AN HISTORICAL OUTLINE
THE NAME OF WENCHOSTER
"The Romans occupied Britain for some four centuries, yet the names they gave to their towns have been supplanted. We all know that castra means a camp, and can recognise Winchester. Gloucester, Doncaster, Caister and Wroxeter as Roman stations; but to the romanised Britons these were Venta Bulgarium, Glevum, Danum, Venta Icenorum and Viroconium and the present names all derive from the Old English ceaster, a word borrowed from the Latin. There are so many of these names ending in variations of -chester that the English must have given them to almost any site on which fortifications were found, sometimes, no doubt, to places strengthened before the Romans came."
England and Wales A Traveller's Companion.
So to Wenchoster, and Wen-ceaster meaning a fortified place on the wen or bend of the river, and certainly the cathedral occupies a promontory of low-lying land around which the sluggish Wen still flows, but to the Romans, the place was Venta Codpiecium, meaning a place where the air stank of fish. Until the 17th century the tidal estuary into which the Wen flows still allowed a substantial fishing industry along the banks of the river, and for a time in the 1760's the southern transept of the cathedral was used for mending nets and salting trout.
Excavations into the foundations of the cathedral carried out during the summer of 1935 uncovered fragments of distinctive Samian-ware pottery dating from the third century AD, mostly from wine jars, one piece still bearing a potters mark from Gaul, and part of the legend "ABSQUE VINO NIHIL" roughly translated as "Without wine nothing is gained". Also discovered were several post-holes indicating that there was an Iron Age settlement already here before the army of General Septimus Thrustus encamped by the ford in about AD 109. Indications of a substantial Roman residence were discovered beneath the tiled floor of the Mandylion chapel during renovations in 1972, and work on the septic drains underneath the Nave floor in 1975 uncovered the remains of massive stone pillars which dated the construction of the earliest Cathedral on the site to around the year AD 897.
THE SAXON & NORMAN FOUNDATION
This first church is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle written by Herphastus, the dancing monk of Trickling Down (which monastery was dissolved by Richard II in 1485 after the Battle of Wenchoster Plain due to the monks' coddling of the enemy archers), who states that this Cathedral dedicated to Saint Mary was begun by Bishop Crastin Poque and dedicated on the Feast of Saint Decumen in the fifth year of his consecration. The Chronicle records that that the building of the initial Chapel commenced in about the year AD 909, but disaster soon struck. Being constructed on marshland this chapel, when it was enlarged, had serious flaws in its foundations, and on August 10th, AD 1001, just after Terce, the south wall disintegrated into the bog, taking with it the rest of the building and 31 monks.
Reconstruction was begun in 1014 by Bishop Hardwithus Goodwin. This second cathedral caught fire in 1150 and the remaining walls, apart from the new South Transept which appears to have had its foundations on the only piece of rock in the area, once again fell into the marsh.
Bishop John de Wicken
In 1151 the third cathedral was begun, and completed in 1204, being dedicated to Saint Ennodius the Unreliable by Bishop John de Wicken on Ascension Day that year. Over 3,000 skilled labourers were employed during its construction, and a surviving fragment of an artisan's bill notes that the sum of 40 shillings was paid for the carving of 8 stone heads to decorate the west front, along with 2 groats to the basin boy for services rendered. A broken sentence referring to sheep and new boots remains a puzzle, though possibly it is a record of the provision of food and clothing for the workforce.THE MIDDLE AGES AND THE HOLY RELIC
The arrival at the cathedral, in 1206, of the relic of Saint Veronica is also well documented. The Wenchoster Chronicles, (compiled in 1490 under the direction of Bishop Augustus of Whyp), tell that it was the gift of Baron de Boeuf, who brought it back from his final crusade to the Holy Land. A mere three months after its arrival, a community of itinerant Carmelite monks arrived in Wenchoster from France, attracted by the famous Mandylion. Under the patronage of Guy, Ponce de Rouen, they made their home in simple accommodation, the Cottage, outside the wooden De Flageolet Tower, and entered the church each day to attend mass and pray before the sacred icons. Guy stayed in a nearby village.
Baron de Boeuf and his minstrel Effete (holding giant tambourine), from a 15th century manuscript
The Bishop of Wenchoster, John de Wicken, decided to invite the pilgrims into the Close, and after long deliberations, and the handing over of an unrecorded sum of money and a brace of ferrets, it was decided that the monks could establish a centre of learning and discipline at the Cathedral.
