views updated Jun 08 2018


Winchester, Roman Venta Belgarum, the principal royal city of Anglo-Saxon England, is today the administrative center for the county of Hampshire in southern England. To a great extent, the archaeology of Winchester was still terra incognita in 1961 when the first large-scale excavation took place. Nothing certain was known of its origins and almost nothing of the plan or development of the Roman town. As for Winchester after the Romans, it did not exist as an organized field of archaeological enquiry. The contrast between the written evidence for the importance of early medieval Winchester and the virtual absence of an archaeology of that period compelled attention. The aim of the work that the Winchester Excavations Committee began in 1961 was, according to "The Study of Winchester" (1990),

to undertake excavations, both in advance of building projects, and on sites not so threatened, aimed at studying the development of Winchester as a town from its earliest origins to the establishment of the modern city. The centre of interest is the city itself, not any one period of its past, nor any one part of its remains. But we can hope that this approach will in particular throw light upon the end of the Roman city and on the establishment and development of the Saxon town, problems as vital to our understanding of urban development in this country, as they are difficult to solve. Further it is essential to this approach that the study and interpretation of the documentary evidence should go hand in hand with archaeological research.

It was also realized from the start, as stated in the same publication, that this would have to be "a broadly based exploration of the fabric of the city, across the full range of variation in wealth, class, and occupation. This involved more than gross distinctions between castle, palace, and monastery on the one hand and the 'ordinary' inhabited areas of the city on the other." This was the founding manifesto of urban archaeology, copied in both concept and execution in a multitude of towns and countries.

Eleven years of excavation followed, for ten or more weeks each summer, aided by two-hundred student volunteers from over twenty-five countries working on four major sites and many smaller ones across the city and suburbs. In 1968 the Winchester Research Unit was set up to prepare the results for publication in a series entitled Winchester Studies. In 1972, following the end of the major campaign of excavations, the post of City Rescue Archaeologist was set up to make observations of sites threatened by development and to carry out excavations as needed. That work continues today on a permanent basis as part of the Winchester City Museums Service.

earlier prehistoric context and the iron age

Situated where the River Itchen cuts through the chalk downs on its way to Southampton Water and the sea, the city is a natural focus of long-distance communication from east to west and north to south. The area may have been settled in the Late Neolithic period or perhaps earlier. From the third century b.c., during the Iron Age, people occupied St. Catharine's Hill, on the east bank of the Itchen, south of the later city. The summit of the hill was later encircled by a line of bank and ditch dominating the river valley below, but these defenses were destroyed about the middle of the first century b.c. At that point, the focus of settlement shifted upstream and to the other side of the river, which became the site of the future city. There, a roughly rectangular area of about 20 hectares was enclosed by a ditch and bank with entrances on all four sides through which the major lines of communication had to pass. Now known as the Oram's Arbour enclosure, this was a regionally and strategically important site, as fragments of Mediterranean wine jars (amphorae) show. Occupied for some fifty years, the enclosure was long abandoned when the Romans passed through in a.d. 43.

venta belgarum

There is no continuity between the Iron Age settlement and the beginning of the Roman city, except that Roman long-distance roads passed through the northern and western entrances of the deserted Oram's Arbour enclosure. Timber buildings in the upper part of the town that date to the 50s of the first century a.d. are the earliest traces of Roman occupation. In the valley floor, a rectangular area of unknown size was defined by a substantial ditch. First identified as part of a small Roman fort, it may have been part of a religious enclosure, as the presence of a later Roman temple and a wooden statue of the goddess Epona suggest.

In the 70s of the first century a.d., a chessboard pattern of graveled streets at intervals of 400 Roman feet was laid out within earth and timber defenses. A forum, the settlement's administrative and commercial heart, was later built on a grand scale, filling the central block or insula, of the grid. Its construction illustrated that the town was now the capital of the civitas of the Belgae, as the name Venta Belgarum (venta, or market, of the Belgae) implies. Timber houses with tiled roofs, painted plaster walls, and mosaic floors were built along the streets. In the 150s and 160s, some of these houses were rebuilt in stone, or on stone foundations, often on a substantial scale. By the end of the second century, water in iron-jointed wooden pipes was fed to parts of the town, implying the existence of an aqueduct, traces of which have been found running along the contours to the north of the city.

