Jane, Big Al, a Round Table & the Cathedral That Was Bringing Us Down
04.06.2004 - 04.06.2004 75 °F
TAKE A FEW SHOTS IN WINCHESTER
June 4, 2004. Exhausted from our previous day’s jaunt to and around Salisbury and the current day’s crack of dawn wake up call to go play with the oversized dominos at Stonehenge, we were heading back toward our home base in Cranleigh. Winchester was not much off the beaten path for us; I was ‘2 thumbs up’ for stopping there when Naomi informed me it was once the home of one of our shared favorite authors: Jane Austen. A former citizen even more famous was a particular (but not peculiar) king-King Aelfred. We parked, walked through a small farmer’s market and found our way to the main street, or as a main street is known in England: High Street.
KING AL… AS IN ALAN? ALEX? ALEXANDER? ALBUQUERQUE? ALPO? ALFRED? NO- ALEFRED!
Welcoming us to Winchester in front of Guild Hall at the beginning of High Street was a giant statue of their great king, Aelfred. Held high in his right hand was a cross hilted sword, representing Christianity defeating heathenism. He sported a Saxon helmet and shield, perched on a pedestal which simply bears his name, nothing else: AELFRED. Known as King Aelfred the Great, he became ruler of the West Saxons after he and his big brother king Ethelred defeated the Danes; the later death of his brother left Al baby as successor in 871AD. He was remembered not just as a great warrior, but also as a social reformer who built towns, opened schools and encouraged literacy by having Latin texts translated. He is the only king to bear the honor ‘The Great’, and Winchester was his capital.
HIGH NOON STREET
Right by the statue of Alfred was the Victorian Guildhall which housed the tourist center; we picked up some handy pamphlets on Winchester Walks. With Naomi still as our official tour guide, she led the way, taking us first down High Street, past some lovely 16th century timber-framed houses and shops, towards Lloyd’s Bank, housed in the old Georgian Guildhall. Above the bank was the old town clock, above the clock was a statue of Queen Anne, above the statue was a belfry (complete with bats). Those are facts. So is the fact that Winchester still had a curfew; night owls are not recommended to live there (but bats are welcome, as long as they remain in your belfry). Since I am by nature a night person and by blood, a Dane, it did not sound like the ideal place for me to live. Too bad, so sad as it was a very cute town. To continue… From there, things get a bit murky. I have read about the curfew bell that is rung nightly in Winchester at 8:00pm, but as we did not stay that late for fear we would be turned into pumpkins, I cannot say for certain. I read, in the City’s Winchester Walk pamphlet, that the bell has rung the 8pm curfew since 1361 in the belfry above the old guildhall. But how can that be, if the building itself only dates from 1731? Dyslexic history, maybe? I have also read that it has been rung since the days William the Conqueror was there,which also makes no sense, as he was there back in 1087; maybe he projected himself into the future to the 18th century, rang the bell and returned to the 11th century? Other Winchester sites have the curfew bell being rung from above the CURRENT town clock tower in the CURRENT guildhall… Oh, I am sooo confused! Let’s just get on with the tour!
A CROSS OF BUTTER
Sitting in a crowded corner on High Street was the 15th century 43 ft City Cross, AKA Market Cross, AKA High Cross, AKA the Butter Cross. So called due to 1) well, it is the Cross of the City, of course! 2) its location was formerly the market; 3) its location is on High Street, 4) butter was sold right below it. The statue was, how should I put it.. strange. It sat on a pedestal of 5 steps, and looked to me like the frame of a tower covered with cream colored frosting dripping from it, with a scepter at the top, topped with a tiny cross. If you looked hard, you could see a few statues of people hidden in the framework. There were 4 or 5 figures on the sculpture, but of who they are also seems to be quite vague; getting facts straight did not seem to be one of Winchester’s strengths! William the Conqueror once had a home on that spot where the cross sits, but for some reason his name was not added to the long list of names for the cross…
WINCHESTERIANS TAKE THEIR BUTTER SERIOUSLY
The city had sold the Cross statue in the 18th century, but when the new owner tried to move it, the townspeople would have none of that and started a riot (apparently they threatened a deadly butter fight with anyone who dared move their beloved Butter Cross). The statue was given back to the city (or sold back, that is not clear) and it has remained there ever since. Hey, that deserve a name as well, no? The Riot Cross, maybe?
WINCHESTER CATHEDRAL, YOU’RE BRINGIN’ ME DO-OWN (YES, PERFORMED BY TACO)
In the front, we were greeted by a welcome sign stating what the Winchester cathedral was and its history: the Old Minster. Wait! There was another sign next to it: Winchester Cathedral, the Anglo –Saxon cathedral. And another next to that: Winchester Cathedral, the Norman cathedral. Here in Mexico, when one sees 4 signs in front of a historical site, they would each be in a different language. But not in Winchester- they were all in English. How terribly… American! Actually, the Old Minster was the name of the original cathedral or minster on the site- it was excavated in the 1960s; the foundation pattern was revealed and can be seen on the cathedral grounds.
