Essential Wessex: Sir John Popham

Sr John Popham (1531-1607) was a notorious hanging judge who also served as MP for Lyme Regis and then Bristol, and as speaker of the House of Commons. He was noted for his harsh sentences, particularly towards thieves.

In 1595, Popham was appointed Lord Chief Justice, a position he held until his death 12 years later. In this capacity, he presided over the trials of Guy Fawkes and the other Gunpowder Plotters, of Mary Queen of Scots, and of Sir Walter Raleigh when he was arrested for treason in 1603 for his part in the Main Plot against James I.

Popham was the main funder of the Popham Colony in Wabenakik, North America, near the present-day town of Phippsburg, Maine. His nephew George was the president of the colony, and several sites in the area still bear the Popham name to this day.

He lies buried at St John the Baptist Church in Wellington, where there is an 18-foot, free-standing monument to him (see photo above). He was the owner of Wellington House, and also Littlecote House in Berkshire, which became the family seat after Wellington House was destroyed in the Civil War.

Essential Wessex: Wessex and Brittany

Links between Wessex and Brittany go back at least as far as the post-Roman period. The Bretons are thought to be the descendants of Brythonic-speaking emigrants from the kingdom of Dumnonia, covering modern-day Kernow and parts of western Wessex. One of its provinces was named Domnonea, after the British kingdom, though there was a separate province named Kernev, indicating a distinction between Devon and Kernow even then. Further evidence points to a possible second emigration of Britons as the western border of Wessex moved from the Parrett to the Tamar. Athelstan expelled the Britons from Exeter in 928, though the area where they had previously lived continued to be referred to as the "British Quarter" until as late as the 17th century. Until recently, the main bus station in Plymouth was known as Bretonside, a name retained for the new mixed-use development being built on its former site. There is also a Briton (originally Breton) Street in Southampton.

In the 16th century, serge cloth was exported to Brittany from Exeter in exchange for Breton linen, while during the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a thriving trade in Breton sea salt through many Wessex ports.

Today, ferries sail to Brittany from Plymouth, Weymouth and Portsmouth, while Eastern Airways flies between Southampton and Nantes.

Essential Wessex: Gytha of Kyiv

Gytha was the daughter of Harold Godwinson and Edith Swan-neck. Through her marriage to Vladimir Monomach, she became a grand princess of Kievan Rus after her father's death in 1066. Their oldest child, Msitislav, was the last grand prince of a united Kievan Rus, and was known in the Germanic-speaking world as Harald, after his grandfather.

Gytha was believed to have been a major influence on what we would nowadays call her husband's public relations strategy. Historians have noted stylistic similarities between Vladimir's writings and those of Alfred the Great. It is likely that these are due to his links to the the royal house of Wessex through Gytha.

Dating Gytha's life is difficult due to discrepancies between different primary sources. As far as we can tell, she was born in either 1053 or 1061, and died in either 1098 or 1107, depending on which source you believe. She is buried in St Sophia's cathedral in Kyiv, modern-day Ukraine.

Gytha was the ancestor of Philippa of Hainault, queen of Edward III, and therefore of all subsequent English and British monarchs. She was also an ancestor of Ivan the Terrible, establishing the links between British and Russian royalty that persisted until the Russian revolution.

Essential Wessex: Domestic Pig Breeds

Wessex is home to many breeds of domestic pig. Some of the most prominent are as follows.

The Berkshire Pig (illustrated) is one of the oldest breeds of domestic pig in Britain, and the first to have pedigrees recorded in herd books (a development which occurred much later than it did for other species of livestock, due to pigs being seen as a peasant's animal). It originated around Reading in the early 18th century, when native breeds were crossed with imported pigs from East Asia.

The Gloucestershire Old Spot is called "old" because it has been around since time immemorial. Its meat is geographically protected, due to traders fraudulently mislabelling the meat of other breeds as GOS meat.

The Hampshire Hog actually originated around the Scottish border. but was exported to North America from Hampshire. It is so identified with the county that its inhabitants are referred to as Hampshire Hogs.

Closely related to the Berkshire pig is the Oxford Sandy and Black. This breed was on the verge of extinction in 1985, when a Breed Society was formed. Thanks to the Society's efforts, numbers are on the increase, though it is still among the rarest of breeds. It is sometimes nicknamed the Plum Pudding, because of its distinctive colouring,

Finally, the Wessex Saddleback is now extinct in the United Kingdom, though it survives in Australia and New Zealand. It was traditionally farmed for bacon and ham,

Essential Wessex: Feral Ponies

Wessex is home to many breeds of feral pony, on Exmoor, Dartmoor, Lundy and in the New Forest.

Ponies have existed in the New Forest since the end of the last Ice Age. Currently, all New Forest ponies are owned collectively by the Foresters who have right of pasture over common land. The Court of Verderers appoints five Agisters to look after the ponies, each covering a different area of the Forest.

New Forest ponies formed the basis of the breeding stock for Lundy Ponies in the 1920s., crossed with a Welsh Mountain stallion. Exmoor or Dartmoor ponies would have been closer geographically, but the owner of the Island at the time, Martin Coles Harman, wanted a larger breed, able to cope with the relatively harsh conditions on Lundy.

Fossil remains of Exmoor ponies have been found dating back to around 50,000 BC. They are smaller than New Forest or Lundy ponies, but are agile and sturdy. They were used as pit ponies in the past.

Finally, Dartmoor ponies were also used by tin miners, and make excellent foundation stock for riding ponies. Their numbers are in steep decline, however, from around 5000 in 1900 to 800 today. The Dartmoor Pony Society and the Duchy of Cornwall are currently engaged in a breeding programme to try and reverse this trend.