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Winchester Castle, Hampshire, UK

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A Brief History of Winchester
Winchester Castle | Wolvesey Castle | Westgate
Royal Hampshire County Hospital | Winchester Cathedral

There is little visibly remaining today of Winchester Castle, except the Great Hall which houses the famous Round Table, and the remains of Henry III's Round Tower's foundations and sally ports.

Early History - The Roman Site

Winchester Castle has its origins in Roman times. The Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD, under the Emperor Claudius, and one of the first Roman settlements was at Winchester. In approximately 75 AD the Romans enclosed Winchester, known as Venta Belgarum1, with a defensive ditch on the north, west and south sides, diverting the River Itchen to defend the east. This enclosed a roughly square-shaped area, except on the western side, where halfway down the western wall's south side the wall projects out to enclose an area of high ground. Winchester's ditch and bank later were strengthened by a stone wall built in around 180 - 200 AD to further protect it2. This wall and the Roman town's outline would last well into the early medieval period.

This additional area or salient in the walls' south-west corner is 200 feet wide and 800 feet long. Evidence of a Roman tessellated floor has been uncovered and there are theories that this was the site of a theatre or that it was used by the Roman military.

Saxon Era

In early Saxon times Winchester's population was small. There is a debate about the presence of a royal palace in the early 7th Century. The first chapel was later developed into the Old Minster, Winchester's first cathedral, in 642 AD. Within two centuries Winchester became the capital of Wessex and, later, all of England - only London, Lincoln and York were more populous. In 757 AD Hampshire became the first county to be named in a document. The Vikings first raided Winchester in 860 AD, after which Winchester's defences were strengthened, making Winchester the largest defended Burh (or fortified town) in England.

King Alfred the Great and many other English kings lived in a Royal Palace built in the centre of Winchester and were buried at Winchester Cathedral3. The Royal Mint and treasury were housed in Winchester. The Saxon New Minster, built in 900 AD, was at the time the largest church in Europe. When King Cnut, king of England, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, died in 1035, it was at Winchester, his capital, that he had chosen to be buried.

Early Norman Castle

In November 1066 the forces of King William The Bastard4 entered Winchester, having defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in October, 1066. William seized the Royal Palace and ordered the construction of a castle on Winchester's south-west salient and in 1067 the castle was given to William's closest military advisor, William FitzOsbern, who was also given control of the Isle of Wight.

The castle used the Roman town walls to the south, west and north and a new ditch and wall was built to cut the castle off from the rest of Winchester on the East. The castle area was just over four acres in area and was initially defended by a motte and a wooden tower on its north side, complete with a timber palisade. Fifty houses were demolished on the site of the salient and ten houses were demolished outside the city walls to allow for a wider ditch. The castle, on Winchester's high ground, dominated the town around it, and the Royal Treasury remained in Winchester. King William, however, lived in the Royal Palace in the centre of Winchester (which he had doubled in size) rather than in the castle.

In 1069, Archbishop Stigand5 was accused of being involved in a rebellion against William and in 1070 was imprisoned in the castle.

At Easter, 1072, King William, his wife, the papal legate and the archbishops of York and Canterbury held a council in Winchester Castle's royal chapel, now beneath the Great Hall, to decide an issue of primacy between the archbishops. Winchester was considered to be neutral territory in the dispute.

After the death of William Rufus in the nearby New Forest in 1100, Henry I Stagfoot (1100 - 1135) raced to Winchester Castle to secure the kingship as well as the royal treasure. He set about improving Winchester Castle, as well as Winchester Cathedral6, shipping fine stone over from Binstead on the Isle of Wight. A stone keep, comparable in size to the one still standing at Portchester Castle, was built on the motte on the north of the castle site, near Winchester's West Gate.

Winchester Castle was now one of the most important royal buildings in England. As well as the treasury7, the Domesday Book and the exchequer were kept in the castle. As a result, by 1110 Winchester's population was second in England only to London, with Norwich the third and York the fourth largest cities in the kingdom.

