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.

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.