Inside Winchester Cathedral: Don't miss these seven interesting items

Winchester Cathedral, painting by John Buckler (1770-1851)

If you are a certain age, you might know of Winchester Cathedral from the catchy, 1960s tune… 🎶 Winchester Cathedral, you’re bringin’ me down…🎶 which is sung (and whistled) by the New Vaudeville Band. I’ve put a link at the bottom so you can listen to it again (or for the first time). In fact, I’ve listed all the links at the bottom so you can read straight through.

There’s a lot more to Winchester Cathedral than that little tune. (Are you whistling it now?) There has been a church on this site since 645 and the beginnings of the current cathedral were put up in 1093. As with most English cathedrals, this one has been built, rebuilt, added to, and rearranged throughout the centuries. But the building as we see it today has been pretty much in its current form since the early 16th century.

But it’s not just the outside of this cathedral that’s interesting. The inside is also packed full of treasures. In this post, I’ve put together a little tour of some of the highlights to look out for. They’re in the order that you should come across them.

Green Man near the entrance of Winchester Cathedral

1. Green Man

The first to greet us is a green man. Green men are carved faces spewing out foliage. This one is over the entrance where he can watch everyone’s comings and goings. After you check in, walk all the way around the desk so that you are facing the entrance. Look up and see the green man peering down at you.

The cathedral claims to have more than 60 green men hiding amongst the carvings. Some of them are quite small and most are hard to find. Click here for a full lising.

12th century baptismal font – this side showing the story of St. Nicholas providing dowries for three daughters.

2. Santa Claus Baptismal Font

Next up is the Santa Claus baptismal font. Well, not exactly, but Saint Nicholas was the prototype for Santa Claus, so maybe we can call it that. Walking away from the entrance, down the left side of the cathedral, you’ll come to this unusual baptismal font. This ancient basin was brought from Belgium in the 12th century and is still in use.

However, the really interesting thing about this font is the carvings on two sides which celebrate the miracles of Saint Nicholas (later known as Santa Claus.)

One side tells the story of a poor man with three daughters. They had no dowry so they couldn’t marry and would have to be sold into slavery. The sad news reached Saint Nicholas’ ears, so as he passed by their house, he threw a sack of gold through the window. It landed in a sock which was hanging by the fireplace to dry, and it was enough for the eldest daughter’s dowry. Later jolly old Saint Nick did the same for the other two girls.

This side of the font shows Saint Nicholas saving children and sailors

The other side illustrates two stories: In one, St. Nick is resurrecting three young boys after they’ve been chopped up by an evil butcher. You can read more about how this butcher became Father Whipper here.

The second story on this side is represented by a ship. In addition to resurrecting children and providing dowries, Saint Nicholas was also reputed to be a friend of sailors. He was said to have appeared on a ship that had run aground in a storm and helped the sailors maneuver it safely out of danger.

Jane Austen’s grave marker in the floor of the cathedral and a brass plaque on the wall beside it.

3. Jane Austen’s Tomb, Plaque, and Window

Close to the St. Nicholas font, you’ll find Jane Austen’s burial site and an exhibition about her life. In 1817 Jane was very sick, so she and her sister moved to Winchester to be near her doctor. Sadly, she died at 41 without ever seeing her name in print. She’s buried in the Cathedral and her tombstone doesn’t mention anything about her writing.

After Jane’s death, her nephew, Edward, wrote a book about her which raised awareness of her as a writer. As a result, the brass plaque was placed on the wall by the grave (which reads “known to many by her writings”). There’s also a stained-glass window dedicated to her memory.

Three of the caskets on the quire walls

4. Quire Mortuary Chests

The quire walls are topped by six coffins which contain the bones of kings, bishops, and a queen. Unfortunately, when the cathedral was vandalized during the English Civil war in the 1600s, they broke open the caskets looking for treasure and threw the bones at the windows. Now the bones are safely back in the caskets, but, unfortunately, they are a bit mixed up. No one knows whose leg bone is in with whose knee bone…

When I visited Winchester Cathedral, the part of the quire with the kneelers was closed, but this is a nice example from Salisbury Cathedral. It represents St. George and the dragon.

5. Quire Kneelers

Kneelers are cushions used for kneeling in prayer on those cold, hard, stone cathedral floors. In 1931 Louisa Pesel, a well-known embroiderer and textile expert of the day, was put in charge of designing and making cushions and kneelers for the cathedral. She worked with a group of dedicated women volunteers who embroidered 56 cushions and more than 300 kneelers which are still being used today.

I became interested in the cushions after reading Tracy Chevalier’s book, “A Single Thread.” It’s set in Winchester, and the main character is one of the women who embroidered cushions for the cathedral.

The holy hole

6. St. Swithin and the Holy Hole

Behind the Quire is where St. Swithin’s Tomb once stood. He’s the Patron saint of Winchester and associated with many miracles. There’s still an opening in the wall called the “holy hole” where pilgrims used to crawl in under his tomb to be as close as possible to the holy man’s bones in hopes of a miracle. The shrine was destroyed, but you can still see the holy hole.

West window stained glass mosaic

7. The Great West Window

As you head back toward the front of the church, the main feature is the huge stained glass west window. It has no apparent pattern and seems to be a mosaic of random sizes and shapes of glass. That’s because it (along with other windows) was smashed to bits during the English Civil War in the 1600s. But the people of Winchester picked up as many bits of glass as they could and put them back in the window––albeit in a different pattern. You can read my article about the window here.

Of course, there’s more to see, but I hope this little tour has whetted your appetite to explore the interior of this amazing cathedral… just as soon as the pandemic is under control and it’s safe to do so.

Links mentioned in the article:

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Margo Lestz
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  1. Thank you for a lovely guide for a wonderful place, Margo. When I visited (over 20 years ago) I was most interested in Jane Austen’s final resting place, but remember the lovely peaceful atmosphere inside and the beautiful West Window. Thanks also for the book recommendation.
    Best wishes, Paula

    1. Hi Paula,
      Winchester is one of my favourite cathedrals (but I pretty much like them all). I think sometimes we are so much in awe of the grand architecture that we miss some of the smaller items inside which are interesting too.
      Wishing you all the best, -Margo

  2. Thanks, Margo, for the very interesting stories, especially the one about the baptismal font and the socks. Could that story be the one that inspired fireplace Christmas stockings and stuffers? Also, on the subject of Jane Austen, I believe she did see recognition of her first four books, but not the remaining ones, at least according to Wikipedia:
    Thanks again!

    1. Hi Bill,
      I like the St. Nick stories too. It’s difficult to say whether the legend of St. Nick and the sock came first or whether the story was created to explain an existing custom of placing small gifts in socks. It could be either way.
      As for Jane, I said she didn’t see her name in print because the books she published during her lifetime were published anonymously. I think at the time, lady authors weren’t considered “respectable.” It was really her nephew’s book that made her name widely-known.
      All the best, -Margo

      1. Aha! Yes, I guess I didn’t read the Wikipedia entry closely enough: “Her six full-length novels have rarely been out of print, although they were published anonymously and brought her moderate success and little fame during her lifetime.” Thanks!

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