The Anarchy

Henry I died in 1135, and William Pont de l'Arche, sheriff of Hampshire and Berkshire, Custodian of Winchester Castle and the treasury, surrendered the castle and royal treasure to King Stephen. This was the first act in Winchester in the period known as the Anarchy, a period of Civil War between the forces of King Stephen and Empress8Matilda, also known as Maud9. The Anarchy lasted for nineteen years between 1135 – 1154.

Empress Matilda was the legitimate heir to the throne, following the deaths of her only legitimate brothers Prince William and Prince Richard in 1120 in the White Ship disaster. There were several reasons why the English Barons supported Stephen and not Empress Matilda's claim to the throne. Firstly, at the time no Queen had ever ruled England. The second reason was because of her second husband, Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou. The Anglo-French War of 1123 - 113510 was still a recent memory, having ended on Henry I's death in 1135. Empress Matilda also had been raised in a German court and was a stranger to the Normans she wished to govern.

The Siege Of Matilda

During the Anarchy, Henry de Blois11 at first wholeheartedly supported his brother Stephen's claim to the throne. However, on 2 February, 1141, the forces of Empress Matilda at the Battle of Lincoln captured King Stephen. As the war seemed over, Henry de Blois may have feared for his life and he surrendered Winchester Castle to Matilda on 2 March, 1141. He also surrendered the crown and treasure of Winchester and Winchester Palace, located in the centre of Winchester. As papal legate he was even prepared to consecrate Matilda as queen.

However, Henry de Blois and Empress Matilda did not remain at peace for long. Empress Matilda alienated her allies through acts of haughtiness. Henry de Blois prepared his castle in Winchester, Wolvesey Castle, for a siege. On 31 July, 1141 the forces of Henry de Blois (based at Wolvesey Castle) were besieged by the forces of Empress Matilda. These were led by Empress Matilda's uncle, King David I of Scotland, who had been promised Huntingdon, Northumbria and Cumberland in exchange for his support of Empress Matilda, although the division that attacked Wolvesey Castle was commanded by Empress Matilda's bastard brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester. Empress Matilda herself came to Winchester Castle to oversee the siege.

Forces loyal to Stephen under Stephen's wife Queen Matilda soon came to Wolvesey Castle's rescue. They relieved Wolvesey Castle and in turn besieged Winchester Castle. For seven weeks the forces of Empress Matilda (based at Winchester Castle on Winchester's west border) battled those of Queen Matilda, based in Wolvesey Castle on Winchester's east border - and the city of Winchester bore the brunt. The Royal Palace at Winchester was completely destroyed, the north of the city was burnt to the ground and forty churches in Winchester were destroyed.

The Rout Of Winchester

Empress Matilda's forces' supplies, especially of water, ran low. After a battle at Wherwell Abbey (six miles north of Winchester) in which Empress Matilda's forces had been defeated, Richard, Earl of Gloucester, felt it was vital to retreat.

During the retreat, Queen Matilda's army saw their opportunity and attacked. Although Empress Matilda escaped and arrived safely at Gloucester, much of her army was destroyed and Earl Robert of Gloucester had been forced to surrender.

After the Rout of Winchester, Empress Matilda exchanged Stephen for her brother Earl Robert of Gloucester. Stephen regained his throne and the Anarchy continued until the signing of the Treaty of Winchester on the 6 December, 1153. This stipulated that Stephen would rule England until his death, after which Empress Matilda's son, Henry Plantagenet, would be crowned king (as opposed to Stephen's son William, Earl of Surrey.

