Winchester, Ancient See of

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One of the chief sees of medieval england, from an early date ranking second in the southern province only to the archiepiscopal See of Canterbury. It was important for three reasons: its position in what was effectively the capital of Wessex (the greatest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England), its close contact with the Continent, and, above all, its wealth (a result chiefly of the munificence of Anglo-Saxon kings, e.g., alfred the great). The see was held to be richer than that of Canterbury, e.g., Bp. william of edyndon (d. 1366) refused translation to the latter, claiming "Canterbury had the higher rack, but Winchester had the deepest manger." In view of its importance and the paucity of archiepiscopal sees in medieval England, it would not have been surprising if Winchester had become the head of a province. This did not happen, though a scheme to this effect devised by Bp. henry of blois (112971) did come near to success.

The first bishop of Winchester (named, oddly enough, Wini) was consecrated in 664, at a time when England was a collection of small kingdoms of which Wessex was the chief. The conversion of Wessex had been effectively begun by St. birinus, whose see was fixed at Dorchester (635), Wini's consecration seems to have been a step toward dividing this huge area into two dioceses. The division was long delayed, although western parts of the area were made into the Diocese of Sherborne, whose first bishop was consecrated in 705. Two centuries later an area covering roughly Wiltshire and Berkshire was made into the Diocese of Ramsbury (909), while Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire passed to the revived See of Dorchester. This reduced the Diocese of Winchester to what was to become substantially its traditional extent, i.e., Hampshire, Surrey, and the Isle of Wight. In 1499 the Channel Isles were added to the diocese.

Before the Norman Conquest a number of the bishops of Winchester were benedictines, e.g., St. swithin (85262), whose reputation for sanctity was very considerable; St. alphege of winchester (d. 951); St. ethelwold (96384); and St. alphege of canterbury (9841005). In later times the wealth and importance of the see, along with the control that the English monarchy had over episcopal appointments, resulted in a number of members of the royal family or high royal servants being made bishops. These, however, not infrequently used wealth to good purpose. Bp. Henry of Blois, brother of King Stephen, founded the important hospital of St. Cross, which still exists, while no less than three of the older colleges of oxford owe their existence to bishops of Winchester: New College, to Bp. William of wykeham, who also founded Winchester College in his cathedral city; Magdalen College, to Bp. William waynflete; and Corpus Christi College, to Bp. Richard foxe. Henry beaufort was bishop of Winchester from 1404 to 1447.

By the 12th century, Archdeaconries of Surrey and Winchester had been formed, the former having three deaneries, the latter, nine. The cathedral chapter was originally formed of secular canons, but in 964 it was made Benedictine and so remained down to the reformation when the last prior became the first dean; Stephen gardiner succeeded as bishop. Recent excavations have revealed remains of a seventh-century church and of a large church of Ethelwold's era. The present cathedral was built on a new site in the Norman style in the late 11th century. Although the Norman transepts remain, the rest of the cathedral was gradually transformed to Gothic.

Bibliography: s. h. cassan, The Lives of the Bishops of Winchester, 2 v. (London 1827) v.1. g. hill, English Dioceses (London 1900). f. bussby, Winchester Cathedral, 10791979 (Southampton 1979) r. willis, The Architectural History of Winchester Cathedral (Winchester 1984) j. crook, Winchester Cathedral: Nine Hundred Years, 10931993 (Chichester, West Sussex 1993).

[j. c. dickinson/eds.]