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E will pass now from the scene of Alfred's first important triumph to the city where he lived and ruled during his wonderful reign - Winchester. This town justly claims a very high antiquity; in fact, it is thought to be nearly coeval with the Christian era. Here dwelt Shakespeare's Cymbeline and his gallant sons Guiderius and Arviragus. The latter - Arviragus - is best known to us by the name the Romans called him - Caractacus, who fought so gallantly for his native land, and whose noble conduct when taken prisoner and carried to Rome every schoolboy knows. Chroniclers relate how Claudius, the Roman Emperor, adopted him into his family, and gave him his daughter Gewissa in marriage, with whom he was allowed to return to Britain and reign again at Winchester - then called Venta Belgarum. Their daughter Claudia wedded the noble senator Pudens, both of whom are mentioned by St. Paul, in his Second Epistle to Timothy (ch. iv., v. 21), as Christians at Rome. Claudia is said to have taught her faith in Britain, and Lucius, the great grandson of Caractacus, was the first Christian king, not only in Britain, but in the world. He founded in Britain twenty-eight cities, with churches in each, and a cathedral. Lucius was the last tributary king of this country, the conquered land being after his time ruled by Roman proconsuls till the emperors abandoned it.

Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur, was driven from Venta by Cerdic the Saxon, and the city then took the name of Wintanceaster, or Winchester. The next Christian king who ruled in Winchester was the Saxon Kinegils; he commenced building the cathedral, where his bones are still preserved. Egbert reigned here, and his descendants, till at length our glorious Alfred, "the miracle of history," as he has been justly called - warrior - lawgiver - father of his people, "most Christian king," to him no empty title, ruled the White City.

Civilising, educating, and defending his people, Alfred resided in Winchester, then the capital of the kingdom, and was buried in a beautiful and stately abbey, built on purpose to receive him in death, in Hyde Meadow, near the city. But at the dissolution of the monasteries this abbey was pulled down; and since then a Bridewell has been erected on the spot where Alfred, his queen, and his son, Edward the Elder, had their last repose.

The descendants of Alfred continued to reign for more than a century, with the brief interval of the Danish conquest; then the Saxon family were for a short time replaced on the throne.

The king whom Sweyn and Canute drove from his throne - Ethelred the Unready - deserved his fate, for he was guilty of a terrible crime. He ordered the massacre of all the Danes in England on one day - the festival of St. Brice - which that year fell on a Sunday. The crime concluded the rejoicings for his marriage with the beautiful Emma of Normandy.

It was in Winchester that the Danish massacre began, and the streets literally streamed, we are told, with blood. The furious vengeance of the Danes which followed this atrocious act was almost equally terrible, and again Winchester presented the appearance of shambles.

Under Edward the Confessor, Queen Emma was accused of being accessory to the murder of her own son, Prince Alfred, whom Godwin, Earl of Kent, was supposed to have killed by putting out his eyes; she was also said to have misconducted herself with Alwyn, bishop of Winchester. The queen, enraged at such slander, insisted on undergoing the ordeal by fire. Emma had been the wife of Ethelred the Unready, and her sons by him were Edward the Confessor and Alfred; after his death she married Canute, and had a son who became king, Hardicanute. Her demand could not be refused, and it was in the cathedral of the city that Ethelred had stained with the great crime of the Danish massacre on her wedding him, that she underwent the ordeal. Nine hot ploughshares were placed before the altar; the king, the bishops, and a multitude of the people were within the sacred walls, and saw the queen-mother, supported on each side by a bishop, step fearlessly on the red-hot iron, and walk across it unhurt. Her innocence thus miraculously established, she stood proudly facing the people, who rent the air with their acclamations.

The person who had first accused Queen Emma of having ordered the death of her young son - Earl Godwin - had been long suspected by Edward to have been implicated in the crime himself, and after the justification of Emma, the king felt convinced of it. A great feast followed the ordeal, at which Godwin was present. "The butler," says the legend, "slipped in bringing a dish to the table, but recovered himself by the adroit use of his other foot. 'Thus does brother assist brother,' laughed Earl Godwin. 'And thus might I have been assisted by my Alfred,' said the king bitterly, 'if Earl Godwin had not prevented it.' Upon this the earl, holding up the morsel he was about to eat, pronounced a great oath, and in the name of God said that the morsel might choke him if he had had anything to do with the murder. Upon this the king repeated a short prayer, and the earl attempted to swallow the morsel, but he could not. It choked him, and he fell dead from the table. The king, full of remorse at having listened to the calumnies against his mother, exclaimed 'Take away that dog, and bury him in the high road."'

Authentic history says that Godwin died of apoplexy at the feast, and he is certainly buried in the cathedral.

