Wessex Worthies: John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704) of Wrington in Somerset is often called the "father of liberalism", though he is noted more as an apologist for the Glorious Revolution of 1688 than as an originator of Enlightenment thought. His work attracted comparatively little attention during his lifetime, but garnered renewed interest in the period leading up to the American War of Independence.

Locke's work is often contrasted with that of another Wessex-born philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. Both men believed that humanity originally existed in a state of nature where all people were equal and free, But where Hobbes believed that this led to rampant egoism that needed a strong despot to control it, Locke was far more optimistic. For him, the purpose of the state was to secure the natural rights of the individual. He was a supporter of a constitutional monarchy, and of religious toleration, but only for the different Protestant denominations. Catholics and atheists were still considered to be beyond the pale.

Phrases from Locke's Two Treatises on Government later found their way into the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson considered him to be one of the three greatest men who ever lived, along with Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. However, the left-wing American historian Howard Zinn has accused him of overlooking disparities of wealth in his writings on equality, while from the right, Roger Scruton has criticised his ideas about the Social Contract for concentrating solely on the living, while ignoring the needs of those yet to be born.

However, even Locke's critics are forced to acknowledge his immense contribution to modern thought, Thanks largely to the worldwide influence of the United States his writings have, for good or ill, helped to define the global neoliberal order.

Wessex Worthies: Thomas Young

Andrew Robinson's biography of Milverton-born polymath Thomas Young (1773–1829) is entitled The Last Man Who Knew Everything. It seems like an apt description of a man who made notable contributions to the fields of medicine, physics, music theory and Egyptology.

Young was born to a Quaker family, the eldest of ten children, though he converted to the Church of England in 1804 in order to marry Eliza Maxwell. By the age of 15, he already knew Latin and Greek. He studied medicine in London and Edinburgh before finally obtaining his doctorate from the University of Göttingen in Lower Saxony. He became both a Fellow of the Royal Society and an honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

His achievements in medicine include deriving formulae for determining the wave speed of the pulse, and a child's dose of medicine.

In physics, he was an early proponent of the wave theory of light, as opposed to the particle theory favoured by Isaac Newton and others.

Young was one of the translators of the Rosetta Stone, which constituted a major advance in the study of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Young died of complications from asthma at the age of just 55., and is buried at Westminster Abbey. His name lives on in the Thomas Young Centre at the University of London, and at Young Sound in Greenland.

Wessex Worthies: PC Wren

This article originally appeared in the Wessex Chronicle Volume 18, Issue 1 (Spring 2017)

An unusual entry into our Wessex Worthies series of biographies of prominent Wessaxons this time, as there is some doubt as to whether its subject actually qualifies for entry. Most “about the author” blurbs on the covers of his 30 novels and 9 collections of short stories will tell you that Percival Christopher Wren was born in Devon in 1885, a direct descendant of the famed architect Sir Christopher Wren. However, Wren was notoriously secretive about his life, and something of a fabulist to boot, so this could well be what we nowadays refer to as an alternative fact. Wikipedia, for what it’s worth, gives his birthplace as Deptford, London; Percy Wren, a humble schoolmaster’s son. It also lists his birth as being 10 years earlier, in 1875. He graduated from what is now St Catherine’s College in Oxford, but which was then St Catherine’s Society, a non-collegiate institution for poorer students. Could it be that the connection to Sir Christopher Wren was a way of elevating the status of a man who was self-conscious about his lowly origins? And who could blame a man who had the misfortune to be born in That London for wishing he had been born in Wessex instead?

Whatever his place of birth, Wren is chiefly known as the inventor of a genre of adventure fiction that was once hugely popular, but which has now fallen into disuse: the Foreign Legion story. Again, Wren’s own service in the Legion is a matter of controversy. No corroborating evidence exists to support the speculation that he had served as a legionnaire, and he refused to either confirm or deny it. It would appear, at least to my eyes, that he didn’t actually serve in the Legion, but wasn’t too upset by people thinking that he did. But his stepson, Alan Graham-Smith, always maintained that Wren was indeed a legionnaire, and was reportedly very upset by those who said otherwise.

