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Westgate, Winchester, Hampshire, UK

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A Brief History of Winchester | Winchester Castle | Wolvesey Castle | Winchester Cathedral | Westgate
Westgate by Bluebottle

The Westgate is one of only two surviving mediæval gatehouses into the city of Winchester, the former capital of England. Although in its present form the gatehouse dates from the 12th Century with modifications in the 14th Century, it has Roman and Saxon origins and since 1898 has been used as a museum. Winchester was one of only two cities in Hampshire to be completely defended by walls1.

The Westgate marks the end of the High Street and is located on high ground above the centre of the old city, but still below the crest of the hill. To ensure that it remained defensible, the gatehouse was built to be strong enough to withstand attacks from enemies who could hold higher ground nearby.

The Westgate

The Westgate is a simple gatehouse. Most of the ground floor is dominated by the arched passageway through which all traffic entered and left Winchester. To the north of the main passageway a pedestrian walkway has been cut through the gatehouse. This was originally part of a two-storied Porter's Lodge. The porter would be responsible for opening and closing the gate, not only in time of danger but also after the curfew bell had been rung, as well as collect tolls on goods entering the city.

Above the archway on the first floor is the main chamber, which housed the winch for the portcullis and from which the Westgate could be defended using the gunports. This chamber has had various uses over the years and is now a museum. Above the first floor is the parapet or battlement level.

Roman Winchester

The Romans under the Emperor Claudius invaded Britain in 43AD and one of the first Roman settlements was at Winchester. In approximately 70-75 AD the Romans enclosed Winchester, known as Venta Belgarum2, 'Marketplace of the Belgae people', with a defensive ditch on the north, west and south sides, diverting the River Itchen to defend the east. This enclosed a roughly rectangular area; on the western side, halfway down, the wall projected out to enclose an area of high ground on the south of the city. Its ditch and bank were later strengthened by the building of a stone wall around 180-200AD3. This wall and the Roman town's outline would form the basis of the city's Saxon and mediæval walls. It is believed that a gatehouse had been constructed on the site of what is now the Westgate, just north of the projecting area. Although no direct evidence of a Roman gatehouse has yet been found, its existence would tie in with the Roman street plan.

Saxon

In early Saxon times Winchester reached the height of its importance. The first cathedral, the Old Minster, was constructed in 642AD. Winchester was the capital of Wessex, the kingdom which evolved into England. In 860AD, during the reign of King Æthelbald (855-860), the Vikings first raided the city. At this stage the Roman defences had become so dilapidated that they were described in 868 as 'the king's city's hedge'. The city's defences were restored, rebuilt and strengthened. Construction of new gatehouses or repairs to the Roman ones are known to have taken place at some of the other gates and a new gatehouse was constructed on the site of the Westgate. Archaeologists have found evidence not only of defensive ditches in the Westgate's vicinity, but also of a stone gate at the Westgate's position. Some stones of this Saxon gate survive on the north-west angle of the Westgate. The defensive works are known to have been considerable, as the street layout was changed to allow easy access to the walls from within the city, with a new street following the inside circuit of the walls. These improvements transformed Winchester into the largest defended Burh, or fortified town, in England.

Vast defensive ditches outside the Westgate have been located dating from the time of King Alfred the Great, which ties in with the evidence of the Burghal Hidage, a list of fortified burhs and the amount of land needed to support each burh's garrison, written around 911-19. This states that the walls' perimeter was 3,034 metres and 2,400 hides of land were required to support its garrison.

These Saxon defences were put to the test in the reign of Æthelred II the Unready during Viking raids in 1006, 1009 and 1011. Vikings under Thorkell the Tall successfully destroyed many other fortified towns in the south of England, including Canterbury and Exeter, but although much of Hampshire was raided and attacked, Winchester itself remained safe and secure.

Alfred himself had a Royal Palace built in the centre and was buried at Winchester Cathedral4. Secure behind these impressive defences, the Royal Mint and Treasury was housed in Winchester, a city that in 900AD saw the construction of the Saxon New Minster, at the time the largest church in Europe.

Norman Winchester and Westgate

Following the Norman Conquest, the higher land immediately south of the Westgate was confiscated by the crown and the south-west corner of the walls became Winchester Castle. The defences outside the Westgate were strengthened, with the wet ditch to the south of the gatehouse expanded and also used as a royal fishpond.

