Worcestershire

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Worcestershire is bisected by the river Severn, which enters the county at Bewdley and leaves it near Tewkesbury: it is joined from the west by the Teme and from the east by the Avon and its tributaries. It was well wooded. The Malverns formed the boundary with Herefordshire in the south-west and the other hills include Bredon Hill, beloved of poets and composers, and the Lickey, Clent, and Abberley hills. The early importance of Worcester was as a river crossing and it retained its strategic significance until the 17th cent. One form of the name was Wigornaceastre, which may derive from the people of the Wyre forest. The area formed part of the territory of the Hwicce and then of the Mercians. It was in the diocese of Lichfield until Worcester was established as a separate see in the later 7th cent.

Though sheltered from Welsh attacks by Hereford to the west, the county was for centuries a border area, and fell under the jurisdiction of the Council of the Marches in Tudor times. Four great abbeys were early established, at Pershore, Evesham, Malvern, and Worcester itself. The cathedral at Worcester was rebuilt several times before the Norman Conquest. The present building was started in 1084 by St Wulfstan.

It was a fertile and flourishing county. In the 16th cent. Camden wrote of Worcester that it ‘really deserved admiration both for its antiquity and beauty’ and noted that the shire was celebrated for its perry and for the salt springs at Droitwich. The strategic position of Worcester made it of great importance during the civil wars, since its bridge dominated access to Wales and to royalist recruits. Indeed, the civil wars may be said to have begun and finished in the city. The first skirmish in September 1642 was Rupert's cavalry action at Powick bridge and the last battle in September 1651 saw Charles II driven out of the city by Cromwell's men. The flamboyant Guildhall, built in the safer 1720s, paraded the city's loyalties with statues of Charles I and Charles II.

Worcestershire retained its prosperity in the 18th cent. but the character of the county was beginning to change. Tom Jones and Mrs Waters spent a disturbed night at the White Lion at Upton on Severn, where the landlady confessed that she sold her perry as champagne: ‘to be sure it is as well tasted and as wholesome as any champagne in the kingdom.’ Upton itself, in the extreme south of the county, remained a tiny market town, preserved in a lovely time warp, but in the north mining and industry was changing the face of the shire. There had always been local industries and the Severn was always a busy thoroughfare. Droitwich salt-pans went back to Domesday, Kidderminster was famous for textiles and then carpets, while there were glass manufactories at Stourbridge from Tudor times. In the 17th cent. the Foleys established nail-making at Stourbridge on a grand scale and set up a great county interest: the burned-out remains of their house at Great Witley are an impressive and sombre testimony to departed grandeur. The development of a canal and railway network brought Worcestershire more into the national context, as it did Warwickshire. Stourport was scarcely more than a solitary inn in the 1770s when it became the junction of the new Staffordshire and Worcester canal with the Severn, but subsequently developed into a busy town. Great Malvern jumped from a small local spa to a national one in the middle of the 19th cent. with the popularity of hydropathy. The southern and western towns of Evesham, Pershore, and Tenbury remained small, but the northern parts were sucked into the Black Country complex. Yardley, King's Norton, and Halesowen were swallowed up by Birmingham; Dudley developed into a great mining and industrial centre, far exceeding Worcester in population. By the local government reorganization of 1972, the county lost parishes in the north to the new West Midlands area, but was merged with its neighbour Herefordshire. ‘The Malverns are no more,’ it was declared. But the forced marriage, resented by Herefordshire, ended in divorce in 1998. Worcestershire continues as a county, with district councils in Bromsgrove, Malvern Hills, Redditch, Worcester, Wychavon, and Wyre Forest.

J. A. Cannon

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