Essential Wessex: Wessex Culture

Wessex culture in this context does not mean the wider sense of anything to do with the region's history, heritage or arts scene. Rather, it refers to the early Bronze Age culture of what would later become Wessex.

The term was coined in 1937 by the Hampshire-born archaeologist Stuart Piggott, in an influential paper for the Prehistoric Society entitled The Early Bronze Age in Wessex. Piggott was best known for his part in the excavations at Sutton Hoo, and was portrayed by Ben Chaplin in the Netflix film The Dig.

Wessex culture was characterised by burials in richly-furnished barrows, decorated with gold, copper and amber. It is related to the Hilversum culture of the Low Countries. It is usually subdivided into two phases, from c2000-1650 BC, closely associated with the building of Stonehenge, and from c1650-1400 BC, though this subdivision has been questioned. In the early stages of prehistoric studies, it had been thought that the Wessex culture constituted a distinct material culture, but nowadays, it is believed more to refer to an elite social class.

Regardless of changes in archaeological thought, the prehistoric landscape of Wessex is one of the region's most distinctive features, and was the inspiration for Tolkien's Barrow-Downs.

Essential Wessex: TheTolpuddle Martyrs

We raise the watch-word liberty
We will, we will, we will be free
George Loveless, Liberty

After the Swing Riots (which will be the subject of their own article in due course) led to violent reprisals against the perpetrators, conditions for agricultural labourers in Wessex and elsewhere only got worse. Pay continued to decline in real terms, while expenses did not; a situation that many today will recognise. The peasantry needed to find less confrontational ways to press their grievances.

In the village of Tolpuddle in Dorset, workers formed the Friendly Society of Agricultural Workers in order to band together in protest at their starvation wages. An oath was administered at the home of Thomas Standfield, in front of a picture of skeleton. Officialy, this was a symbol of mortality, but it also served as a veiled threat to oathbreakers.

In 1834, members of the Society were arrested on a trumped-up charge of administering an unlawful oath, and sentenced to transportation to Tasmania. The burgeoning trade union movement organised nationwide protests, and on 14th March 1836, the martyrs were granted full pardons.

This was the first major victory for the unions, and led to great advances in workers' rights that have repercussions to this day. You could say that weekends, paid sick leave and the minimum wage all have their origins in Wessex.

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.

Essential Wessex: Roman Roads

Their proud works of war now lie waste and deserted; This fortress has fallen. Its defenders lie low, Its repairmen perished. Thus the palace stands dreary, And its purple expanse; despoiled of its tiles
The Ruin, translated by Cosette Faust Newton and Stith Thompson

Fourth century Wessex was one of the most prosperous parts of the Roman empire, noted for its agricultural wealth. The area between the capital of the Atrebates at Silchester and the legionary fortresses at Exeter and Gloucester became known as the "villa belt", due to the abundance of settlers building detached luxury homes at the expense of long-established settlements. Plus ça change.

These fortresses and civitas capitals needed straight, paved roads to connect them, to allow the legions to march by the most direct route possible. Silchester formed the start/destination point for three major roads: Ermin Way (not to be confused with the similarly-named Ermine Street), to Carmarthen via Cirencester and Gloucester; the Portway, to Exeter; and the appropriately-named Devil's Highway, to That Londinium. Meanwhile, the Fosse Way linked Exeter to Lincoln, again via Cirencester.

Sometimes, the Romans upgraded existing roads rather than building new ones. For example, Icknield Way (again, not to be confused with Icknield Street) was built over a prehistoric trackway that crossed the Thames at Dorchester, thus making it a strategically important settlement and the later capital of the Gewissae.

While most "now lie waste and deserted", a few Roman roads survive in Wessex today. The Fosse Way forms part of the A37 in Somerset, while it is still possible to drive from Newbury to Gloucester along the route of the Ermin Way.

Essential Wessex: Winchester Measure

The English system of weights and measures, like so much of England's history, began in Wessex. The Romans had a highly developed system of weights and measures, which was in use throughout the empire. But when they left in the early 5th century, these rapidly fell into disuse. Germanic settlers had their own units of measurement, imported from the continent, but there was little uniformity.

King Edgar the Peaceable was determined to change this. Shortly after his coronation in 973, he issued a decree standardising dry measures in units derived from a bushel (8 dry gallons), based on a prototype kept in his capital at Winchester. When the Bastard invaded, he decided not to change the measurements, though he had the bushel moved to That London.

Even today, a yardstick, from the reign of Henry I and stamped with the mark of Elizabeth I, can be found in the city museum. along with standard weights dating from 1357 and a bronze replica of the original bushel from 1497. These form the basis of the imperial system of measurements still used in Britain until the advent of metrication, and (in slightly modified form) in the USA today. Whether they will be reintroduced here remains to be seen.