He definitely served in World War I, however, in the 101st Grenadiers, a unit of the British Indian Army active in East Africa. After being invalided out in 1915, he concentrated on his fiction, though he had previously written a number of educational textbooks used in India. By far his best-known work is the 1924 novel Beau Geste, which has been filmed a number of times, and which spawned four sequels, two of which were also filmed. It was parodied by the Carry On team in Follow That Camel, and by Marty Feldman in The Last Remake of Beau Geste. The title of the latter proved to be prophetic as far as film is concerned, but it was adapted again for television in 1982 in an 8-part BBC serial written by Alistair Bell & Terrance Dicks and directed by Douglas Camfield.

PC Wren died in 1941, and is buried in the graveyard of Holy Trinity Church, Amberley, Gloucestershire. Whether or not he was born in Devon, he certainly loved the county. Consider this passage from Good Gestes:

“What would be the loveliest thing his mind could possibly conceive? What about a drive in the high dog-cart with Isobel?—through the glorious Devon countryside; the smart cob doing his comfortable ten miles an hour; harness jingling; hoof-beats regular as clockwork; Isobel's hand under his right arm; Devon lanes; Devon fields and orchards; Devon moors; glorious—beyond description.”

So whilst his birth in Wessex may be open to dispute, the fact that his heart, soul, and ultimately body belonged here is not.

Wessex Worthies: Thomas Chatterton

Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) was Bristol's very own rock'n'roll suicide, 200 years before rock'n'roll was born. A precocious child, he was, by the age of 12, able to pass off his poetry as the work of a 15th century monk named Thomas Rowley. The forgery was convincing enough to take in the antiquarian William Barrett (1733-1789).

Chatterton's father died before he was born, and it is thought that this motivated him to create the character of Rowley as a father figure-cum-imaginary friend. He saw his poetry as a way of rescuing his mother from poverty, and pursued a literary career from childhood, writing for the Bristol Journal at 11 years old. He sought a patron in Bristol, but was unable to find one who paid enough, so he left for London aged 16 in the hope of convincing Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Oxford (1717-1797) to publish the works of the mythical Rowley. Walpole initially agreed, but on discovering Chatterton's age, he became suspicious, and soon figured out that Rowley's work was a forgery.

Snubbed by Walpole for his poetry, Chatterton concentrated on political writings, penning polemics for Town and Country and the Middlesex Journal, the latter under the pseudonym of Decimus.

In April 1770, he penned a satirical Last Will & Testament, in which he left "all my vigour and fire of youth to Mr. George Catcott, being sensible he is most want of it...unto the Reverent Mr. Camplin senior, all my humility. To Mr. Burgum all my prosody and grammar, --likewise one moiety of my modesty; the other moiety to any young lady who can prove without blushing that she wants that valuable commodity. To Bristol, all my spirit and disinterestedness, parcels of goods, unknown on her quay since Canning and Rowley!" He predicted that his death would happen on the following day, Easter Sunday.

This proved to be sadly prophetic. In August of that year, when walking in St Pancras churchyard with a friend, he fell into an open grave, On being helped out, he remarked that he had been at war with the grave for some time. Three days later, three months shy of his 18th birthday, he retired to his room and drank a fatal dose of arsenic.

His suicide went largely unremarked at the time, and he was buried in the graveyard of Shoe Lane Workhouse in Holborn. But his reputation grew after his death, both in England and France, where in 1835, the playwright Alfred de Vigny (1797-1863) wrote a drama based on his life; while much later, Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) wrote a song entitled Chatterton. Recognition in his native Bristol was less forthcoming, however. In 1886, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and the architect Herbert Horne (1864-1916) campaigned unsuccessfully to have a plaque erected in his memory at his old school, Colston's School. A statue was erected at St Mary Redcliffe church, but was later removed when it became unsafe. A later bronze statue now stands in Millennium Square on Harbourside., while the house where he was born is now a cafe in Redcliffe Way, while one of the walls of the school where his father taught (now otherwise demolished) can still be seen next door.

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.