Wessex Worthies: RD Blackmore

Richard Doddridge Blackmore (1825-1900) was a Berkshire-born novelist most famous for his "romance of Exmoor", Lorna Doone. Other Wessex based works include Cradock Nowell: A tale of the New Forest and Christowell: a Dartmoor tale. Each of these works will be the subject of their own blog post, so I will only give them a cursory treatment here, after briefly surveying Blackmore's life

Blackmore was born in Longworth, Berkshire, the son of the parish curate. His mother died of typhus a few month later, and the family ended up moving back to their native Devon. He spent much of his childhood in the Exmoor countryside that he later came to immortalise as "Doone country". He was educated at Oxford, and later called to the bar in That London.

His literary career initially began with collections of poetry, but it was his third novel, Lorna Doone, that really made his name, and which remains his best-known work. It inspired the Victorian romantic movement in literature, and Thomas Hardy wrote approvingly of it.

His previous work, Cradock Nowell, was set primarily in the New Forest, an area Blackmore only knew from fishing trips. It is perhaps this lack of an intimate connection with the landscape which prevented it from becoming as successful as its immediate successor.

Blackmore returned to Devon for his Dartmoor-set Christowell, published in 1882. The novel was well-received in its day, but is barely remembered now.

Blackmore died in Teddington, Middlesex, and his funeral was reported to be well-attended. Memorials to him were established in Exeter Cathedral, and at the parish church in Oare, Somerset, where Lorna Doone was married in the novel.

Wessex Worthies: Laurie Lee

Laurie Lee was born in 1914 near Stroud, but moved as a boy to the nearby village of Slad. This move forms the opening of his best-known work, Cider With Rosie, published in 1959, and a staple of high school English lessons ever since. Cider With Rosie was followed by two autobiographical sequels, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning in 1969, and A Moment Of War in 1991.

Whilst he is chiefly remembered for his memoirs, his true passion was poetry. He published three volumes of poems, and in 1968, Samuel Barber composed a choral arrangement of the poem Twelfth Night.

Lee was politicised as a young man by an encounter with the Whiteway Colony, a community of Tolstoyan anarchists based near Slad. He later fought in the Spanish Civil War against Franco's fascists, having learned a few words of Spanish from an Argentinian girl whose family had moved to Slad.

In later life, Lee and his wife moved back to Slad. Shortly before his death in 1997, he helped save the Woolpack pub, illustrated above, from closure. The pub is still open, serving real ales and ciders, and also acting as a village shop.

Lee is buried in the village churchyard. Shortly after his death, Cider With Rosie was made into a TV movie featuring archive recordings of his voice, and with a teleplay by his friend John Mortimer.

Wessex Worthies: Saint Boniface

Born near Crediton in Devon and originally named Wynfrith, Saint Boniface (675-754) was the first Archbishop of Mainz, and is known as "the apostle to the Germans". Christopher Dawson, in his 1946 book The Making of Europe, has said that Boniface "had a deeper influence on the history of Europe than any Englishman who has ever lived". A bold claim, but does it hold up?

The young Wynfrith was noted for his academic prowess. Originally sent as a boy to the monastery at Exeter for his education, he eventually entered the monastery at Nursling in Hampshire, where he became director of the school at an early age, compiling the first known Latin grammar in England. King Ine and his witan (advisors) selected him to become part of a delegation to the Archbishop of Canterbury, where he honed his skills as a diplomat. This led to him being dispatched as a missionary to the Frisians, where he met with fierce resistance from their pagan king, Radbod. The mission ending in failure, Wynfrith became convinced that he needed a direct commission from the pope, Gregory II. This was granted in 719, along with his new name, Boniface, named in honour of an earlier martyr.

Boniface returned to Frisia following the death of Radbod, and found more success in winning converts to the new faith, assisting the now elderly Saint Willibrord of Utrecht. Willibrord wanted Boniface to take over from him after his retirement, but Boniface chose instead to lead a mission to the still unconverted German lands, under an order of protection from Charles Martel, who saw an opportunity to establish Frankish rule.

It was in Hesse that he performed his most famous deed, cutting down an oak tree that had been struck by lightning, and was thus sacred to Donar (Thunor/Thor). The locals seeing that he was not punished by the gods for this impious deed, converted to Christianity. The story was later embellished to have the oak felled by a divine blast of lightning, and split into four pieces of equal size, arranged in the shape of a cross. A later legend credits this as the origin of the Christmas tree, though in reality, Christmas trees are much too recent in origin for this to be the case.

But Boniface's most enduring legacy was the reform of the German churches, establishing the Rule of St Benedict and leaving behind a system of administration, and an alliance between the Carolingian dynasty and the papacy, that was to form the basis of the so-called "Holy Roman Empire". He and his missionaries were active in bringing Roman learning and Roman civilisation to the Germanic world, making the claim made by Dawson in the opening paragraph more than just empty hype.

In 754, at the age of 79, Boniface undertook one last mission to Frisia. At a mass baptism event, he was ambushed by armed robbers. His companions tried to defend themselves, but he urged them to lay down their arms and trust in God. This went exactly as you might expect. His body was initially transferred to Mainz, before being translated to the Benedictine abbey (later cathedral) in the Hessian city of Fulda, where his remains are kept to this day. They are a major pilgrimage site, even attracting a papal visit in 1980. There is also a shrine at the Catholic church in Crediton, Boniface's feast day is observed on June 5th in the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Wessex Worthies: Sebastian Cabot

Sebastian Cabot (1474-1557) was the son of the famous Venetian explorer John Cabot (1450-1500), and followed in his father's footsteps in leading expeditions from Bristol. Late in life, he claimed to have been born there, but he appears to have been suffering from cognitive decline by that point, and most modern historians believe that he was born in the Venetian Republic.

Cabot left a note on his famous map of the New World claiming to have reached North America with his father in 1494, three years before the famous voyage of the Matthew, This may have been a transcription error in subsequent copies of the manuscript, or Cabot may have been trying to nudge the date forward a few years in order to advance Spanish or Portuguese territorial claims over those of England or France.

Better attested is his 1504 voyage from Bristol, in which he took two ships, the Jesus and the Gabriel past Cuba and as far as the Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately, by the time he returned, Henry VII, who had sponsored the voyage, had died, and his son Henry VIII showed little interest in exploring the New World at the time. He later relented, and tried to sponsor a voyage in 1521, but the Drapers' Company was reluctant to fund it, and the voyage was abandoned.

Interestingly, David Hackett Fischer devoted a section of his book Albion's Seed to the fact that the English settlement of the Chesapeake Bay area was dominated by Wessaxons. And there exists to this day a Wessex Society of Newfoundland (no connection to this website beyond the name), which promotes the Wessaxon heritage of the island. Sebastian Cabot, whether or not he was a native son of Wessex, surely stands along with his father as the person most responsible for these historic links.

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.