The first minster to be built in Winchester was raised by Cenwalh, the Saxon king of Wessex in the mid-seventh century, and traces of this building have been unearthed near the present cathedral, which was begun in 1079 and completed some three hundred years later. The exterior is not its best feature – squat and massive, it crouches stumpily over the tidy lawns of the Cathedral Close. The interior is rich and complex, however, and its 556ft nave makes this Europe’s longest medieval church. Outstanding features include the carved Norman font of black Tournai marble, the fourteenth-century misericords (the choir stalls are the oldest complete set in the country) and some amazing monuments – William of Wykeham’s Chantry, halfway down the nave on the right, is one of the most ornate. Jane Austen, who died in Winchester, is commemorated close to the font by a memorial brass and slab beneath which she’s interred, though she’s recorded simply as the daughter of a local clergyman. Above the high altar lie the mortuary chests of pre-Conquest kings, including Canute (though the bones were mixed up after Cromwell’s Roundheads broke up the chests in 1645); William Rufus, killed while hunting in the New Forest in 1100, lies in the presbytery. Behind the impressive Victorian screen at the end of the presbytery, look out for the memorial shrine to St Swithun. Originally buried outside in the churchyard, his remains were later interred inside where the “rain of heaven” could no longer fall on him, whereupon he took revenge and the heavens opened for forty days – hence the legend that if it rains on St Swithun’s Day (July 15) it will do so for another forty. His exact burial place is unknown.
Accessible from the north transept, the Norman crypt – often flooded – is home to Anthony Gormley’s contemplative figure Sound II, reflected in the waters. The cathedral’s original foundations were dug in marshy ground, and at the beginning of last century a steadfast diver, William Walker, spent five years replacing the rotten timber foundations with concrete.