Essential Wessex: Jethro Tull and the Agricultural Revolution

Jethro Tull (1671-1741) is best known for inspiring the name of a successful prog rock band, but many people will be dimly aware that the band’s name was taken from an agronomist and inventor of the seed-drill. What is less well-known is that his invention inspired an agricultural revolution in 18th century Britain.

Tull was born in Basildon, Berkshire, the son of a farmer, and initially trained as a barrister. A protracted illness let to a period of convalescence in France and Italy. There, he observed new techniques being used by vine-growers, which he later brought back to Wessex.

Tull promoted a scientific approach to agriculture, influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, in an age when Virgil’s Georgics was still the standard agricultural textbook. The agricultural revolution that followed in his wake included innovations such as four-field crop rotation, an increase in farm sizes, the use of artificial fertilisers, the selective breeding of livestock and the enclosure acts. The latter had a baleful influence, and led to an uprising among the people. But that’s a subject for another article.

Essential Wessex: Vernacular Architecture

Vernacular architecture can refer to any building designed without the aid of a professional architect, but in the context of this article, it refers to traditional styles built using local materials. One style distinctive to Wessex, but also found in the East Midlands and Cumbria, is the cob and thatch home, like the one in Hampshire illustrated above. Cob is unbaked clay covered with plaster. It is one of the oldest known building materials, dating back to 8000BC. The walls of Jericho are believed to have been built from cob, though perhaps that is not the best example to use!

Dartmoor, is one of only two places in England (Cumbria being the other) where traditional long houses can be found. These were once common among smallholders in the middle ages, with living space at one end of the building, and shelter for livestock in the other.

The Cotswold House is another distinctive style. Built from the local stone, with slate roofs, the walls are made of ashlar, stone blocks usually (though not always) laid in alternating horizontal and vertical layers. Some houses are built from irregularly shaped blocks, known as rubble masonry.

Essential Wessex: Nicknames for Wessaxons

There are many nicknames for people from Wessex. The most obvious one is "wurzels". Whilst most people assume that Adge Cutler named his band after an already-existing name for people from the West Country, it appears to have been his own coinage. There follows a (by no means exhaustive) list of nicknames for people from different parts of Wessex:

Devon - Janners (particularly applies to people from Plymouth, but is sometimes used for Devonians in general).

Dorset - Dorset knobs (from the local biscuit).

Gosport - Turk Towners or Turks (from the Turkish naval cemetery in the town).

Hampshire - Hampshire hogs (from the local tradition of boar hunting).

Isle of Wight - Caulkheads (from the caulking of boats).

Malmesbury - Jackdaws (from the colony of said birds that inhabits the Abbey)

Somerset - Cuckoo-penners (from the folk tale of "penning the cuckoo").

Southampton - Scummers (offensive term used by supporters of Portsmouth FC).

Wiltshire - Moonrakers (from the tale of smugglers evading customs officials by pretending to be yokel idiots, saying they were fishing a big cheese - actually the reflected moon - out of a pond when they were really retrieving contraband.).

Essential Wessex: Edward, King and Martyr

Edward, the boy king of England from 975 until his death three years later while still a teenager, was famously murdered at Corfe Castle and buried at Shaftesbury Abbey. The circumstances of his death are unclear, but a substantial body of legend built up around it. He was commonly seen as a martyr, and is recognised as a saint by the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

The pious version of the story states that he was a wise and good leader, generous to the church. But he was resented by his wicked stepmother, Queen Elfreda, who wanted to place her biological son Ethelred (later known as the Unready) on the throne. Elfreda arranged for him to be murdered and his body thrown into a marsh. But God sent a light to reveal the whereabouts of the body.

Today, historians dispute how much involvement, if any, Elfreda had in his death. Relics said to be those of the saint are now kept by the fundamentalist "True Orthodox" monastery at Brookwood in Surrey, though the remains in question have been identified as those of a man aged around 30, and not a teenage boy.

Esential Wessex: Æthelred Unræd

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.