Essential Wessex: Hobby Horses

Hobby Horses are not unique to Wessex, or even Britain, but there are some notable hobby horse festivals here. A hobby horse is a costumed character representing a horse, that takes part in processions and festivals, usually around May Day.

The Minehead ‘Obby ‘Oss dates back to at least 1830. It features three rival horses, built around a boat-shaped wooden frame. In nearby Dunster, there was a similar festival in the past, and the two towns’ horses would sometimes visit each other, but this tradition sadly seems to have died out.

In Combe Martin, Devon an annual tradition called the Hunting of the Earl of Rone sees a hobby horse and fool hunting the titular Earl. It was revived in 1974, having previously been banned in 1837. The origins of the festival are unknown, though it is believed locally to refer to the Earl of Tyrone, who fled Ireland in 1607.

Unlike the other two festivals, which take place in May, the Banbury Folk Festival previously took place in October. The last one was in 2022, and no festival has been announced yet for 2024, but it featured a hobby horse procession.

Small personal horses, known as tourney horses, are also a feature of Morris dancing.

Essential Wessex: The Napoleonic Wars in Wessex

HMS Victory, the world’s oldest serving warship, is a visible symbol of the Napoleonic wars, and of Wessex’s naval might. Moored in a dry dock in Portsmouth, visible from the main railway station and ferry terminal, she doubles as both a museum ship, and as the flagship of the First Sea Lord. She most famously served as the flagship of Admiral Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar.

When Nelson died in 1805, severe storms meant that the news took sixteen days to reach the Admiralty in London, which was exceptionally slow even by the standards of the time. The despatch was carried on the schooner Pickle, landing at Falmouth in Cornwall. From there, messengers took it across Wessex to Surrey and, eventually, London. The route those messengers took has now been labelled the Trafalgar Way.

The wars were by no means universally cheered in Wessex. In 1795 and 1801, riots took place in the Forest of Dean over bread shortages caused by the need to feed the armed forces.

Tiverton saw a substantial number of French prisoners of war. They appear to have been treated well, and integrated into the life of the town.

The Napoleonic wars were the subject of Thomas Hardy’s only play, The Dynasts. Due to its length and ambition, it has never been staged in full.

Essential Wessex: The Mary Rose

The Mary Rose was a man-o-war in Henry VIII’s navy, built in Portsmouth in 1510 and launched the following year. Henry was preparing for war against France, and the building of the Mary Rose and her sister ship, the Peter Pomegranate, arguably laid the foundations for the birth of the Royal Navy as we know it.

The Admiral of the Fleet, Edward Howard, chose the Mary Rose, rather than the larger Regent as his flagship. This gave him the element of surprise at the Battle of St Mathieu in 1512. The French were not expecting the English to arrive for several more days, and the Mary Rose was able to catch them unawares, crippling their flagship the Grande Louise.

The ship saw many more years of distinguished service before being sunk off the Isle of Wight in 1545. The exact reasons for her loss were unknown, but it is thought that bad weather hastened her demise.

The story does not end there, however. The wreck of the Mary Rose was raised in 1982, and today sits in a dedicated museum located in Portsmouth’s historic dockyard. Find out more at their website.

Essential Wessex: Edgar Ætheling

Edgar Ætheling (c1052-1125) was the last male member of the royal house of Wessex. Elected by the Witan following the death of Harold Godwinson in 1066, he reigned for less than three months before being forced to submit to William the Bastard. According to a late 13th century chronicle, he had one daughter, Margaret Lovel, who married into the Lovel (or Lovell) family of Castle Cary, thus maintaining a connection with Wessex.

Born in Hungary, Edward was still a teenager when elected king. Boy kings were not unusual in the early medieval period, but as the Normans closed in on London, doubts grew about the wisdom of backing him, and many of his powerful supporters deserted him. He was brought before William at Berkhamsted and submitted to his rule.

Little is known of Edgar’s later life. Accounts in later chronicles are fragmentary and often contradictory. Orderic Vitalis has him commanding the English Fleet during the First Crusade in March 1098, but Florence of Worcester places him in Scotland at the end of 1097, and it is unlikely that he would have been able to make the journey to Syria in that time. He was reported as still being alive in 1125, but the exact date and location of his death are unknown.

Essential Wessex: The Age of Arthur

Arthurian legend is not unique to Wessex, of course. Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Cumbria all have sites strongly associated with Arthur. However, Thomas Malory explicitly identified Camelot with Winchester, while a fortuitous “discovery” of Arthur’s tomb by the monks of Glastonbury Abbey brought pilgrims (and their money) to the supposed site of his burial.

In a way, this is ironic, as Arthur, if he existed, almost certainly fought to prevent Wessex – that is, the kingdom of the West Saxons – from ever being created. Historians will probably debate forever whether Arthur was a real person, an amalgamation of several people, or an entirely fictional character. Whichever is the case, he would have fought on the side of the native Romano-Britons against the incoming Saxons.

The earliest source for the figure of Arthur is Gildas’s The Ruin of Britain. This does not mention Arthur by name, but does talk about a figure called “the bear”, Arcturus in Latin. The later Arthurian tradition dates back to Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the 12th century.

Since then, Arthur has been subject to a number of reinterpretations, from the Victorian romanticism of Tennyson to the grimy realism of HTV’s Arthur of the Britons. Real or not, he is an infinitely fascinating and adaptable character.