Part one – St Alphege
Last week, Saturday, April 19, was another saints’ day, once celebrated magnificently but now barely remembered, for St Alphege lived a thousand years ago. He died in 1012, but what he achieved was great and he should be remembered in this time when terror is still a threat.
Alphege (or ‘Aelfheah’) was made the Bishop of Winchester soon after the coronation of King Ethelred the Unready at Kingston in 978 by Dunstan. This great Archbishop of Canterbury established the form of coronation still in use. But this was a time when England was, as so often, invaded by Vikings. In 994, after a famous battle at Maldon in Essex, the raiders had sailed on and landed at Southampton. Alphege very bravely went to meet their leaders Olav Tryggvason and Svend ‘Forkbeard’ the Danisk king. He persuaded Olav not to raid again, and confirmed him in Christianity. Olav returned to Norway where he was king from 995 to 1000, and kept his word to Alphege. He began converting his country to the new religion. One of his successors King Sigurd established Norway’s oldest cathedral in Stavanger, dedicated to St Swithun in 1125. (The church may have had a relic of one of the saint’s arms). Sigurd was the first European king to go on crusade (in 1107).
Alphege was made Archbishop of Canterbury, after Dunstan, and took with him the head of St Swithun from Winchester. Unfortunately he was taken hostage by Danish raiders in 1011 and held for seven months. Alphege could have regained his freedom but thoughtful of his tenants suffering if they had to raise the huge ransom, he refused the chance. The old bishop was killed by drunken Danes hitting him with oxen bones, and one who he had converted axed his head off to spare any further pain.
Ironically Archbishop Thomas Becket called Alphege ‘the first martyr of Canterbury’.
Svend for a time replaced King Ethelred as king of England. After his death Ethelred’s queen, Emma married Canute, Svend’s son, who ruled an empire from Winchester. At Emma’s wish Canute moved Alphege to a new shrine in Canterbury. Canute was buried in Winchester and there, in 1042 the son of Ethelred and Emma, Edward was magnificently crowned, and as ‘the Confessor’ later became the patron saint of England, canonised in 1161 by Henry II.
A building in Winchester High Street, The manor of Godbegot, was a property of Emma, long regarded as quite independent of the city and all its regulations – a place for those seeking sanctuary. This is now an Italian restaurant. (Opposite is the Guildhall clock which still rings the curfew every night.)
Continuing the story – Henry II
A very strange coronation took place in Westminster Abbey in 1170. Henry II is king, and Eleanor of Aquitaine his queen. Bizarrely Henry has decided to crown his eldest son, 15 years old Henry, king – so there would be two kings at the same time. Unfortunately, because Henry had already fallen out with his friend Archbishop of Canterbury, the coronation was carried out by the Archbishop of York. Thomas Becket, who had been the boy Henry’s teacher, was so infuriated that he returned to England and threatened to tear the crown off the young king’s head. ‘The rest is history’, for six months after the crowning, the King’s soldiers struck down the archbishop in his cathedral and killed him – Canterbury’s second martyr.
Henry II was one of the first to make a pilgrimage to Becket, travelling along the south downs after landing in at Southampton on return from France. And as we have seen the pilgrimage industry was then changed as Winchester’s Swithun lost out (again!) to Canterbury.
When Henry II died in 1189 in France his sons Geoffrey and the young ‘king’ Henry had already died. His reign was marked by frequent rebellions by his queen as well as by all his sons. Because of this he had had the defences of Winchester Castle built up, including one of the finest timber bridges to be seen.
A recreation of a medieval garden outside the Great Hall is named in Eleanor’s memory.
Third section – Richard I
The next part of story is about the last coronation held in Winchester cathedral which had seen so many kings and queens crowned or ‘crown-wearing’.
This was another anniversary last week, of April 17 in the year 1194, an important moment in history for Richard had come back from the Holy Land (where he failed to capture Jerusalem). He been held prisoner on the banks of the Danube until Eleanor, ruling in his stead raised a king’s ransom to pay off the German Emperor Henry VI.
When his father King Henry died in 1189 Richard, in France sent orders to Winchester for the release of his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. She organised a great gathering of nobles in the city to greet their new king. Richard’s first coronation was in Westminster Abbey and tragically led to massacres of English communities of Jews.
But now in 1194 it was felt that another coronation was needed, and Richard, having had a bath, was robed and with a crown placed on his head by the Archbishop of Canterbury led by the archbishops (of York and Canterbury) squabbling over precedence and eleven other bishops into Winchester Cathedral where he sat high on a throne for a ceremony and high mass.
Up till this point Richard, without children, was to be succeeded by a nephew, Arthur, the son of his dead brother Geoffrey. Now he agreed that John would be the next to reign.
Watching from high up in the cathedral was their mother, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine who had raised the ransom money by a tax on everyone of a quarter of everything they owned.
Soon after Richard set sail again for France from Portsmouth where a naval fleet had gathered and he was not to return to England.
The south transept of the cathedral is still in the Norman architecture, as the cathedral was for the crown-wearings.
Final part of story – Henry III and Edward I
Eleanor of Aquitaine is young, beautiful and rich. She was the Queen of France and had led a crusade to the Holy Land. But the French king dissolved the marriage because he wanted a son. Eleanor married Henry duke of Normandy, later crowned Henry II. Loving the gold cloth of the East wore golden and silver decorated clothes and required equally richly embroidered vestments which from then would radically transform the appearance of the clergy. However she and her sons were often fighting against the king, and Eleanor spent years confined to Winchester Castle. Her grandson, (John’s son) Henry III, was born in Winchester and was crowned in great haste in Gloucester Cathedral (as it is now). King John had lost the crown so one had to be improvised, and because the crowning was done by a Bishop of Winchester, the crusader Peter de Roches and not by the archbishop there was no anointing, the essence of king-making.
Peter de Roches had been away on crusade for some years and succesfully entered Jerusalem at the head of an army. But a strange story is told about him that he encountered King Arthur outside Winchester, while alone, and to be able to prove the story was given the ability to make butterflies appear in, and from, his hands.
From this story has grown the believe that Arthur the ‘once and future king’ is sleeping on the hill outside Winchester, awaiting the moment when England is in need of him.
Henry III (‘Henry of Winchester’) carried out much work on the castle including the construction of the Great Hall from 1222, complete with a painting of a ‘wheel of fortune’.
In 1270 Henry’s son Edward I gathered his fellow crusaders in the hall before going of to the holy land. Henry had a passion for King Arthur and he was at Glastonbury in 1278 when the monks opened the supposed tomb of Arthur to re-inter the remains. On April 20 1290 Edward held a tournament in the meadows close to Winchester and this is probably the occasion that the Round Table was constructed for.
King Edward I