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.

Essential Wessex: Jacobitism in Wessex

The Jacobite rebellions are more commonly associated with Scotland, but Jacobitism was a potent political force in Wessex as well, strongly correlating to areas that had been Royalist strongholds during the English civil wars.

Jacobites called for the restoration of the Stuart dynasty, and centred on a belief in the divine right of kings. It was a reaction against newfangled Enlightenment ideas about the sovereign being subject to the will of parliament that had been introduced with the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Jacobitism was strongly linked to the Tory party, which was, and remains to this day, the dominant political force in Wessex. However, loyalty to the Church of England was a key part of Tory ideology, so Stuart Catholicism proved something of a stumbling block, But Tories also believed in unconditional support for a reigning monarch, and were implacably opposed to usurpations and rebellions. Later Restoration Day (29th May) celebrations managed to allay tensions between supporters and opponents of Catholic toleration by uniting them in a shared hatred of Methodists and other Nonconformists, leading to attacks on chapels in Tory-dominated towns such as Bristol and Oxford.

There was a romantic revival of Jacobitism around the turn of the last century. However, it was largely killed off during the First World War when Prince Rupprecht, promoted as the legitimate heir to the throne by Neo-Jacobites, came out in support of the Kaiser. This made Neo-Jacobitism toxic to the general public, and the various societies promoting it quickly shut down.

Essential Wessex: The Prayer Book Rebellion

Plaque in Sampford Courtenay

The Prayer Book Rebellion, also known as the Western Rebellion, was an uprising that took place in Devon and Cornwall in 1549. At the time, there was already social unrest due to a poll tax on sheep, and rumours that it was due to be expanded to other forms of livestock. This was a major burden on farming communities. The straw that broke the camel's back proved to be the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer in place of the Latin mass.

The use of English was particularly unpopular in the western parts of Cornwall, where there were still many monoglot Cornish speakers at the time. But it was in Sampford Courtenay in Devon where both the first and the last battles of the rebellion were fought.

The rebellion began when a local farmer, William Hellyons, was run through with a pitchfork for supporting the change. The rebels marched on Exeter, where they were defeated by forces summoned by the Council of the West, the regional government set up by Henry VIII. The leader of the rebels, Humphrey Arundell, regrouped at Sampford Courtenay with the promise of reinforcements from Winchester, but was betrayed by his secretary, John Kessell. The reinforcements never came, and vastly outnumbered, the rebels were thoroughly defeated.

The Western Rebellion is still considered an important part of Cornish history. Hopefully, this very brief summary shows that it has a Wessex dimension as well.

St Berin, Apostle of Wessex

This article is the first in a new series, Essential Wessex, outlining key moments in Wessex history

St Berin, more commonly known by the Latinised form of his name, Birinus, was a Frankish bishop sent by Pope Honorius I to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons. He was originally destined for Mercia, but upon arriving in the kingdom of the Gewissae, located in the upper Thames Valley, felt that his calling was here. He landed at Hamwic (Southampton) in 634, and was given permission to preach by King Cynegils the following year. Cynegils' motives were not purely based in religious conviction. His daughter was to marry the Christian King Oswald of Northumbria, and a conversion to Christianity made for a politically savvy move.

According to a legend depicted in stained glass at Dorchester Abbey, Birinus gave mass before boarding a ship and left behind a corporal (altar cloth) that had been gifted to him by Pope Honorius. He jumped overboard, retrieved the corporal and rejoined the ship, which had been miraculously becalmed despite an offshore wind, walking upon the water without getting wet.

Back in the real world, Berin was known to have baptised at a pond known as Bapsey Pool (a corruption of the word "baptism") at Taplow, though the baptism of Cynegils probably took place at Dorchester-on-Thames, an important settlement that subsequently became Berin's see. The see of Dorchester lapsed some time around 685, as Mercian expansion gobbled up Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, forcing the bishopric of the West Saxons southward to Winchester. The last bishop of Dorchester before its absorption into the see of Lichfield was a Mercian, Ætla, with his West Saxon predecessor Agilbert being reassigned to Paris. The see was re-established in 886 by King Alfred, covering much of the Danelaw.

Berin was very active in establishing churches in what is now the northern part of Wessex, including the parish church of St Mary's in Reading. Berin's Hill near Ipsden and the town of Berinsfield, both in Oxfordshire, are named after him. He died on 3rd December 650 (649 according to some sources), and buried at Dorchester Abbey, though his relics were later transferred to Winchester Cathedral. His feast day is observed on 3rd December in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, but 5th December in the Church of England.

Until recently, the Anglican feast day was the date of a pilgrimage that departed from Churn Knob near Blewbury, a neolithic burial mound that may have been chosen for Berin's preaching due to already being recognised as a sacred site. Wessex Society members joined the pilgrimage in one the early years of the Society's founding (I believe it was 2000, but I have no record, so I cannot be absolutely sure), braving torrential rain and swamp-like mud for a walk of approximately eleven miles. The pilgrimage route is available to members of the Walking World website, or non-members can buy the route for a small fee of £1.95. Perhaps one year, the Society might revive the walk.