By a.d. 200, when the circuit of the defenses was completed, Venta Belgarum, with an area of 58.2 hectares, was the fifth largest city of Roman Britain. In the early third century, the defenses were rebuilt in stone. The streets were kept clean and regularly resurfaced, and houses were still being built and repaired into the first half of the fourth century. Shortly after 350, however, the city underwent a profound change. Major public buildings and the larger townhouses were partly or wholly demolished, and large areas inside the walls were apparently enclosed to form compounds possibly for cattle and sheep awaiting slaughter for hides or shearing for wool. The water supply was reorganized with new iron-jointed wooden pipes, and all parts of the walled area seem to have been more densely populated than before. Varied and intensive industrial activity took place, and the streets continued to be resurfaced. The city walls were strengthened by the addition of external bastions. The cemeteries outside the walls grew greatly in extent: of some 1,300 burials from the Roman era that had been excavated through 1986, more than 1,000 were from the fourth century. In the second half of the fourth century, Venta seems to have become a busier, cruder, more pressured place. A possible explanation is that the city was no longer a civil settlement but a defended administrative base and supply center, dealing with the tax in kind known as the annona militaris and engaged in the industrialized production of textiles in a gynaeceum, a large-scale textile mill under imperial control.

post-roman venta

The Roman town collapsed in the fifth century. The decline is sharply reflected in the petering out of graves at the limit of the Lankhills cemetery, one of the most poignant images of the end of Roman Britain. Some rough street surfaces were put down during this period and the water supply relaid, but the wooden pipes used for the water supply no longer had iron collars. From this time onward, buildings began to be abandoned and some streets ceased to be used as thoroughfares and were instead taken over for domestic or other use. In the mid-later fifth century the south gate collapsed onto the street, but traffic continued across the uncleared rubble, and two further street surfaces were laid above it. At some date around 600, entry was blocked by cutting a ditch across the street, later reinforced by a rough stone wall. The north gate was probably blocked at the same time, so that in the end only one of the five east-west streets and one of the north-south streets of the Roman grid remained in use. The blocking of the gates shows that two centuries after the collapse of the Roman city there was still some authority controlling access to the walled area.

There is evidence from widely spread parts of the city for continuous activity of various sorts through the fifth and sixth centuries. Traces have been found wherever excavation has reached the relevant deposits over areas large enough to allow one to understand what survived and where the sequence was specific enough to provide some idea of the use of the area in spite of the destruction caused by the digging of cellars, wells, and cesspits during the medieval and later periods. The first signs of a barbarian Germanic presence can be dated to the early fifth century, when the Roman city was still at least partly functioning. Small amounts of Early (that is, pagan) Anglo-Saxon pottery have been found on widely distributed sites within the walls, suggesting that there may have been as many as six areas of Germanic occupation at that time. In addition, two later occupations have been indicated by place-name evidence.

Outside the walls, within a seven-kilometer radius of the city, there are seven recorded sixth- to seventh-century Anglo-Saxon cemeteries or isolated burials. Five of these date in whole or in greater part to the pre-Christian period. They form a cluster of a kind unique in Hampshire and rarely paralleled in central-southern England. This demonstrates the relative importance of the former Venta as a focal point in the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon settlement of Hampshire. Since the early 1970s, discussion has focused on how the town's importance can be explained and what its significance may have been for the foundation of a minster church within the walls in the middle of the seventh century. Some argue that the church was founded only because the West Saxon clergy wished to establish the church within a former Roman town. Others maintain that it was founded to serve an existing center of Anglo-Saxon power and authority within the walled area. The "authority hypothesis" provides an explanation of the archaeological evidence as currently known.


The arrival of Christianity c. 650 is marked by the building of the church later known as Old Minster in the middle of the town's walled area. Its cross-shaped plan, set out on a modular geometry using the long Roman foot, appears to be derived from northern Italy. This suggests that it was built under the influence of St. Birinus (d. c. 650), the apostle of Wessex, who had been consecrated in Genoa about 630 by Bishop Asterius of Milan. The church was founded by the Anglo-Saxon King Cenwealh of Wessex (r. 643–672), who appears to have endowed it with a large territory around the city. The see of Wessex was moved to Winchester c. 660 and has remained there ever since. Excavation has revealed the long and complicated structural history of the church, but until shortly after 900 it stood almost unchanged. During the greater part of this period, Winchester was not an urban place but a royal and ecclesiastical center. It included a royal enclosure, the cathedral church and its community, a series of high-status private estates, and some service activity, including ironworking, along the east-west axis, now High Street. Only this street and one north-south street survived in use from the Roman period, with a post-Roman street wandering at an angle across the grain of the Roman plan from the southeast corner of the walled area towards the minster and palace in the center.

