Architecture Planning and Preservation Winchester
Simon Roffey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0029


Winchester lays claim to being one of the most important cities in British history. The city has a central place in British myth and legend and was once ancient capital and residence of the Anglo-Saxon and early Norman kings. Winchester is also one of the most extensively excavated medieval towns in England and was the training ground for modern British archeology. Situated in south-central England, Winchester was close to key communication routes via the south coast and the important medieval port at Southampton. Founded in the Roman period as Venta Belgarum, close to the site of the Iron Age market settlement, Winchester quickly grew into a prosperous Roman civitas. After the decline of Roman power in Britain, Winchester remained as an important power center in the south and by the mid-7th century was the pre-eminent town in the newly established Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. With the consolidation of Wessex’s power in the 9th and 10th centuries and the eventual re-establishment of control over the former Viking-influenced areas of the midlands and the north, Winchester became the seat of English royal power. With the Norman Conquest in 1066, the early Norman kings sought to keep Winchester as the royal seat. However, with the rising pre-eminence of London in the mid-12th century, Winchester’s power declined as royal and secular power shifted to London. Nevertheless, Winchester was still to remain of some importance throughout the medieval period and its bishop one of the most powerful, influential, and richest lords in medieval England; a status still attested to by the city’s medieval cathedral. As a city of many religious foundations, Winchester’s fortunes waned after the Reformation to be briefly reborn in the later 17th century with the planned construction of Charles II palace on the site of the former medieval castle. Charles’ plans to reinvent Winchester as a revitalized English royal city were aborted with his untimely death in 1688, with the palace, designed by Christopher Wren, barely finished.

General Overviews

Winchester has existed an urban entity for some 2,000 years. General overviews of Winchester’s history can be found in works such as Milner 1809, Carpenter Turner 1992, and James 2006. James in particular places some emphasis on the archeology and considers some of Winchester’s principle sites and monuments. From the 1950s, Winchester witnessed an almost unprecedented program of archeological investigation, some of which yet remains unpublished. These excavations have been summarized more recently in Collis 2011. Much of this work, prior to the 1980s is reported in Cunliffe 1964 and Collis 1978 and particularly Biddle 1984, written by Martin Biddle, the director of many important early excavations from 1959. More recently, Winchester’s Environment Records provides a comprehensive database of archeological work in the city. Ottaway 2017 is a landmark publication that provides a single, comprehensive account of the archeology of Winchester for the first time. Winchester came to particular prominence in the 10th century and, despite some decline by the mid-12th century, still remained an important cultural and religious center throughout the later medieval period. Many of the city’s prominent historical buildings from this time still survive, including the former bishop’s palace, the castle great hall, Winchester College, and the medieval cathedral and are detailed in Bullen, et al. 2010 (cited under Buildings and Urban Topography). In terms of urban topography and land-holding, Keene 1985a and Keene 1985b provide a comprehensive topographic survey and history of the city’s development.

  • Barlow, Frank, Martin Biddle, Olaf von Feilitzen, and Derek Keene. Winchester in the Early Middle Ages. Winchester Studies I. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

    In 1110 the royal properties in Winchester were surveyed for Henry I, and the whole city was surveyed for Bishop Henry of Blois in 1148. These two surveys survive in a single manuscript, known as the Winton Domesday, and provide a detailed description of a medieval town. This edited monograph represents a full edition, translation, and analyses of the surveys. It also draws on archeological evidence, personal and place-name evidence, and numismatics.

  • Biddle, Martin. “The Study of Winchester: Archaeology and History in a British Town.” Proceedings of the British Academy 69 (1984).

    An overview of the history and development of archeological work in the city written by the director of many important postwar excavations.

  • Biddle, Martin. Object and Economy in Medieval Winchester. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

    Over six thousand artefacts were recovered during excavations in the city between 1961 and 1971. This publication by Biddle and his team represents an extensive body of stratified and datable medieval objects from these excavations. The main findings are published in two parts dealing with the ceramic record and the objects and their socioeconomic and cultural context.

  • Carpenter Turner, Barbara. Winchester. Chichester, UK: Phillimore, 1992.

    A general historical overview from the Roman period up until the early 20th century. Although a little dated, it also includes some useful photographs and images as well as a consideration of the city’s economy, the effects of the Reformation and the expansion of the city in the 19th century.

  • Collis, John. Winchester Excavations, II 1949–68. Winchester, UK: Winchester City Museum, 1978.

    Reports on excavations in and around the city up until the 1970s.

  • Collis, John. “The Urban Revolution: Martin Biddle’s Excavations in Winchester, 1961–71.” In Great Excavations: Shaping the archaeological Profession. Edited by John Schofield, 74–86. Oxford: Oxbow, 2011.

    Collis’s contribution to this overview of important UK excavations considers the role of Martin Biddle’s projects in the city and what they revealed about the city in the Roman and medieval period, as well as provide a social history of the archeological profession in this context.

  • Cunliffe, Barry. Winchester Excavations, 1949–60. Winchester, UK: Winchester City Museum, 1964.

    Reports on excavations in and around the city in the immediate postwar years.

  • James, Tom Beaumont. Winchester from Prehistory to the Present. Stroud, UK: The History Press, 2006.

    Good overview with thematic sections. Places some emphasis on the archeology whilst considering some of Winchester’s principle sites and monuments.

  • Keene, Derek. Survey of Medieval Winchester. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985a.

    This study traces the development of Winchester from the 13th to the 16th centuries. Volume 1 provides a general history of the city during that period with a focus on land use and ownership, tenements, and buildings as well a more general information about local economy and civic administration. It also provides a useful introduction to the role of the church in medieval Winchester.

  • Keene, Derek. Survey of Medieval Winchester. Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985b.

    Volume 2 of the Survey outlines source materials and also provides a valuable biographical register of properties and proprietors as well as a gazetteer of building histories. These histories, in particular, have provided a useful documentary framework for the excavations of individual medieval tenements within the city (e.g., see Scobie, et al. 1991, cited under Buildings and Urban Topography, on the Brooks excavations).

  • Milner, John. The History, Civil and Ecclesiastical Survey of the Antiquities of Winchester. 2d ed. London: Jason Robbins, 1809.

    Drawn largely from surviving documents, antiquarian accounts, and other primary sources, this work encompasses one of the earliest systematic surveys of the city, its history, buildings, and development up until the end of the 18th century.

  • Ottaway, Patrick. Winchester: St. Swithun’s “City of Happiness and Good Fortune”: An Archaeological Assessment. Oxford: Oxbow, 2017.

    The volume forms part of a national archeological program sponsored by Historic England and provides a detailed review and comprehensive critical assessment of the archeology of the city and its immediate hinterlands. Extensively illustrated with images, maps, and plans the book also assesses Winchester’s role on the wider regional, national and international stage covering archeological discoveries in the city from the prehistoric period up until the 20th century.

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