Scandal in Winchester

This months’ theme is Local History and seeing as I will be staying in and around Winchester for the foreseeable future I thought I would delve into the depths of Winchester’s rich history. After sifting through many different types of events I decided to write a little overview on the scandalous history if this city. These events date from the early medieval period to the early 20th century, so this should be at least a bit interesting for the different type of historians out there.

Emma of Normandy (c. 985-1052)

Emma of Normandy, wife of two kings (Ethelred and Canute) and mother of two others (Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor) was claimed to have been involved in an affair with the Bishop of Winchester, Aelfwine, and many of the people claiming this relationship happened blamed Emma for starting it. She was charged with criminal familiarity and insisted on undergoing trial by ordeal. She underwent this trial in the city’s minster and came out of it unhurt, meaning that she (and the Bishop) were completely innocent of the charges brought to them. Apparently she spent the night prior to the trial praying at the shrine of St Swithun, who appeared to her and told her ‘I am St Swithun whom you have invoked; fear not, the fire shall do you no hurt.’

Brothels (12th century onwards)

In medieval times the diocese of Winchester was vast and included London’s Bankside. It was in this area that some of the country’s first brothels appeared. These brothels were regulated by King Henry II in the 12th century and the prostitutes that worked there were licensed by the Bishops of Winchester. The Church took the view that the income collected from these brothels were useful to the bishop and the king and therefore did not interfere. The restrictions on the brothels only became tighter in the early 16th century after the first spread of syphilis.

Henry Garnett (1555-1606)

Henry Garnett was executed for being a part of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Possibly due to the events that led to his death some stories have been told about his earlier life, particularly the part that happened to occur in Winchester. Garnett was elected a scholar at Winchester College in 1567. Some stories claim that he was a friendly man who made friends with many people. However some stories claim that he was guilty of ‘…the grossest immorality…’ and of the conceiving of plots against the headmaster of Winchester College, particularly of a plot to cut off the right hand of the headmaster. It is probable that these negative stories only appeared after his execution, however they are still interesting to read about.

William Franklin (b. c. 1610)

This next scandal took place in and around Winchester so could be attributed to several different places. William Franklin suffered an unknown illness, possibly related to the plague, which led to him being bled multiple times. During these bleedings Franklin claimed to be Christ reincarnated. Several times after these bleedings he repented and went about his life as normal. However after some time he continued these claims past the bleedings. He managed to convince a woman called Mary Gadbury and they set off for a new life together in Hampshire (Franklin originally being from London). Franklin soon started attracting followers to his belief that he was the Second Coming of Christ. This went on for some time before he and three of his followers were arrested and brought to Winchester in 1650 where he agreed to recant his statements.

William Coward (late 17th-early 18th century)

William Coward was a Winchester-born physician and theological writer. In 1702 he published a book titled Second Thoughts Concerning Human Soul under a false name, Estibius Psychalethes. Unfortunately for Coward it was found out that he was the true author and was brought before the House of Commons. He was accused of being an atheist and had his writings condemned. His books were ordered to be burnt by a common hangman.

Thomas Ken and the mistress of Charles II

King Charles II (1630-1685) had ordered a new palace to be built in Winchester, he asked Thomas Ken (1637-1711), one of the kings’ chaplains and a Prebend of Winchester Cathedral, to accommodate his mistress Nell Gwyn (1650-1687) in his own prebendal house. Ken refused this request and Nell had to stay in the deanery. Fortunately for Ken the king respected him for his principled stance. Despite some discussion on the relationship between Charles and Ken when the position of a new bishop at Bath and Wells the king was adamant that the position be Ken’s.

Thomas White (d. 1813)

Thomas White was an astrologer who died in prison in Winchester three months after being arrested and charged under the Vagrancy Act for pretending and professing to tell Fortunes. What is odd about this event is that White was living on the Isle of Wight at the time of his arrest, why was he taken to Winchester to be imprisoned?

Sir Oswald Mosley (1896-1980)

Sir Oswald Mosley was an alumnus of Winchester College and the notorious British fascist leader. During the early 20th century Mosley moved between different political parties; Conservatives, Independents and Labour, before setting up his own party, which became the British Union of Fascists after a visit to Italy in 1932. This party became more anti-Semitic as the 30’s went on.

Martin Neary (b. 1940)

Martin Neary served as organist at Winchester Cathedral from 1972 to 1988, however his scandal did not occur until he was made organist at Westminster Abbey from 1988 to 1998. Neary was even the musical director of the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. However less than a year after this funeral he was sacked on the grounds of gross misconduct. Neary petitioned the Queen, as Visitor of the Abbey, to resolve the dispute, but the dismissal was upheld. The main point of his dismissal was that he and his wife had set up a company to deal with the business side of the Abbey’s musical life, without the Dean’s knowledge. The final word was that even though the Nearys had not lied about the company the decision made by the Dean to sack him was just.

Further reading

Barbara Carpenter Turner, A History of Winchester, (Andover, 1992).

Claire Dixon, Don Bryan, Geraldine Buchanan and James King, Bloody British History: Winchester (Bloody History), (Stroud, 2013).

Penny Legg, Winchester History You Can See, (Stroud, 2011).

Phil Hewitt, A Winchester Miscellany, (Chichester, 2013).


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