Winchester remained influential and continued to grow, so much so that by the reign of King Henry I – 'Stagfoot'5 – over half the population lived outside the boundary of the Roman walls. By 1110 the population was approximately 11,6256, second in England only to London, with Norwich and York the third and fourth largest cities in the kingdom.

Henry I was fond of Winchester and began his reign by improving Winchester Castle, Winchester Cathedral and the rest of the city, including the Westgate. In fact, most of the lower level of the gatehouse dates from this time.

As a large number of people lived west of the Westgate in a new suburb, a new, wider defensive ditch system was built on the city's west side. Not only was the ditch immediately outside the city walls widened, a new ditch was constructed surrounding the expanded settlement. This had been intended to fully encircle the city, however this was not fully completed before Henry I's death. The western ditch near the Westgate was 40 metres wide and 12 metres deep. Curiously, at this time, the chapel neighbouring Westgate was built. This was outside the gatehouse, within the defensive ditch itself. As Winchester was a centre for pilgrimage, each of the six mediæval gatehouses had an associated chapel next to it7. The Westgate neighboured the Chapel of St Mary Outside Westgate, more commonly known as St Mary-in-the-Ditch. This was the parish church for the western suburb as well as for travellers, pilgrims and merchants entering Winchester from the west, remaining in use until the 15th Century. Even after its destruction, the chapel's chancel arch and other stonework remained adjoining the Westgate until the 19th Century.

The Anarchy

Henry I died in 1135, and his reign was followed by the period known as the Anarchy, a 19-year-long Civil War between the forces of King Stephen and Empress Matilda, which finally ended in 1154. Winchester's importance was to prove its undoing. In 1141, King Stephen's brother Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester, and Queen Matilda, King Stephen's wife, held Wolvesey Castle in the city's south-east corner. Empress Matilda held Winchester Castle in the south-west corner. For seven weeks the forces of Empress Matilda battled those of Queen Matilda, with the city in the middle baring the brunt. The north of the city was burnt to the ground and 40 churches destroyed. The population dropped from over 11,000 to fewer than 8,000.

The Anarchy continued until the signing of the Treaty of Winchester on 6 December, 1153, which stipulated that Stephen would rule England until his death, after which Empress Matilda's son, Henry Plantagenet, would be crowned king and not Stephen's son William, Earl of Surrey.

Winchester would no longer hold its central position in English politics that it had come to enjoy.

Middle Ages

Following the Anarchy the city was repaired, including the arch on the east (High Street) side of the Westgate's walkway. It is believed that the city seal, still used today by Winchester City Council, dates from approximately 1200. This is a picture of five of Winchester's gatehouses, and a shield containing this image can be seen above the Westgate's archway.

In 1216 after John's rejection of the Magna Carta, Prince Louis, son of King Philip II of France, besieged Winchester Castle and captured it after two weeks. The city was again captured during Simon de Monfort the Younger's rebellion against Henry III in 1265.

Winchester continued to decline in importance after over half its population died of the Black Death between 1348-51, and Winchester Castle was no longer used as a royal residence. However the city remained influential enough to be defended; the walls were surveyed in 1369 and repaired, and again repaired in 1377, when the Durngate postern was blocked up. The western wall, facing higher ground, was the strongest defended, containing additional bastions along its length.

The Westgate was extensively upgraded in the 1390s to defend against a feared invasion from France during the reign of Richard II, with the Peasants' Revolt8 of 1381 still a recent memory. The gatehouse's modifications show the white hart couchant emblem used by Richard II in 1390. The new additions included a new drawbridge. The chains to raise or lower this passed through the mouths of the two grotesque heads on either side of the shields, although the drawbridge did not remain in place for long. Behind this was a portcullis. In addition to the portcullis grooves, still existing are the iron brackets on the wall to which the pulleys to raise it where attached, and the specially designed recessed archway which held the portcullis in place when it was raised. In front of the gate were five machicolations. These were murder holes, allowing those at parapet level to drop boiling oil, stones etc onto the heads of attackers. The two keyhole gunports are among the earliest in England, dating from 1392. These were designed for use by hand cannons. Curiously, there was no direct access to the top of the city wall from the Westgate, except possibly by ladder from the parapet. The gatehouse did have arrow loops facing the wall in case an enemy gained possession of the wall's battlements.

