Winchester Castle Great Hall

Great Hall, Winchester Castle

Great Hall Interior, Winchester Castle

Great Hall Interior

Winchester Castle is a medieval building in Hampshire. There was an actual castle here but all that remains is the Great Hall which was built later, we can blame Oliver Cromwell for the loss of the castle. The Castle was originally constructed for William the Conqueror in 1067 to help secure his hold on the city after the Norman Conquest. It housed important aspects of government such as the Treasury and the Exchequer. Winchester was the principal town, of Wessex; the seat of government was rotated amongst the main towns. In 1141, during The Anarchy, forces of the Empress Matilda were besieged by King Stephen at the castle.


In December 1140, Stephen began the siege of Lincoln Castle which had been captured by the rebel Earl Ranulf of Chester. Ranulf slipped away and got in contact with Robert of Gloucester, his father-in-law. Robert and Ranulf quickly gathered an army and marched to Lincoln. Until too late Stephen refused to believe that his enemies would make a move in winter. On 2 February 1141 in the Battle of Lincoln Stephen's army was defeated and he was captured. Empress Matilda entered London but her arrogant and hostile conduct soon alienated the people. On 24 June, the people of London chased the empress from the city. The forces of Stephen's queen, also named Matilda (Matilda of Boulogne), soon occupied London. Stephen's brother, Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester, who had earlier defected to Empress Matilda's Angevin faction, changed sides again to support Queen Matilda. Bishop Henry took a force to Winchester where he laid siege to the royal castle which was garrisoned by Angevins. Winchester's royal castle was located on the southwest side of the city, while an episcopal castle was on the southeast side. Only two other English cities at the time had more than one castle, London with three and York with two. When she heard of the bishop's incursion Empress Matilda determined to strike back. She gathered an army of her adherents and sortied from her base at Oxford around 28 July 1141. When the empress appeared before Winchester on 31 July it was a complete surprise. Bishop Henry fled the city while his soldiers retreated to Wolvesey Castle, the one belonging to the church.


Queen Matilda quickly assembled an army of relief that included mercenaries hired by Bishop Henry, a levy of the queen's feudal tenants from the County of Boulogne, the nearly 1,000-strong London militia, William of Ypres' Flemish mercenary cavalry and other supporters of Stephen. The queen's army set up camp on the east side of Winchester and proceeded to blockade Empress Matilda's forces in the city. While the queen's army was well-provisioned, the Angevin forces soon began to suffer from lack of food. To weaken the blockade, Robert of Gloucester attempted to fortify Wherwell Abbey, six miles to the north of the city, but William of Ypres defeated the Angevins with heavy losses. The supply situation convinced Robert of Gloucester that he must quit Winchester so he planned an orderly withdrawal. Earl Reginald of Cornwall and Brian fitz Count led an advance guard composed of crack troops designed to protect Empress Matilda. The main body guarded the baggage while Robert commanded the rearguard. On 14 September, the Angevins exited from the west side of Winchester on the road to Salisbury. Ahead of them, about 8.5 miles to the northwest, the road crossed the River Test at Stockbridge. As soon as the Angevin host left the city the queen's army attacked. They pressed past the rearguard to attack the main body. The advance guard avoided the trap and delivered Empress Matilda safely to Gloucester, but the queen's army destroyed the Angevin main body as an effective fighting force; only remnants managed to escape. Robert of Gloucester's soldiers held together, but when his soldiers reached the Test they could go no further. Surrounded by a part of the queen's troops under William of Surrey and facing a bridge choked with panicked Angevins, Robert surrendered with his men.


