Winchester: The Ancient City that Built England

While today major cities such as London, Manchester and Birmingham may often be considered the most important cities in England, there was a time when the humble city of Winchester had a key role in shaping the country we know today.

Located in Hampshire, just sixty miles south-west of London, Winchester is the county town of Hampshire.

A cathedral city, Winchester boasts incredible architecture, with stunning examples such as the Winchester Cathedral and Winchester College. 

The city of Winchester has a rich history, the presence of human settlements in the area stretching all the way back to the hillforts in the prehistoric era.

timber framed
Old Chesil Rectory, it was built in 1450.

The city was an important settlement in Roman Britain, and during the time of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms the home of the famed King Alfred the Great. 

Throughout history, Winchester has been a centre for learning, religion, art and government, it has endured harsh plagues and brutal wars.

While today, Winchester may not be the first city that comes to mind when thinking of England, there is no doubt that this humble city helped to build the England we know today. 


Hillforts and the Belgae People 

Since the Iron Age, the area around Winchester has supported thriving settlements.

Winchester was once home to three Iron Age hillforts, including the site of Oram’s Arbour, once a walled Iron Age settlement dating to the first century BC.

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Now lost to history, the site of this Iron Age fortification is now a park that was previously used to host the Winchester Hat Fair.

St. Catherine’s Hill, the site of another Iron Age hill fort, is somewhat better preserved and is now regarded as a site of special scientific interest.

Iron Age
An amazing amount of history in one picture – Iron Age settlement of St Catherine’s Hill to the left of my finger

Located on the outskirts of Winchester, the top of the hill still shows evidence of Iron Age ramparts. 

As well as being the site of Iron Age hill forts inhabited by the tribes native to Britain, the area of Winchester also became an important settlement for the Belgae people.

Interestingly, the Belgae were not originally from Great Britain, but invaded from Western Europe. It is thought that the group originally came to Britain’s shores as small raiding groups.

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While it is unclear why exactly the Belgae invaded Britain, the group established territory in the south of the British Isles.

The ancient settlement there would in time become Winchester. At this time, the settlement was known as Venta Belgarum, with Venta a Celtic word meaning market, tribal town, or meeting place. 


Winchester’s streets laid out on a Saxon street plan.

As Roman armies marched across the British countryside, Winchester remained an important city.

Rome further developed the city, building networks of roads, constructing shops, temples and dwellings and building public bath houses. At the start of the the third century, stone walls were erected around Winchester to protect the settlement.

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As the majority of the settled area was contained within the walls, Winchester became one of the largest towns (when measured by surface area) in all of Roman Britain. 

The City of King Alfred the Great 

In the sixth century, roughly a century after the departure of Rome from Britain’s shores, the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex was established. Winchester, known as Wintanceaster in Old English, became one of the most important towns in Wessex.

city wall
Winchester’s Medieval City Wall surrounds the cathedral grounds and was the city’s main defensive wall. The wall is still intact in many places and visitors can walk alongside it next to the river and into the cathedral grounds via one of the Medieval city gates called Kingsgate. The walls were built on the line of the Saxon walls which had themselves replaced the original Roman walls. There is still one visible section of the Roman wall.

An established settlement for trade, government and commerce, Winchester was the home to the ruling families of Wessex. This included legendary rulers such as King Ecgberht of Wessex, and his grandson King Alfred the Great. 

Ruling from the royal seat of Winchester, Alfred proved to be a highly adept strategist and king.

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Alfred made key agreements and treaties with Viking invaders and was the leader of armies that fought important battles during the Viking invasion of Britain.

Alfred undertook activities to fortify Winchester to repel Viking attacks, including adapting the street plan of the city to better aid defensive purposes. 

Wolvesey Castle
Wolvesey Castle, the original palace on the site was built around 970 by Æthelwold of Winchester on a piece of land known as Wulveseye or Wulf’s island,

It was during Alfred’s reign that the first mint in Winchester seems to have been established and operational.

New minsters and religious buildings were constructed and the city saw a period of relative prosperity.

An advocate for education, Alfred the Great also increased learning across Wessex and implemented a court school where children from various levels of society could be educated. 

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During the time of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, people were encouraged to settle in the thriving city.

As the Winchester grew, commerce and trade benefitted, and the city became one of the capitals of culture, art and learning in historic England.

Winchester and Norman Invaders 

While Winchester had been relatively effective at not falling into the hands of foreign invaders during the Viking era, the city didn’t have the same luck in the eleventh century during the Norman invasion.

Viking encampment,
Viking encampment. Credit: Peter Trimming

After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror gained control of Winchester when the widow of King Harold surrendered it to the Normans. 

During this era, Winchester saw another period of change.

William the Conqueror ordered the demolition and reconstruction of royal palaces, including the demolition of the  historic Saxon royal palace in the city, as well as religious buildings including the Old Minster Cathedral.

