Winchester, once the capital of England, is a city with a population of around 40,000. The county town of Hampshire, it lies on the River Itchen at the western end of the South Downs range of chalk hills.
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 town is also home to the University of Winchester and the famous public school, Winchester College. 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. A person who is from or resides in Winchester is sometimes locally known as a Wintonian.
Settlement in the area dates back to prehistoric times, with three Iron Age hillforts, Oram's Arbour, St Catherine's Hill and Worthy Down all in the near vicinity. In the Late Iron Age a more urban settlement-type developed, known as an oppidum, although the archaeology of this phase remains obscure. After the Roman conquest of Britain, this town became the capital of the local tribe or civitas, known as the Belgae, a confederation of Gaulish tribes who conquered large parts of the southern Britain beginning around 100 BCE. The city was known as Venta Belgarum, which may mean "Market" or "Meeting-Place of the Belgae". Although in the early years of the Roman province it was of subsidiary importance to Silchester and Chichester, over time it came to eclipse them both.
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 the fifth largest town in Roman Britain by surface area. There was also a limited suburban area outside the walls. Like many other Roman towns however, Winchester began to decline in the later fourth century.
The city has historic importance as it replaced Dorchester-on-Thames as the de facto capital of the ancient kingdom of Wessex in about 686 after King Caedwalla of Wessex defeated King Atwald of Wight. Although it was not the only town to have been the capital, it was established by King Egbert as the main city in his kingdom in 827. Saint Swithun was Bishop of Winchester in the mid 9th century. It was sacked by the Danes in 860.
The Saxon street plan laid out by Alfred the Great is still evident today: a cross shaped street system which conformed to the standard town planning system of the day – overlaying the pre-existing Roman street plan (incorporating the ecclesiastical quarter in the south-east; the judicial quarter in the south-west; the tradesmen in the north-east). The town was part of a series of fortifications along the south coast. Built by Alfred to protect the Kingdom, they were known as 'burhs'. The medieval city walls, built on the old Roman walls, are visible in places. Only one section of the original Roman walls remains. Four main gates were positioned in the north, south, east and west plus the additional Durngate and King's Gate. Winchester remained the capital of Wessex, and then England, until some time after the Norman Conquest when the capital was moved to London. The Domesday Book was compiled in the city late in the reign of William the Conqueror, but did not cover the city itself.
Medieval and later times
A serious fire in the city in 1141 accelerated its decline. However, William of Wykeham (1320–1404) 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 8.00pm 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 City Museum, located on the corner of Great Minster Street and The Square, contains much information on the history of Winchester. Early examples of Winchester measures of standard capacity are on display. The museum was one of the first purpose-built museums to be constructed outside of London. Local items featured include the Roman 'Venta' gallery, and some genuine period shop interiors taken from the nearby High Street. Other places of cultural interest include the Westgate Museum (which showcases various items of weaponry), and the Historic Resources Centre, which holds many records related to the history of the city.