Wessex Worthies: George Monk

George Monk, or Monck, (1608-70), was a general in the English Civil War. He fought on the Royalist side, but later led the Parliamentary Army in Scotland, being named as a possible successor to Oliver Cromwell. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, King Charles II appointed him to the peerage, giving him the title of 1st Duke of Albemarle.

Monk was born in Potheridge, Devon, the middle child of a member of the local landed gentry who had fallen on hard times. His mother was the daughter of one of the richest men in Exeter, but he refused to pay her dowry when they got married, and his father died in a debtor’s prison as a result.

As a young man, Monk joined the army, a common career choice for the younger children of distressed gentlefolk. According to some sources, he served overseas in order to escape a charge of attempted murder at home, after he and his elder brother tried to kill the undersheriff who had imprisoned their father.

Following the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Monck was made colonel of a regiment that was sent to suppress it, allegedly participating in several massacres (your customary reminder here that “Worthies” in the title refers to notability, and does not signify approval). Upon the outbreak of the English Civil War, Monk initially refused to swear allegiance to the king, being imprisoned in Bristol as a punishment. before eventually relenting in order to secure his release.

Following the restoration, Monk became a member of the Privy Council, and was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Devonshire. He was also granted lands in the Carolinas, and shares in the Royal African Company, which oversaw England’s contribution to the Atlantic slave trade.

Monk ended his days as First Lord of the Treasury, dying three weeks before his wife at his ancestral seat in Potheridge. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, and Albemarle Sound on the coast of North Carolina is named after him.

Wessex In Fiction: The Butterfly Lion

The Butterfly Lion is a 1996 novel for children by Michael Morpurgo, which won the Smarties Book Prize for that year. It tells the story of a South African boy named Bertie who finds an orphaned white lion cub, but is forced to give the lion to a circus and leave South Africa for a boarding school in Wiltshire.

The book then follows Bertie’s life into adulthood and his service in the First World War. WIth his nurse girlfriend, and later wife, Millie, he tracks down the lion to a farmhouse in France, where it is living with the former circus owner after the circus closed. They bring it back to England, and when it dies, they memorialise it by carving a white lion into a hillside in Wiltshire. Morpurgo says that this was inspired by a glimpse of the white horse at Westbury through a train window.

Like Morpurgo’s earlier The War Horse, The Butterfly Lion has been adapted into a stage play., which uses puppetry to bring the lion to life. The stage play toured the UK in 2013.

Wessex On Screen: Cal

Cal is the 2013 sequel to Shank, which we have covered on this blog before. It stars Wayne Virgo, Tom Payne and Emily Corcoran, and unlike its predecessor, was filmed entirely on location in Bristol. Written and directed by Christian Martin, it tells of the titular character returning home to Bristol to find it torn apart by rioting and economic collapse.

Cal goes to visit his seriously ill mother, who still hasn’t forgiven him for coming out as gay, and his Aunty Jane (not actually his aunt, mercifully), who has her own unwelcome methods of trying to turn him straight, Meanwhile, he gets involved with some seriously nasty gangsters.

Cal has been well-reviewed on LGBT websites, being compared to the work of Ken Loach and Derek Jarman. The film is available on DVD,

Wessex Attractions: Ashleworth Tithe Barn

Ashleworth Tithe Barn is a 15th century tithe barn near the banks of the river Severn in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds, owned by the National Trust. A four-phase project to replace crumbling stonework was launched by the Trust in 2020, complicated by the fact that the blue lias limestone used to build the barn is relatively rare.

Three species of bats are known to roost in the barn; the Natterer’s bat, the Lesser Horseshoe bat and the Noctule. The Trust is working with bat experts to ensure that the bats are not harmed during the repair work.

There is an ornate round window at one end of the barn, which was designed to encourage owls to enter it – a natural method of controlling rats and mice.

The satnav postcode is GL19 4JA, and Stagecoach West bus number 351 from Gloucester to Tewkesbury stops half a mile away, by the Primary School.

The Character of Wessex: The Dorset Downs and Cranborne Chase

Cranborne Chase has been a hunting ground since the time of the Bastard. It forms part of a wider character area stretching from just south of Salisbury to just north of Weymouth, and otherwise known, along with the neighbouring Dorset Heaths character area, as Hardy Country. It is a sparsely-populated chalk downland dominated by food production, though much of its arable land has been given over to the production of biofuels.

There is archaeological evidence of human settlement on the Downs from the Mesolithic onwards. Important Neolithic and Bronze Age sites include Maiden Castle, Hambledon Hill and the Dorset Cursus. The area also contains the famous “rude man” of Cerne Abbas. Dorchester, civitas capital of the Durotriges, was an important settlement in Roman times.

The chalky grasslands and prehistoric woodlands are an important habitat for species such as the skylark and marsh fritillary. Meanwhile, the chalk streams contain threatened species of fish such as the bullhead and brook lamprey. The local Wiltshire Horn and Dorset Horn are two of the oldest English sheep breeds.

The A354 highway from Salisbury to Portland bisects the area, linking the main settlements of Dorchester and Blandford Forum. For a couple of miles, it follows an old Roman road, Ackling Dyke, which once connected Old Sarum with the Badbury Rings near Wimborne.

The linear villages are mainly clustered along the deep river valleys. Older houses tend to be timber-framed and made of brick, sometimes mixed with flint or the chalky limestone rock known as clunch.