The cloisters were then constructed adjacent to the south wall of the Cathedral as a place where the monks could study, yet interrupt their work to attend the daily offices and mass in the church. Built of sandstone, they were unique among the cloisters of the time by incorporating private urinals adjacent to the study desks. A narrow gate led from the darkness of the cloisters (lit only by tallow candles after Tenebrae) and to the inner garden. Here the monks could compare manuscripts, discuss the latest copying techniques, simply dally and exchange gossip and collects, and eventually be buried. The garden would be planted with large shrubs to ensure a degree of privacy.
The monks initially nailed the sacred napkin to the wall of the Lady Chapel, and it was Bishop John (1173 - 1209) who in 1207 re-dedicated the area as the Mandylion Chapel. The following year the Pope granted the application from the Bishop that the cathedral be permitted the additional dedication to Saint Veronica. In 1210, following instructions by the new Bishop, Hardrada Dogbreath (1209-1235), the napkin had been taken down, folded, and reverently placed beneath the altar in a casket banded with bronze and gold.
Life at the Cathedral during the Black Death of the 14th century was not without its difficulties. The fragmented Annals of the period record that in the space of 15 weeks over half of the resident monastic population succumbed to the disease, an illness described by the scribe, Brother Wynde, as "that bulbous sickness, which dothe create great explosion of the bowels and swellynges of the pits." At the first sign of the infection amongst the community the Bishop, Felkin Goatnadger, removed himself to the Nunnery at Shaston Farthing, where he remained until the winter of 1351-52, returning with much pomp, and several young children, to the Cathedral on the Feast of Saints Timothy and Titus (January 26th).
The imposing Canonry (so-called since 1802) which dominates the entrance to the Cathedral Close, was built in 1399 by the de Flageolet family of Broad Fingerling to replace the earlier wooden tower and the adjacent Cottage. Its sandstone façade bears the marks of centuries of witness to the faith, and in its original form would have been a splendid gateway indeed, through which pilgrims would pass on their way to venerate the famous Mandylion of Wenchoster.
Around the main windows of the de Flageolet Stump (as it was initially called) are numerous niches, designed originally to house icons of the saints peculiar to this Cathedral. The two large niches flanking the windows are, of course, for St Ennodius and St Veronica, but two smaller spaces remain between the windows. There is controversy over what icons first stood here, but Cathedral scholars now believe that one was for St. Josephat of the Fens (820-891) who in his earthly life had lived a life of witness, preaching and baptizing in the ditches of East Anglia. He was later canonized when it was discovered that his bones, when ground into paste, were able to cure the monarch’s son, Prince Aethelred the Unsteady, from a rare type of French wart.
The second niche is thought to have displayed a small statue of Our Lady of Thropping. On the eve of St. Maurice, 909, two young girls returning from the fields in the hamlet of Thropping*(1) claimed to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary standing on a tussock, "bare stomaked", and pointing to a nearby field. They went at once and told the parish priest of what they had seen, and he promptly persuaded Bishop Crastin Poque to purchase this large tract of unfertile land and boggy land which he had inherited the previous year. And so the initial Cathedral came to be built.
When first constructed the Canonry served as a defensive gate for the Cathedral - keeping the laity out during celebrations of the mass. Eventually however a succession of Deans came to realize that this was not in keeping with the general tones of the faith. The gates were thus opened during the hours of daylight, and the building became the home of the Close Serjeant-at-Arms.
The Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII brought the earnest monastic study at the cathedral to a close, and the Carmelite brothers went into hiding on an island off the west coast of England where they practiced animal husbandry. Under Mary Tudor, Wenchoster became the base of operations for Matthew Anuss, the Witchfinder's Assistant, and some two dozen local inhabitants were burnt at the stake in the Market Place. Several clerics from the cathedral were also indicted and tried, but none were convicted, due, it is said by local historians, to the interjection of one Mother Liplust, an old crone who lived out on the marshes in a tumbledown cottage, with only four cats and a donkey for company. Despite the relaxation of persecution under Elizabeth I, parts of the cathedral, including the monastic cloisters, lay bare for two centuries, used as little more than a storage space for sacramental wine and larger processional crosses, and eventually fell into disrepair.