The Legend

There is a charming local legend in Winchester about the siege of Winchester Castle. It states that Empress Matilda, unable to escape from the besieged castle, spread a rumour that she had died and escaped from Winchester Castle in her own lead-lined coffin, pretending to be dead. Charles Ball's A Historical Account of Winchester from 1818 states:

'At length the imperialists, straitened for provisions, and particularly so for a supply of water, were driven to extremity; but careless of their own fate, their anxiety seems to have had the safety of Matilda for its principal object; in consequence, by one of those extraordinary expedients which could originate only in desperation, a stratagem was conceived and executed, which aided by the romantic and almost supernatural fortitude of the Empress, fully answered the most sanguine hopes of her adherents. A report was industriously circulated, that Matilda had died in the castle; and, after a suitable time had elapsed, during which a truce had been obtained from the enemy, she was enclosed like a corpse, in a sheet of lead, and in that state, accompanied by some of her most distinguished friends properly disguised, carried upon a horse litter through the besieging army. At a proper distance she was freed from her dismal envelope, and ultimately succeeded in effecting her escape to a place of safety.'

Sadly, none of this actually happened.

The Anarchy's Aftermath

On King Stephen's death in 1154, Henry Plantagenet was crowned King Henry II (1154 - 1189). The Anarchy had taken a heavy toll on Winchester - the Royal Palace was destroyed, the Royal Castle was in ruins and the population dropped from over 11,000 before the Anarchy to fewer than 8,000. Winchester would no longer hold its central position in English politics that it had come to enjoy, and the city took time to recover.

However, Winchester Castle remained an important Royal Residence. Since the destruction of the Royal Palace during the Anarchy, Winchester Castle would come to adopt the role of a major Royal Residence as well as Royal Castle. Henry II rebuilt the castle wall in 1169 - 1171 and strengthened the castle in 1173 - 1174 during Prince Henry's rebellion against his father. Winchester Castle had the sixth most money spent on it of any castle during Henry II's reign, although mainly as a residence rather than for defence. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II's wife, was imprisoned in the castle, and the current Eleanor's Garden is named after her12. Richard I (1189 - 1199) similarly spent more money only on four Royal castles in his reign13 and came to Winchester for his coronation, staying in Winchester Castle. Winchester Castle was frequently stayed in by King John, a king who during his reign never spent more than a month in the same place (1199 - 1216).

Henry III

King John's heir, Henry, was born in Winchester Castle in October, 1206, and baptised in Winchester Cathedral. 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. However, after John's death in early 1217, forces loyal to the newly crowned Henry III (1216 - 1172) besieged Winchester Castle with siege engines and, after a fortnight, recaptured the castle. Henry III promptly began organising the repair and strengthening of his birthplace, replacing the square tower keep at the castle's northern corner with a strong round tower equipped with secret sally ports to allow defenders to attack besiegers. The foundations and lower courses of the round tower still exist. The smaller square towers on the castle's walls were replaced and remodelled as stronger round or D-shaped towers. He also greatly modified the gatehouse, which led into the castle from outside Winchester's walls.

Henry III made further changes too, in what would become the height of Winchester Castle's history. The King's and Queen's chambers were heavily renovated. When Henry became king, the castle contained three chapels – the Chapel of St Judoc, St Thomas The Martyr and St Catherine. This, obviously, was insufficient. In 1228 the large Chapel of St Mary was built north of the Great Hall. In 1237 the chapel of St Judoc was reconstructed and given an upper storey and in 1250 a new small chapel for the king was constructed. Winchester Castle was one of the king's favourite residences, and he spent 18 Christmases in Winchester Castle during his reign. In 1222 he replaced the earlier Great Hall with the one that still stands today, the finest secular building from his reign still in existence.

The Great Hall

Winchester Castle's Great Hall, the only building from the castle to survive intact, was built between 1222 and 1235. It is 111 feet long, 55 feet wide and contains two rows of four columns. Dominating the room is the immense Round Table on the West wall, looking a little like a dartboard beneath three stained glass windows. Originally, the west end of the hall had a dais where the King and Queen could sit, elevated above the level of those below.

