ETHNONYMS: Berkshiremen, Dorsetmen, Hampshiremen, Wiltshiremen, depending on the county of origin; since the nineteenth century Wessexmen has been used mainly in literary works.
Identification and Location. The people of Wessex were originally (sixth century c.e. ) West Saxons (Old English west seaxe). Their descendants still inhabit the southern English counties of Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Dorset, and Wiltshire as well as the western half of Berkshire and the eastern hilly flank of Somerset, an area of roughly 4,440 square miles (11,500 square kilometers), 8. 8 percent of the English land area.
The area lies between 50° 30" and 51° 30" N., and between 0° 45" and 3° 00" W. The land consists of rolling chalk downs with clay in the lower areas, which in ancient times were heavily wooded; nowhere does the elevation rise above 1000 feet (305 meters). The tourist attractions include the landscape, the cathedrals of Winchester and Salisbury, and the prehistoric sites of Stonehenge, Avebury, Silbury Hill, and Maiden Castle.
Demography. In 1991 the population of Wessex was about 3,190,000, half of which was in Hampshire, with a population density of about 280 persons per square kilometer.
Linguistic Affiliation. The language of Wessex is English, a Teutonic language in the Indo-European family. In King Alfred's time (ninth century) it was the main area for the development of Anglo-Saxon (Old English). In modern times and for several centuries a distinctive dialect has been spoken in each county. All these dialects employ fewer words of Gaelic origin and more of Anglo-Saxon origin than is the case in areas farther west and northwest. Family names are usually of Anglo-Saxon origin.
History and Cultural Relations
The area had a certain cultural unity thousands of years before the establishment of the Kingdom of Wessex. Archaeologists have identified a "Wessex culture" in the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1600-1200 b.c.e.). Some centuries earlier, in the Late Neolithic, the ceremonial sites of Avebury and Stonehenge were constructed on Salisbury Plain. The final phase of Stonehenge was erected by the Wessex culture at the beginning of the Bronze Age. In the Iron Age the Wessex chalk downland was traversed by unsurfaced roadways or ridgeways, including the Harrow Way, which still stretches eastward from Marazion in Cornwall to the English Channel coast at Dover.
During the Roman occupation numerous rural villas with attached farms were built, along with the important towns Dorchester and Winchester (chester comes from the Latin castra, a military camp). The Romans built another major road that integrated Wessex, running eastward from Exeter through Dorchester, Winchester, and Silchester to London.
The Kingdom of Wessex was established in about 519 c.e. when two Anglo-Saxons, Cerdic and his son Cynric, are believed to have conquered the Gaelic-speaking Britons. The kingdom effectively came to an end with the rule of its last king, Alfred (871-886), whose capital was Winchester and who became the first king of England in 886. The parts of England that were not yet subject to Alfred were under Danish domination, but the influence of the Danes and the Vikings did not much influence the development of the culture of Wessex.
Since Alfred's time dialect and geography have combined to maintain a distinctive subculture. The culture of Wessex has been influenced as much by geography as by history. As a massive, if incomplete, chalk bowl, the land lacks coal or iron and large rivers and thus did not participate in the early phases of the Industrial Revolution. However, Wessex was not cut off from the events of Western European history; its long coastline includes a dozen seaports on the English Channel, and the chalk downs did not create a cultural barrier. The stretches of downland that form the rims of the Hampshire basin (the Dorset chalklands, the Marlborough Downs, Salisbury Plain, and the Hampshire Downs) have been crossed by still traceable highways since Neolithic times.
Until the middle of the twentieth century Wessex was essentially a rural area with hundreds of nucleated villages and with the only large cities (Southampton and Portsmouth) located on the southeastern coast. These two cities developed on the edge of Wessex as sites for transoceanic shipping and as a home for the British Navy. Other towns have until recently been small, and the largest ones were essentially cathedral cities with markets: Salisbury and Winchester. Towns such as Andover, Dorchester, Devizes, and Shaftesbury are small and ancient market towns. In the twentieth century Bournemouth became a large seaside resort and cultural center, and Weymouth a smaller one. In the second half of the twentieth century proximity to London changed the character of the more easterly Wessex towns because express trains and express motorways allowed people to work in the capital while "living in the country. " The population of Basingstoke, an old market town, grew from 17,110 in 1942 to 155,000 in 2001 as it absorbed surplus population from London.
