The English city of Winchester only reveals itself to the visitor on foot, when chilling stories can be discovered.
Winchester grew up from the Roman town of Venta Belgarum, established by immigrants from northern Gaul. The settlement dates to around AD 70, when the River Itchen was diverted and a street grid plan laid out. Defensive banks and ditches were dug around the town in the 2nd century and a stone wall added one hundred years later.
Today’s famous cathedral – one of the most beautiful in England – is the longest in Europe. Its graceful architecture spans the 11th to the 16th century and it stands where Alfred the Great was once buried (before being moved to the medieval Benedictine monastery known as Hyde Abbey). It is also where the bones of King Canute and William Rufus were kept in mortuary chests before being unceremoniously scattered by Cromwell’s soldiers.
Near the cathedral lie the ruins of Wolvesey Castle, the Norman bishop’s palace, dating from 1110, but standing on an earlier Saxon structure. On 25 July 1554, Philip II of Spain secretly came to England to marry Queen Mary Tudor. They were guests at Wolvesey Castle before their wedding in the Cathedral.
In 1817 Jane Austen was buried in Winchester Cathedral having spent her last weeks in lodgings in the city. Her tombstone makes no mention of her writings, but notes:
“The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her and the warmest love of her intimate connections. Their grief is in proportion to their affection, they know their loss to be irreparable, but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the sight of her Redeemer.”
And just two years later, in the summer of 1819, the 23-year-old poet John Keats was in Winchester intending to finish his narrative poem “Lamia” but instead composing the ode “To Autumn”, whose opening line is often quoted: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!”
Less well known and only hinted at by a wall plaque is the chilling story of Lady Alice Lisle. On 2 September 1685, a silent crowd watched as an elderly lady kneeled down before the public executioner in the centre of Winchester’s market place. The headsman’s axe rose and fell, and Lady Alice Lisle paid the penalty for offering shelter to a rebel.
Born in 1614, Lady Alice was the wife of Sir John Lisle one of the judges at the trial of Charles I, and subsequently a member of Cromwell’s House of Lords. On 20 July 1685, a fortnight after the Battle of Sedgemoor where rebel followers of the Duke of Monmouth were defeated by forces loyal to James II, a non-Conformist minister named John Hickes came to Lady Alice’s home at Moyles Court near Ringwood. He had been with the rebel army and he was desperately in need of shelter.
Lady Alice took pity on Hickes and allowed him to stay and rest. On 28 July she was arrested and taken to Winchester where the infamous Judge Jeffreys, Lord Chief Justice, was conducting the ‘Bloody Assizes’ at which Monmouth rebels were tried and punished with extreme cruelty. She was charged with harbouring an enemy of the King.
Jeffreys conducted the trial in his usual bullying manner and his antipathy to Lady Lisle was evident. When she asked if she would be allowed to speak in her own defence, Jeffreys reminded her that her husband had once condemned a man to death – James II’s grandfather, Cahrles I – without letting him speak. Reluctantly, the jury found her guilty and the law, recognizing no distinction between principals and accessories in treason, she was sentenced to be burned. Jeffreys said that he would have found her guilty “even if she had been mine own mother.”
Sentenced to be burnt at the stake, the execution was due to take place that same afternoon but it was delayed. James II subsequently refused a plea for clemency, although he granted beheading as befitted her social rank. Lady Alice Lisle was publicly executed by axe in Winchester market-place on 2 September 1685. She died with courage and dignity: onlookers remarked that, perhaps due to her age, she seemed to leave the world without regret. A plaque marks the spot of the execution opposite “The Eclipse Inn” where her ghost is said to haunt the upper floors.