In 860 Winchester was attacked by the Vikings. There is no record that the church suffered, perhaps because Bishop Swithun (who held his post 852–863) had already put the defenses in order, building a bridge across the Itchen outside the east gate in 859. The bridge may have been part of a larger campaign of defense undertaken by King Æthelbald of Wessex (r. 855–860) that saw the walls and gates repaired.

felix urbs winthonia

Modern Winchester has a regular pattern of streets, comprising four elements: High Street running from west to east; backstreets flanking High Street; a series of north-south streets running off to either side of High Street; and a street (now much interrupted) running inside the city walls. When the main outlines of the Roman street plan were worked out in the early 1960s, it became clear that Winchester's present streets were not, as had long been thought, of Roman origin: Roman buildings lie beneath today's streets and Roman streets beneath standing buildings.

Archaeologists then sought to establish when the present street plan was laid out. Coins found in 1963 above and below the second of a series of surfaces of what is now called Trafalgar Street, one of the north-south streets, showed that it was laid in the early tenth century. Excavation below the earthworks of William the Conqueror's castle, built in 1067, showed that another of the north-south streets and part of the street running inside the wall had been resurfaced eight or nine times before being buried below the castle, and that the first surfaces dated to the early tenth century or before. Written evidence showed that some of the present streets were already there by the tenth century. The precinct of New Minster, founded in 901, is defined in terms of the streets on all four sides of its site. The street plan of Winchester is therefore Anglo-Saxon, laid down either by King Alfred (r. 871–899) in the 880s, or (as seems increasingly likely) in the reigns of one or other of his older brothers, possibly Æthelbald.

There can be no doubt that the streets were part of a single deliberate operation. The first surface is everywhere of the same kind, of small, deliberately broken flint cobbles, while a "four-pole" (roughly 1.2 × 5 meters [4 × 16.5 feet]) module of 20.1 meters (66 feet), or one "chain," seems to have controlled the spacing of the north-south streets. Plans of the Winchester type can be seen in a series of other fortified places that were in use by the early tenth century in southern England, some of them on new sites where the street design could not have been influenced by an existing street system of Roman date. Earlier models need not be sought. There is nothing in the regularity of street plans of the Winchester type that was not well known to the hundreds of nameless individuals who in the eighth and ninth centuries had covered England with the vast pattern of rectangular strip fields that were to survive for a thousand years. This is the first great moment of English town planning and one of the earliest schemes of its kind in the post-Roman West.

The streets provided the skeleton upon which a populous and vibrant city emerged during the last century and a half of the Anglo-Saxon state. In about 900, Alfred's wife, Ealhswith (d. 902), established a nunnery, the Nunnaminster, on her property inside the east gate. In 901 her son King Edward the Elder (r. 899–924) founded the New Minster (so-called from the start to distinguish it from the ancient cathedral, henceforth Old Minster) immediately next to Old Minster in the center of the city. In 963 Bishop Æthelwold (who served 963–984) reformed the religious houses of the city, replacing clerks with Benedictine monks. In 971 he relocated his predecessor Swithun from his original grave to a specially made gold-and-jeweled shrine and began the reconstruction of Old Minster on a huge scale. With the dedication of the works of Æthelwold and his successor Ælfheah (served 984–1006) in 980 and 992–994, Old Minster become the greatest church of Anglo-Saxon England. It is also the only Anglo-Saxon cathedral that has been almost completely excavated, its long structural sequence elucidated, and its architectural design restored on paper. It is one of the great and most individual monuments of early medieval Europe.

By the year 1000 the whole southeastern part of the walled area was a royal and ecclesiastical quarter, containing the cathedral and two other minsters, all of royal foundation, the bishop's palace at Wolvesey (where the bishop still resides), and a royal palace to the west of the minsters where the king's treasure was kept for the first time in a permanent location. Winchester was now the principal royal city, the Westminster, of Anglo-Saxon England. It served as a center of learning, music, liturgy, book production and manuscript illumination, metalwork and sculpture, and of writing in Old English and Anglo-Latin. Outside the southeast quarter, the frontages of the streets were becoming fully built up with more than one thousand properties, many parish churches, and a wide range of craft production and industries, not least bullion exchange and minting. This was the golden age of the Old English state, and Winchester was its early capital.

The city was soon to attract the attention of outsiders. In 1006 the people of Winchester, safe behind their walls, watched the Danish Viking army pass on their way to the sea. In 1013 Svein Forkbeard, king of Denmark (r. c. 987–1014) took the city. In the years that followed, his son Cnut, king of England and Denmark (r. 1016–1035), made Winchester the principal center of his Anglo-Danish North Sea empire. He and his family were buried in Old Minster. In November 1066, the principal citizens surrendered the city without a fight to William the Conqueror, heralding a century during which Winchester would remain second only to the burgeoning wealth of London.

