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Winchester Cathedral
The Close, Winchester, Hampshire, UK
associated engineer
Not known
Sir Francis Fox
date  1079 - 1093, and onwards
UK era  Medieval  |  category  Cathedral  |  reference  SU481293
ICE reference number  HEW 182 + 512
Winchester Cathedral is one of the finest medieval cathedrals in Europe — and claims to have the longest nave in the country. It dates from the 11th century, and survived the change from Catholicism to Protestantism in Britain in the 16th century. Extensive underpinning in the 19th century saved the building from collapse, and it is now Grade I listed. Further restoration is nearing completion (2018).
The present building was preceded by the first cathedral in Winchester, known as Old Minster, constructed in the 7th century by the Anglo Saxons and dedicated to St Peter and St Paul. Sited at the north west end of the present cathedral, Old Minster was at the heart of a Benedictine priory (monastic community) and held the relics of Saint Swithun.
Winchester Cathedral as we know it today was begun in 1079 by Walkelin (d.1098), Bishop of Winchester and royal chaplain to William I (c.1028-87, 'the Conqueror'), in the Norman Romanesque style. It was built mostly of limestone from Quarr on the Isle of Wight, and consecrated on 8th April 1093, though construction continued thereafter. On 15th July 1093 — St Swithun’s day — the shrine of St Swithun was transferred to the new cathedral, ensuring its status as a place of pilgrimage.
Both old and new cathedrals were constructed on cruciform footprints. Other buildings forming the priory complex included a Chapter House, built in 1090, where the monks studied the Rule of St Benedict, two cloisters, accommodation, refectory, kitchen, almonry (schoolroom), infirmary, stables, brewhouse, mill, forge and storehouses.
From 16th July 1093 into 1094, the Old Minster was demolished and much of its stone reused to complete the new building, along with some Bath stone. The crypt, transepts and nave layout of Walkelin’s era survive. The Romanesque architecture features heavy round arches, plain groin vaulting, narrow round-headed windows and little ornamentation.
At this time, the cathedral was 162.8m long. Its foundations consist of timber rafts laid at relatively shallow depths in the ground. The massive walls and columns are not homogeneous: the outer faces are of coursed or ashlar masonry but the cores are filled with dry rubble.
Unfortunately, the cathedral is sited on wet sedimentary soil in a valley of the River Itchen. In 1107, the original Norman crossing tower collapsed, presumably because of the unstable ground — though the disaster was blamed on 'wicked’ William II (c.1056-1100, William Rufus) who is buried here. The old tower was replaced in 1200 by a 45.7m new one, 15.2m square with round-headed windows, rising 10.7m above the top of the transept roof with a lantern open to the elements.
In about 1150, a square font of dark polished limestone depicting lions, birds and the miracles of St Nicholas was installed. It came from Tournai in Belgium and is carved from a single block weighing around 1.5 tonnes. Around 1160, an illuminated Bible was commissioned for daily worship. Its Latin text is the work of a single scribe, though the illustrated capital letters are by six different artists. The font and the bible were probably gifts of Henry of Blois (c.1096-1171).
In 1202, bishop Godfrey de Lucy (d.1204) commenced the construction of a rectangular retrochoir (a space behind the altar with seating for the choir) and Lady Chapel at the east end of the building. The stonework is in the Early English style, with lancet windows, pointed arches and ribbed four-section vaulting. The medieval tiles in the retrochoir date from around 1230 and are the oldest such tiles in Britain.
During the 13th and early 14th centuries, bishop Henry Woodcock began work to create a new presbytery (sanctuary or chancel where the altar stands). It replaced the original Norman apse and is in Decorated Gothic style with two main arches supported by a feretory screen. As the style name suggests, the column capitals, arches, vaulting, bosses and windows are heavily ornamented with carving, mostly of foliage and flowers.
The original west front of the cathedral, framed by two rectangular towers, was 13.7m further to the west than the present west front. The Norman towers were demolished about 1350 and not rebuilt, probably for lack of workers available as it was the time of the Black Death — in the mid-14th century plague struck across Europe, and the population of Winchester was more than halved, not recovering until the 19th century.
From 1360 to 1404, bishops William Edington (d.1366) and William of Wykeham (1320/4-1404) transformed the nave from Norman Romanesque to Perpendicular Gothic.
Edingdon built a new west front and apparently dismantled two of the existing bays at the west end of the nave. Wykeham’s master mason William Wynford (d.1405) remodelled the nave by casing it with Caen limestone from France. The existing timber ceilings were removed and replaced with intricately ribbed and bossed stone vaults, dividing the internal elevation into two tall storeys rather than the previous three. Other features include Tudor arches and large windows with vertical mullions. Some of the stained glass and stonework in the north transept dates from about 1380.
