Do you play Monopoly?
To play the game well – as in life – you must acquire the kind of property which will bring in the cash from the punters; which will make you utterly essential to their daily lives.
Then you will become rich and win the game.
Few have played this wheeling dealing game quite so well as the clergy of our good country.
It was no surprise to shamble into Winchester’s water mill (a surefire moneyspinner, for who can do without flour?) and find that, lo and behold, the Benedictine Nuns were gifted it in 989AD.
It was Queen Aelfrida who set them up: she bought them a nice abbey in Wherwell, near Andover , and sundry Winchester properties to ensure an income. Including a nice little mill on the River Itchen at the bottom of Winchester’s main street.
For three hundred years the nuns ran the business cannily and coined it in. There are records in 1295 of a most lucrative arrangement with William The Miller, who paid four pounds a year to run the concern, providing the abbess supplied any new timber he needed.
All good things come to an end, however: the Black Death of 1348 devastated Winchester; there was a series of poor harvests which throttled the supply of grain; and Winchester lost it status as capital city to London. The nuns allowed it to become derelict and, finally, in 1539, at the same time as the dissolution of Wherewell, it passed to the Crown.
It is a working mill today, run by the National Trust in that same quaint red-brick building which crouches across the Itchen close to that iconic statue of Alfred the Great.
We solemnly inspected the machinery: huge cogs which translated the lazy pace of the river into power, to rotate great millstones against each other. And I wondered: did the Abbess just delegate? Or were there nuns out there who relished the meeting of cogs and gears, wimpled engineers who loved their trade?
Just along the High Street lies a building which is proof of the wealth and might of the church.
Much the same time as the nuns were settling to their job as millers, the old minster on the green a few streets away became home to monks. 122 years later they moved to a new building next door: Winchester Cathedral.
Bewildering, the concentrated history in this place; what with William II buried with his brother in the crypt, King Canute balanced on a beam above the chancel, a mediaeval lady chapel, and marble Bishops at every turn. We gawped at the gorgeous Winchester Bible in the library. I collected gargoyles on my camera.
Why, my son asked, as we walked through the extensive buildings of the magnificent cathedral close – why do they need so many people living here?
Where to begin, to describe the apparatus of ecclesiastical power: the Bishop and his cohorts, their families, the administration and the moneymen; the choristers, the choristers’ teachers, the chorister’s organist?
A church administration is a thing of wonder, a bastion of politics, a walled village within the city. Here the Church is not implicit, it is explicit. It sings from the rooftops: here, for 1,500 years, the clergy have gone about their daily worshipful routines in the name of God; and have danced diplomatically around dynasties to hold on to what was theirs.
We walked out through the gate in the cathedral walls past leaded windows, under an old stone arch to a place where a Rector’s daughter arrived to live, when she was very ill.
The address we were headed for was 8, College Street, just up from Winchester School.
And it was where Jane Austen died in the middle of July, 1817. She had arrived in May, ill with she knew not what: she had stopped writing in March.
She had come from her settled family home in the Rectory at Chawton to seek specialised medical help. I hope she got to see some of the beauty around her final house: the spectacular water meadows; maybe the soaring arches of the cathedral.
This city is nothing if not uplifting.
The game of life has been played by England’s established church for a very long time. Winchester is proof that they have been clever at the business of material gain: it’s wealthy. And now they even charge corpulently to enter the old cathedral.
But they play the game of eternity too. The long game. Many have paid richly to secure their eternity within the cathedral walls: Jane’s stone lies in the middle of the North Aisle and attracts reverent clusters of tourists.
And even today’s administration, if they believe what they preach, will one day leave these plush surroundings to face St Peter and account for their custodianship of this ancient concern.