Subsistence. The rural economy has always been based on mixed farming, with poultry, pig, and dairy farming prominent at lower elevations and sheep farming on the chalk downs at elevations over 500 feet (152. 4 meters). Horses are kept both for farm work and for riding. At least three-quarters of the land is under cultivation, including permanent pasturage. Wheat, barley, oats, beans, potatoes, turnips, and other vegetables are grown. A fairly dense population, much of it living in nucleated villages, has for centuries been employed by the local farmers and landed gentry as farm laborers, plowmen, cowherds, shepherds, cheese makers, game wardens, foresters, and stable hands. Poor villagers have always supplemented their incomes with vegetable patches and sporadic hunting. Rabbits, hares, pheasants, and in earlier centuries deer were hunted by poachers and "protected" by landowners.
Each village typically has an ancient Protestant church with an attached cemetery, a school, a post office, and one or two inns and shops. Large country mansions are common. All traditional houses are built of local materials: limestone in Dorset and Wiltshire and brick and wood in Hampshire, Berkshire, and the Isle of Wight.
Industrial Arts. In the twentieth century individual towns specialized in a wide variety of modern industrial enterprises; Basingstoke, for example, produced trucks, forklifts, steam-rollers, beer, scientific instruments, industrial diamonds, and books. In premodern times the towns were either small market towns or small seaports. Their industries and crafts did not serve a world market but made for local needs products such as clocks, watches, cloth, saddlery, canvas, cheese, beer and other household needs, carriages, farm equipment, and ships' chandlery. Until the early twentieth century a variety of specialized crafts were practiced in the villages, such as wheelwrighting, blacksmithing, hedging, stone cutting, weaving, fishing, cheese making, cooperage, charcoal burning, cart making, carpentry, thatching, and cottage building.
Kin Groups and Descent. The system of kinship relations is not perceptibly different from that in the rest of England.
Inheritance. Children of either sex may inherit property, though in rural areas there is a tendency toward patrilinearity. Children take the surname of the father's family, although among the landed gentry a child of either sex sometimes hyphenates the surnames of the father's and the mother's families.
Marriage. The rules for marriage are not perceptibly different from those in the rest of England.
Domestic Unit. The typical family is a two-generational nuclear one with neolocal residence. In the late twentieth century one-parent families became common, usually as a result of divorce.
Socialization. The socialization of children is the responsibility of their parents, with a small role played by the church and the police. Children attend school for about eleven years, and some for thirteen years to qualify for college admission. Schools usually are administered by the county. Although it has many exclusive private schools, including the politically influential Winchester College (founded in 1387), Wessex has never had a center of higher education, and anyone wanting a degree had to go "up to Oxford." In the twentieth century seven or eight new universities were established in towns close to Wessex, along with Southampton (and some even more recent polytechnics).
Social Organization. Although England often is cited as a rigidly stratified society, contemporary Wessex has considerable fluidity in its stratification. There is a very large urban middle class in Southampton, Bournemouth, Winchester, Basingstoke, and Portsmouth.
Until early in the twentieth century there were several rural-based classes in Wessex. At the top was a small group of hereditary nobles who had seats in the House of Lords and owned large country mansions with extensive attached lands. Below them was a larger class of other landed gentry and newly rich people who usually lacked a hereditary title but could still support the role of a "gentleman farmer" or be successful commercial farmers. These people tended to be cosmopolitan and well educated, with ties to the power establishment in London, army regiments, and the British Empire. An "Oxbridge" accent, horse transport, fox hunting or beagling, tailor-made clothing, and an extensive country manor were characteristic of the upper classes. Below them was a larger class of small farmers, market gardeners, and smallholders who lived off land they either owned or rented but typically had less education. Below them was the largest class, the Wessex peasant of earlier times, who owned little or no land but was a tenant on someone else's farm or a village craftsman, a farm laborer, a sailor, or a worker in a small town shop. Knowledge about where precisely a family lived, educated its children, and sat in church kept the lower classes "in their place."
The nobility seem to have fallen on hard times as a result of heavy taxation and "loss of Empire, " and many country mansions have been sold for nonresidential use or destroyed.
Political Organization. Wessex is divided into about thirty-one local districts and roughly twice as many constituencies from which Members of Parliament are elected. At the local level administration is in the hands of elected authorities, primarily the county councils (each county has an administrative capital) but also the district councils and parish councils.
Social Control. English law is observed. The police generally are organized under county constabularies regulated by a committee of local councilors and magistrates. For minor misdemeanors there have long been municipal magistrates' courts, with more serious offences going to county assizes.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Since the Reformation Wessex has been solidly Protestant, with Anglicanism (the Church of England) the dominant faith. There are few Catholics and Jews outside the cities. Several Protestant sects are widespread, including Methodists, Wesleyans, Baptists, and Congregationalists, as well as the more urban Salvation Army. Every village has a church, yet weekly attendance is extremely low (perhaps 5 percent of the population).