Since the reign of Henry III, the Great Hall has been used as a court. Sir Walter Raleigh was condemned to death here in 1603 for attempting to overthrow James I, although he was later reprieved. Captain Burleigh was condemned here for his attempt to rescue Charles I from Carisbrooke Castle in 1648. In 1846, Lieutenant Pym was acquitted from one of the last Duel Trials in England and even as recently as the early 1970s members of the IRA were tried within the medieval hall.

A new court of law was built next to the Great Hall's East side in 1974, which sadly looks ghastly. Two arches link the Great Hall's east wall to the Judges Gallery of the Law Court. These arches are behind two gates made in 1981 to commemorate the wedding of Prince Charles to Diana Spencer. The East Wall also lists the names of Hampshire's Members of Parliament. The west side of the hall has a door that leads to the Grand Jury building, first built in 1773, which now houses a visitors' centre and exhibition gallery. Hampshire County Council acquired this building in 1889 and adjoining buildings in the area near the barracks soon after.

The Great Hall also contains a large statue of Queen Victoria near the Round Table, This was unveiled on 17 May, 1887 for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, and was presented to the County of Hampshire. It was sculpted by Sir Alfred Gilbert RA, most famous for sculpting Eros in Piccadilly Circus. The statue originally stood outside the Great Hall in Castle Yard but was moved inside the Great Hall in 1910.

Next to the Great Hall is the small Queen Eleanor's Garden, named after Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II, Queen Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III and her daughter-in-law Queen Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I. The garden was opened by Her Majesty The Queen Mother on 8 July, 1986 to commemorate 900 years since the Domesday Book.

The Round Table

Winchester Castle Great Hall's Round Table

The Round Table on the Great Hall's West Wall is the symbol of the Great Hall and Winchester as a whole. The table is 18 feet in diameter, weighs 1.2 tons (1,219 kg) and was made from 121 pieces of oak from seven oak trees. Originally supported by 12 legs and one central pillar, it has been hung on the wall of the Great Hall since 1348. The table is believed to date from the reign of either Henry III (1216 - 1272) or more likely Edward I (1272 - 1307). Dendrochronology suggests that the trees were cut down around 1236 - 1257 and radio-carbon tests have suggested a date of around 1235 - 1319. Edward I is known to have had a profound interest in King Arthur. He constructed a Round Table building at Windsor Castle and began an Order of the Round Table in 1344, an organisation later eclipsed by the Order of the Garter which he founded in 1348. In Winchester in April, 1290, he held an Arthurian-themed celebration in honour of his children's arranged marriages, and it is likely that the table was made for this event.

The current painting on the table dates from 1789, when the design underneath was repainted. It is believed that the table was unpainted until the reign of Henry VIII, who visited Winchester in 1516 and ordered the repair of the Great Hall 'and the Round Table there', explaining the Tudor Rose in the centre of the table. Henry VIII was so proud of the Round Table he took Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to Winchester to see the table in 1522. From at least 1540 - 1873 the table hung on the Great Hall's East Wall. Since then it has hung on the West Wall, where it remains today.

The Castle's Decline

Henry III's defensive works were to prove their worth when Winchester Castle was besieged in 1265 by opposition forces led by Simon de Monfort the younger, who had successfully captured the city of Winchester.

Under Edward I (1272 - 1307) the castle was at first well maintained. It is believed that it was Edward I who ordered the construction of the Round Table, although it is possible that his father was responsible. At Easter, 1302, a fire broke out in the royal apartments when the king and Queen Margaret were sleeping there. They managed to escape with their lives, but the royal apartments burned and were never repaired. Whenever royal visitors stayed in Winchester (with one exception when Edward III met Parliament in Winchester in 1330) it was always in Wolvesey Castle rather than Winchester Castle. In 1402, Henry IV and Joan of Navarre stayed at the Castle before their wedding.

Winchester Castle was subsequently used as a royal gaol - among its prisoners was the bishop of St Andrews in 1306. It was also the centre of royal justice in Hampshire - in 1330, the Earl of Kent was executed at Winchester Castle. However, Parliament met at Winchester 25 times between 1079 and 1449.