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The current Winchester Cathedral was built during this period, after the Old Minster Cathedral dating back to the glory days of the Kingdom of Wessex was demolished on the same site.

Under William the Conqueror, a new castle was also constructed at Winchester. 

Pagues, Wool, and Tudor Tyrants 

As the prominence of London began to grow in the 12th and 13th centuries, the significance of Winchester as a major capital began to decrease.

The increasing might of London, alongside the dwindling might of Winchester, was exemplified by the decision for the Royal Mint to relocate from Winchester to London in the Middle Ages.

The city was then dealt another blow in the 14th century as the Black Death swept the country.

Great Hall winchester
Winchester is well known for the Great Hall of its castle, which was built in the 12th century. The Great Hall was rebuilt sometime between 1222 and 1235, and still exists in this form. It is famous for King Arthur’s Round Table,

While the entirety of Britain suffered under the weight of plague, Winchester was particularly hard hit, with estimates that more than half of the city’s population perished at the hands of the Black Death. 

Economically, the town was struggling with changes and increased competition in industries, namely the wool sector.

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The wool industry had been a cornerstone of the economic prowess of Winchester, however as market competition increased in the Middle Ages and other areas of the country increased their wool production, Winchester struggled to maintain its economic stability.

A combination of dwindling economic opportunities, a growing interest in neighbouring London, and impacts of devastating plague, created a perfect storm in which it is estimated the population of Winchester dropped to just 4000 people by the 16th century. 

The famous Tudor king, Henry VIII didn’t help Winchester’s struggling status. In the late 1530s Henry dissolved Winchester’s three monastic institutions as part of the English Reformation.

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As the religious buildings, land and possessions of a city that since the Anglo-Saxon times had held deep ties to religious worship, the dissolution of these institutions further threatened the status of Winchester and prompted further population decline in the city. 

A City at War 

During the turbulent time of the English Civil War, Winchester did not survive unscathed and control of the city changed hands many times.

Winchester was seen as having particular strategic importance during the conflict as it was positioned to hold control of the road from Portsmouth in the west and the northern road from Southampton.

For centuries bones believed to be the remains of Anglo-Saxon and early Norman kings and bishops have been kept in mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral. Over the years the skeletal remains have been mixed up and moved around, resulting in some confusion over whose they are.

In December 1642, the city was ransacked, sustaining heavy damage as Parliamentarian forces attacked Royalists who had recently claimed control of Winchester Castle.

After wreaking havoc in the city center, the Roundheads rode their horses into the cathedral. They ransacked the place.

They emptied the mortuary chests and used the bones they found inside to smash the huge west stained glass window – you can still see the damage to this day.


An ongoing project is attempting to identify the remains. Radiocarbon dating showed they lived and died sometime between 1050 and 1200. Analysis of their DNA should hopefully show if they are related.

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One of the names on a chest is King William II, who inherited the throne after the death of William the Conqueror.

Within twenty-four hours, Royalists surrendered the castle to the Parliamentarians, however Parliamentarian control of the castle wouldn’t last long. By 1643, Royalist forces were once again in control of the Winchester Castle. 

Winchester was again sacked in 1644 in the aftermath of the Battle of Cheriton. While Parliamentarian forces took Winchester, they failed to take the castle.

Finally in October 1645, Winchester Castle changed hands for the final time when it was retaken by Oliver Cromwell. However, the castle was promptly damaged to the point of being unusable to prevent it from again becoming a Royalist stronghold. 

Parliament, Religion, and Education 

Before London was the seat of government in England, Winchester held this prestigious title. 

The historic city was one of the primary towns of Wessex, arguably one of the most influential of the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Winchester cathedral
Kings Gate, Winchester Cathedral

It was the home of famous rulers such as Albert the Great and a city on which the foundation of laws, religion and education in England were built upon.

The street plan of the city still follows the plans drawn out in Saxon times. The city has strong ties to religion, dating all the way back to the time of Alfred the Great.

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The famous Winchester Cathedral, with origins in the eleventh century exemplifies the significance of religion throughout the history of the city. 

Winchester was a centre for learning and education, as a Wessex court school was introduced as early as the ninth century.

Winchester College, still functioning today as a public school, has been in operation for over six hundred years, first opening its doors to students in the 1300s. 

The Ancient Origins of a Modern City 

While now major centres such as London have largely gained more prominence, there is no doubt that Winchester was a central place in shaping the Britain we know today.

The city has origins all the way back to the ancient tribes of Britain. It saw Roman invaders, was redesigned by Anglo-Saxon kings, occupied by Norman invaders and sacked by Cromwell’s forces. 

The city was an early centre for government and has been a hub for learning, art and religion throughout the ages.

Today, Winchester still remains a desirable city, famed for its incredible architecture and links to the past. 

From its ancient origins, to becoming the birthplace of famed rulers, to the Winchester known today, the story of this ancient city is most definitely part of the story of England.