Ceremonies. Life-cycle ceremonies of a religious nature are confined to baptism (or christening), confirmation (rare today), weddings, and funerals. Calendrical ceremonies except Christmas are rarely observed.
Until the middle of the twentieth century, on 6 January (Twelfth Night) groups of men would "wassail" apple trees by firing rifles into them. The word implies "good health" for both the trees and the cider drinkers. Afterward the men drank hot mulled cider, called wassail punch, and sang a wassailing song.
Saint Valentine's Day (14 February) was of minor importance in rural areas but usually included games in which girls would discover the identity of their future spouses. Shrove Tuesday, also called Pancake Tuesday, is a time for village merrymaking, street football, and the frying of pancakes. The word shrove refers to the confessing of sins, which once was part of the spiritual preparation for Lent. Palm Sunday was devoted to country fairs where games, food, and drink were indulged in. Easter Monday was celebrated by rolling eggs down grassy slopes or by playing other games with eggs. In previous centuries village feasts called "Church ales" were held at which flat round Easter cakes were baked.
On April Fools' Day (1 April) children engage in a variety of pranks. This widespread festival probably is linked to Lud, a protohistoric Celtic god of humor. May Day is not widely observed today, but in some Hampshire villages a May Queen traditionally was crowned and garlands were paraded. A May King or Jack-in-the-Green was chosen to be covered in leaves, reminiscent of an ancient fertility deity. Villagers celebrated Whit Sunday with a public feast and dancing until the nineteenth century. Whitsuntide plays have long been a feature of this celebration. On Whit Sunday and Ascension Day churches were decorated with branches cut from the woods. Ascension Day was also known as Oak Apple Day because people decorated themselves with oak apples.
The Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Sunday are called Rogationtide, a time when boys would go around literally beating the boundaries of the parish with sticks (and thus memorize their location). Many places had a Midsummer parade and a bonfire on 4 July, the eve of the old Midsummer's Day. Dancing took place, and giant effigies were sometimes carried in parades. Salisbury still has such an effigy, 12 feet high. Lammastide (formerly 12 August) was an occasion for sheep fairs until early in the twentieth century. Saint Bartholomew's Day (24 August) and Saint John's Day (29 August) were noted for fairs at which lambs were sold. Michaelmas (originally 10 October, now 29 September) was one of the last occasions for fairs. Michaelmas fairs were commonly held on hilltops, far from human settlements but close to the sheep. Shepherds' fights with cudgels were a regular feature of some of these fairs. Hallowe'en, or Punkie Night, is not widely celebrated. Bonfires and childish pranks are reserved for Guy Fawkes' Night (5 November), which marks the capture of a Catholic plotter against Parliament in 1642.
The Christmas season is the traditional time for mumming plays that may have originated in the Roman Saturnalia. Christmas trees are not traditional, as are holly and mistletoe, which are associated with woodland sprites and kissing, respectively. Yule was originally the name for the two months before and after the winter solstice. Yule logs, Yule cakes, and the hog's head are parts of the festivities that have survived since pre-Christian times.
Arts. Two of England's greatest novelists, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy were from Wessex. Austen (1775-1817) lived and died in Hampshire, and Hardy (1840-1928) in Dorset. More ethnographically informative nonfictional accounts of rural life were penned by Mary Mitford in Berkshire, Gilbert White in eastern Hampshire, and Maud Davies (1909) and W. H. Hudson in Wiltshire. The image of the hardworking, self-sufficient, but unlettered Wessexman owes much to the works of these writers.
Although folklorists have recorded the folk songs of Wessex, those songs are seldom performed. By the nineteenth century the decline of country fairs led to a decline in folk music. As church organs became more common, village bands became less necessary, and singing in public houses (inns) was equated with rowdyism.
Medicine. Folk remedies may still be used in rural areas, but Wessex is covered by the National Health Service. Numerous local hospitals, clinics, and a system of visiting nurses make health care universally accessible.
Death and Afterlife. The afterlife is not much discussed by the general public, and the Anglican Church is vague about what follows death. Most funerals are conducted by a minister or priest, and burial normally occurs within a couple of days of death at a village churchyard or a municipal cemetery.
For other cultures in England, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 4, Europe.
Austen, Jane (1813; 1978). Pride and Prejudice. London: Dent; New York: Dutton.
Barnes, William (1909). A Selection from Poems of the Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner.
Benfield, Eric (1950). Dorset. London: Robert Hale Limited.
Boase, Wendy (1976). The Folklore of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. London: B. T. Batsford.
Davies, Maud Frances (1909). Life in an English Village: An Economic and Historical Survey of the Parish of Corsley in Wiltshire. London and Leipzig: T. Fisher Unwin.
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(1976). The Folklore of Wiltshire. London: B. T. Batsford.