In the reign of Elizabeth I, the city of Winchester was granted Winchester Castle. The Great Hall was used as a courtroom and the rest of the castle was used as a gaol and house of correction. In the early 17th Century the castle had a number of private owners - until 1638, when the Sir William Waller, MP for Andover, was granted the castle. The Great Hall was sold to Hampshire's Justices of the Peace although he retained ownership of the rest of the castle.

The Civil War

In 1642, when the Civil War erupted, Sir William Waller joined the Parliamentary army as a colonel of a horse regiment, working his way up to becoming a Sergeant Major General. In December, 1642, while he was away, Winchester Castle was captured by Royalist troops who later surrendered when the castle gate was threatened. In 1643, Royalists under Sir William Ogle again captured the castle, which was fortified and provisioned. The castle withstood a siege in March, 1644. On 28 September, 1645, Oliver Cromwell entered Winchester. The city surrendered but the castle held out for a week-long siege, this time against heavy cannon and mortars which destroyed the outer walls. On 6 October, 1645, Sir William Ogle surrendered and Sir William Waller was able to return to his home.

Although Winchester Castle was owned by one of his most loyal and able men, Oliver Cromwell ordered its demolition in 1649. In 1651 the towers and walls were demolished, and in 1656 Sir William Waller sold the few remains of the castle of Winchester to the city of Winchester for £255.

The Palace Project

The Monarchy was restored in 1660 and in September, 1682 King Charles II (1660 - 1685) visited Winchester for the first time, when he was made a freeman. Charles fell in love with Winchester, and was determined to build a hunting seat, park and 'a noble Palace, sufficient like Windsor, for a summer resident of the whole Court.' The city of Winchester offered the site of Winchester Castle to the King, and in October, 1682 the Royal Architect Sir Christopher Wren14 visited and surveyed the site and drew up plans. In March, 1683 work on the palace began.

Winchester Palace was Sir Christopher Wren's first palace design. He demolished all the remaining traces of Henry III's medieval castle except the Great Hall in early 1683 and designed an elegant three-winged building around a central courtyard, with an open view down a great terrace which, descending through 77 steps and 342 acres, would lead east to Winchester Cathedral at the bottom of the slope. The plans for this palace, to be called the King's House, are simply stunning.

Charles II, knowing that he was approaching the end of his life and wanting to see his palace completed before his death, said, 'If it be possible to be done in one year, I will have it so, for a year is a great deal in my life'.

Sadly it was not to be. When Charles II died in February, 1685 the palace - though built and roofed - was little more than an incomplete shell. James II (1685 - 1688) abandoned the project and William III and Mary II preferred to stay at a modified Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace, both of which were designed by Sir Christopher Wren.

The Palace Prison

The unfinished remains of the palace were neglected and abandoned in the decades that followed until it was finally used as a prison for prisoners of war. In 1758 - 1763 it was used to house 5,000 French soldiers during the Seven Years War (1756 - 1763). In 1779 - 1784 it housed over 6,500 French and Spanish soldiers during the American War of Independence. In 1792 - 1796 it housed 700 refugee clergy who had fled from a France in the grip of Revolution.


In 1793, when war with France began again, it was decided to use the palace as barracks; troops housed there would be close to the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth, where they could speedily embark on ships. The Barracks Department gained ownership of the palace in 1796. By 1807, Winchester Barrack, as it was known, was one of the largest in the country, housing 3,000 infantrymen. In 1809 - 1811, another storey was constructed to allow the building to house a further 1,700 men. Other military buildings were built on the site. In 1858, the King's House became the home of the Rifle Brigade and 60th Rifles, the King's Royal Rifle Corps15, although the King's House itself was destroyed by fire in December, 1894. After this fire, the King's House was demolished, although some of the stonework was reused in the new barracks. In 1951 this became the Green Jackets Depot and in 1962 these barracks were modernised and renamed the Peninsula Barracks, after the service that the Rifles performed during the Peninsula War (1808 - 1814). In 1985, the army left the Winchester barracks in favour of a new depot north of Winchester. Hampshire County Council now owns much of the site that was once the medieval castle. Many of the former barracks blocks now house Army museums, such as the Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum, the Gurkha Museum, the King's Royal Hussars Museum, the Light Infantry Museum, the Royal Green Jackets Museum and the Museum of the Adjutant General's Corps.