William the Conqueror loved the beautiful city, for it stands, or rather stood, amidst splendid forests, those of Bere, Woolmer Chute, and Pamber; and then, too, he had made, not far off, the great New Forest for his chase.

William Rufus was buried here. Mary I. was here married to Philip of Spain. Sir Walter Raleigh, Lords Cobham and Grey were here tried for treason, and three persons said to be concerned in the plot were beheaded on the castle hill. Cromwell did disgraceful mischief here, blowing up the castle, demolishing the bishop's palace, and knocking down the Norman tower at the west gate. His troopers stabled their horses in the cathedral, smashed the painted windows, and broke the statues of the saints.

There are many more historical memories of Winchester, but we have not space for all.

In the centre of the town stands the cathedral; at a short distance Wykham's College, and down in the valley the Hospital of St. Cross, nearly hidden by trees.

The west front of the stately and venerable cathedral is remarkable for the beauty of its workmanship, and for the fretted gallery over it, where the bishop used to stand and bless the people. Its fine window is rich with perpendicular tracery; it has two slender lantern turrets, and a crowning tabernacle with the statue of its builder. The eastern window glows with the richest colours of enamelled glass; the lofty roof is fretted with tracery, and the great height and vast length of its unbroken space is not surpassed by any cathedral in England.

View of the Deanery, Winchester Cathedral

In fact, Winchester Cathedral is as beautiful as it is venerable. The most striking works of art in it are the chantries containing the tombs of the prelates who have been bishops of the see. They are of the most delicate and elaborate workmanship. There are two in the nave: those of Edington and William of Wykeham. The latter tomb is of great beauty, the sides of it are covered with panels of trefoil arches, and crotcheted spandrils, and emblazoned with mitres and armorial shields. His statue or effigy is remarkably fine; at his feet are three quaint little figures of monks praying. This chantry and Edington's are between the great pillars of the south aisle. So exquisitely are these chantries carved, that they appear rather to be wrought in ivory than in stone. They originally had each its own shrine, and the niches - now empty - bore figures of the saints. Here daily masses were chanted for the souls of the prelates, the chantries being endowed for the purpose. That of Bishop Fox, long prime minister and the patron of Wolsey, is very beautiful, as is that of Cardinal Beaufort, he "who died and made no sign." Gardiner's is inferior to these.

There are other objects in the cathedral of great interest as well as these chantries. There is the marble coffin of William, the Conqueror's second son Richard, who was killed by a stag while hunting in the New Forest before Rufus fell there; the Lady Chapel, in which Mary I. married Philip of Spain. The chair in which she sat is still to be seen. In the Chapel of the Guardian Angels there are remains of old paintings on the walls of angels and legendary figures.

In the north-east aisle is the monument of King Hardicanute, having on it the very appropriate figure of a ship, as marking a sea king's grave.

The northern transept does not belie its age in appearance; it was built by Bishop Walkelin, the cousin of the Conqueror. It is a stern and ancient-looking portion of the cathedral. There is a dark chapel below the organ stairs - the Chapel of the Sepulchre - whither in Holy Week worshippers assembled for the mass of the Passion. On the roof are rude paintings of scriptural subjects.

The choir is of great beauty. The rich, dark wood-work of the stalls is thrown out by the pale delicacy of the walls above them. The fine vault of the roof has orbs at the junction of the timbers embossed with the armorial shields of Lancaster and Castile - for John of Gaunt and Cardinal Beaufort - with those of the Tudors and of various episcopal sees. Here are also emblazoned the instruments of OUR LORD'S Passion and the faces of Pilate and his wife, all in the most gorgeous colouring. On the floor of the sanctuary is a plain beveled stone of dark marble; it is the tomb of William Rufus, and arranged on the top of the beautiful stone portions defining the choir are six mortuary chests, three on each side, containing the bones of several Saxon princes. They were collected by Bishop de Blois in the twelfth century, and placed in coffins of lead in the Holy Hole, a room in which were deposited sacred relics and remains of saints. A stone staircase, now, we believe, blocked up, led to it. When the choir was rebuilt, Bishop Fox had the coffins placed in these chests, which are carved, gilt and surmounted with crowns, with the names inscribed on them, and placed them where they now remain. The remains are thus preserved of Kinegils, who commenced building the cathedral; of Adulphus or Ethelwulf, the father of Alfred; of Egbert, Rufus, Queen Emma, Edmund, the son of Alfred, Edred, those of Bishops Wina and Alwin; and one chest contains the fragments inextricably mingled of the princely or holy dead that were scattered about by " the sacrilegious barbarism " of 1642.

The screen is exquisite; the canopies and lacework on the upper part are perfect; in fact, one of the finest and most picturesque objects in England is Winchester Cathedral.

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Picturesque England
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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004