Monday, March 17, 2014

Holding Winchester Cathedral in My Hand

By Nancy Bilyeau

The story of Winchester Cathedral is hard to tell.

Too old, too enormous, too awe-inspiring—how is it possible to do it justice in a book, never mind a single blog post? And yet, I will try, because for me, the magnificence of the cathedral is never more inspiring than when I hold a dark, wooden, four-inch-long cross in my hand. This cross was part of the foundation of the building, below the ground.

Foundation Cross

Before I explain how a piece of Winchester Cathedral came into my possession, let me tell the stories of two men, separated by a millennium.

The first was Walkelin, a cousin and royal chaplain to William the Conqueror. On May 30th, 1070, Walkelin was consecrated as the first Norman bishop of Winchester. He turned his critical French eye on the cathedral.

Christianity was in its infancy in the Saxon royal family when in the 7th century Cenwalh, son of Cynegils, built the first church, small and cross-shaped, in Winchester. It became known as Old Minster, and it grew as the city grew.

According to Bell's Cathedrals: The Cathedral Church of Winchester:  "To attempt to trace the story of the city as well as that of the cathedral would be to recapitulate the most important facts of the history of England during those centuries when Winchester was its capital town." The Wessex kings were buried there, as well as Emma of Normandy, the wife to two kings, who I am obsessed with after reading Patricia Bracewell's Shadow on the Crown.

But Walkelin wanted a do-over.

Statue of Walkelin

The Norman bishop became as obsessed with building his own cathedral as Prior Philip in Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth. Walkelin began in 1079 and kept pressing King William for permission to chop trees. He finally was granted as much wood for the building from the Forest of Hempage Wood as his carpenters could take in four days and nights.

"The Bishop collected an innumerable troop of carpenters and within the assigned time cut down the whole wood and carried it off to Winchester. [Soon afterwards the King], passing by Hempage, was struck with amazement and cried out, 'Am I bewitched or have I taken leave of my senses? Had I not once a most delectable wood upon this spot?' But when he understood what had happened, he was violently enraged. Then the Bishop put on a shabby vestment and made his way to the King's feet, humbling begging to resign the episcopate and merely requesting that he might retain his royal friendship and chaplaincy. The King was thus appeased, only observing, 'I was as much too liberal in my grant as you were too greedy in availing yourself of it."

The new cathedral was completed in 1093, and when Walkelin died in 1098, he was buried in the nave. The original tower collapsed in 1107. The chroniclers blamed it on the "sensual" William Rufus being buried there too. Repairs were made, and the replacement, in the Norman style, survived.

Winchester Cathedral is one of the largest in all of Europe

And now I jump forward, to the early 1900s.

Huge cracks appeared in Winchester Cathedral, and total collapse was feared. An architect wanted to build modern foundations of concrete--but how? Workmen dug, but water flooded the caverns below as fast as they dug.

An incredible solution was found: a deep sea diver. William Walker, an experienced man from Portsmouth, stepped forward. For six years, Walker worked underwater for SIX HOURS A DAY in a heavy diving suit. He labored in darkness, using his hands to clear the rotted wood. He completely excavated the trenches, filling them with bags of concrete.

William Walker
Walker''s diving suit
Walker never complained. He took off his helmet to eat lunch every day, followed by some pipe smoking. He often said the smoking  protected him from germs in the water.

When the work was finally done, Walker was the star of a special service of thanksgiving on Saint Swithun's Day in 1912. Shortly after, he was presented to King George and Queen Mary.

Tragically, William Walker died at the age of 49, during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.

When, some seven years ago, I began researching my novel The Crown, with a main protagonist who is a Dominican novice, one of the people I turned to for religious discussion was a family friend, the Reverend William A. Collins, an Anglican priest now living in Toronto.

A few months ago, Bill gave me a present. It was a small wooden cross he'd inherited from an old friend. It seems that when a diver worked under Winchester Cathedral, he brought up a great deal of wood. Cathedral workers turned the wood into small crosses and sold them to supporters.

Inscription: "1202-1906: Winchester Cathedral Foundation Wood"

When I hold this cross in my hand, I feel the passionate striving of Walkelin and the selfless labor of William Walker.

I feel truly connected to Winchester Cathedral.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a historical thriller series set in Tudor England, with a Dominican novice as the heroine. For more information, go to


  1. Fascinating account - thanks.
    Keith - Castle Stairlifts Winchester

  2. Great post and what a precious, precious, item you have. :)

  3. Fascinating history Nancy. I often think of buildings and structures built in the past without our technology and equipment and am in awe as to how they did it, but your description of the diver and his painstaking work under water below the cathedral in a bid to save the magnificent structure brought it all to life. Thanks for sharing Diana

  4. Wonderful post, Nancy...Winchester is one of my favorites and I never tire of being in its environs...somehow I missed this bit of its history...and what a piece of it you have!

  5. You ARE truly connected, Nancy! What a thoughtful gift.

  6. Excellent information, very interesting. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

  7. I loved this piece on Winchester Cathedral, Nancy. When I was there in 2007 there was a wonderful display about the lengths that William Walker went to in order to preserve the cathedral. He must have been fiercely passionate about it to endure what he did. Thank you for sharing his story! (And for your very nice comment about Shadow on the Crown.)

  8. I am one of the many great great grandchildren of William Walker. The family met a few weeks ago to celebrate his life, 100 years after his death, at the cathedral. I have one of the crosses that he would have brought up from the foundation and I too feel a better connection to him when I hold it.


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