Winchester, England is a history lover’s dream. Inhabited since prehistoric times, this vibrant city in Hampshire, England was the largest Roman town in Britain, a major city of the West Saxon Kingdom second only to London, and an important religious center. As such, you’ll find that Winchester has so much to offer for visitors who love history.
Winchester is one of my favorite day trips from London (for another, consider St. Albans) because of how much history you can pack into a quick trip. This guide covers the top things to see in Winchester for history lovers. With such a long history, there’s no shortage of historical sites to visit on a trip to Winchester!
The Great Hall and King Arthur’s Round Table
One of the best surviving 13th-century halls, the Great Hall in Winchester is all that remains of Winchester Castle. Henry III built the Great Hall between 1222 and 1235 during extensive repairs to the castle. Interestingly, Oliver Cromwell ordered the Great Hall’s destruction, but it was kept and used as an assembly hall.
Famed explorer Sir Walter Raleigh was tried and sentenced to death in the Great Hall in 1603 for his part in the plot to overthrow King James I. Instead of being killed, he was sent to the Tower of London, where he remained until his release in 1617.
Perhaps most notably, the Great Hall contains the legendary Round Table of King Arthur, created in about 1290, centuries after King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table met. Historians believe Edward I had this table created to celebrate the betrothal of one of his daughters. This one-ton table once had 12 legs but a 15th-century historian noted that the table already hung on the wall at the time of his chronicles.
Historians believe that the table was first painted around 1520 during the reign of Henry VIII. Before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V visited, Henry had himself depicted at the middle/top of the table, linking him with King Arthur, as well as a Tudor rose in the center of the table. The names of the legendary knights are painted around the edge of the table.
If you have time, visit Queen Eleanor’s Garden. Nestled behind the Great Hall you’ll find a peaceful little garden named after two Eleanors: Queen Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I, and Queen Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III, both of whom lived in Winchester Castle. Designed using surviving plans of medieval gardens, the garden contains all of the plants and herbs that grew in 13th-century gardens.
Winchester College is the oldest continuously running school in England. It was founded in 1382 by Bishop William of Wykeham. Its Gothic chapel has one of the first examples of a wooden vaulted roof. Today, the college educates around 700 boys aged 13-18. You’ll need to arrange a tour online in order to visit the college, otherwise you’ll only be able to admire the college from outside its gates.
Jane Austen’s House
Winchester attracts many fans of Jane Austen because it is the town where she spent the last few months of her life. In 1817, Jane traveled to Winchester with her sister from nearby Chawton to receive medical care for an undiagnosed illness. During that time, she lived in this yellow house on Collete Street. She passed away on 18 July 1817 and now rests in Winchester Cathedral. The house is not open for visitors but it is a worthwhile stop if you’re a Jane Austen fan.
If you have time, top by P&G Wells, an independent bookstore two doors down, that Jane Austen visited during the short time in Winchester before her death.
Winchester Cathedral has witnessed over 1500 years of history. It was the most important cathedral in Anglo-Saxon England, serving as the burial spot for West Saxon Kings, a site of pilgrimage for those visiting the shrine of St. Swithun, and a large priory church.
The original church was built in 635 and is no longer standing. However, visitors can see the remains of the foundations of Old Minster next to the current cathedral. After William the Conqueror ascended the throne, Old Minster was demolished and its bricks were used for the new Norman cathedral, which was consecrated in 1093. You can still find traces of the Norman building in the crypt and transepts.
The Cathedral was remodeled in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries to make it even grander than it already was at the time. By the 16th century, the cathedral was complete. Today, it is one of the largest cathedrals in Europe.
Winchester Cathedral was built on marshy ground and is prone to flooding. In 1900, cracks appeared in the cathedral’s walls and vaults, signaling imminent collapse. Deep-sea diver William Walker spent six years in total darkness underwater to excavate flooded trenches and fill them with bags of concrete so workers could pump out the groundwater and reinforce the structure of the cathedral. The Winchester Cathedral website details the full story of his incredible work.
Of note on a visit to Winchester Cathedral:
- Jane Austen’s grave, which lies in the north aisle of the nave. Her nephew raised money for a memorial plaque to be posted on an adjacent wall since her gravestone makes no reference to her accomplishments as a writer. In 1900, a stained-glass window was erected in her honor. It sits above the memorial plaque and overlooks her gravestone.
- The Winchester Bible, a beautiful illuminated manuscript dating to the 12th century that monks used in their daily worship.
- The crypt, which floods during rainy months. Inside, there is a mysterious sculpture by Antony Gormley that is contemplating the water.
- Morley Library, a 17th-century library that houses rare books bequeathed to the cathedral by Bishop Morley. Highlights also include two large globes from the period as well as the original bookshelves.
- Tournai marble font: Constructed around 1150 and depicting the miracle of St. Nicholas, this font was brought from Tournai, Belgium to Winchester Cathedral in the 12th century. The cathedral has used it ever since.
- Holy Sepulchre Chapel: This chapel has incredible 12th-century wall paintings of the Deposition and Entombment of Christ. There is also an early 13th-century image of Christ in Majesty.
While visiting Winchester Cathedral, don’t miss out on the Cathedral Close, which is a must-visit for history lovers.
Of note on a visit to Winchester Cathedral Close:
- Priory Gate, a late 15th-century gate (still closed every evening) that once gave access to the courtyard of the medieval priory. On top of the gate, you’ll find a tiny room, which was once part of the organist’s house.
- The Pilgrims’ Hall, constructed in 1310 as a guesthouse for visitors to St. Swithun’s Priory. It was dubbed “Pilgrims’ Hall” during the reign of Queen Victoria. The hall is England’s earliest surviving example of hammer-beam construction.
