Thursday, 8 January 2009

Medieval sisters

My "medieval sisters" are sister churches in Winchester, in the south of England. They are both very old, very small and quite unusual. I've known about them for a long time but until just before Christmas, never really explored. They aren't so very easy to find.

If you're walking along the High Street in Winchester you can't miss the Butter Cross (also known as the High Cross or the City Cross). It is an octagonal stepped structure once used to sell goods at market. It still serves as a great meeting place today.

If you step back and look behind it you can see the black and white building which is one of the oldest buildings in Winchester. Looking up there is a tower. If you then walk behind the Butter Cross you can go through a narrow passageway into Great Minster Street and Market Square. Once again, if you look back, you can again see the tower but most people won't be aware of having passed anything other than small shops.

But you will have passed the entrance to the church of St Lawrence in the Square.

From the outside, all you can see is this doorway and the window above.

St Lawrence is the only surviving Norman church in Winchester. It is thought to be the chapel of William the conqueror's Royal Palace, built 1069. There may have been a Saxon chapel on the site before that.

The Black Death came to Winchester in 1348 and the church fell into ruin. It was rebuilt eventually, but during the English Civil War 1645, it was again effectively destroyed when the stones were used to pave the streets and the building turned into a school. In 1672 it was again a church.

The roof dates from the time of Charles II. The church's very simple interior is the result of yet another disaster. In 1978, a fire cased £90,000 worth of damage.

This drawing, from a leaflet produced by the church, gives an idea of what it was like before the fire. The organ is to the side of the altar.

Nowadays the organ is above the entrance to the church. The font, bottom right, is made from Caen stone, from Normandy, dating from 1860.

When a new bishop is to be enthroned in the nearby cathedral, he comes to St Lawrence to be vested in his robes. The single bell (dated 1621) in the tower is rung and the new bishop is led to the cathedral. This has happened ever since 1660.

It is possible that there was once a chancel beyond the large east window because that wasn't installed until the 15th century. The church owns no land apart from the land on which it is built. It has no grounds. At one time there may have been a door through to what was once the rectory but is now the Eclipse Inn.

The sister church to St Lawrence in the Square is St Swithun upon Kingsgate, in some ways very similar, in other ways very different, but it merits a post of its own.


  1. A. What a history lesson. The pictures are wonderful and give me a glimpse into what was a very extraordinary time.

  2. Aren't these places wonderful. I bring my American kids home every year. A few years ago one was studying Medieval architecture and it took us a while to find something that wasn't too recent!

  3. Abssolutely fascinating. Thank you A.

  4. @Ettarose, what I find interesting is that a small and not especially striking place should have such a story to tell.

    @Expat mum, they really are wonderful. I've been guilty in the past of taking them for granted and barely seeing them.

    @Elaine, thanks, I'm glad you find it interesting because I'm always afraid I'm the only one who does!

  5. I sooo want to visit these places. I must find a way, in fact, it is a part of my "bucket list".

  6. Most interesting facts.

    It's so kind of you to share


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