See alsoAnglo-Saxon England (vol. 2, part 7).


Biddle, Martin. "The Study of Winchester: Archaeology and History in a British Town, 1961–1983." In British Academy Papers on Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by E. G. Stanley, pp. 299–341. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. (Reviews the excavations of 1961 through 1971. Also includes a bibliography of sources published through 1988.)

——. "Excavations at Winchester, 1971: Tenth and Final Interim Report." The Antiquaries Journal 55 (1975): 96–126 and 295–337.

——. "Excavations at Winchester, 1970: Ninth Interim Report." The Antiquaries Journal 52 (1972): 93–131.

——. "Excavations at Winchester, 1969: Eighth Interim Report." The Antiquaries Journal 50 (1970): 277–326.

——. "Excavations at Winchester, 1968: Seventh Interim Report." The Antiquaries Journal 49 (1969): 295–329

——. "Excavations at Winchester, 1967: Sixth Interim Report." The Antiquaries Journal 48 (1968): 250–284.

——. "Excavations at Winchester, 1966: Fifth Interim Report." The Antiquaries Journal 47 (1967): 251–279.

——. "Excavations at Winchester, 1965: Fourth Interim Report." The Antiquaries Journal 46 (1966): 308–339.

——. "Excavations at Winchester, 1964: Third Interim Report." The Antiquaries Journal 45 (1965): 230–264.

——. "Excavations at Winchester Cathedral, 1962–63: Second Interim Report." The Antiquaries Journal 44 (1964): 188–219.

Biddle, Martin, et al. Object and Economy in Medieval Winchester. Winchester Studies, vol. 7, pt. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Biddle, Martin, ed. Winchester in the Early Middle Ages: AnEdition and Discussion of the Winton Domesday. Winchester Studies, vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

Biddle, Martin, and R. N. Quirk. "Excavations near Winchester Cathedral, 1961." The Archaeological Journal 119 (1962): 150–194.

Clarke, Giles, et al. Pre-Roman and Roman Winchester: TheRoman Cemetery at Lankhills. Winchester Studies, vol. 3. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Collis, John. Winchester Excavations 1949–60, Vol. 3. N.p., n.d.

Collis, John, and K. J. Barton. Winchester Excavations, Vol. 2, 1949–1960. Excavations in the Suburbs and the WesternPart of the Town. Winchester, U.K.: City of Winchester, 1978.

Cunliffe, Barry. Winchester Excavations 1949–1960. Winchester, U.K.: Winchester City Council, Museums and Libraries Committee, 1964.

Keene, Derek, and Alexander R. Rumble. Survey of MedievalWinchester. Winchester Studies, vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.

Kjo⁄lbye-Biddle, Birthe. "Old Minster, St. Swithun's Day 1093." In Winchester Cathedral: Nine Hundred Years, 1093–1993. Edited by John Crook, pp. 13–20. Chichester, U.K.: Phillimore, 1993.

——. "Dispersal or Concentration: The Disposal of the Winchester Dead over 2000 Years." In Death in Towns: Urban Responses to the Dying and the Dead, 100–1600. Edited by Steven Bassett, pp. 210–247. Leicester, U.K.: Leicester University Press, 1992.

Lapidge, Michael. The Cult of St Swithun. Winchester Studies, vol. 4, pt. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003.

Rumble, Alexander R. Property and Piety in Early MedievalWinchester: Documents Relating to the Topography of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman City and Its Minsters. Winchester Studies, vol. 4, pt. 3. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002.

Scobie, G. D., John M. Zant, and R. Whinney. The Brooks,Winchester: A Preliminary Report on the Excavations, 1987–88. Archaeology Report, vol. 1. Winchester, U.K.: Winchester Museums Service, 1991.

Zant, John M. The Brooks, Winchester, 1987–88: The RomanStructural Remains. Archaeology Report, vol. 2. Winchester, U.K.: Winchester Museums Service, 1993.

