Husbandry for Eternity: A Visit To Winchester

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.

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40 thoughts on “Husbandry for Eternity: A Visit To Winchester

  1. I am enjoying travelling through all of these medieval doors with you this week during your half-term break. I love Winchester Cathedral, and I am always amazed when I think that it was built on a marsh. Particularly like that photo of the little ‘devil’.

  2. You know my love of history, England, Great Britain, Jane Austen, and mills. I even like Monopoly, though my aunt would taunt us and call it “Monotony” for how long it took to play.

    This was a wonderful way to start my day, Kate; so filled with history and tidbits and your amazing photos. Your blog is always an adventure for me, but it is especially so today.

    1. There was too much to write about, Penny! My brain was bursting at the seams with everything we saw and did yesterday. Now I have a years pass to the Cathedral; and shall be making my way back there as soon as possible for some very slow progress round the aisles.

  3. Those fan ceilings almost stop my heart. Every time. And, I always wonder what would happen if precariously perched coffins fell. 🙂

    I could wander places like this one for hours. Thank you for sharing your trip.

    1. I’m afraid it was a bit whistlestop, Andra: we got to the farthest end of the cathedral and Felix announced he needed the bathroom urgently. It hurt to walk past so much so fast!!

      But I’ll be back – and soon. And on my own.

  4. The images are, without doubt, awe inspiring. More impressive to me is your measured account. Which intern leads me to think that my ancestors who immigrated to Canada generations ago would and did agree with you.

    1. Thank you, Hudson, I hope so 🙂 Interpretation of events and the things time has left behind – its not an exact science.
      Do you know what your ancestors did, when they lived here?

      1. Being Scottish immigrants they were some of the early settlers to Canada (I share the last name of Joan the singer from Down Under and Donald the actor). Not sure what they did in Scotland. They were a tough bunch to their credit, as the land they cleared to settle upon was rocky and hilly. I suspect it reminded them of where they came.

        In Canada, it is not so much the architecture that sheds light on the history which it does in the UK, as much as it is in the eyes of the people who live here.

  5. Material gain ensures preservation, Katie, that – surely – is for the greater good? (I believe that Jane Austin got sick because of the makiness of her surroundings – general hygiene was not what it should have been back then – and that the treating physician’s potions killed her.)

    1. Ah, Cindy, do not go away thinking I disapprove: this heritage is essential to both British spirits and to its economy. And it’s beautiful to behold. I have been fascinated lately because the great houses have not enjoyed the same stability and in many cases, longevity that the paraphernalia of the church has. Its property, beautifully ordered, pragmatically funded, has outlasted every dynasty I can think of. How? Despite dissolution and Cromwell? Perhaps these men are better politicians? Cleverer? More Machiavellian? Or is their attachment to material things really in the interests of the eternal?

      I have no idea.

      Poor Jane. They moved her because they thought it would do her good and the best physicians were in Winchester. One thing is for sure: those potions didn’t do her a scrap of good.

  6. One of our favourite places. The view from up the hill, the walk across the Water Meadows to Hospital of St Cross, even the bookstores hiding discreetly …
    Lovely town indeed. MBH gleefully identified each of the buildings and locations in these lovely shots.

    1. How lovely: someone who knows it well. The bookshop under the city gate into College Street has been there at least as long as I have – I was a student in Southampton manymanymany years ago and this was where I fled to in time off. I have sung evensong at the cathedral and concerts at St Cross. That new bookshop under the arches in the close – that’s a new one on me though! Thank MBH for me. It’s just lovely to have the photographs recognised….

      1. She has, as I think you may have gathered, joined me in devoted fanship. Which should be taken in the context that she is disinterested in 99,9% of my blogging activities!

  7. the pictures are as good as the words

    i often think pf those medieval architect/engineers who built such soaring beauty with so little technology to help them

    1. Wonderful stuff. There’s a wonderful book on the tip of my tongue – have you read Ken Follett – Pillars of The Earth? Racey, but a wonderful recreation of the heyday of cathedral building. I learnt so much.

  8. Great photos of the grand dame of cathedrals. You’ve caught some exquisite angles and lines that show off her grace. Imagine the time and effort of actually constructing such a magnificent building.

    I sat up all night, thrilled to watch the Royal wedding. Fun to feel a bit of familiarity.

  9. Oh this was fun! In the 60’s the song “Winchester Cathedral” was the first time I’d ever heard of this magnificent place! Kind of a ditty compared to something this awesome historic structure. I didn’t know that Jane Austen was buried there, but it gives me a thrill to think of being there. I’d pay the price of admission 🙂 Maybe someday…Debra

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