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A guided tour of Winchester College

by Alan Roach

This article was written in 2002. The information it contains was correct at that time.

Perhaps I am slow on the uptake, but after living in the area for nearly 35 years, I have only recently discovered the existence of guided tours around Winchester College.

We found ourselves in a cosmopolitan group of about a dozen with an Australian guide. Before the tour started we were given some background information about the college. It was founded in 1382 and is believed to be the oldest continuously running school in the country. Other schools might pre-date Winchester but have had closed periods. The founder, William of Wykeham, was Bishop of Winchester from 1366 to 1404, and twice Chancellor of England. He had founded New College, Oxford in 1379 partly to replace those priests who had perished during the Black Death a few years earlier. William of Wykeham planned a system under which seventy poor scholars would be educated at Winchester and then at New College. Work on the buildings started in 1387 and they were ready for occupation by 1394.

Present day students range in age from 13 to 18, and though today’s 70 scholars are accommodated in the original buildings, 600 commoners now occupy ten boarding houses outside the original campus area. The number of scholars taken on each year depends on the number leaving. This year sixteen scholarships were available and successful candidates were selected after a three day written examination followed by an interview. Scholars are obliged to wear a monk-style cassock whilst the commoners have freedom of choice for clothing, although jeans are disallowed! Scholars have free education whilst the cost to commoners is £18,500 per annum.

The tour started at the main entrance and proceeded to the Outer Court. This area is now a car park, but was originally a vegetable and herb garden supplying the College Kitchen. The building on the north side, now the main library, was a brewery and an ancient smoke vent still sits astride the roof.

Moving on, our guide pointed out statues on either side of the Middle Tower, depicting the Virgin Mary, an angel, and William of Wykeham. The angel statue is a modern copy of the original, believed to be a representation of Gabriel, which is now in Winchester Museum.


The Chapel seen from Chamber Court
The tour proceeded to a large square known as Chamber Court. The name derives from the scholars’ living accommodation surrounding the square, and forms the centre of the original college complex. On the southern side of the square is the gothic style chapel dating from the late 14th century. The impressive fan vaulting is one of the earliest examples constructed of wood rather than stone. The walls are lined with carved oak, and hung with the ‘coats of arms’ of all the previous Headmasters of the college. The seats lining the walls of the Choir date from the 14th century and contain a selection of intricately carved misericords. Above the altar, the Jesse window is a copy made in the 1820s of the original 1394 window. The story goes that the original was dismantled in need of extensive repair and mysteriously disappeared. Almost a century later an American officer returning home with souvenirs after World War I realised that he had bought parts of the original window. These were returned, and now form part of a window in the Chantry Chapel.

WE moved on to College Hall which has been a dining room for over six centuries. The benches and tables are said to be the originals. We were shown a trencher, the square wooden platter on which the food was served and the origin of the term “a square meal”. An Australian member of the group wondered how the gravy stayed on the plate!

The red brick schoolroom, known simply as ‘School’, was built in the 1680s in the style of Christopher Wren. For the next two hundred years, this was the only school room; now it is used mainly for weddings, and for gatherings of former Wykehamists. The permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury is required for weddings to be consecrated at the College. The room is set out as it would have been as a classroom with the Headmaster and Second Master overseeing the teaching from raised seats. Nowadays the pupil to teacher ratio is seven to one.

To the west of ‘School’ is War Cloister, a memorial to Wykehamists who died in the two World Wars. To the east is the original cloister, dating back to 1395, and used as a covered area for exercise during inclement weather, and as a cool place to study during the summer. Summer term is still known as ‘Cloister Time’. Many memorial plaques line the cloister walls; one in particular was to ‘Thomas Welsted, who was killed by falling masonry, and therefore proceeded to Heaven rather than to Oxford’.

The Chapel in the centre of the courtyard was built in the early 15th century as a memorial to John Fromond, a former Steward of the College Manors. It was used as a grain store by Cromwellian troops during the Civil War, and survived undamaged.

On our stroll back towards the entrance we visited the old buttery in the corner of Chamber Court. Nowadays this appears to be nothing more than a short cut from one quadrangle to another, but our guide wanted to show us a portrait of ‘The Trusty Servant’. This strange figure supposedly depicts the ideal qualities of a domestic servant, and the idea originates from 14th century France. The creature has the ears of a donkey to listen for any criticism of his master, a tongue tied down to stop any gossip, the hooves of a deer for fleet footedness, a sword to defend his master, and a handful of domestic tools to carry out his many chores.

The tour costs £2.00 for senior citizens, and takes approximately 1 ¼ hours. We considered it good value, and a pleasant way to spend a summer morning.

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