Winchester Cathedral – Great Britain And Ireland

On entering the cathedral enclosure on its north side from High Street, you are at once struck with the venerable majesty and antique beauty of the fine old pile before you, and with the sacred quietude of the enclosure itself. In the heart of this tranquil city it has yet a deeper tranquillity of its own. Its numerous tombs and headstones, scattered over its greensward, and its lofty avenues of lime trees, seem to give you a peaceful welcome to the Christian fame and resting-place of so many generations. If you enter at the central passage, you tread at once on the eastern foundations of the Conqueror’s palace, and pass close to the spot on which formerly rose the western towers of Alfred’s Newan Mynstre, and where lay his remains, after having been removed from the old mynstre, till Hyde Abbey was built.

It is impossible to walk over this ground, now so peaceful, without calling to mind what scenes of havoc and blood, of triumph and ecclesiastical pomp, it has witnessed-the butchery of the persecution of Diocletian, when the Christians fell here by thousands; the repeated massacres and conflagrations of the Danes; the crowning of Saxon and of English kings; the proud processions of kings and queens, nobles, mitered prelates, friars, and monks, to offer thanksgivings for victory, or penance for sins, from age to age; and, finally, the stern visitation of the Reformers and the Cromwellian troopers.

The venerable minster itself bears on its aspect the testimonies of its own antiquity. The short and massy tower in the center, the work of Bishop Walkelin, the cousin of the Conqueror, has the very look of that distant age, and, to eyes accustomed to the lofty and rich towers of some of our cathedrals, has an air of meanness. Many people tell you that it never was finished; but besides that there is no more reason that the tower should remain unfinished through so many centuries than any other part of the building, we know that it was the character of the time, of which the tower of the Norman church of St. Cross affords another instance just at hand. In fact, the spire was then unknown.

Having arrived at the west front, we can not avoid pausing to survey the beauty of its workmanship—that of the great William of Wykeham; its great central doorway, with its two smaller side-doors; the fretted gallery over it, where the bishop in his pontificals was wont to stand and bless the people, or absolve them from the censures of the church; its noble window, rich with perpendicular tracery; its two slender lantern turrets; its crowning tabernacle, with its statue of the builder; and its pinnacled side aisles.

I must confess that of all the cathedrals which I have entered, none gave me such a sensation of surprize and pleasure. The loftiness, the space, the vast length of the whole unbroken roof above, I believe not exceeded by any other in England; the two rows of lofty clustered pillars; the branching aisles, with their again branching and crossing tracery; the long line of the vaulted roof, embossed with armorial escutcheons and religious devices of gorgeous coloring; the richly painted windows; and, below, the carved chantries and mural monuments, seen amid the tempered light; and the sober yet delicate hue of the Portland stone, with which the whole noble fabric is lined, produce a tout ensemble of sublime loveliness which is not easily to be rivaled.

But we have made the circuit of the church without beholding the choir, and we must not quit its precincts without entering there. Ascending the flight of steps which lead to it, we front that elegant screen with which modern good taste has replaced the screen of Inigo Jones, who, blind to all the beauty of the Gothic architecture, not only placed here a Grecian screen, but also affixt a Grecian bishop’s throne to the beautiful Gothic canopy-work of the choir. In the niches of this screen are two bronze statues of James I and Charles I.

We are now on the spot of the ancient rood-loft, where formerly stood the great rood, or crucifix, with the attendant figures of the Virgin and St. John, of vast size and value, being of silver, which were bequeathed to the minster by the notorious Archbishop Stigand, before the Conquest. As we enter the choir through the door in the screen, we are struck with the great beauty of the place. Around us rises the rich dark woodwork of the stalls, contrasting well with the pale delicacy of the walls above.

Overhead is seen to swell the fine vault of the roof, with its rich tracery, and its central line, and orbs at the junction of its timbers, embossed with bold armorial shields of the houses of Tudor, Lancaster, and Castile, as united in John of Gaunt and Beaufort, with those of various episcopal sees, and stretching on to the splendid east window in that direction, emblazoned with “the several implements of our Savior’s Passion—the cross, crown of thorns, nails, hammer, pillar, scourges, reed, sponge, lance, sword, with the ear of Malthus upon it, lantern, ladder, cock, and dice; also the faces of Pilate and his wife, of the Jewish high priest, with a great many others, too numerous to be described, but worthy of notice for the ingenuity of design,” and the richness of their tints. They are, indeed, emblazoned in the most gorgeous colors—scarlet, blue and gold; and, to a fanciful eye, may resemble, many of them, huge sacred beetles of lordly shapes and hues.

On each side rise up, into the very roof, the tall pointed windows glowing with figures of saints, prophets, and apostles, who seem to be ranged on either hand, in audience of the divine persons in the great east window—the Savior and the Virgin, with apostles and other saints. But what is the most striking to the eye and mind of the spectator is to behold, on the floor of the sanctuary before him, a plain beveled stone of dark marble—the tomb of William Rufus; and arranged on the top of the beautiful stone partitions on each side of the sanctuary, dividing it from the aisles, are six mortuary chests, three on a side, containing the bones of many of the most eminent Saxon princes. The bones which, from the repeated re-buildings and alterings of the cathedral, must have been in danger of being disturbed, and the places of their burial rendered obscure, or lost altogether, Bishop de Blois, in the twelfth century, collected and placed in coffins of lead over the Holy Hole. At the rebuilding of the choir, as it was necessary again to remove them, Bishop Fox had them deposited in these chests, and placed in this situation. The chests are carved, gilt, and surmounted with crowns, with the names and epitaphs, in Latin verse and black letter, inscribed upon them.

But if we had quitted Winchester Cathedral without paying a visit to the grave of one of the best and most cheerful-hearted old men who lie in it, we should have committed a great fault. No, we stood on the stone in the floor of Prior Silkstede’s chapel in the old Norman south transept, which is inscribed with the name of Izaak Walton. There lies that prince of fishermen, who, when Milner wrote his history of this city, was so little thought of that he is not once mentioned in the whole huge quarto!