The Great Hall of Winchester Castle is still open to the public, and is famous for housing the legendary Round Table.

Other historic sites in the area include:

Tudor Castles on and around the Isle of Wight, UKÆthelred II the Unready - King of EnglandAnglo-Saxon Isle of WightGreat CastlesSome Great Castles of EnglandYorkshire's CastlesBolsover Castle, Derbyshire, UKCastle GlossaryPeveril Castle, Derbyshire, UKSouthampton Airport, Eastleigh, Hampshire, UKKingdom of WessexBBC History Magazine - Stephen, Matilda and Wolvesey Castle
1Venta Belgarum, meaning 'Marketplace of the Belgae people', is first mentioned in a Roman document in Alexandria, capital of Egypt, in 150 AD.2The 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, and the walled town of Silchester.3Kings 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 and England, died 1035 and William Rufus, died 1100, although Alfred the Great and Edward the Elder were later reburied elsewhere.4William The Bastard has been known since Victorian times as William The Conqueror. Bastard was not originally the insult that it is considered today. He reigned from 1066 -87.5Also known as Archbishop Stig, no known relation to any Top Gear racing driver. Archbishop Stigand was Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of Winchester until his fall from favour in 1070, when he was replaced as Bishop of Winchester by Bishop Walkelin.6Winchester Cathedral's tower collapsed in 1107, supposedly caused by God's anger that King William II Rufus was buried there. William's death by an arrow whilst hunting was also considered an act of God. In truth Winchester Cathedral's design was highly innovative and was pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved when constructing with stone.7In 1118 Henry Camerarius, one of the treasury officials, was found guilty of irregularities in treasury affairs and was blinded and castrated in the castle.8Matilda's first husband was Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, a man thirty years her senior. After his death in 1125 she retained the title of Empress, even after her second marriage in 1128, to Geoffrey of Anjou, who was ten years her junior.9Empress Matilda's mother was Matilda of Scotland, her paternal Grandmother was Matilda of Flanders, her aunt was Princess Matilda and her cousin Stephen was married to Queen Matilda. It is understandable that she is commonly called 'Maud' to avoid confusion.10This war was fought to secure England's control of Maine, with Fulk V of Anjou one of England's major opponents. Henry I married his widowed daughter Empress Matilda to Fulk's son Geoffrey Plantagenet hoping that this union would bring peace, yet instead this marriage to an enemy was one of the causes of the Anarchy, a Civil War within England itself.11Henry de Blois was brother of King Stephen and nephew of King Henry I, son of Henry I's younger sister Adela and Stephen de Blois, and a grandson of King William The Bastard. As the Bishop of Winchester, he was one of the most powerful men in England, controlling Winchester, England's wealthiest bishopric. As papal legate, he outranked even the Archbishop of Canterbury and was King Stephen's chief advisor. Henry de Blois had his own castle, Wolvesey Castle, in Winchester, next to Winchester Cathedral at Winchester's eastern border.12Eleanor of Aquitaine supported her three sons in their rebellion against Henry II in 1173. These rebellious sons were Henry (Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, who was actually even crowned King in 1170 while his father still reigned, though he died before him), Richard (later Richard I the Lion Heart) and John, (later King John). Eleanor was imprisoned until Henry's death in 1189.13The Tower of London, Dover, Oxford and York.14Sir Christopher Wren was one of the foremost architects of the time famous for St Paul's Cathedral and much of London after the Great Fire including 52 churches. He was the Royal Architect for six English Kings and Queens – Charles II, James II, William III and Mary II, Anne and George I.15A regiment made famous by Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe  novels and television series.

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