Once the ancient capital city of Wessex, Winchester’s castle is now barely visible except for the West Gate, Great Hall and some ruins. Henry III built the Great Hall in 1222 as part of a much larger Motte and Bailey castle complex that’s hard to imagine, especially when standing on its original site which is now largely dwarfed by the county council offices and imposing law courts. King Henry renovated the existing castle, adding fireplaces, latrines, painted walls and comfortable royal chambers and thus living in the lap of medieval luxury of which the Great Hall was the epicentre.
It was the place to be. Here kings made decisions, troubadours sang, jesters joked, retinues ate, visitors were received, criminals condemned and marriages celebrated. (And no King Arthur did not sit at his round table here; hanging above your head on the West wall is a plain 13th century table painted by Henry VIII as Tudor propaganda!) Entering the hall on a hot summery day, the environment felt somewhat dark, cold and oppressive. But, as my eyes adjusted to the light and a bunch of chattering tourists burst through the new 19th century entrance, the Hall came alive. The acoustics bouncing off the stone surfaces and the general hubbub gave what can only be a hint of the buzz that would’ve permeated it in medieval times in the 13th century.
During the 14th and 15th centuries the Hall’s function as a legal and administrative centre grew and dominated for a further 700 years – that is, until the courts were moved to the foreboding courthouse adjoining the East wall in 1974. Countless figures were condemned at these courts, and public executions saw the heads of heretics displayed before the castle gates. Spare a little thought as you wander below the West Gate towards the Great Hall for those who met a grisly death there. According to historian Martin Biddle, the earl of Kent in 1330 stood all day in front of the castle gate waiting for someone to be found to execute him for planning a rebellion against Queen Isabella (Edward II’s wife, sometimes described as the She-wolf of France) and her lover, Roger Mortimer.
Although the Hall has been dominated by courts and justice for over seven centuries, I want to draw your attention back to its everyday use in the medieval era for feasting and entertainment. Your next visit might be as part of Winchester Hat Fair, and as you laugh and applaud, remember your predecessors who may have done just that in this space hundreds of years ago.
From Friday 4th to Sunday 6th July the Great Hall becomes a centre of activity once again in a celebration of dance, theatre and street performance. Bouchée à la reine by Push Plus are a company of six clowns who’ll enact a high-class dinner party in order to comment on society’s shortcomings – a form of class mockery that’s changed little since medieval times. For Grime Ramshacklicious will construct a strange fortification directly above castle ruins hidden beneath the cobbled courtyard. They say an Englishman’s home is his castle, and this wooden structure balanced above a burger van will certainly bring the grimy realities of everyday working life to such majestic surroundings. Marc Brew Company will transform the area into a mirage as three dancers bask, play and dream of escaping their sandy (i)land, a place stranded far from the ocean and surrounded by stone. Whether inside, beneath the Hall’s expansive arches, or in the courtyard surrounded by cool grey architecture, this strange and eerie scene is bound to unnerve and entice.
Nuna Silva’s Soul of Fado promises to close the Hat Fair with a sensual and fiery showstopper (as featured in Giant Olive’s inaugural GOlive Dance and Performance Festival curated by Donald Hutera and a hot hat fair tip from the WinGuide.) Combining contemporary dance with traditional Portuguese song on a stage marked by flaming gondolas, it will certainly look the part as the night closes in. Silva’s fado, a form of music expressing loss and melancholy, suggests a dramatic and powerful scene might confront the nighttime spectator. If it’s anything like last year’s grand finale, Bad Taste Company’s Faust, then Soul of Fado will enliven the senses with passion and highly physical choreography. It draws the Hat Fair to a close at the most important centre of the old capital city, The Great Hall of Winchester.
by Rebecca JS Nice
Writer, dance critic, history geek and Winchy lover. Rebecca is a mature student at The University of Winchester studying Choreography and Dance combined with History. After teaching for eight years, she now writes for various publications and blogs about dance and all things arty-farty, whilst drinking copious amounts of tea and day dreaming in Winchester’s many café windows. @rebeccajsnice