A traveller going to Winchester in the century after the Norman Conquest would be entering a governmental and administrative centre to rival London. Winchester had been the capital of Wessex, and later of England in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and after its surrender to the Normans in November in 1066 it did not seem to decline in prominence and importance.
Entering though the West Gate into the area within the city walls the first major building to be seen would be the Castle. Began the year after the Conquest, it was in its heyday one of the greatest strongholds in the land, and housed the royal treasury and so Winchester was the home to many royal administrators.
A fact that is worth taking note of, as this was one of the major reasons for Winchester’s prominence and importance. Indeed, the castle was not the only royal building in the city. Moving further towards the East was the royal Palace, built by William the Conqueror himself, part of the site taken from monastic building belonging to the Saxon Minister.
Norman Winchester had its own Mint, located possibly in the Palace, which further contributed to Winchester’s importance in the period. After the destruction of much of the city in 1142, including the Palace until the reign of Henry II there seems to be little evidence for the minting of coins in Winchester, so the mint may have befallen the same fate as the palace itself, and other Norman buildings.
Beyond the lost Palace lay Winchester’s most famous landmark the Cathedral. The word itself is derived from the Latin for ‘seat’ as Cathedrals were the ‘seats’ of a Bishop. The office of the Bishop of Winchester dates to the seventh century.
The first Norman Bishop was Walekelin, during whose term of office the building of the Norman Cathedral was began in 1079 and completed only 14 years later. The Cathedral was built on the site of the Old Saxon minister, which was a ‘moved’ to site of Hyde Abbey, another of Winchester’s great medieval foundations. Hyde Abbey was the burial-place of King Alfred, but seems to have been badly damaged due having been attacked and burned during the Anarchy.
The Norman Cathedral apparently was not built to last, and the Norman tower fell in during the 12th century, though contemporary opinion seems to have held that the burial of William Rufus underneath it was the cause. One of Walekin’s successors, Henry of Blois the third Norman Bishop of Winchester was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in England, and brother of King Stephen. Henry oversaw the fortification of Wolvesey Palace, the main residence of Winchester’s Bishops, at the time of the anarchy. Its fortifications are perhaps one of the reasons why Wolvesey is known as a ‘Castle’ to this day.
It was Henry who also established the Hospital of St Cross, far outside the City Centre in the Itchen Meadows. According to popular legend Henry established the hospital after being stopped by a peasant girl during a walk in the meadows, who had begged him to ‘help her people’ rendered starving and destitute by the civil war. On finding the ruins of a former religious house, Henry vowed to establish a new one, which was done c1132.
The Hospital and its buildings were intended to house “thirteen poor men, feeble and so reduced in strength that they can scarcely, or not at all support themselves by any other aid” who were to be “housed clothed and fed” and “100 poor men were to be given a daily meal”.
On the opposite side of the city, again approaching from the West gate was the home of the Jewish Community, still holding the name of Jewry Street today. The Jews seem to have come with the Normans, and were, perhaps surprisingly, welcomed by some in the city. Winchester’s Jews also seem to have escaped the worst of the Anti-Semitic movements in this period.
Their medieval synagogue was located on the modern street between the Royal Oak and Waterstones building on the eastern side of the street. The city was also home to many tradespeople and craftsmen including Gold and Silversmiths (perhaps giving rise to names like ‘Silver Hill’), as well as Tanners, and others.
Outside the city walls on St Giles’ Hill an annual fair was held, on the day of the Saint after which the fair and Hill took its name. The right to grant the fair was granted by William Rufus to Bishop Walkelin which attracted merchants from throughout the country and beyond.
The fair was also frequented by wool merchants, whose wares formed such an important part of the Medieval English economy. Much of the land in Winchester and the surrounding areas was owned by the church, though those living in the cities would not have been their tenants, and some of the cities’ mills seem to have been owned by ‘the mayor and corporation’.
The establishment of trade guilds and the evidence for the first mayor of Winchester comes also from the twelfth century, and is may well be evidence of the city’s economic development and prosperity during this period, but it was not to last.
As stated before, Winchester was besieged, and parts burned by Bishop Henry’s forces during the civil war, yet it was the Treaty of Winchester that settled the succession onto her son, the future King Henry II.
Though the city recovered and continued to be prominent into the later part of the 12th century, its decline seems to have begun at this time, and into the 13th century. The “need for a traveling treasury became apparent in King John’s reign, when the King moved from place to place” which led to the “triumph of London”. Furthermore the city’s defences were unable to withstand a siege by King Louis of France at the end of his reign, and surrendered within a short time.
Turner, Barbara Carpenter, A History of Winchester (Chichester, 1992).
History, The Hospital of St Cross Website, Accessed 18th December 2012, http://stcrosshospital.co.uk/history/
Winchester Mint, Travel Wessex, Accessed 18th December 2012, http://www.travelwessex.com/Winchester-Mint.html.