On the outbreak of Civil War in 1642, Wenchoster declared for the King, and for a time enjoyed the security offered by "The Queen's Own Troop" which was barracked in the Market Square. In 1644, following the defeat of the Royalist forces at the Battle of Nantwich (January 25th), the "Queen's" left for Oxford, and a division of the New Model Army under the command of Sir. Jorrocks Spleen, lay siege to the city. After 5 weeks the citizens persuaded the Mayor to offer surrender, and on April 9th, Cromwell's army entered the streets. Making straight for the cathedral, a bunch of drunken soldiers hammered on the West door, forcing their way past the Serjeant-at-Arms, one Ulrich Festal, dealing him a nasty blow on the coddling piece with a blunt nadger's mallet. Entering the sanctuary and bringing the service of Matins to an abrupt halt, the iconoclasts began to deface every statue they could find, and it was only by the grace of God that the Mandylion was saved. A huge battering-ram was being manoeuvred into position to demolish the chapel when a young boy, who came to be known as Peter the Limp *(2), on account of his legs being of unequal length, ran to the altar, reached into the void beneath, grasped the casket and carried the holy Mandylion to the Canonry concealed in his groin cloth. Reaching the upper room used by the Bishop's chaplain for private confession and discipline, he opened the casket and waved the relic out of a window at the army massed beneath. To a man the troops first dropped to their knees and then fled. The Cathedral was never taken. Returning to the Cathedral precincts he placed the casket into the hands of the grateful clergy, who expressed their delight by buying him supper at the "Nine Bells" in Privy Street, and renting him a room there for his personal use - an arrangement that lasted until his death from Jorrock's Pox at the age of 26.
Over the centuries the Canonry was the centre of many a clash of authorities, in particular the 1662 slapping of a Bishop *(3) who had annoyed the Dean by insisting that he use the modern liturgy. It has to be said that it took some time for the Book of Common Prayer to come into regular use in the Cathedral, many elderly priests defying the combined edicts of the Crown and Archbishop of Canterbury, and continuing to use the traditional Wen Missal with its ancient prayers. The Collect for the Feast of Saint Placid (5th October) gives a good example of what would have been heard by the congregations of the period.
Heareth us, O ye Almightie Gawd, who haste of thy greate mercies ordained that ye yonge Placid be savied from ye waters of mortall death through the ministrations of his companion, Franke, whose love for hym, exceedynge that of a womane, persyuaded hym to dyve into ye deep waters of ye ryver of Subiaco, and brynge hym out to drye lande; bestowe wee beseache thee upon this thy holye church, the benefits of newe lyffe through ye waters of baptysme, that we, wyth hym, may inheryte the gyftes of eternity wyth thee; through the myghte of thy most gracyous majestye. Amen.
Taken from the only surviving copy of the Wen Missal, held in the chained library at Wenchoster Cathedral.
The 1700's saw an upsurge in scientific study, and consequently the great places of the faith became less used. People were now able to purchase volumes of intellectual thought and reason that cast doubt upon the beliefs of their fathers, and the remnants of the clergy still worshipping in the cathedral had to contend with speakers such as Master Ioniades Laspanting, who drew great crowds to his lectures in the Wenchoster Reading Rooms, holding forth on such subjects as "Eden, Babel and the Gift of Intellect" and "Eve - the Womb of Fiction". With diminishing congregations and income, parts of the cathedral were walled off and let out to local industries, so that by the 1760's the south transept resembled the Fishmonger's Hall at Dobbling Down. With the arrival of "Preacher Piecrust" in 1794, who set up his portable pulpit next to the privies abutting the Canonry, the fortunes of the cathedral began once more to change.
In 1805 the Dean of Wenchoster, Ralph Windbottom, decided that the monastic heritage of the Cathedral should be preserved. Over the next ten years the wooden walls dividing the transepts were demolished and the great interior of the cathedral opened up once more. The cloisters were re-built in 1817, and in 1820 work began on the restoration of the Mandylion Chapel. The position of the relic had long since been forgotten, and it was one Heinrich Jakstrop, an immigrant stone carver, who discovered the void beneath the altar and the casket within. It was with great ceremony that the box with its bindings of precious metal, was placed in a specially-constructed reredos behind the altar on the Feast of Theodore the Studite, 11th November, 1822. Since that time, the relic has been exhibited to the faithful every Friday between the hours of 10.00 a.m. and 4.00 p.m.