Winchester College and the nearby Hospital of St Cross also built defensive gatehouses at this time.

Civil War

John Speed's map dating from 1611 shows the city walls fully intact, including the Westgate, with the walls 3.5 metres wide. Thirty years later those defences were put to the test during the Civil War. Originally Winchester declared for the king, but was captured by Parliament in December 1642. In 1643 Sir William Ogle recaptured the city, holding it as a Royalist stronghold until October 1645, when Oliver Cromwell himself besieged and bombarded the city. On its surrender, his men plundered and looted the city and cathedral.

In December 1648 Charles I passed through Winchester on his final journey to London, having been accused of treason. Arriving at the Westgate, he was presented the city's mace by the Mayor, the traditional welcome reserved for the ruling king. Charles I was executed one month later. Cromwell, meanwhile, destroyed much of Winchester, including Winchester and Wolvesey Castles.

Gaol and Pub

The first floor of the Westgate was used as a city prison for debtors and offenders from the 16th Century. It was the Westgate porter's duty to feed the prisoners, for which he would charge the debtors at greatly increased prices. In 1742 a report described the Westgate as 'greatly out of repair and not fit to keep a prisoner in', and so in 1745 the first floor was no longer used as the gaol.

The ground floor contained a small room off the main passageway used as a lockup for drunkards and petty offenders, called the Little Ease, until 1760. Records show that on one night the small room contained a sick soldier and five prostitutes.

In 1758 an obelisk was erected outside the Westgate to the Charitable Society of Natives and Citizens and similar organisation A Society of Aliens, two charities dedicating to the education and welfare of plague orphans since 1666. This obelisk, now moved further away from the Westgate, is a Grade II* Listed Building.

After the prison closed, local wine merchant John Gauntlett, of the adjoining Fighting Cocks public house on the gate's north side, enquired whether he could lease the first floor. Records show that, although referred to as the pub's Smoking Room, the pub frequently enjoyed 'the use of the great chamber for fencing, theatrical and musical exhibitions, and smoking room.' The way to the first floor was by a door from the pub, which is now blocked off. The original pub was demolished in the 19th Century. A pub was rebuilt on its spot named Plume of Feathers, though this was demolished in 1940.

The pub did save the Westgate. Between 1768 and 1771 the city's East, North and South gates were demolished as traffic hazards. In 1824 stone traders were given permission to demolish the city wall north of the Westgate. The King's Gate was heavily modified and survived through its continued use as a chapel, while the Westgate remained purely as it was leased out as a pub. However, to ease the traffic congestion, a pedestrian walkway on the north side of the arch was made, dating from 1791.

Traffic was finally diverted around Westgate in 1958, on the site of where the pub had been. Before this, all traffic entering Winchester from the west would have entered through the narrow arch of the Westgate.

Tourist Attraction

By the start of the 19th Century, Winchester began to attract visitors to the city to admire its many admirable buildings. In 1818 one of the first tourist guides was published, Charles Ball's An Historical Account of Winchester with Descriptive Walks. The first two of the six descriptive walks begin at the Westgate, which is described with the words:

Among the more prominent objects which may be supposed to engage the attention of a stranger on his arrival in Winchester, the ancient Gate of the city, which terminates the western extremity of the High Street, will necessarily, from its antiquity, become a subject of curiosity; and from its situation, as forming a principal entrance, will be a proper station from which to commence.

This venerable structure consists of a massy square tower over a spacious gateway, crowned on the west side with machicolations, and ornamented with shields in quatrefoils, bearing the arms of the city and kingdom; the grooves for the portcullis are still remaining at the west side of the arch, as are the massy hooks for supporting the gates. Near the east end, on the south side, we observe the entrance to the keep of the tower, which is now used as a billiard room; on the east side, the fabric is supported by three large buttresses, two of which terminate in plain niches with canopies. The substance of this gate appears to have been built by the Normans at the time the walls were strengthened and repaired and the castle erected in 1072.

Archives and Museum

When the Fighting Cocks pub was demolished in 1837, the city corporation converted the first floor chamber into a muniment room, to be used to store Winchester's archives. These were described as a fine collection of court records, chamberlain's and hospital rolls, coffer, ordinance and other books, ranging over several centuries.

