views updated Jun 11 2018

Wiltshire is one of the larger counties, more than 50 miles from north to south. It is not easy to perceive much geographical coherence and the balance of the county has constantly changed. The northern towns of Cricklade and Malmesbury had little contact with Mere or Downton in the south, save occasionally at shire meetings, held often for convenience at Devizes in the middle. For decades there was a rough understanding that the two county parliamentary seats would be shared by north and south—a convention formalized after the Great Reform Act of 1832, which established two divisions with two seats each. Most of Wiltshire was prosperous farming country, the north famous for cheese, the south for butter, and the middle, around Salisbury plain, given over to sheep. On the western fringes, around Trowbridge, Bradford, Westbury, and Melksham, there was a domestic cloth industry, described by Defoe in his tour of the 1720s as very flourishing.

The county took its name from Wilton, on the river Wylye, a tributary of the Salisbury Avon. As Wilton declined, prosperity shifted first to Old Sarum, then to New Sarum or Salisbury, which, by Tudor times, was one of the ten largest towns in the kingdom, with a population of 8,000. The diocese of the county, founded in 905, also moved around, beginning at Ramsbury, moving to Sherborne, and finishing at the two Sarums. The foundation stone of the great cathedral at Salisbury was laid in 1220. In modern times, with the development of Swindon as a railway town, the balance swung again: a hamlet of just over 1,000 people at Old Swindon in 1801 became by 1881 by far the largest town in Wiltshire, with 17,000 people, and, by the 1990s, had risen to more than 170,000.

In pre-Roman times, the area was one of the most thickly populated in the country, the settlers preferring dry chalk lands to the damp and heavily wooded valleys. Wiltshire is the richest of all counties in prehistoric remains, festooned with barrows, and in Stonehenge and Avebury claiming two of the greatest sites in Europe. Though the tribes of the Durotriges and the Atrebates had a reputation for bravery, the region fell easily to the Roman advance. The Romans do not seem to have found it congenial and there are comparatively few remains from that period. By the later 6th cent. it had succumbed to the Saxons, who won a decisive victory at Old Sarum in 552. In the early 9th cent. it was heavily disputed between Mercia and Wessex and was a centre of Alfred's struggles against the Danes. The first evidence of its emerging identity is a reference in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 800 to the defeat of the Hwicce from Gloucestershire by the Wilsætes, under their ealdorman Woxtan. In 898 there was a further reference to Ædelm, ‘Wiltunscire ealdorman’. The most remarkable survival from the Saxon period is the tiny church at Bradford on Avon, used as a cottage for many years and only rediscovered in 1856.

In the 13th cent. Wiltshire acquired parliamentary representation, and eventually no fewer than sixteen of its boroughs were given seats, rivalling Cornwall in profusion. The county had a reputation for sturdy independency. Though there were several aristocratic families—the Herberts at Wilton, the Howards at Charlton, and the Bruces at Tottenham Park—the county was too large for one magnate to dominate. The nobility avoided expensive county contests, concentrated on their neighbouring boroughs, and left the shire representation largely to the country gentlemen.

During the Civil War, the region lay between royalist and parliamentary areas and saw much fighting. Wardour castle was held for the king by Lady Arundell, surrendered in 1643, but was retaken by her son and destroyed rather than let it be used by the enemy. Hopton's victory over Waller at Roundway Down in 1643 delivered most of the shire into royalist hands and they held Devizes until 1645. Penruddock's rising on behalf of Charles II in 1655 was a damp squib, captured Salisbury for one day, and fizzled out.

The 19th cent. saw considerable distress in parts of the county. The cloth industry found competition from Yorkshire hard to meet and there was agricultural depression, especially after 1815. At Great Bedwyn in 1821 Cobbett noted ‘a group of women labourers, who presented such an assemblage of rags, as I never before saw’, and at Cricklade he remarked, ‘the labourers seem miserably poor. Their dwellings are little better than pig-beds … in my whole life, I never saw such human wretchedness equal to this; no, not even among the free negroes in America.’ ‘This Wiltshire’, he concluded, ‘is a horrible county.’ In the Swing riots of 1830, there were more prosecutions in Wiltshire than in any other county, mainly for machine-breaking.

The diffuse character of the shire made it difficult to agree on a suitable administrative headquarters. Quarter sessions met in turn at Marlborough, Devizes, Salisbury, and Warminster, and local loyalties resisted attempts to centralize. The county council, instituted in 1888, began by meeting at Trowbridge, Salisbury, Swindon, and Trowbridge in turn. By 1930 the position was intolerable. It was carried to meet at Devizes, only for the vote to be reversed when the Trowbridge United football ground became available. County hall opened there in 1940. Wiltshire retained its county council in the 1990s, with Swindon as a unitary authority, and Kennet, North Wiltshire, Salisbury, and West Wiltshire as district councils.

J. A. Cannon


views updated Jun 27 2018

Wiltshire County in s England; the county town is Trowbridge. Dominated by Salisbury Plain and the Marlborough Downs, the county's historic sites attract many tourists. Stonehenge and Avebury Hill are England's oldest monuments, built more than 4000 years ago. Wiltshire was an important centre of Saxon culture. Much of this rural county is given over to agriculture, but industry is becoming increasingly important to the local economy. Swindon, the principal manufacturing town, is one of the fastest-growing urban areas of England. Industries: textiles, farm machinery, food processing, electrical goods. Area: 3481sq km (1344sq mi). Pop. (1997) 429,100.