Under the leadership of Bishop Frederick Bullseye, the Oxford Movement gained great popularity in Wenchoster, and by the close of the 19th century the Cathedral was known as one of the high places of true Anglicanism in England. This travelling towards a more pure form of faith was not without its dangers however, and over the years several junior clergy were assaulted in the back passage of Thrusting Street by young men from the nearby evangelical "Brotherhood Chapel".
Bishop Bullseye (1882-1901)IN TIME OF WAR
During the Great War of 1914 - 1918, Wenchoster was home to the Royal Flying Corps (Dirigible Section) who were based at Baker's Bottom, a large flat field to the south-west of the Cathedral Close. Sunday Parade services were held for the duration, and several young airship men were initiated into the ways of the inner sanctum by becoming servers and candle snuffers. The arrival of a battalion of French soldiers in late 1917 was at first greeted with suspicion, but within the space of a few short months many had been shown hospitality by the Chapter clergy. Such was their impact on the life of the Close that in 1921 the famous memorial to their fallen comrades was erected by the north door, where it still stands.
In the later conflict of 1939 - 1945 Wenchoster escaped major bombing, though the raid on the night of August 24th, 1941, is still remembered by the older generation as being the time when war came to the Wen. A lone German Heinkel, returning from an unsuccessful attempt to bomb the prophylactic works at Fenny Dripton, some 15 miles to the north, decided to lighten his load over the city. A mixture of high-explosive and incendiary devices rained down on the southern suburbs, and for a time it seemed as if the cathedral might succumb to the inferno, but valiant efforts by the Chapter clergy, armed with wet purificators, doused the flames that were licking along the base of the great West doors. The only damage was to the Precentor's Vestry which received a direct hit from a rogue incendiary. Thankfully the fire was put out by swift action from the altar boys who carried the holy water from the cathedral font in their leather trousers. Unfortunately the Cathedral's entire stock of incense was lost, but the scent that lingered around the city for the next four weeks more than made up for the enforced liturgical barrenness of the Mass.
THE MODERN CATHEDRAL & CANONRY
Today, the Close at Wenchoster provides a sacred space amidst the bustling noise of our city. Visitors may find within not only peace and quietness in which to reflect, but also buildings which resonate with history and prayer.
The modern Canonry has been the home of the senior Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral since 1871, and is now equipped as a comfortable home and office, with bar and meeting rooms for clergy, choir and visiting church dignitaries. Regrettably it is not part of the Cathedral tour unless special arrangements are first made.
The Diocesan Retreat House based on the southern side of the cathedral Close opened its doors in 1990. Each year it hosts the Annual Retreat of the Society of Entrusted Vergers, the Annual Conference of the Guild of Coffin Manufacturers and Handlers, and the Cathedral Choir Summer School. It is available for hire and details may be obtained through the Diocesan Office. Its extensive gardens allow for peaceful meditation and solitude, and its croquet lawns often echo to the cries of merriment as a ball or two hurtle into the undergrowth.
The Retreat House gardens - a peaceful rendezvous for clergy
The cloisters, which remain in regular use by the staff, the choir and, of course, the public, house many items of interest. On the south side can be found framed copies of medieval and later manuscripts, including the Teachings of St. Valerie of Forchester to the Wen Folk (c.1444,) the illustrated cathedral inventory of 1662 (which show no new liturgical purchases,) and the recently-restored Grunters’ Bible (c.1700) – a translation of scripture to evangelize the remote farming settlements of the north of the county. Along the east and west walks are many of the archaeological items discovered during building works over the years, and now brought together for the first time. Of particular interest are the shards of an early pottery communion cup, fragments of the 14th century monstrance, a leather bag containing morsels of a communion wafer which have been carbon-dated to approximately the 10th century, and a pair of 16th century undergarments upon which can be seen the image of our Lord.
*(1) Thropping no longer exists. It disappeared after the course of the River Wen was accidentally diverted in 1755. The name survives in a number of ways. There is a Thropping Mews adjacent to the Cathedral Close, a Thropping Arms in the High Street and one of the Canons Emeriti is ceremonially entitled, "Thropping Magnus."
*(2) 1629-1655. He never married.
*(3) Horace, Suffragan Bishop of East Broadwench.
Visitors may want to visit the Cathedral Book and Gift Shop in the north cloisters where many souvenirs unique to our foundation may be purchased, including paper napkins of the Mandylion.
Our modern, split-level public conveniences with heated towels and assorted vending machines are located next to the Refectory for the convenience of those taking refreshment.