Æthelred Unræd (966-1016) was a king of all the English, descended from the royal house of Wessex. He ascended to the throne as a boy, when his older brother, Edward the Martyr, was murdered at Corfe Castle. As he was so young, he relied on his counsellors, particularly Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, after whom the famous benedictional which provides the finest example of the Winchester school of manuscript illumination is named.
Since the facts of Æthelred's life are so well-documented elsewhere, this article will concentrate on his Wessex connections. In particular, one of his most notorious acts was the genocide of the Danish population of Oxford on St Brice's Day (13 November) 1002. An excavation at St John's College in 2008 identified the remains of over three dozen people, mostly young men.
More positively, a law code promulgated at Wantage in 997, which formed a body of twelve thegns charged with upholding the law, has been portrayed as the origin of the grand jury. Historians have been challenging this view since the 19th century, however. In 1872, Heinrich Brunner argued that the jury system was Frankish in origin, and only appeared in England during the reign of Henry II.
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (c1475-1530) was born in Ipswich, but he has strong ties to Wessex. He graduated from Magdalen College, Oxford at the age of 15, earning himself the nickname "the boy bachelor". He later amassed great wealth and power for himself, part of which he used to found Christ Church (formerly Cardinal's College) in the university where he had studied. Wolsey's coat of arms is also the arms of the college, the only academic institution in the world which is also a cathedral.
Wolsey was first ordained as a priest at Marlborough by the Bishop of Salisbury in 1498. In 2020, a bust of Wolsey was unveiled at St Peter's Church in Marlborough - together with a bronze figure of his cat! He is also commemorated with a blue plaque at the same church.
Whilst Wolsey is most closely associated with Henry VIII, his rise to power actually began under Henry VII. His administrative talents were noticed by Richard Foxe (1448-1528), Bishop of Winchester and one of Henry VII's most trusted advisors. Wolsey later supplanted Foxe's role under Henry VIII, earning himself Foxe's former nickname of "the other king". Whilst Foxe became somewhat resentful of Wolsey, there appears to have been little personal animosity between them, and they remained friends.
Lo, I shall tell you the truest of visions, a dream that I dreamt in the dead of night while people reposed in peaceful sleep. I seemed to see the sacred tree, lifted on high in a halo of light, the brightest of beams; that beacon was wholly gorgeous with gold; glorious gems stood fair at the foot; and five were assembled, at the crossing of the arms. The angels of God looked on.... - The Dream of the Rood
St Berin, often Latinised as Birinus (c600-650), was a Frankish missionary venerated in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches as "the Apostle of Wessex". He baptised Cynegils, the first Christian king of the Gewissae, near his "capital" at Dorchester-on-Thames.
Conversion to Christianity at the time was about more than the state of the king's soul. It meant joining a growing commonwealth of nations instead of looking inwards. It also boosted the transition from an oral to a written culture - a boon to historians, who now have textual as well as archaeological evidence to work from.
Written records also kickstarted a trend for royal genealogies which uncovered (or invented) connections between kingdoms and royal families. Berin and Cynegils could therefore be said to have helped turn the Gewissae from an isolated war-band to a European nation.
The use of aerial images in archaeology has its origins in the 1920s. One of its pioneers was O G S Crawford, who was born in India, but spent much of his life in Hampshire and studied geography at Oxford.
During the First World War, Crawford had served as a photographer in the trenches, and as an observer in the Royal Flying Corps, forerunner of the RAF, where he took photographs as part of reconnaissance missions.
Crawford became interested in the application of aerial photography to archaeology. He produced two booklets of aerial photographs for the Ordnance Survey in 1924 and 1929. H G Wells named a survey aeroplane Crawford in his honour in his 1939 novel The Shape of Things to Come.
Crawford used RAF aerial photography to determine the length of the Avenue at Stonehenge, and in 1924, conducted an archaeological survey of much of Wessex, financed by the marmalade magnate Alexander Keiller.
He later entered into a public feud with Alfred Watkins after he refused to publish an advert for Watkins' book The Old Straight Track in his journal Antiquity, dismissing belief in ley lines as "crankery".
By the time of his death, he had acquired a near-legendary reputation among archaeologists, though somewhat tarnished by his becoming an apologist for Stalin's USSR.
Wessex's natural environment, particularly in its overdeveloped eastern half, is under constant pressure from new construction. Beginning in the 1970s but peaking in the 1990s, this has led to direct action to protect it, mainly (though not exclusively) centred on protests against new road building in the area of the region's historic capital, Winchester.
The first of these came in 1976, when the M3 Action Group, with help from veteran anti-roads protester John Tyme, author of Motorways vs Democracy, successfully fought off a plan to extend the M3 across the water meadows near St Catherine's Hill. Unfortunately, the victory was temporary, as the extention later cast a scar across the landscape at Twyford Down, despite vigorous local opposition. Protestors were brutally evicted by police and security guards on 9th December 1992, known as Yellow Wednesday from the hi-vis outfits worn by the guards. Protestor Paul Kingsnorth later successfully sued the police for using unreasonable force.
Winchester is also the origin point of the A34, whose Newbury Bypass, 20 miles away, was the site of another protest in 1996. Since then, traffic levels on the A34 have continued to increase, suggesting that any benefits arising from the destruction of the Wessex countryside are temporary at best.