Records suggest that the first minster church in Winchester was built cAD650, and some 20 years later it became the ecclesiastical centre of Wessex. Following a Danish invasion during the late 9th century, the minster was repaired and became a Benedictine priory known as St Swithun's.
The vast cathedral church standing today was begun during the latter part of the 11th century, and is the longest cathedral in England. Over the years, much remodelling and rebuilding has taken place throughout the church but some examples of the powerful Norman work still exist in the transepts and the Chapter House. A remarkably strong, vaulted Norman crypt also survives beneath the east end, and is accessible at times when it is not flooded. The simple, modern lead sculpture that stands in the crypt adds a very thought-provoking and haunting quality to this ancient part of Winchester Cathedral.
Dominating the east end is a magnificently carved, limestone screen, constructed in the late 15th century, which displays an impressive gallery of Saxon bishops and monarchs. Unfortunately, the original statues suffered badly at the Dissolution and the figures to be seen today are 19th century replicas - including the strange addition of Queen Victoria! Much of the carved decoration, including the splendid craftsmanship of the choir stalls and misericords, and the corbels and roof bosses along the nave, is surprisingly non-religious, and delightfully amusing. Notwithstanding the lightheartedness of these features, everything within Winchester Cathedral is both skilfully, and lavishly, decorated.
Apart from its wealth of architectural and historical possessions, Winchester Cathedral is also noted for an impressive array of famous connections. There's the shrine of St Swithun, from the 9th century, the burial of King Alfred the Great in AD899, several royal coronations and marriages, and the grave of Jane Austen. Displayed above the screens in the Presbytery aisles are a fascinating collection of Renaissance mortuary chests, which contain the remains of monarchs and bishops exhumed in the middle of the 12th century.
However, perhaps the most memorable event in the history of this great building was that undertaken by William Walker, the man known as 'the diver who saved Winchester Cathedral. In 1905 several cracks appeared in the south and east sides of the church and it was feared that, in time, the building might collapse unless major underpinning of the foundations was carried out. Already an extremely difficult task, it was made worse because of high water levels preventing access to the 11th century timber rafts. Therefore, this diver was employed to work up to six hours a day, often in 20ft (6m) of water, and in total darkness for a period of some six years. Certainly, if it hadn't been for William Walker's tireless dedication to the job in hand, this wondrous cathedral might have been lost forever.