Winchester 1250-1500

For this section of Winchester’s history, I am going to focus on the section of the history this is generally a period of decline, since it was at this stage that the capital moved from Winchester to London; this is characterised by the movement of the mint from the old capital to the new.

It was in this period that Henry III was the king of Winchester. Known as Henry of Winchester, the royal was born in Winchester Castle, which he is also credited with in improving and updating the fortifications of. The area of the castle that it most associated with him is the Great Hall, which is the only part of the castle that has survived until the present day. The hall itself is made of Purbeck stone with pointed arches, and is an example of the Early English Gothic style. During the reign of Henry III, the art and architecture of the hall also became more refined, which again demonstrates his close and vested interest in Winchester and the fact that it was in the thirteenth century that the style of halls became lighter and refined when compared to the twelfth century. When talking about Winchester Castle, it is also worth mentioning here the Round Table, whose creation is carbon dated from between 1250 to 1280, falling with the period of the reign of King Edward I, who was an Arthurian enthusiast. Although the table as it is displayed today is painted and depicts King Arthur and the round table, complete with Tudor – since it was painted in the reign of Henry VIII for the visitation by Emperor Charles V of Spain.

One of the main events throughout Europe at this time was the Black Death, which came to England 1348-9, and then was to return at more intervals from 1361 onwards. As a result of these epidemics, it is estimated that half of the population of Winchester died; a trend that was part of a wider pattern throughout England and the rest of Europe. This had repercussions socially for the inhabitants of Winchester, leading to the decline of the feudal system and increased social mobility for the inhabitants of Winchester. From 1300, Winchester was in decline economically, with the concentration of riches focussed on London instead. Even at the height of the St Giles’ Fair, which was a fair that took place on St Giles’ Day on one of the hills of Winchester and attracted traders from England and the Continent, much of the trade originated from London, and a lot of the business that Winchester attracted as part of the fair was later lost to London, especially during the last two decades of the thirteenth century. This had a knock on detrimental effect on the trade for Winchester, and for the merchants of the city. The decline of Winchester is best illustrated by the fact that after the assessment in 1334, the city was ranked fifteenth places after London in terms of wealth. By the end of the fourteenth century, Winchester had a more narrowly based economy, as well as less long distance trade; also the trade in luxury items such as fur, spices and jewellery declined. In terms of the size of the city, Winchester declined substantially between 1400 and 1550. This naturally ties into the loss of trade, as people moved out of the city as the economy declined, as well because of the effects of the Black Death as mentioned earlier, which resulted in a population decline.

The foundation of Winchester College was another important event that happened during this period. Founded by William of Wykeham in 1382 when he received the charter for the land that the college would be built on, with the actual buildings of the school itself being built from the period of 1394 onwards, when enough of the college was built to allow the buildings to be partially occupied. This fulfilled the need of having a literate and educated clergy which could serve the central government effectively; either on a spiritual level or as part of their number, as Wykeham himself had been Lord Chancellor of England from 1367 to 1371 and then from 1389 to 1391.

            Although Winchester still had a certain amount of royal importance, with Prince Arthur, the son of Henry VII, being baptised in Winchester Cathedral, as we come to the end of this period, the nature of Winchester and its position within England had changed dramatically in this period.

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Keene, D., Survey of Medieval Winchester (Oxford, 1985).

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