Thursday, January 3, 2013

Winchester Cathedral Begins

One of the largest cathedrals in England—in fact, one of the longest Gothic cathedrals in Europe—Winchester has been through many changes. The original building (on a site just north of the present cathedral) was founded in 642 and over time came to hold the remains of several Saxon kings.

The very long nave of Winchester
William the Conqueror, wishing to show the strength of his Norman regime after 1066 (or wishing to placate God for any sins William might have committed) began a building campaign, replacing several Saxon churches all over England with great Gothic edifices.

He also needed men to guide the dioceses connected to the new structures. For Winchester, that would be his cousin and personal chaplain, Walkelin, who was consecrated bishop in 1070 for the express purpose of running Winchester. This nepotism benefited Walkelin, who was able to "pay it forward": he made his brother Simeon the prior of Winchester, putting him in charge of the monastery that had started in 971. He later helped Simeon become Abbot of Ely. Walkelin also later advanced his nephew Gerard to become Archbishop of York.

To build the new cathedral would take materials, and since all natural resources in England belonged to the king, it was up to the king to allocate them as he saw fit. William gave Walkelin access to Hempage Wood in Hampshire, granting him as much wood for timbers and scaffolding as carpenters could produce in four days and nights. Walkelin took no chances: he assembled an army of carpenters sufficient to cut down the entirety of Hempage.

The next time William passed through Hampshire, he was at first stunned to see no Hempage Wood, then enraged when he realized what had happened. He summoned Walkelin, who dressed himself in his poorest outfit and knelt at the king's feet, offering to give up his position if only the king and he could remain friends. William relented, saying "I was as much too liberal in my grant as you were too greedy in availing yourself of it."*

The new Winchester was completed in 1093, and a grand and joyous procession of monks carried the relics of saints (especially of St. Swithin, former bishop of Winchester and patron saint of the old church) from the old building to the new.

Under William Rufus, Walkelin supposedly refused to send the king a large sum he was requesting, because Walkelin knew he could not raise the sum with taxing (and oppressing) the poor in his diocese. Instead, the bishop prayed to be delivered from the difficulty he was in. Ten days later he died, on 3 January 1098.

*Annales de Wintonia [Annals of Winton], entry for 1086.

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