Essential Wessex: Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth (c1095-c1155) may bear the name of a Welsh town, but his best-known work, the History of the Kings of Britain was composed at Oxford Castle, where he appears to have been a secular canon at St George's College. This largely fictitious "history" contains, among other things, the myth of the founding of Britain by Brutus of Troy. who supposedly landed at Totnes and went on to found the towns of Winchester and Shaftesbury.

Winchester was also mentioned in The Prophecies of Merlin, an earlier work whose text was incorporated into the History. It was said to be the site of a spring that would break forth into three rivulets which would divide the island of Britain into three parts. The well-known prophecy of the battle between red and white dragons is probably the origin of the red dragon on the Welsh flag and the white dragon flag used by some English nationalist groups.

And on the subject of dragons, book 8 of the History tells how Uther Pendragon, after a victory in battle, ordered two gold dragons to be made, one of which he kept, and the other placed in Winchester Cathedral. This story may be related to the wyvern flag of Wessex in some way.

Geoffrey helped codify much of the Matter of Britain. He may have been worthless as a historian, but as a mythmaker, he was arguably on a par with Homer.

Wessex in Fiction: The Crowner John Mysteries

The office of crowner (coroner) was established during the reign of Richard I, to protect the financial interests of the Crown in each county of England. One of the coroner's duties was to investigate the cause of a death believed to be unnatural, once the hue and cry had been raised and it is this function that came to dominate, and which survives into the present day.

Into this historical milieu comes Crowner John, the title character of a series of historical mystery novels and short stories by Bernard Knight, himself a former Home Office pathologist. John De Wolfe returns from the Crusades in 1194, and is appointed Keeper of the Pleas of the King's Crown (custos placitorum coronas) for the County of Devon by Richard the Lionheart. Over the course of (so far) 15 novels and 4 short stories, he investigates a variety of crimes from his base in Exeter. Making him a coroner not only provides some fascinating historical context for the origins of the office, but also helps to overcome a recurrent problem in many long-running murder mystery series: finding a plausible reason why the protagonist keeps stumbling across dead bodies. Remember all the jokes about Jessica Fletcher, the character played by Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote, being a serial killer? No such explanations are needed here, as investigation of these murders is part of Crowner John's job description.

The Crowner John mysteries are available wherever books are sold.

Wessex in Literature: Our Village

Our Village is a 5-volume series by Mary Russell Mitford containing around 100 literary sketches of rural life, based on the hamlet of Three Mile Cross in Berkshire. They paint a vivid picture of life in a Wessex village towards the end of the Georgian era. Mitford writes in great detail about the flora and fauna she sees on her country walks, and about the people that she meets. She clearly has a deep love of the natural world, but is not always so fond of the people!

Our Village is in the public domain, and can be read free of charge at all the usual outlets (Google Books, Project Gutenberg etc,)

Wessex in Fiction: The Well-Beloved

The Well-Beloved was Thomas Hardy's penultimate novel, though it was only collected into book form in 1897, after Jude the Obscure had already been published, having previously been serialised in the Illustrated London News five years earlier. After the scandal surrounding Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Hardy had promised his editors that this work would be suitable for all the family. Modern audiences might disagree, but more on that anon.

Scculptor Jocelyn Pierston returns from That London to his home on the Isle of Slingers (Portland). The novel follows him at the ages of 20, 40 and 60, falling in love with three generations of the same family. Hardy classified the story as a fantasy, evoking the myth of Pygmalion nearly two decades before George Bernard Shaw named a play after its main character.

It is a sign of changing attitudes that Tess treating a woman who had been seduced and abandoned by her lover as a blameless victim was hugely controversial in its day, while a 60-year-old man getting engaged to the granddaughter of his college-age girlfriend was not. It seems in that in late Victorian England, you were on far safer ground treating women as mythic archetypes than as flesh-and-blood human beings.

Wessex Attractions: The World of Country Life

The World of Country Life is an award-winning, family-owned fun park in Sandy Bay, near Exmouth. Opened in 1978, it features a museum of farming, and a variety of activities and exhibits designed to allow visitors of all ages to experience the reality of rural life.

Attractions include animal paddocks, play areas, a maize maze, and a tractor-hauled Deer Train Safari, which takes riders through their deer and llama enclosures.

The postcode, for satnav purposes, is EX8 5BY, and Stagecoach bus service 95 stops directly outside. Check their website for prices and opening hours.