St Cross Church seen from the Master's Garden, Winchester, southern England

Philip Mitchell

WINCHESTER, United Kingdom

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The Hospital of St Cross is England’s oldest continuing almshouse and its longest-running charitable institution. It comprises a group of medieval and Tudor buildings listed as Grade 1 by English Hritage, including a medieval hall and tower, Tudor cloisters, a Norman church, and gardens reflecting a seventeenth century connection with North America.

This fine Transitional Norman Church is all that remains of the original Hospital; the east end we see here was begun in 1135, although the north porch, not visible in this shot, was finally added only 200 years later. Each day the Brothers still gather within to celebrate the office of Mattins. The walls are over one metre thick and made of stone brought from as far afield as Caen (in Normandy), Dorset and the Isle of Wight, as well as some flint taken from the local chalk pits. It has been described with some justification as a Norman cathedral in miniature.

We may well wonder at the decision to build such a large and beautiful building for just a handful of lowly residents by the founder, a young Bishop Henry de Blois. Though both wealthy and well-connected, he also had a truly Christian desire to help the weak and the poor: hence this Hospital of St Cross, to support thirteen poor men, so frail that they were unable to work, and to feed one hundred men at its gates each day. But he was also a grandson of William the Conqueror and therefore a cousin of King Henry I, ruler at the time of dominions that stretched from northern England to Anjou in France; these rounded windows definitely embody Norman French tastes while the fortress-like style seems to be a statement of regal power and strength.

This 21st century view is from the tranquillity of the Master’s garden. It is at the same level as the surrounding water meadows, with a very high water table and rich alluvial soil, as shown by the planting and the extensive pond. Here is a haven of repose for reflection and regeneration amidst modern hustle and bustle.

We do not know whether Keats ventured through here from the front quadrangle on any of his daily walks during his visit to Winchester in 1819 as he does not mention it specifically, but he would undoubtedly have enjoyed it if he had.

(Techno-trivia: this was taken with a Nikon Coolpix 8400 on a tripod, though any half decent machine of comparable resolution with a lens that produces sharp images which are then run through a powerful program like Adobe Photoshop Elements would give similar results in the hands of a competent photographer.)

Artwork Comments

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