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The History of Winchester

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Winchester is a relatively small city by today’s standards. It is not a big urban centre in the way many cities are today. However, it still retains some importance and the headquarters of Hampshire County Council are based there. In the past, however, it was very different. The History of Winchester goes back over 2000 years and, at some stages during that time, it was one of the most prominent cities in Britain.

The Romans built the first town near to an earlier Celtic settlement in 47 AD. Some believe that King Arthur lived there in a later century and in fact Winchester is considered by many to be the legendary Camelot. There is a round table in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle, which is supposed to be King Arthur’s famous Round Table. Archaeological tests have shown that this table is unlikely to be old enough to be genuine and is probably a mock up from a later era.

What is more certain is that King Alfred the Great resided at Winchester and made it the capital of the Kingdom of Wessex; covering the southern half of England, with the Danes occupying the northern half. Alfred was buried at the New Minster, which once stood beside the later Cathedral. The town continued to house kings, queens and royal families for a long time to come. The Normans captured it under William the Conqueror and expanded Winchester; building a castle and commencing work on what is now Winchester Cathedral. The Domesday Book was actually written in Winchester in 1086 and is one of the most important historical documents from Britain.  In 1986 Winchester Museum held a major exhibition to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the writing of the Domesday Book. The city continued to see plenty of action over the next few hundred years culminating in the capture of the city by the roundheads under Cromwell ; who ordered that the castle built by William the Conqueror be destroyed.

Winchester saw a great deal of rebuilding during the 18th century. Many Georgian houses were built, whilst other older buildings were given a Georgian façade. A new Guildhall, theatre and Royal County Hospital were built in Winchester during this time and the streets were paved and lit. However, there was not much industry or commerce in the town at this time and the Winchester was just a small market town, a far cry from its glory days as the capital of Wessex.

The city did rise in prosperity and size again in the 19th Century. Jane Austen , who was born in Steventon in the north of Hampshire, died in Winchester in 1817 and was buried there at Winchester Cathedral. John Keats spent a few months in Winchester in 1819 and wrote several well known poems whilst he was there. A number of fine educational establishments which still flourish today were first founded in the 19th century in Winchester; including King Alfred’s College, which started as a teacher training College in 1840. The arrival of the railway helped the growth of the city as it made it more accessible for tourists. The tourist trade has flourished in Winchester ever since, with Winchester Cathedral providing the main attraction.  Many notable historic figures, including Bishops and Monarchs are buried there; William of Wykeham, William Rufus and King Canute to name but a few. Another attraction is Pilgrim’s Way, which starts in Winchester and ends at Canterbury ; thus connecting two of England’s most historic and best known Cathedrals.

At the beginning of the 20th century a statue of King Alfred was erected in Winchester to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of his death. The statue was built by Hamo Thorneycroft and still cuts a commanding figure over a century later.  In the twentieth century, Winchester continued to prosper. Its educational establishments gained a good reputation locally and its main college, Peter Symonds College, was rated one of the top sixth form colleges in England by the end of the twentieth century. Its state schools generally have a very good reputation and there are some well known public schools in Winchester including Winchester College (one of the best known public schools in England) and St Swithun’s, a girl’s public school with a reputation for good results. The city grew in importance again as far as Hampshire was concerned as the County Council Headquarters have been situated there since 1889, making Winchester the administrative capital of Hampshire. The council offices to this day are situated in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle; originally built in the 12th century and rebuilt in the 13th century. The Hall is actually all that remains of Winchester Castle and is still pretty much as it was after being rebuilt in the early 13th century. In 1944 Churchill and Eisenhower visited Winchester to review the troops at Peninsula barracks; prior to the D Day landings .

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