Winchester is a city and the county town of Hampshire. The city lies at the heart of the wider City of Winchester, a local government district, and is located at the western end of the South Downs National Park, along the course of the River Itchen. It is situated south-west of London and from Southampton, its closest city. At the time of the 2011 Census, Winchester had a population of 116,595.
Winchester developed from the Roman town of Venta Belgarum, which developed from an Iron Age oppidum. Winchester's major landmark is Winchester Cathedral, one of the largest cathedrals in Europe, with the distinction of having the longest nave and overall length of all Gothic cathedrals in Europe. The city is home to the University of Winchester and Winchester College, the oldest public school in the United Kingdom still to be using its original buildings. The city's architectural and historic interest, and its fast links to other towns and cities have led Winchester to become one of the most expensive and desirable areas of the country. The demonym for a person from Winchester is "Wintonian".
The area around Winchester has been inhabited since prehistoric times, with three Iron Age hillforts, Oram's Arbour, St. Catherine's Hill, and Worthy Down all in the nearby vicinity. In the Late Iron Age, a more urban developed, of a type known as an oppidum, although the archaeology of this phase remains obscure. It was overrun by the confederation of Gaulish tribes known as the Belgae sometime during the first century BCE. It seems to have been known as Wentā or Venta, from the Brittonic for "town" or "meeting place".
After the Roman conquest of Britain, the settlement served as the capital of the Belgae and was distinguished as Venta Belgarum, "Venta of the Belgae". Although in the early years of the Roman province it was of subsidiary importance to Silchester and Chichester, Venta eclipsed them both by the latter half of the second century. At the beginning of the third century, Winchester was given protective stone walls. At around this time the city covered an area of , making it among the largest towns in Roman Britain by surface area. There was a limited suburban area outside the walls. Like many other Roman towns however, Winchester began to decline in the later fourth century.
Following the Roman withdrawal from Britain in 410, urban life seems to have continued at Venta Belgarum until around 450 and a small administrative centre might have continued after that on the site of the later Anglo-Saxon palace. Ford identifies the community as the ("Fort Venta") listed by Nennius among the 28 cities of Britain in his History of the Britains. Amid the Saxon invasions of Britain, cemeteries dating to the 6th and 7th centuries suggest a revival of settlement.
The city became known as Wintan-ceastre ("Fort Venta") in Old English. In 648, King Cenwalh of Wessex erected the Church of SS Peter and Paul, later known as the Old Minster. This became a cathedral in the 660s when the West Saxon bishopric was transferred from Dorchester-on-Thames. The present form of the city dates to reconstruction in the late 9th century, when king Alfred the Great obliterated the Roman street plan in favor of a new grid in order to provide better defence against the Vikings. The city's first mint appears to date from this period.
In the early tenth century there were two new ecclesiastical establishments, the convent of Nunnaminster, founded by Alfred's widow Ealhswith, and the New Minster. Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester was a leading figure in the monastic reform movement of the later tenth century. He expelled the secular canons of both minsters and replaced them with monks. He created the drainage system, the 'Lockburn', which served as the town drain until 1875, and still survives. Also in the late tenth century, the Old Minster was enlarged as a centre of the cult of the ninth century Bishop of Winchester, Saint Swithun. The three minsters were the home of what architectural historian John Crook describes as "the supreme artistic achievements" of the Winchester School.
Although the consensus among historians of Anglo-Saxon England is that the court was mobile in this period and there was no fixed capital, Winchester is commonly described as the ancient capital of Wessex.
A serious fire in the city in 1141, during the Rout of Winchester, accelerated its decline. However, William of Wykeham played an important role in the city's restoration. As Bishop of Winchester he was responsible for much of the current structure of the cathedral, and he founded the still extant public school Winchester College. During the Middle Ages, the city was an important centre of the wool trade, before going into a slow decline. The curfew bell in the bell tower (near the clock in the picture), still sounds at 8:00 pm each evening. The curfew was the time to extinguish all home fires until the morning.
The City Cross (also known as the Buttercross) has been dated to the 15th century, and features 12 statues of the Virgin Mary, saints and various historical figures. Several statues appear to have been added throughout the structure's history. In 1770, Thomas Dummer purchased the Buttercross from the Corporation of Winchester, intending to have it re-erected at Cranbury Park, near Otterbourne. When his workmen arrived to dismantle the cross, they were prevented from doing so by the people of the city, who "organised a small riot" and they were forced to abandon their task. The agreement with the city was cancelled and Dummer erected a lath and plaster facsimile, which stood in the park for about sixty years before it was destroyed by the weather. The Buttercross itself was restored by G. G. Scott in 1865, and still stands in the High Street. It is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
The novelist Jane Austen died in Winchester on 18 July 1817 and is buried in the cathedral. The Romantic poet John Keats stayed in Winchester from mid-August to October 1819. It was in Winchester that Keats wrote "Isabella", "St. Agnes' Eve", "To Autumn" and "Lamia". Parts of "Hyperion" and the five-act poetic tragedy "Otho The Great" were written in Winchester.