The Winchester cathedral was almost brought down in 1900. Built in 1079, the foundation was made of logs laid on swamp land; by 1900 it was sinking. An underwater diver and his team worked for 5 years under the foundations in black water, removing the decayed timber and underpinning the foundation with concrete. Yes, the song was playing in my head the whole time we walked around the cathedral. Strangely, when researching for kicks the lyrics to 'Winchester Cathedral', I discovered it was re-recorded in the 1980’s by a Dutch singer using my nickname… Taco!
VAULTED CEILINGS AND OLD TILED FLOORS
The cathedral was smaller than the one in Salisbury, but easier to see and focus on its details. Interestingly, I later read it had the longest nave of any Gothic cathedral in Europe. The ceiling vault above the high altar was decorated with objects too far away to distinguish, but looked like tiny royal ornaments in red, gold and blue nailed to an otherwise boring wood ceiling.
Mortuary chests there had once held the bones of ancient Saxon kings, but wartime and Cromwell’s men took care of that, as they had stormed it during the civil war. Some accounts say they ran out of ammunition and therefore were forced to break open the chests to use the bones as ammo in order to smash the stained glass windows. No,they were not defending themselves; they were just bullies vandalizing the cathedral… Supposedly the shards of glass were later recovered and used again… Whether any of that is true or not, it certainly gives a bit of color to the cathedral’s history!
The tiled floor was simply beautiful, different medieval patterns on small square tiles; I read they dated from the 13th century and the cathedral had the largest area of medieval tiled floor in the UK. The crypt, which still regularly floods every winter, has a statue of someone reading - maybe he has something to do with snow flooding the hall? Possibly some chap who neglected to pay his taxes?
TO JANE, WITH LOVE
We wandered around the aisles, stopping first to see the Jane Austen wall memorial. Jane, who died in 1817, was buried in the cathedral, but the public was outraged that her literary accomplishments had not been mentioned on the memorial stone over her tomb.
In 1872, a brass memorial plaque was added on a wall:
‘Jane Austen. Known to many by her writings, endeared to her family by the varied charms of her character and ennobled by her Christian faith and piety was born at Steventon in the County of Hants, December 16 1775 and buried in the Cathedral July 18 1817. She openeth her mouth with wisdom and in her tongue is the law of kindness’.
In 1900, stained glass windows were added above the plaque in her honor; below it were several fresh floral bouquets.
SH! THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE AT REST HERE, TOO!
As it was an old cathedral, there were many tombs and ancient memorials, such as the tomb of a 9th century bishop, St. Swithun. He was known for his humility and that he once restored a basket of eggs. HUH? Is that all it takes to become a saint in this town? Anyway, his body, with the exception of one of his arms, is buried in the cathedral. His missing arm went to Norway. As the current cathedral was built after his death, his 2 armed body was dug up to be put in the new cathedral. Apparently one of his arms did not like that and took off to Norway. They say (you know - THEY) ) that it rained 40 days after his body was moved because he disapproved. Folks still say that if it rains on St. Swithum’s day, it will rain 40 days straight.
THAT SMALL BEER WILL GETCHA EVERY TIME…
Outside of the cathedral was a graveyard. One particular man, soldier Thomas Thetcher, is now famous because of his grave marker, which states:
Thomas Thetcher died of a violent fever after drinking a small beer; 1764; 26 yrs old.
The city holds him so dear that his marker has been replaced 3 times, each time an additional amusing line has been added:
Soldiers, be aware of his untimely fall, and when you’re hot drink STRONG or none at all; 1781.
Followed yet by:
An honest soldier never is forgot, whether he die by musket or by pot; 1802.
The final replacement was in 1966, but sadly no loving quip was added…
FINALLY! A CASTLE! PART 1: WINCHESTER COLLEGE
We left the cathedral; Naomi consulted the Winchester Walks pamphlet and decided our next goal was to see Jane Austen’s house. As we turned on College Street, I saw signs pointing to the Wolvesey Castle. Cool, a castle! Step aside, Jane; that’s where I am heading! We followed the signs to the castle, Naomi warning me that it was probably in ruins, as we had seen in Guildford just a few days ago. But I was having none of that, and got very excited as I saw just up ahead on the street the unmistakable turrets of a real live castle! We hastened our pace, the signs pointed past it; of course that must have meant the entrance was just further up, right? Oh, maybe with a museum, awesome! Wait, huh? What does this sign say? Huh? Oops!! It’s just the Winchester College; keep going to Wolvesey Castle on the other side of the street!
FINALLY! A CASTLE! PART 2: WOLVESEY CASTLE
We entered the castle grounds, trees obstructing my view of what certainly must have been a wonderful castle. Why else would there be so much signage, right? And then it appeared… Or not.