It was realised that the neglected Westgate was not the best place to keep these records, and so in 1898 Aldermen William Henry Jacob and Thomas Stopher rescued the records and converted the Westgate into a museum, which opened on 16 September, 1898, with Jacob the first curator. This was Winchester's second museum, after the City Museum, which had opened in 1851. It is as a museum that the Westgate remains today.

Among the items on display are a suit of Almain rivet armour, originally belonging to Thomas Sowton, a local butcher, of 1549. Visitors are encouraged to try on Civil War era armour. The oak ceiling and frieze came from Winchester College and probably date from July 1554, when Queen Mary married Philip II of Spain in Winchester Cathedral. They are known to have visited the college, which is decorated with Tudor roses. The ceiling is believed to have been commissioned by John White, Warden of Winchester College who became Bishop of Winchester in 1555. He did not remain as Bishop long as, in his oration at Mary's funeral, he implied that Mary was a much better queen than Elizabeth I, after which Elizabeth invited him to spend a rather restricted existence in the Tower. Another item on display is a painting dating from 1554 of Ralph Lamb, nephew of the mayor of Winchester, who attended the wedding ceremony and commissioned a portrait of himself to commemorate it.

Inside the museum on the walls are traces of carved graffiti, the earliest dated of which was inscribed in 1597. The graffiti includes a very fine picture of a ship. Most of these inscriptions date from when the chamber was used as a prison.

On Wednesday 11 July, 2012 the Olympic Torch passed the Westgate.

Measure for Measure

Perhaps the most impressive display is the one on weights and measures, which shows Winchester's national importance. As merchants used weight as an important measure in trade, to ensure that all weights nationwide were equal, during the reign of Edgar the Peaceable (959-975) it was declared that all measures must agree with the approved standard weights kept in Winchester and London. From then on, the bushel, peck and gallon became known as the Winchester Measure. The Winchester Measure remained in use until the Weights and Measures Act 1824.

The earliest set of standard weights to have survived in England are the weights in Winchester Westgate. These date from 1357, the reign of Edward III, and consist of a Quarter Sack (91lb), Half hundred-weight (56lb), Stone (14lb) and two Cloves (7lb). There are also standard bronze bushel, gallon and quart measures dating from the reign of Henry VII, as well as a yard dating from 1497, but slightly adjusted in 1571. There are also a set of bronze gallon, quart and pint measures dating from 1601, bronze quart and pint dating from 1700, quart, pint, half pint and quarter pint dating from 1719, as well as sets of smaller weights and nesting weights.

Visiting Today

The Westgate museum is normally open at weekends – check the website to avoid disappointment. The Westgate is one of six Grade I Listed buildings in Winchester and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

1Southampton was the other.2Venta Belgarum is first mentioned in a Roman document in Alexandria, capital of Egypt, in 150AD.3The name 'Winchester' itself shows its Roman walled origins – the word 'Chester' derives from the Old English word, 'Ceaster', used to describe Roman settlements protected by stone walls. In Hampshire these include Portchester, a Roman Fort later used as a castle, and the walled town of Silchester.4Kings Egbert, died 839, Æthelwulf, died 855, Alfred the Great, died 899, Edward the Elder, died 924, Ædred, died 955, Ædwig the Fair, died 959, Cnut, also known as Canute, King of Denmark, Sweden, much of Norway as well as England, died 1035 and William Rufus, died 1100, all were buried in Winchester Cathedral although Alfred the Great and Edward the Elder were later reburied elsewhere.5Henry I (1100-35), nicknamed 'Stagfoot', had raced to the Norman Winchester Castle, located immediately south of the Westgate, on hearing of his brother William II Rufus' (1087-1100) death by Act of God. This was to secure the kingship as well as the royal treasure.6A figure it would not match again until 1851.7Clockwise from the city's wall's north-west corner, the two gates on the north wall were the North Gate with the Chapel of St Mary, and Denergate and chapel of St John. There was also a postern known as the Durn Gate. The East Gate had St Michael's chapel. On the south wall the King's Gate held the chapel of St Swithun. Also on the south wall was the South Gate.8In Hampshire, 14 of the 25 sentenced to execution for their role in the Great Revolt came from Winchester. Curiously, one of the local ringleaders, William Wygge, obtained a pardon and five times became mayor of Winchester.

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