By the end of King John’s reign in 1216 the Castle and its royal palace needed extensive repair so between 1222 and 1235 the Castle’s hall was replaced by the building which you see today, at a cost of £500. Between 1222–1235, Henry III (who was born at Winchester Castle) added the Great Hall, built to a "double cube" design, measuring 110 ft by 55 ft by 55 ft . The Great Hall is built of flint with stone dressings; originally it had lower walls and a roof with dormer windows. In their place were added the tall two-light windows with early plate tracery. In 1302, Edward I and his second wife narrowly escaped death when the royal apartments of the castle were destroyed by fire. On 19 March 1330, Edmund of Woodstock, 1st Earl of Kent was beheaded outside the castle walls in the Despenser plot against King Edward III. Margaret of York, daughter of King Edward IV, was born here on 10 April 1472. On 17 November 1603 Sir Walter Raleigh went on trial for treason for his supposed part in the Main Plot in the converted Great Hall. During the English Civil War the Castle was held by the Royalists until its capture by the Parliamentary Forces in 1646. Oliver Cromwell eventually ordered its demolition, but the Great Hall was kept as a venue for assemblies and the County Assizes.


In the 17th century, Charles II planned to build King's House adjoining the site, commissioning Christopher Wren to design a royal palace to rival the Palace of Versailles. The project was abandoned by James II.The notorious Judge Jeffreys condemned supporters of the Duke of Monmouth to death here as part of the Bloody Assizes in 1685. Another notorious trial took place in the Great Hall, on 15 March 1953; the 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu Edward Montagu along with Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood went on trial on charges of having committed specific acts of indecency. Since 1889 Winchester Castle has been the seat of Hampshire County Council whose offices neighbour the Great Hall. Nearby, the excavated remains of the round tower with Sally ports and Guardrobes in the medieval city wall can also be seen.


"The Rounde Table at Wynchestere beganne, and ther it ende, and ther it hangeth yet" John Hardyng, Chronicle of England (1463). According to legend, the Round Table which hangs in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle is the table around which King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table met, and it has been famous for centuries for its associations with the legendary 'Once and Future King'. Although we now know that it originated many centuries later, the table’s mystique still remains. It was probably created in about 1290, for a tournament near Winchester to celebrate the betrothal of one of Edward I’s daughters. When the table was taken down from the wall and investigated by a team of scientists in 1976, tree ring evidence and carbon dating placed it in the 13th or early 14th century which supports that idea. Originally it was a standing table with 12 outer legs and a central support. It measures 5.5 metres in diameter, weighs 1200kg and was constructed from English oak. It has hung on the west wall of the Great Hall, Winchester since 1873, when it was moved from the east wall where it had hung since at least 1540, and possibly since 1348. In the early years of King Henry VIII’s reign the table was painted with the Tudor Rose at its centre and is thought to portray Henry as King Arthur on his throne, surrounded by 24 places for his Knights of the Round Table.


Queen Eleanor’s Garden is a re-creation, by Dr Sylvia Landsberg, of an enclosed medieval garden and is named after Queen Eleanor of Provence and her daughter-in-law Queen Eleanor of Castile, who would have walked there and used it as their private retreat. In medieval times gardens offered pleasure, repose and refreshment to the senses as well as food and medicine. Queen Eleanor’s Garden is an accurate example of such a garden and features turf seats, bay hedges, a fountain, tunnel arbour and many beautiful herbs and flowers of the time. Many of the plants used in medieval gardens had symbolic meanings, representing personal or religious virtues, including holly, ivy and bay, which represented the ideal of faithfulness, and roses, columbine, and strawberry plants which represented aspects of Christian spiritual philosophy. Today’s small peaceful garden oasis was opened by the Queen Mother as part of the Domesday 900 celebrations.


The paved avenue leading to the Great Hall has some cobbled, uneven surfaces but a small amount of blue badge parking is usually available directly outside the venue by prior arrangement with them. Access to the Great Hall and Queen Eleanor's Garden is via a low ramp and seating is available in the Hall and garden. The gift shop, gallery and wheelchair accessible toilet, with a baby changing unit, are on the 1st floor usually reached via a stone staircase but access to these areas is available for wheelchair users by using a lift in an adjacent building – please see the custodian or ring the bell on the display board for assistance. Guide dogs and assistance dogs are welcome.


Location : The Great Hall, Castle Avenue, Winchester, Hampshire SO23 8UJ

Transport : Winchester (National Rail) then 10 minutes. Bus Routes : 1, 69 and Bluestar 1 stop near by.

Opening Times : Daily 10:00 to 17:00

Tickets : Free but donations are welcome - suggested £3.00 per person

Tel. : 01962 846476