Imitating the great: gothic in Winchester

THE CITY OF WINCHESTER has one of the longest gothic cathedrals in the continent of Europe. Built from 1091 onwards under the auspices of Bishop Walkelin, a relative of William the Conqueror, the bulk of the gothic part of the edifice was erected in the 14th century in the Perpendicular style of gothic. What was created, is exceedingly beautiful and gives a great sense of space. It is a masterpiece of gothic stone masonry. The cathedral stands not far from another large building, also built in a style of gothic inspired by what was achieved during mediaeval times.

This near neighbour is far younger than the cathedral. It is the 19th century Winchester Guildhall, which was constructed between 1871 and 1873. It stands on the site of St Marys Abbey, which was taken over by Henry VIII in the late 1530s during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The remains of the abbey, which was known as ‘Nunnaminster’, persisted until the 17th century, after which they were removed. Today, some excavated remnants can be seen behind the Guildhall.

Guildhall, Winchester

The Guildhall was built in the gothic revival style to the designs of the architects Albert William Jeffery (1840-1915) and William Skiller (1838-1901), who also submitted a design for a town hall for Hastings in Sussex. Tragically, Skiller committed suicide in 1901 (http://hastingschronicle.net/archives/architect-hangs-himself/). The Guildhall was later extended by J. B. Colson (1820-1895), who was the surveyor of Winchester Cathedral.  The original building is rich is features borrowed from mediaeval gothic, but it is topped by roofing styles that remind the viewer of French ‘chateaux’. One source summarises the Guildhall’s appearance as:

“ Gothic, symmetrical, with a middle tower and this as well as the angle pavilions provided with French pavilion roofs”; and as having a “deeply vaulted porch” at the entrance — for all this part “[t]he style is Second Pointed,” while Colson’s long extension is “much plainer”” (https://victorianweb.org/art/architecture/winchester/1.html).

Without doubt, the cathedral is a far finer building than the Guildhall, but both are impressive in their own ways. The cathedral’s integrity depends on its gothic features that have both structural and aesthetic functions, whereas in the case of the Guildhall these features have a greater decorative than structural purposes.

The Guildhall is an example of so-called ‘gothic revival, which lovers of London’s St Pancras Station and Bombay’s Victoria Terminus (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus) will appreciate’. Years ago, I read “The Gothic Revival: An Essay in the History of Taste”, written by the art historian Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) in 1928. One thing that impressed me was, if I recall correctly, that the author queried whether the gothic style of architecture ever really died out in England, as it did elsewhere in Europe. Clark suggested that the gothic style continued to be used. In other words, what is described as ‘gothic revival’ is simply a continuation of the early use of this style. It is my impression that by the 19th century, when, for example, the Winchester Guildhall was built, architects were often simply borrowing features of earlier gothic buildings, as, for example Winchester Cathedral, and applying them often more mechanically than artistically. Often when the gothic style was being used structurally, as is the case in many churches built during the Victorian era, it tends to be imitative rather than creative, as is the case in the great mediaeval cathedrals and other churches. There are a few exceptions, where the 19th century architect manages to use the gothic style both structurally and artistically, as for example in the Church of St Augustine in London’s Kilburn.   Be that as it might be, The Guildhall does not lack in good aesthetic features and adds positively to the rich tapestry of the architectural scene in the historic centre of the city. I recommend visitors to Winchester not to concentrate all their time at the Cathedral but to spare some to view the Guildhall before seeing the other sights of the city.

Lady with the lamp

ROMSEY IN HAMPSHIRE is a delightful small town with a spectacular parish church, Romsey Abbey, with many Norman and gothic architectural features. The edifice that stands today was originally part of a Benedictine nunnery and dates to the 10th century, but much of its structure is a bit younger. It rivals some of the best churches of this era that we have seen during travels in France. That it still stands today, is a testament to the good sense of former citizens of the town.

During Henry VIII’s Dissolution of The Monasteries in the 16th century, much of the nunnery was demolished. However, the establishment’s church was not solely for the use of the monastic order but also served as a parish church for the townsfolk. As Henry VIII was not against religion per se, and the need for a parish church was recognised, the townsfolk were offered the church for sale. In 1544, the town managed to collect the £100 needed to purchase the church and what remained of the abbey from The Crown. Thus, this precious example of church architecture was saved from the miserable fate that befell many other abbey churches all over England. However, what you see today was heavily restored in the 19th century, but this does not detract from its original glory.

The town of Romsey is 3.4 miles northeast of East Wellow, the burial place of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), the social reformer and statistician as well as a founder of modern nursing. I had no idea that Florence was famous in the field of statistics. Her biographer Cecil Woodham Smith wrote:

“In 1859 each hospital followed its own method of naming and classifying diseases. Miss Nightingale embarked on a campaign for uniform hospital statistics … which would ‘enable us to ascertain the relevant mortality of different hospitals, as well as different diseases and injuries at the same and at different ages, the relative frequency of different diseases and injuries among the classes which enter hospitals in different countries, and in different districts of the same countries.’”

In 1858, she was elected a member of the recently formed Statistical Society. So, there was much more to Florence than the commonly held image of ‘the lady with the lamp’ during the Crimean War.

Florence was christened with the name of the Italian city, where she was born. Part of her childhood was spent at the family home of Embley Park, which is 1.8 miles west of Romsey Abbey church and close to East Wellow. Now a school, it remained her home from 1825 until her death.

Broadlands, which was built on lands once owned by the nuns of Romsey Abbey, is a Georgian house on the southern edge of Romsey. It was home to Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), who was Prime Minister in 1856 when the Crimean War came to an end. Broadlands was Palmerston’s country estate. It is maybe coincidental that both Palmerston and Nightingale were associated with both Romsey and the Crimean War.

Palmerston is celebrated in Romsey by a statue standing in front of the former Corn Exchange. Florence has a more discreet memorial in the town. It is a stained-glass window within the Abbey church. Placed in the church in 2020, it was formally dedicated in May 2020. It depicts a young lady seated by a tree, her face turned away from the onlooker. Created by Sophie Hacker, the image depicts Florence seated on bench beside a tree in Embley Park. The tree in the window, a cedar, still stands in Embley Park’s grounds. The image is supposed to recall the moment when, as a young girl, she received her calling. Woodham Smith wrote:

“Her experience was similar to that which came to Joan of Arc. In a private note she wrote: ‘On February 7th, 1837, God spoke to me and called me to His service’”.

The window includes the following words above her head:

“Lo, it is I.”

And beneath her:

“Here am I Lord. Send me.”

There are a few other words on the window, some in English and others in Italian.

A visit to Romsey Abbey church is highly recommendable. We thought that we had visited it many years before 2021 and arrived expecting to see an abbey in ruins. We were delightfully surprised to realise that we had mistaken Romsey with some other place, whose name we have forgotten, and instead we had discovered a church that was new to us and unexpectedly wonderful both architecturally and otherwise. Anyone visiting nearby Winchester with its fine cathedral should save some time to come to see the magnificent ecclesiastical edifice in Romsey.