Winchester Cathedral

Winchester cathedral was founded in the year 642 on a site which had already been occupied since before the time of the Roman conquest. Its importance was cemented during the later Saxon period when Winchester became the capital of the newly united England and the cathedral served as the coronation (and subsequent burial) place of Kings. Even when the Normans rebuilt the cathedral late in the eleventh century, they kept the same location so that the outline of part of the “Old Minster” can be seen on the North lawn of the New.

The unique character and, in particular, the wonderful stories of so many of the people associated with its history make it an absolutely unforgetable place. It would probably be excessive of me to claim it as yet another favourite but it was the first destination on my pilgrimage of 2004 and, recognising the characteristic long nave and squat tower even though I had probably not been there since childhood, I felt suitably inspired for the journey ahead.

It is clear from his pictures that Zoltan, my young Hungarian guest, was quite enchanted when I took him for a visit a couple of years ago. So, instead of waiting for the opportunity to go back and see what the latest camera can achieve (probably with the much needed addition of a tripod), I’ve made up a photo-gallery using his mobile-phone shots and a few miscellaneous family pictures.

Alas, the Saxon Kings do not take their rest under the greensward of the Old Minster or even in the crypt of the New: their jumbled bones have been placed in decorated mortuary chests and raised up onto the top of the fancy stone screens that surround the presbytery. So many re-internments have they survived that it is not certain whether the carefully inscribed Latin names are even accurate. When you consider that Alfred was the only English King to be awarded the title “Great” this has always struck me as a little lacking in respect. The huge, early twentieth century statue in the town centre hardly compensates.

It seems a pity to leap so far forward in time when so many characters from the intervening years cry out to be introduced but it was at just about the time that this great bronze monstrosity (the 1901 Thornicroft statue, picture 54) was being erected that people began to notice how badly the cathedral was sinking. Visitors love the story of William Walker, the diver who “saved the cathedral with his two hands” and indeed his courage and dedication, working alone under the flooded foundations for a period of more than five years, is next to unbelievable but his role was only a part of a much larger undertaking.

Strange as it is to believe that the cathedral had been built on a swamp it is even stranger to try to comprehend how it could have remained standing for the eight hundred years that had passed since the collapse of the first tower in 1107. It was the newly appointed Dean, William Furneaux, who began to realise the extent of the problem facing Winchester cathedral in 1903 and launched the first public appeal of its kind in order to raise the vast sums of money needed. He certainly had his work cut out.

The story that follows is more exciting than anything that fiction could devise: the greatest church architect of the day, Thomas Jackson, and the celebrated engineer, Francis Fox, two giants in their field brought close to despair as all their efforts to save the great building seemed about to come to nothing. Huge wooden “crutches” were erected in an attempt to support the listing East end while pieces of masonry fell from the roof, threatening the gathering of news reporters below. For the plight of the cathedral had reached a wider audience, assisted it must be said by the Dean’s personable daughter, and the race to save “our cathedral” was on.

Only a man of great diplomacy and organisational skills could have kept this project from foundering, kept these disparate personalities on course and, perhaps hardest of all, kept the money flowing in as costs exceeded estimates by a factor of ten. William Furneaux does not even get a mention in most accounts of the history of Winchester cathedral but he seems to have been an extremely modest man who would probably have preferred it that way. However, without his quiet faith and steely determination it is hard to see how this great treasure could have survived.

2 Comments

  • Chris says:

    What was going on with the da Vinci code exhibition?

  • Nicola Ainsworth says:

    The Cathedral authorities put on an exhibition to try to tell another side of the story after they got a substantial donation for allowing a scene from the film to be shot there. It caused a great deal of controversy within the church but I understood their effort to set the record straight, after all the book may have been garbage but it was a runaway best-seller.

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