- Dean Garnier’s Garden, which lies on the site of the monk’s dormitory in the Inner Close.
- Cheyney Court, a beautiful 16th-century timber-framed building that served as a venue for the Bishop’s courthouse for the Soke of Winchester until 1835.
St. Giles Hill
Situated just outside the medieval walls of Winchester, humans have settled on St. Giles Hill since the Stone Age. The hill used to serve as the site of St. Giles Fair, the largest and most profitable fair in Europe at the time, held annually on the 1st and 2nd of September from 1096, peaking in size and importance in the 13th century and declining after that. Today, a short walk to the top of the hill gives visitors great views of the city of Winchester.
Constructed the 12th century, Westgate is one of two surviving medieval city gates in Winchester. Notably, it has one of the earliest gunports in England. In addition, it was a debtors’ prison until the 19th century. Today, it houses a small museum on the Tudor and Stuart history of Winchester.
The Chesil Rectory
Voted the 3rd most romantic restaurant in Britain, the Chesil Rectory dates from the mid-15th to early 16th centuries. After the Reformation, it served as the rectory house for nearby church St. Peter Cheesehill. The house was divided into two tenements around 1760. This was reversed around 1892. In total, the Chesil Rectory has been a merchant’s house, antique shop, tannery, Bishop’s residence, general store, and tea rooms. It has been a restaurant for the past 75 years.
The Winchester City Mill
Winchester City Mill is one of the oldest working mills in Great Britain. The Domesday Book of 1086 mentions a Saxon mill on the site of the present-day mill. By 1471, the mill was abandoned as a result of the Black Death and the loss of the wool trade to Calais.
Henry VIII took the mill under his ownership in 1539 and Mary Tudor gave it back to the city in 1554 to offset the cost of her wedding at Winchester Cathedral. In 1743, James Cooke rebuilt the mill to its present building. Fortunately, some of the roof timbers date back to the 15th century.
The mill stopped production in 1900 but became a working mill again in 2004. Today, visitors can see the mill in action and keep an eye out for the group of otters that drops by the mill on occasion.
Winchester City Museum
The Winchester City Museum dates back to 1861 and is one of the first purpose-built museums outside of London. The museum details the history of Winchester from the Iron Age to its seat as an Ango-Saxon capital to the present day. A highlight of the museum is a scale model of Winchester from 1870.
Winchester’s High Street follows the original Roman street that led through the town. Today, it has buildings dating back to the 16th century that house modern shops and restaurants.
Of note on a stroll down Winchester’s High Street:
- Clock: The clock was presented after a visit from Queen Anne in 1713. The clock hangs from the building that used to serve as the local government building.
- Buttercross: Used as a focal point for the farmer’s market, this 15th-century market cross can’t be missed. In 1770, a private owner purchased and tried to remove the monument. As a result, the townspeople rose up in arms and prevented its destruction, saving it for posterity.
- Godbegot House: coming from “Godbegeaton” which means “good bargain,” this house dates to the mid-15th century.
The River Itchen
Picturesque and largely unchanged since the Romans diverted it in the 1st century AD, the River Itchen runs its way through the town and serves as a fantastic viewpoint for the beautiful architecture of Winchester, not to mention creatures like otters, voles, crayfish, and butterflies. The bridge pictured here is close to the site of the original bridge built by St. Swithun, Bishop of Winchester in 852. Nearby, you can find one of the last traces of the original Roman wall.
Hospital of St. Cross
The Hospital of St. Cross in Winchester is the largest medieval almshouse in the UK, founded by Bishop Henry of Blois in 1132. Its mission was to provide accommodation for 13 poor men who were too ill to work, provide food for 100 men at the gates each day, and serve as a waystation for pilgrims on their way to Canterbury or Southampton. If you arrive on foot, you can still request a “Wayfarer’s Dole” (bread and ale) given to travelers. Be sure to visit the Norman Church and Brethren’s Hall.
The Bishops of Winchester used Wolvesey Castle as their principal residence beginning at the end of the 10th century. Interestingly, Bishop Henry of Blois was the bishop of Winchester during the Civil War between Stephen (his brother) and Maud (his cousin) in 1141 and his fondness for architecture saw the final additions to Wolvesey Castle in the middle of the 12th century, including a water and sewage system.
Kingsgate, first recorded in 1148, is the other surviving medieval city gate in Winchester. The present gate dates to the 14th century. The gate stands on or near the site of one of the Roman gates into the city.
If you have time, visit St. Swithun-upon-Kingsgate Church, a small church on top of Kingsgate dating to 1246. This church was first used by the non-monastic laypeople of the monastery before being converted into a parish church during the Reformation.
St. John’s Winchester Charity (St. John’s Hospital)
St. Brinstan, Bishop of Winchester, founded St. John’s Winchester Charity (formerly known as St. John’s Hospital) in 935 AD, making it the oldest charity in England. John Le Devenish refounded it in 1289 to serve the poor. The beautiful brick almshouses pictured here date to the early-mid 1800s.
King Alfred’s statue
King Alfred the Great, who ruled from 871-899 made Winchester his primary residence. The statue of him was sculpted in 1899 by Hamo Thornycroft to commemorate his millennium (though the statue was erected at its current site in 1901).
John Keats stayed in Winchester in 1819. He took daily walks about town and even wrote his ode, “To Autumn” on one of his walks on 19 September 1819. Today, you can follow his footsteps through town, starting by King Alfred’s Statue and ending at the Hospital of St. Cross.