The Ancient Past
The grassy downland and forests made this area of Hampshire prime land for early settlers of Britain. What was good ground for hunting and gathering, with clean water from chalk aquifers, plentiful game and open land, was also good for farming as society developed further. The ground was also full of one of the most important resources that prehistoric man could hope for, flint.
So important was flint that whole flint mines were opened up in prehistory, carved into the bone-white chalk of the hills. This flint was worked into arrowheads, spearheads, knives and even large axe-heads. Flint could be honed to a razor’s edge, almost as sharp as obsidian, and its use persisted even into the bronze age.
To this day old flint mines are uncovered, or fallen into, and the ground is littered with old arrowheads, which are considered to be elf-shot. The ground is full of such mysteries, and older ones, fossilised sea creatures such as sea urchins, which are called ‘fairy loaves’ by the locals. Amongst the more prosaic flint points, the occasional piece of ‘true’ elf-shot is found, silvery like the moonlight, more fragile than glass.
The remains of ancient hill forts still dot the landscape, though the efforts of farmers and Christians have erased many of the old landmarks and standing stones. Whitchester was the site of one such fort, a great bank and ditch, with a man-made hill at its centre. That hill, or what little remains of it, is underneath the site of the cathedral today, and the old ditch – long used as a spoil-pit – often turns up bones, pottery and other trinkets from that bygone age.
Whitchester developed into a town, around the old fort. A wooden pallisade was raised further out from the old fortifications, creating what the Romans would call an ‘oppidum’. This fortified township was a meeting place for different tribes within the Belgae, and a religious site for the worship of Nantosuelta, a river goddess of the Celtic tribes. While not as important as the other, surrounding towns, Whitchester had its own niche of importance as a secondary marketplace.
When the Romans came to England they saw the value in the land around Whitchester as much as anyone else. After their conquest they set about Romanising the populace and built many a villa in and around the same area. Whitchester itself survived as a garrison town with a small fort, safeguarding and supplying Roman settlers and soldiers as they moved about the region and built their roads.
Romans raised the first wall about the town, circumscribing the site of the oppidum – and a little more besides – with a stone-reinforced bank and flint-blocked wall of chalk-white, as tall as a mounted man. The town never came under attack in this period, but the large stones of the walls, reinforced with proper Roman bricks and terracotta, were broken apart and reused time and again in the years to come.
After the Withdrawl
After the Romans withdrew a great deal of progress and civilisation was lost. Whitchester survived better than most, retaining many of the things that Roman conquest had brought, not least of all its Roman sewers, insisted upon by some ancient and forgotten magistrate or commander. Like many settlements across the area, this loaned Whitchester a reputation for cleanliness and health that wasn’t necessarily deserved.
The Old Church
Throughout the medieval period, Whitchester continued to be built up. Its walls thickened, grew taller and were expanded. A grand old church was built upon the hill in celebration of burgeoning Christianity. No longer a true fortress, it still held some strategic importance in the petty struggles of kings and lords. Consistently, throughout the period, Whitchester provided food and lodging for soldiers and displaced peasants.
The New Walls
Each new conflict or lordling saw Whitchester’s walls addressed. Different stonemasons and different materials, different styles and choices. The ‘New Walls’ ended up an oddly-shaped patchwork, changing without warning, torn down and built up seemingly on a whim. Old flint was supplemented or replaced with slabs of sandstone and mudstone, statues and crenelations were added – here and there – and the gatehouses were constructed. Much of the walls are still this medieval craftsmanship, worn smooth by the passage of time, but as sturdy as when they were laid.
The Maze of Streets
Given constant raiding by Vikings throughout the years, ranging as far south as Andover or further, radical reconstruction of Whitchester’s streets was undertaken. The passageways through the city were turned into a snarled gnarl of knotted pathways, intended to confuse and slow down any invaders while armed men took to the church. Fortunately, the town was never raided and, over time, the citizens of the city rebuild in a more conventional fashion.
In 1066 the Normans invaded England from the North and South. Having overcome English forces on the coast, they rapidly took over the rest of the country and became the new rulers over it. Whitchester became the site of a Norman motte and bailey castle, the first and only proper castle to stand upon the site. In addition to the building of the castle, the Normans undertook the construction of ‘The New Church’, a more impressive replacement for the pre-Norman cathedral that had begun to be built on the site. This church would form the basis for the cathedral-proper in later years, and little of the original remains. The combined weight of the castle and the New Church largely flattened old hill fort, meaning the castle barely rose above the ground or the enclosure.
The Grand Cathedral
The final phase of construction on Whitchester Cathedral began in 1348 and would not be completed for two centuries, interrupted almost immeditely by the arrival of The Black Death. Constant delays and changes of whim turned Whitchester’s Grand Cathedral into a schizophrenic mess of a construction, full of follies, blind corners, cubbies, staircases to nowhere and mismatched windows. Nonetheless, it has a certain gothic charm to it, and was the site of many petty intrigues in the Church, as it provided so many secretive places to meet.
In 1360 a great fire swept through Whitchester, burning almost everything on the left bank of the river and within the bounds of the city’s walls. Enormous sacrifices were made to protect the Cathedral, and this came at a huge cost of life and property everywhere else in the settlement. Between the ravages of the plague and the fire, the city was catastrophically depopulated, but soon began to be resettled and the opportunity was grasped to give the place a new layout and new buildings, this time – primarily – of stone and brick, paid for in no small part by the local wool trade, which was about to be impoverished.
The Black Death
From 1348 The Black Death ravaged England and Whitchester seems to have particularly angered God, as it suffered greatly from the disease, as bad – or worse – than London, though no reason for it has ever been discovered.
Significant Instances of Plague:
- 1348 – 60% of the population killed (3,000 of a population of 5,000).
- 1361 – 20% of the population killed (600 of a population of 3,000).
- 1563 – 25% of the population (1,000 of a population of 4,000).
- 1593 – 20% of the population (800 of a population of 4,000).
- 1625 – 15% of the population (500 of a population of 3,500).
- 1665 – 25% of the population (1,250 of a population of 4,500).
The city was consistently and constantly unable to cope with the number of casualties in each instance. The dead were buried en masse in a number of plague-pits around the city, most notably in the excavations for the new Cathedral, this being reckoned a worthy grave, as even commoners were to be interred on the holiest of ground. Later instances were buried beneath the city’s parks and within the old ditches, or deep in the crypts below the Cathedral in mass graves, dug into the clay, chalk and sedimentary stone.
Sheep, Cows and Wool
The Tudor period spanned from 1485 to 1603, a lineage of royalty that most notoriously included Henry the Eighth. It was a transformative period for England in terms of religion, power and a flowering of art and technology referred to as The English Renaissance.
Dissolution of the Monasteries
After Henry the Eighth had separated the Church of England from Rome in 1534, not a great deal changed. This was simply Catholicism with the King at its head instead of the Pope. This was also the King who took on the ‘divine right of kings’ and who ruled with an iron fist, and a lot of executions. From 1534 to 1540 the crown ransacked, demolished and disbanded the overwhelming majority of monasteries and convents throughout England. Winchester was not spared, with its Carmelite convent and Benedictine monastery both being looted and broken down. The cathedral was similarly looted of many of its treasures, but remained relatively unscathed…