Winchester Guildhall stands on part of the site of an estate granted by Alfred the Great to his wife Ealswith probably as a coronation gift in 871 AD. After his death she retired there and founded a nunnery known as Nunnaminster.
Known in the later medieval ages as St Mary's Abbey, it was one of the foremost nunneries in England. In 1539 Henry VIII dissolved the abbey and the site passed to the crown. The land came into the City's hands to help cover its costs for hosting the wedding of Mary Tudor and Philip of Spain in Winchester Cathedral in 1554.
Winchester's earliest guildhall was located next to the Butter Cross in a small chamber above the passageway leading from the High Street to the cathedral. In 1712 the guildhall occupied the upper chamber of the Old Market House on the High Street, while the ground floor served as a covered market. This remained the site of the guildhall until late Victorian period and the building is now occupied by Lloyds Bank. The expansion of civic responsibilities following the Local Reform Act of 1835 markedly changed the role of guildhalls and Winchester needed a newer and larger building.
The New Guildhall
The Hastings architectural firm Jeffrey and Skiller submitted a design in the Gothic revival style and on 22nd December 1871 Viscount Eversley laid the foundation stone. Nearly a year and a half later in May 1873 the new Guildhall was opened by Lord Selborne. The Guildhall was part of a larger complex, housing the law courts, police station and fire brigade but the greater part was given over to civic roles. Events for large public audiences occurred on the Broadway where the Guildhall grand façade formed a backdrop to the podium on the staircase. These included the victory celebrations following World War I and royal visit of George VI and Queen Elizabeth on the 17th May 1946.
For a building of Gothic revival design, the Guildhall façade is relatively uncluttered. Its decoration includes four statues of kings and bishops with Winchester connections. Placed in the arches above the principle windows are sculpted panels showing events reflecting the ancient dignity of the mayor and major events in the city's history. In pride of place is the central panel below the clock tower that shows the mythical 1st mayor of Winchester Florence de Lunne receiving the city's charter from King Henry II.
In 1892 work started on a new wing to the west of the Guildhall on a site which had been occupied by the city's police station and fire brigade. Designed by local architect Thomas Stopher the new wing, called Kings Court, was completed in 1893 and housed the city library and Winchester School of Art. Its façade in the Gothic revival style was to compliment, but be distinct from, that of the Guildhall. The building was gutted by fire in 1969 and in 1978 the upper floor, still unroofed, was used as a museum store. The building was repaired in the 1980s and occupied by a series of commercial enterprises until Winchester City Council reoccupied the building in 2007.