and a car park was built. The inhabitants were re-housed in council houses. In 1959 a road was built around the Westgate and in the early 1960s, the county council offices were built nearby. Some of the buildings in Colebrook Street were demolished and replaced by the Wessex Hotel in 1962-64.
More council houses were built in Winchester after 1945. By 1955 about 1200 had been built. A new council estate was built on the western side of the A27 Stockbridge Road on the site of Weeke Manor farm. Council houses were also built in Highcliffe.
Many private houses were also built including ones at Harestock in the 1950s and Teg Down in the early 1960s. In 1963 the first multi-story flats in Winchester were built. Four 8 story flats were built at Winnall Manor.
Winnall industrial estate began in 1948 when Brazil’s sausages bought land from the church commissioners and relocated there from the town center. The industrial estate grew rapidly in the 1950s.
In 1966 a new Police Headquarters was built. Also in 1966 Winchester Art College moved to the present building. A new post office opened in Middle Brook Street in 1966. In 1974 the High Street was pedestrianised.
In 1986 the Royal Hampshire County Hospital was extended with the Nightingale building. In 1992 Brinton Wing was built. In 1988 River Park Leisure Centre opened. In 1989 Winchester cattle market closed. It had been going since 1588.
The army left Peninsula barracks in 1985. In the 1990’s military museums opened there, the Royal Greenjackets, the Royal Hussars, Royal Hants Regiment, the Gurkhas, and the Light Infantry.
In 1991 the Brooks Centre, a shopping mall, opened. In 1993 a new public records office opened. The same year the Cathedral Visitor’s Centre opened.
Winchester in the 21st century
In the 21st century, Winchester continued to thrive. Winchester Discovery Centre opened in 2008. It was renamed The Arc in 2022. In 2022 the population of Winchester was 48,000.