Between 1405 and 1500, under bishops Peter Courtenay (c.1440-92) and Thomas Langton (d.1501), the nave was completed, chantry chapels constructed on the north and south sides of the retrochoir, the Lady Chapel extended and re-vaulted, and the south east chapel vault reconstructed. Bells cast circa 1445, circa 1460 and circa 1500 were installed. In 1525, bishop Richard Foxe (c.1448-1528) rebuilt the presbytery with side aisles, flying buttresses, stone side screens and a high timber vault with painted bosses.
In 1538-9, during the dissolution of the monasteries, the priory surrendered to Henry VIII (1491-1547). The shrine of St Swithun was ransacked and many of the monastery’s buildings demolished, including the Great Cloister, the infirmary in 1570 and the Chapter House in 1580. The cathedral escaped destruction and, in 1560-80, was re-established as an Anglican place of worship under bishop Robert Horne (c.1513-79).
During the 16th century, the top of the crossing tower was closed in to create a belfry. Bells cast in 1574, 1606, 1610 and 1611 were installed, some of them seemingly to replace earlier ones. In 1621, Anthony Bond cast the first bell specifically intended for the present cathedral. It is a flat 8th, 864mm in diameter, weighing 340kg and is still in use. By 1632, the belfry had seven bells. About 1734, John Williams constructed the sturdy oak frame from which the bells still hang.
In 1637-40, the decayed Norman choir screen behind the altar was dismantled — some of the rescued statuary is on display in the south transept gallery. A new Great Screen was designed by architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652) in Classical style, adorned with bronze figures of James I (1566-1625) and Charles I (1600-49) by sculptor Hubert le Sueur (c.1580-1658).
In August 1642, at the beginning of the English Civil War (1642-51), Winchester Castle surrendered to Parliamentary forces. On 13th December, soldiers on horseback broke into Winchester Cathedral, looting, smashing the choir and west window, destroying mortuary chests and royal remains. Afterwards, the building was spared demolition by a petition from the citizens of Winchester.
Restoration progressed sporadically into the 19th century. In 1820, the Great Screen was removed and replaced with a stone screen created by Edward Garbett (1817-87), in Gothic style to echo the design of the west doorway to the nave. The figures of James I and Charles I were relocated near the west window of the nave. In 1875, the stone screen was taken out and a carved timber screen by George Gilbert Scott (1811-78, knighted 1872) installed. About 1895, the presbytery roof was re-leaded.
The cathedral’s organ, made by Henry Willis (1821-1901), was the largest pipe organ on display at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. Installed in 1854, but reduced in size to fit the cathedral, and was the first cathedral organ to have concave radiating pedals and pneumatic piston stops. It was modified in 1897 and 1905, and rebuilt by Harrison & Harrison in 1937 and 1968-88. The organ now has 5,500 pipes and 79 stops.
By 1905, the east end of the cathedral was showing evidence of subsidence. Cracks and voids had appeared in the walls and vaults, allowing pieces of stonework to fall. Some of the walls and columns developed an outward lean of up to 10 percent. Worst affected were the retrochoir and Lady Chapel. Most of the cracking was attributed to the Norman building practice of using dry rubble fill in the walls and columns. The root cause of the subsidence was the timber raft foundations resting on compressible peat overlying beds of marl and gravel, not helped by a rising water table significantly higher than at the time of construction.
Francis Fox (1844-1927, knighted 1912) was appointed consulting engineer for the remedial works. Immediate measures included propping the walls and erecting centring under the arches. The walls were pressure grouted to fill cracks and voids — an early application of the technique — and 16.8 tonnes of steel used for tie rods through the walls at strategic locations.
The long term solution to securing the cathedral’s structural stability was to underpin the medieval walls with concrete. Funding was raised through a national newspaper appeal. The work began with the east end of the building but ultimately was extended to almost all of the cathedral’s walls.
Eventually, more than 200 trenches were dug along the exterior of affected walls. The timber rafts and peat were excavated down to the water table, only about 3m below the surface. Steam pumping could not empty the excavations and was soon considered too risky to the fabric of the building, so the underpinning had to be carried out in the wet.
A diver in a dry suit and breathing apparatus completed the excavation to hard gravel and placed concrete bags, in layers two to three bags thick, in the base of the trenches to stop water ingress. Each trench could then be pumped out and a new foundation of concrete blockwork and brick footings constructed to the underside of the original masonry.
Contractor for the subsidence repairs was John Thompson of Peterborough but all the underwater work was done one person, William Robert Walker (born Bellenie, 1869-1918), the chief diver of diving equipment maker Siebe Gorman & Company Limited. Between April 1906 and September 1911, Walker worked by touch in the dark for six hours a day (in two shifts), in turbid water up to 6m deep. He laid almost 26,000 bags of concrete. Masons completed the foundations with around 115,000 concrete blocks and 900,000 engineering bricks.
