Essential Wessex: The Battle of Ellandun

The Battle of Ellandun, fought near Swindon in September 825, is the battle that ended Mercian overlordship in southern England, and established West Saxon dominance. The exact site is unknown, but the most likely of several contenders appears to be near Windmill Hill in the parish of Lydiard Tregoze.

The battle was fought between King Ecgbehrt of Wessex and Beornwulf of Mercia. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), it ended in a clear victory for Ecgbehrt, after which Kent, Surrey, Essex and Sussex submitted to him, whilst East Anglia petitioned him for aid against Mercian aggression. Sir Frank Stenton has called it "one of the most decisive battles of English history".

Beornwulf appears to have invaded Wiltshire to take advantage of Ecgberht being occupied with a campaign in the far West, in which (again according to the ASC), "a battle was fought between the Welsh in Cornwall and the people of Devonshire, at Camelford". The ASC is somewhat ambiguous about whether or not the two events were connected, though,

Ellandun marks the point at which Wessex became Top Nation, as Sellars and Yeatman might say, and saw Mercia collapse to roughly half its former size. One could argue that it led to a dilution of Wessex identity as the kingdom expanded to cover virtually all of Southern England, but that just shows the dangers of tying modern Wessex regionalism too closely to ancient history.

Wessex Attractions: Hidcote

Hidcote Manor and its gardens, located near Chipping Campden in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds. are a National Trust-owned property bought by the American-born Major Lawrence Johnston and his mother in the early years of the 20th century and restored according to the principles of the then-burgeoning Arts and Crafts movement. Charles Ashbee moved the Gild (sic) of Handicrafts from East London to Chipping Campden in 1902, and the area quickly became a centre for the movement.

The G(u)ild dissolved five years later, but Major Johnson continued its legacy, He spent the period up to 1914 remodelling the house and gardens according to Arts and Crafts principles, but progress was halted when he went off to fight in World War 1. After the war, a period of expansion began, and the estate was sold to the National Trust in 1948.

Like all National Trust properties, Hidcote Manor is currently closed. but their website allows visitors to experience a virtual tour.

Essential Wessex: Jacobitism in Wessex

The Jacobite rebellions are more commonly associated with Scotland, but Jacobitism was a potent political force in Wessex as well, strongly correlating to areas that had been Royalist strongholds during the English civil wars.

Jacobites called for the restoration of the Stuart dynasty, and centred on a belief in the divine right of kings. It was a reaction against newfangled Enlightenment ideas about the sovereign being subject to the will of parliament that had been introduced with the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Jacobitism was strongly linked to the Tory party, which was, and remains to this day, the dominant political force in Wessex. However, loyalty to the Church of England was a key part of Tory ideology, so Stuart Catholicism proved something of a stumbling block, But Tories also believed in unconditional support for a reigning monarch, and were implacably opposed to usurpations and rebellions. Later Restoration Day (29th May) celebrations managed to allay tensions between supporters and opponents of Catholic toleration by uniting them in a shared hatred of Methodists and other Nonconformists, leading to attacks on chapels in Tory-dominated towns such as Bristol and Oxford.

There was a romantic revival of Jacobitism around the turn of the last century. However, it was largely killed off during the First World War when Prince Rupprecht, promoted as the legitimate heir to the throne by Neo-Jacobites, came out in support of the Kaiser. This made Neo-Jacobitism toxic to the general public, and the various societies promoting it quickly shut down.

Wessex Businesses 2020

In the early days of the Society, we did a count of the number of businesses with Wessex in their name within Wessex, and in the UK as a whole. This data was published in The Case For Wessex, a 2002 statement by the now-defunct Wessex Constitutional Convention, and showed that there were 431 "Wessex" businesses in the UK, 392 of which were in Wessex.

Widespread access to the internet was still in its infancy back then, and we were forced to consult the Phone Book CD in Bristol Central Library for this information. Fortunately, there are a number of websites performing the same function nowadays. The one I used for this survey was Thomson Local, as it seemed by far the most comprehensive. A search reveals that there are 2597 "Wessex" businesses in the UK, of which the ones within Wessex are broken down by ceremonial county below:

Berkshire15
Bristol43
Devon29
Dorset162
Gloucestershire25
Hampshire222
Isle of Wight7
Oxfordshire43
Somerset115
Wiltshire85
Total746

This suggests that in the nearly two decades since we last carried out this survey, the use of Wessex in business names has grown exponentially, but the proportion of those businesses located within Wessex has shrunk enormously. Could the Wessex movement, in promoting awareness of the name of our region, be a victim of its own success, uprooting that name from its connection to a specific region?

Wessex on Screen: Criminal

Criminal is a 2016 action film starring Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Costner and Gal Gadot. It tells the story of a convict (played by Costner) who is implanted with the memories of a dead CIA agent (Reynolds) in a bid to find a dangerous cyber-terrorist known as The Dutchman.

Its chief interest from a Wessex point of view is that it features a helicopter chase which was filmed at Blackbushe Airport, just outside Yateley in Hampshire. Blackbushe was opened in 1942 as an RAF base, where it became home to the Free French Squadron (Lorraine), and to the Fog Information and Dispersal Operation (FIDO), designed to enable airstrikes even in heavy fog.

After the war, it became a civil airfield, though US military aircraft continued to use it as a base. It is one of many smaller airports whose volume of air traffic diminished greatly as a result of Heathrow Airport's expansion in the 1960s, and it is now mainly used by private jets and flying clubs. Criminal offers a rare chance to see this forgotten piece of Wessex's aviation history on screen.