The entrance sign stated: ‘..l.argely destroyed during the Civil War, 20 years later the castle was demolished in order to build a new palace in the then-popular Baroque style. That palace can be seen directly beside the ruins.’ All that remained of Wolvesey itself were ruined walls… Fortunately Naomi is the kind of dear friend who wouldn’t even think of saying “I told you so”… Well, we figured, we were there, might as well explore the grounds (as if there was much more to see than the ground itself). There were signs posted that described the exact spot where certain rooms were and what was in it.
My imagination was not quite working at first; it was difficult trying to imagine what type of furniture had been, let alone what the windows looked like, as what was left of most of the walls was nothing but the lower half. My sense of humor kicked in when I read the posted sign where the kitchen had been that said something like:
‘The kitchen can be seen on the right, and the serving area on the left. If you look close you can see where they kept the ovens’.
Can be seen? What? Where? Am I blind? IT’S A BLOODY WALL! THERE’S A BLOODY PICNIC BENCH! WAS THAT TABLE LEFT BY BILLY BOY THE CONQUEROR, AL THE GREAT OR CANUTE THE GREAT DANE?
HEY TARZAN, IS JANE HOME? JANE AUSTEN’S LAST RESIDENCE
Having explored all the castle ‘rooms’ (except for the upper levels as there were no stairs leading to the… air), we walked down the street (the way we had come!) to the address of 8 College Street, the final residence of Jane Austen. I had expected to find a statue dedicated to her, or at least a small museum, but instead there was just a plaque on the house:
‘In this house Jane Austen lived her last days and died 18 July, 1817’.
It is now a private residence. Well, at least the cathedral paid her the tribute she deserved, and she really only lived there a short time. Her novels were written in other homes elsewhere in England, which are now museums.
A REALLY GREAT HALL:
Next on our walk was to find the Great Hall. It looked a lot closer on our small map, but ended up to be about 8 blocks away. Uphill.
And then up a million and a half small steps, the kind you think you can take four at a time but can’t, so it takes forever to climb. Or so it seemed by the time we got there! A sign greeted us at the entrance to let us know where we were and to ring for assistance. Ring? Ring whom? Ring the queen? Man, these Brits were really friendly!
The Great Hall, AKA Castle Hall (seems these Winchesterites cannot make up their minds about names) is all that remains of the castle originally built by William the Conqueror in 1066. Rebuilt by Henry III in 1240 and ordered destroyed by Cromwell in 1646; all had been destroyed except the Great Hall. Bare of furniture except for a few benches along the great walls, the size was the first thing I noticed upon entering. Properly named, as it really was a great hall, immensely so; I could just imagine a huge banquet table for 50 with plenty of room for guests- with 2 servants per guest serving without having to trip over his fellow servant. There would have been plenty of room on the table for the roast beasts, flowing wine and ale, with the court jesters jesting at either end. Although we had our Winchester Walk pamphlets with a few lines for each interesting stop, it was Naomi our tour guide who once again saved the day here as she recalled bits of historical trivia.
She pointed out that each stained glass window had the coats of arms of medieval kings and nobles; one was that of the coat of arms of the Knights of the Round Table. She also pointed out the Round Table itself, hanging high above the entrance.
WE SAW THE ROUND CIRCLE, NOW WHERE’S THE TABLE?
Looking like a great big dart board, we had to move back a third of the way down the Great Hall to get a good view. Our tour guide told us it was commissioned by King Henry III for a dinner party to impress his guests, presented as the Authentic Round Table. Five and a half meters in diameter, the table was divided in 25 sections, one for each knight and one for King Arthur. Aside from the more famous Sir Galahad and Lancelot, there were 24 Round Table Knights in all. A figure representing King Arthur sat on a throne at the top; supposedly it was actually a figure of King Henry III. Maybe he was really the one who pulled Excalibur out of the stone, and the history books were wrong? I’d best ask my tour guide…
QUEEN A AND QUEEN B (OR QUEEN V AND QUEEN E)
In the corner of the Great Hall, royal scepter in hand and wearing heavy flowing bronze robes with what looked like angels on top of her throne and her shoulder, sat a statue of Queen Victoria. She looked very regal and…bored. Maybe because she was placed looking away from the Round Table? Maybe because she, as a woman, was not allowed to be a Round Table Knight?
To the rear of the Great Hall was a doorway that led to a lovely, peaceful English Garden, a modern reconstruction of a 13th Century garden named Queen Eleanor’s Garden, after Henry III’s wife. I went outside for a bit to reflect. Okay, I really went outside to sit and rest, exhausted after climbing those stairs! After that, we decided to head back to Cranleigh; another fun but exhausting day was had by all.
Winchester Cathedral: http://www.winchester-cathedral.org.uk/new/
The Great Hall: http://www.hants.gov.uk/greathall/index.html
Jane Austen: http://www.pemberley.com/