In 1909-12, architect Thomas Graham Jackson (1835-1924) carried out restoration work — and presumably was also involved in the underpinning. The fabric of the south transept was strengthened by the addition of 10 double flying buttresses, equally spaced along its length. The total cost of works carried out in 1906-12 was £113,000, with a workforce of 150 people.
On 15th July 1912, completion of the restoration and underpinning was celebrated at a special service in the cathedral, led by Archbishop of Canterbury Randall Thomas Davidson (1848-1930) and attended by George V (1865-1936) and Queen Mary (1867-1936). Later in 1912, Walker received the Royal Victorian Order for his actions to save the cathedral from collapse. The results of his labours are still visible, though the crypt continues to flood frequently.
In 1937, John Taylor & Co. cast 12 new bells for the cathedral, 11 trebles and a tenor, presumably to replace some of the earlier bells. They range in size from 673mm to 1.47m diameter and 248kg to 1.81 tonnes in weight. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry provided three more bells in 1992, two trebles and a sharp 4th. They are 635mm to 686mm in diameter and 245kg to 252kg in weight. The cathedral now has 16 bells.
In March 1950, Winchester Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, St Peter, St Paul and St Swithun (its official title) was Grade I listed. At 169.5m long, it is thought to be the longest cathedral in Britain.
In the 1960s, some of the main columns in the nave were pressure grouted. On 15th July 1962, a modern shrine to St Swithun was erected in the retrochoir to replace the shrine destroyed in 1538.
In 1964, a statuette by Sir Charles Wheeler (1892-1974) of a suited diver was unveiled in the cathedral. Its plinth was inscribed, “in honour of William Walker, the diver who saved this cathedral with his two hands” — but, embarrassingly, the likeness was that of Francis Fox. However, the cathedral now has two bronze statues of Walker — happily both modelled on the right person. In June 2001, a bust by Glyn Williams (b.1939) was unveiled, and later that year, one by Norman Pierce (1915-95) was donated to the visitor centre by Pierce’s widow and is now in the grounds.
In 2006-7, studies confirmed that the cathedral was stable as a result of the 1906-12 underpinning. It noted that modern foundation strengthening techniques would probably include micro piling.
In 2014, a five year capital project was launched for conservation works and the creation of new exhibition spaces. Work includes the repair and conservation of external stonework, presbytery roof and vault, medieval stained glass windows and the Winchester illuminated Bible. Private accommodation in the Deanery is being restored, renovated and modernised.
Presbytery works include externally re-leading the roof, restoring the water-damaged internal timber vault and bosses (repainted 1630s, 1819 and 1950s), cleaning and renovating the stonework, and refurbishing the stained glass. The existing late 19th century roof lead was stripped out, recast in Leicester and refitted. The lead was re-used because new lead would emit more radiation, which could affect the timber vault.
The south transept will house a three tier exhibition space with level access to displays of artefacts. A new mezzanine floor is under construction and a lift being installed — the first in Britain (and possibly the world) to pass through a vaulted ceiling.
In September 2014, some 275 tonnes of Layhur modular scaffolding were erected inside and outside the cathedral. This system was chosen for speed of installation and because it has fewer components than standard scaffolding, reducing the risk of falling fittings damaging the cathedral.
Internal scaffolding was fitted with dust-catching underdecks. Outside, the scaffolding was covered by a canopy, assembled at ground level and craned into place. The canopy acted as a watertight temporary roof during repairs to the presbytery and was dismantled in early 2017.
The existing education centre south of the cathedral has been renovated and a new learning centre and auditorium created to the rear. This is reportedly the first modern timber-framed building to be constructed in a UK cathedral complex. It is designed to be almost carbon neutral, and used locally sourced materials and traditional craft skills wherever possible.
The project cost is about £22m, of which £14.7m came from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £1m from the First World War Centenary Cathedral Repair Fund.
Apart from its famous Bible, other treasures in Winchester Cathedral include the largest number of chantry chapels in England, royal mortuary chests, a statue of St Joan of Arc (1412-31) dedicated in 1923, Sound II by Antony Gormley (b.1950, knighted 2014) installed in the crypt in 1986, and nine icons of saints painted by Sergei Fyodorov (b.1969) in Orthodox Church style and dedicated in 1997.
Architect (present): Nick Cox
Cathedral archaeologist (present): John Crook
Project Director (2014-19): Annabelle Boyes
Construction Manager (2014-19): Ian Bartlett
Contractor (1906-12): John Thompson, Peterborough
Underpinning (1906-12): William Walker
Scaffolding (1906-12): Blencowe Scaffolding
Research: ECPK
"Rice’s Church Primer" by Matthew Rice, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2013
"Harris’s Guide to Churches and Cathedrals" by Brian L. Harris, Random House, London, 2006
reference sources   CEH SouthDNB

Winchester Cathedral