Winchester is a city on the River Itchen in Hampshire, derived from the Roman city of Venta Belgarum (‘Market of the Belgae’). Winchester was the main city of the Old English kingdom of Wessex. It appears in some Arthurian romances and is uniquely but probably incorrectly identified with Camelot in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
History of WinchesterEdit
Winchester was founded around the year 70, partially on the site of a previous Iron Age valley fort, now known as Oram’s Arbour, which had been abandoned for some years. It was known as Venta Belgarum. It began to decay in the 4th century and was abandoned some time in the 5th century.
At some period it passed into English hands and in about 686 it replaced Dorchester-on-Thames as the chief city of the kingdom of Wessex. It remained the capital of England for some time after the Norman conquest in 1066, until London replaced it, after which it went into a slow decline.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, Winchester is founded by the ancient British king Rud Hud Hudibras and was also known as Kaerguenit. King Arvirigus retreated to Winchester when fleeing from the Roman emperor Claudius. Nearby, in a battlefield named Maesuria, the usurping Briton Octavius beat the Roman general Trahern.
Winchester was captured by Hengist the Saxon, but it was recaptured by Aurelius Ambrosius. It was in Winchester that Ambrosius was killed by the Saxon Eopa. A certain Diwanius appears as Bishop of Winchester at Arthur’s court at Caerleon. Mordred was supported by the people of Winchester, but Arthur defeated him there. After Arthur’s last battle, one of the two sons of Mordred, whom Lawman’s Brut names Meleon, rules from Winchester. However, the new king Constantine captures Winchester and kills Mordred’s son.
John Harding’s verse Chronicle includes Arthur’s battle with Mordred at Winchester and notes:
The rounde Table at Wynchester beganne
And there it ended, and there it hangeth yet.
This is a reference to the wooden Round Table which still hangs on the wall of the Great Hall of Winchester Castle with painted decorations containing the names of Arthur and 24 other Knights of the Round Table from late romance tradition.
Winchester in Arthurian RomancesEdit
In the Story of Merlin, Winchester appears, incorrectly, as a seaport city, replacing Totnes which appears instead in Geoffrey and Wace. When Pendragon and his brother land there most of the Britons are overjoyed to see them and Vortigern, with the few who are loyal to him, flee.
In retelling the story, Sir Thomas Malory appears to have been somewhat puzzled by Winchester being represented as a separate city from Camelot. In Malory’s sources King Arthur rides from Camelot to Winchester, and after the tournament returns to Camelot, in both cases spending the night at Escalot, which appears to be about half-way between the two sites. Malory thinks that Winchester and Camelot are the same place, so Malory instead has King Arthur ride from London to Winchester/Camelot and then return to London, spending the night each time at Astolat, which Malory identifies with Guildford which is indeed a major town halfway between London and Winchester.
Malory would have known about the Round Table in Winchester Castle and may have known that Winchester was the main city in England before London. That may to him have been sufficient evidence that Camelot was identical to Winchester. But no other text makes this identification.
Later in the Vulgate Mort Artu, the story tells that Mordred’s sons had both been left behind at Winchester. With support from the people of Winchester, they attempt to conquer all Britain. When Lancelot lands with his forces, the sons of Mordred go forward to meet Lancelot. Lancelot’s forces and those of the sons of Mordred fight a battle near Winchester in which Lancelot’s side is victorious. See Meleon for more details.
Some Name VariationsEdit
FRENCH: Wincestre, Guincestre, Vincestre, Viscestre; LATIN: Guintonia, Guyntonia, Wintonia; ENGLISH: Winchæstre, Winchastre, Winchestre, Winchæstre, Winchastre, Winchestren, Wynchestre, Wynchester, Wynchester, Wynchester, Winchester, Winchester, Wincherster, Wynchestre, Wenchestre, Wynchestar; MALORY: Wynchestre, Wynchester; SPANISH: Guncestre, Usestre; PORTUGUESE: Gyncestre; ITALIAN: Vincestro, Vinciestro, Vincenso, Viagestra; WELSH: Caer Wynt (Kaer Wynt), Kaerguenit.