What an interesting old city is Winchester! and how few people are aware of it! The ancient capital of the kingdomthe capital of the British, and the Saxon, and the Norman kingsthe favorite resort of our kings and queens, even till the revolution of 1688; the capital which, for ages, maintanied a proud, and long a triumphant, rivalry with London itself; the capital which once boasted upward of ninety churches and chapels, whose meanest houses now stand upon the foundations of noble palaces and magnificent monasteries; and in whose ruins or in whose yet superb minster lie enshrined the bones of mighty kings, and fair and pious queens; of lordly abbots and prelates, who in their day swayed not merely the destinies of this one city, but of the kingdom. There she sits–a sad, discrowned queen, and how few are acquainted with her in the solitude of her desertion! Yet where is the place, saving London itself, which can compete with her in solemn and deep interest, Where is the city, except that, in Great Britain, which can show so many objects of antique beauty, or call up so many national recollections?
Here lie the bones of Alfredhere he was probably born, for this was at that time the court and the residence of his parents. Here, at all events, he spent his infancy and the greater portion of his youth. Here he imbibed the wisdom and the magnanimity of mind with which he afterward laid the foundations of our monarchy, our laws, liberties and literature, and in a word, of our national greatness.
Hence Alfred went forth to fight those battles which freed his country from the savage Dane; and, having done more for his realm and race than ever monarch did before or since, here he lay down, in the strength of his years, and consigned his tomb as a place of grateful veneration to a people whose future greatness even his sagacious spirit could not be prophetic enough to foresee.
Were it only for the memory and tomb of this great king, Winchester ought to be visited by every Englishman with the most profound veneration and affection; but here also lie the ashes of nearly all Alfred’s family and kin : his father Ethelwolf, who saw the virtues and talents, and prognosticated the greatness of his son; his noble-minded mother, who breathed into his infant heart the most sublime sentiments; his royal brothers, and his sons and daughters. Here also repose Canute, who gave that immortal reproof on the Southampton shore to his sycophantic courtiers, and his celebrated queen Emma, so famous at once for her beauty and her trials. Here is still seen the tomb of Rufus, who was brought hither in a charcoal-burner’s cart from the New Forest, where the chance arrow of Tyrrel, avenged, in his last hunt, the cruelties of himself and his father on that ground.
Historians claim a high antiquity for Winches-ter as the Caer Gwent of the Celtic and Belgic Britons, the Vents, Belgarum of the Romans, and the Wintanceaster of the Saxons. The history of Winchester is nearly coeval with the Christian era. Julius Caesar does not seem to have been here, in his invasion of Britain, but some of his troops must have passed through it ; a plate from one of his standards, bearing his name and profile, having been found deep buried in a sand bed in this neighborhood; and here, within the first half, century of Christendom, figured the brave descend-ants of Cassivelaunus, those noble sons of Cunobelin or Cymbeline, Guiderius and Arviragus, whom Shakespeare has so beautifully presented to us in his “Cymbeline.”
Here it was that, while Caractacus himself reigned, the fate of the brave Queen Boadicea was sealed. Stung to the quick with the insults she had received from the Romans, this noble queen of the Iceni, the Bonduca of some writers, and the Boo Tika of her own coins, had sworn to root out the Roman power from this country. Had she succeeded, Caractacus himself had probably fallen, nor had there ever been a king Lucius here. She came, breathing utter extermination to every thing Roman or of Roman alliance, at the head of 230,000 barbarians, the most numerous army then ever collected by any British prince. Already had she visited and laid in ashes Camulodunum, Lon-don, and Verulam, killing every Roman and every Roman ally to the amount of 70,000 souls. But in this neighborhood she was met by the Roman general Paulinus, and her army routed, with the slaughter of 80,000 of her followers. In her despair at this catastrophe, she destroyed herself, and instead of entering the city in triumph was brought in, a breathless corpse, for burial.
Henry III. was born here, and always bore the name of Henry of Winchester; Henry IV. here married Joan of Brittany; Henry VI. came often hither, his first visit being to study the discipline of Wykeham’s College as a model for his new one at Eton, to supply students to King’s College, Cambridge, as Wykeham’s does to his foundation of New College, Oxford; and happy had it been for this unfortunate monarch had he been a simple monk in one of the monasteries of a city which he so loved, enjoying peace, learning and piety, having bitterly to learn:
“That all the rest is held at such a rate As brings a thousand-fold more care to keep Than in possession any jot of pleasure.”
Henry VIII. made a visit with the Emperor Charles V., and stayed a week examining its various antiquities and religious institutions; but he afterward visited them in a more sweeping manner by the suppression of its monasteries, chantries, etc., so that, says Milner, “these being dissolved, and the edifices themselves soon after pulled down, or falling to decay, it must have worn the appearance of a city sacked by a hostile army.” Through his reign and that of Edward VI., the destruction of the religious houses, and the stripping of the churches, went on to a degree which must have rendered Winchester an object of ghastly change and desolation.
“Then,” says Milner, “were the precious and curious monuments of piety and antiquity, the presents of Egbert and Ethelwolph, Canute, and Emma, unrelentingly rifled and cast into the melting-pot for the mere value of the metal which composed them. Then were the golden tabernacles and images of the Apostles snatched from the cathedral and other altars,” and not a few of the less valuable sort of these sacred implements were to be seen when he wrote (1798), and probably are now, in many private houses of this city and neighborhood.
The later history of this fine old city is chiefly that of melancholy and havoc. A royal marriage should be a gay thing; but the marriage of Bloody Mary here to Philip of Spain awakes no great delight in an English heart. Here, through her reign and that of Elizabeth, the chief events were persecutions for religion. James I. made Winchester the scene of the disgraceful trials of Sir Walter Raleigh, Lords Cobham and Grey, and their assumed accomplicestrials in which that most vain and pedantic of tyrants attempted, on the ground of pretended conspiracies, to wreak his personal spite on some of the best spirits of England.