To continue with the history of Winchester theme, this blog entry will briefly cover Anglo-Saxon Winchester or Wincanceaster. I will begin with Winchester at the point of the departure of the Romans and then briefly cover the main areas that show the significance of the Anglo-Saxon capital.
Although many towns and cities became deserted, Winchester wasn’t completely abandoned following the end of the Roman period, though the population went into decline. According to archaeological settlement evidence, when the Saxons immigrated to Winchester in around the mid fifth century, they set up settlement outside the city walls instead of within them. The ceaster element of the city’s name indicates that in old English the Saxons arrived at Winchester that was surrounded by Roman walls. It became clear however that the population didn’t have the resources to attend to the upkeep of the city, since the old Romans drainage system fell into disrepair and the Roman south gate collapsed. The River Itchen also reclaimed large areas of the eastern part of the city meaning parts of the city had now become uninhabitable.
Politically the city continued to survive under Cerdic and his family when his son and grandson Cynric “succeeded to the kingdom” in 519 AD. The king of Wessex from 611 to 641, Cynegils (perhaps Cerdic’s great grandson) converted to Christianity in 635 along with the rest of the West Saxons thus making the city religiously important. Under the reign of Cynegils second son Cenwalh (642-73) a minster church was built that became known as the Old Minster. This made Winchester the very heart of the civilisation of Wessex and of England. Thus Winchester became the capital of Anglo-Saxon England. In 678 the Bishop of Wessex, Bishop Haeddi moved his throne to Winchester and the Old Minster became a Cathedral church. It also became the place where Kings and Bishops were buried.
Despite the advances that the Anglo-Saxons had made in Winchester, nothing could prepare them, and the rest of Britain, for the dangers ahead. The Vikings had swept over Britain, raiding and looting as they went and in the 850s and 860s they attacked Winchester. Under King Alfred the cities defence proved adequate with the defences being restored for the first time since the fourth century. Winchester also became part of the Burghal Hidage defence system from 886. This was a system of thirty towns in all that were fortified boroughs (Winchester being one of the two largest) with an estimated 2,400 men manning the cities defences. Under the reign of Alfred and his son Edward the Elder the Viking threat was faced and pushed back.
One of the most important features of Anglo-Saxon Winchester was the construction of the New Minster and Nun minster under King Alfred and his wife Ealhswith. They were both finished after 900 AD. The New Minster, completed under Edward the Elder, was run by secular clerks whilst the Nun Minster provided an area for worship for holy women within a cloister. The continued building at the Minsters would become the main focus in Winchester up to the Norman Conquest. The three Minsters (including the Old Minster) thus greatly improved the significance of Winchester as an Anglo-Saxon city and also as England’s capital.
Here concludes the brief summary of Anglo-Saxon Winchester. I hope that this piece has highlighted the importance of the city both religiously and militarily to its own survival. Whilst the capital was moved to London following the Norman Conquest, Winchester will always have a place in the history of England with its past living on.
Barbara Carpenter Turner., Winchester (1980).
Tom Beaumont James., Winchester; From Prehistory to the Present (1997).