Review: Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation

Historically the medieval Winchester Cathedral is one of the most significant buildings in the UK. It is also one of the most beautiful with soaring butresses, stunning decorated ceilings and floors and a magnificent 15th century Great Screen. It is one of the largest in Europe with the greatest overall length of any Gothic cathedral. It is a place where history has been made by Kings and Queens throughout the centuries. The NEW Kings & Scribes: The Birth of a Nation exhibition offers a rare chance to explore this ancient monument and some of the nation’s greatest treasures.

Winchester Cathedral

After almost ten years of planning, Winchester Cathedral’s landmark exhibition Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation opened last week. The exhibition highlights some of the nation’s most remarkable treasures and reveals the city’s pivotal role in shaping early English history and subsequently society and politics today. Looking back through history helps to understand and appreciate 21st century Britain.

Winchester Cathedral, Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation. Facsimile remains of Queen Emma

Thanks in large part to a National Lottery grant of £11.2m, the stunning new three-level exhibition space, which has been created in the Cathedral’s South Transept, takes visitors on a journey through more than 1,000 years of history, from the birth of the English nation to the present day. It is a lot to take in in one visit and thankfully, tickets are valid for 12 months so you can make a return visit.

A labour of love

A big thrill for me was the rare opportunity to see one volume of the largest and finest of all surviving 12th century English bibles in the South Transept Triforium at ground level. The recently conserved Winchester Bible consists of four volumes and took five years to complete. The cost at that time must have been astronomical. The investment in terms of man hours of creative labour evident in the stunning artistry shows this was a labour of love. The materials used were of the highest quality, for instance, the rare lapis lazuli and gold leaf in the illustrations, and the leather book bindings. The bible is remarkable not only for the beauty and skill of the colourful illustrations and penmanship but also because it was created in Winchester and has remained there ever since. Considering England’s political history over the intervening years that is quite extraordinary.

The Winchester Bible, oe of four volumes.

The area surrounding Winchester has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Following Roman conquest of Britain, Winchester served as the capital of the Belgae. The cathedral has played a unique role in shaping early English history and the Old Minster, the Anglo-Saxon Cathedral, was central to Winchester Cathedral’s foundation. Recent work has been carried out on the remains of the decorated wooden boxes which are Mortuary Chests. Despite speculation it was believed the chests contained the mortal remains of pre-Conquest kings and bishops. The bones had been co-mingled over the centuries and it was clear that the chests did not contain whole skeletons. Radiocarbon dating on fragments have revealed that the bones were from the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods.

Queen Emma

Winchester Cathedral exhibition, colourful Mortuary Chests

These findings confirm that the chests actually include the remains of eight kings, two bishops and one queen of these periods. Work by biological anthropologists has resulted in the exciting discovery of the remains of a mature female. Although it is not yet certain, it is thought that they could be those of Queen Emma, daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy and the wife of two successive Kings of England, Ethelred and Cnut. Emma was the mother of King Edward the Confessor and King Hardacnut. The queen was a powerful political figure in late Saxon England, and her family ties provided William the Conqueror with a measure of justification for his claim to the English throne. Facsimiles of the bones are on display at the exhibition. I always feel a little uncomfortable seeing human remains as part of an exhibition (remember Peat Bog Man?) not because I am squeamish, but it feels like an intrusion. Nevertheless, it is an amazing discovery and Queen Emma’s part in English history is fascinating. Her personal life too makes for absorbing reading. Her marriage to the conquering Danish King Cnut, it is believed, was a love match.

Wall to wall books

The second, mezzanine floor of the exhibibition affords a rare opportunity to walk inside 17th century The Morley Library. As an avid book reader – I began reading as a child, everything from biographies to science fiction – I was thrilled just to be able to read the titles of the rare collection of leather bound spines, such as Aristotle and Plutarch. Bequeathed by Bishop Morley his legacy included money for the addition of two globes for the library ‘of the best and largest size’, one terrestrial and one celestial.

The Morley Library at Winchester Cathedral.

Decoding the stones

The exhibition moves up to the main area on the third floor which affords wonderful views of the Cathedral interior. Here are displays of some of the carved stones from the Great Screen, which was partly destroyed during the years of Civil War. This section tells the story of the Cathedral itself and links with modern restoration works and craftspeople. There is also a fun interactive display that invites you to create your own stained glass window, which can be uploaded to a large screen for all to see.

.Winchester Cathedral, Decoding the Stones part of a new exhibition.

The tale of William Walker

Talking of labours of love. Another intriguing exhibit, including his diving helmet, is the story of William Walker, a deep-sea diver. In the early 1900s the Cathedral seemed in danger of collapse as huge cracks started to appear. Early efforts to underpin its waterlogged foundations failed until William worked in the dark, under water for around six hours every day for six years at depths of 6 metres (20 feet) placing bags of concrete under the foundations. Sadly, William died aged just 49, during the great Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 Film producers take note: a brilliant story for a feature film.

Kings and Scribes is a great way to spend a couple of hours or so in Winchester exploring the cathedral and discovering the role of the city’s Anglo-Saxon and Norman Cathedrals in the birth of a nation. It rivals Game of Thrones in its complexity, intrigue, ambitions and passions.

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