Martin Biddle


views updated May 18 2018


WINCHESTER , cathedral city in Hampshire, S. England. Jews are first mentioned there in 1148 when, in the survey of city property, Benedict and Ursulinus are recorded as tenants of the bishop. A community subsequently grew up and was possibly visited by Abraham *Ibn Ezra, who mentions the city in his astronomical writings. It was the only large town in England where there were no anti-Jewish disorders in 1190, but a *blood libel resulted in some disturbance two years later. It ranked fourth in the Donum. During the 13th century the community was one of the most important in England and an *archa was situated there. The Jewish quarter was in the heart of the city (the present Jewry Street). The constable of Winchester Castle was also Keeper of the Jews. A tower in the castle was known as the Jews' Tower – either because Jews were permitted to take refuge there or because it was used for their periodical imprisonments. The community experienced a series of child-murder accusations between 1225 and 1235. It may have been in connection with one of these that in 1235 the leading member of the community, Abraham Pinch, was hanged in front of the synagogue which he himself maintained. The most tragic event occurred in 1262, when Simon de Montfort sacked the Jewish quarter in Winchester. Among outstanding local capitalists in the second half of the 13th century was Licoricia, who was murdered in 1277; her son Benedict was among the Winchester Jews hanged in 1278 on a charge of coin clipping. Benedict fil' Abraham of Winchester, on the other hand, was the only known English Jew in the Middle Ages to be admitted to the Merchant Guild (1268). Another son of Licoricia, Asher, scratched an inscription, recorded by John Selden, on the wall of his dungeon in Winchester Castle, where he was imprisoned when the Jews of England were arrested in 1287. About this time, the principal Winchester synagogue was confiscated. Approximately 16 local Jewish householders remained by the time of the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, their wealth valued at £44. No organized Jewish community has existed there in recent times.


jc (Sept. 16, 1892), 14; Abrahams, in: jhset, 2 (1894–95), 102; Stokes, ibid., 10 (1921–23), 193–4; Adler, ibid. (1928 31), 171–2; idem, in: jhsem, 4 (1942), 1–8; C. Roth, Jews of Medieval Oxford (1951), index, s..v.Winchester, Licoricia, David, etc.; Roth, England, index; Turner, in: Hampshire Review, 21 (1954), 17–21. add. bibliography: H.G. Richardson, English Jewry Under the Angevin Kings (1960), index; R.B. Brown and S. McCartney in jhset 39 (2004), 14–34; S. Bartlet in Jewish Culture and History 3(2) (2000), 31–54; P. Allin in jhset 27 (1982), 32–39; J. Hillaby and R. Sermon in Trans. Bristol & Gloucs. Archaeol. Soc. 122 (2004), 142–143.

[Cecil Roth /

Joe Hillaby (2nd ed.)]


views updated May 29 2018

Winchester (Roman) was Venta Belgarum, capital of the probably artificial civitas of the Belgae. Situated at the intersection of the north–south valley of the Itchen through the east–west chalklands, there is some evidence for late Iron Age activity and a post-conquest military site. By the late 1st cent. the town, unusually, had earthwork defences; augmented in the 2nd cent. and fronted in stone in the 3rd, they enclosed 143 acres. Limited excavation in the interior has located parts of a street-grid, the site of the forum, a temple, and a number of houses. Extensive 4th-cent. cemeteries suggest that Winchester was still a major centre of population, but they passed out of use at the beginning of the 5th cent., at the same time as the abandonment of the buildings in the interior. A few sherds of Anglo-Saxon pottery are associated with this final phase.

Alan Simon Esmonde Cleary


Winchester revived as a bishop's seat (662), but urban life did not return until a planned and fortified town (burh) was laid out within the Roman walls, probably by King Alfred. The city expanded dramatically between the 10th and 12th cents., ranking by c.1110, with Norwich, second in size after London, and sharing with Westminster the developing functions of a national capital. Besides the cathedral, it possessed royal and episcopal palaces, 57 parish churches, and one of the four great trading fairs of England. However, it declined from the 12th cent. as the close links with the monarchy slackened. Since the 15th cent. it has been only a modest provincial town, though Charles II commissioned a palace there in 1683, and may have toyed with creating an English Versailles. The long decline has left Winchester with a rich urban fabric, as well as ‘the richest architecturally of all English bishops' sees’. Important excavations in 1961–71, the first major urban archaeological programme in Britain, have revealed the entire plan of the pre-Conquest cathedral and much else.

David M. Palliser


views updated Jun 08 2018

Winchester County town of Hampshire, on the River Itchen, s central England. Known as Venta Belgarum by the Romans, it became capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex in ad 519. During the reign of King Alfred the Great, it was capital of England. Despite the increasing influence of London, Winchester retained its importance as a centre of learning and religion throughout the medieval period. Much of the old city remains, including a 14th-century Gothic cathedral and the ruins of a Norman castle. Pop. (1994) 101,848.


views updated Jun 11 2018

A. name of a city in Hampshire, used as a designation of certain measures XVI;

B. name of Oliver F. Winchester (1810–80), an American manufacturer, designating a type of breech-loading rifle XIX.