This remarkable county’s history from Saxon settlement by the Wilsaetan people to the opening of the M4 motorway is explored.
The territory now known as “Wiltshire” is marked by hillforts: reminders of Iron Age tribal conflict. Invasions and raids by Romans, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans followed. Wiltshire played a central role in the 12th century "Anarchy”, between Stephen and Matilda. The 17th century Civil War saw the vicious siege of Marlborough and the horrific Battle of Roundway Down. The training area on Salisbury Plain and other sites, such as early airfields, contributed to the First and Second World Wars.
Wiltshire has a wonderful variety of churches from the Anglo-Saxon period to the modern. Some of the most interesting and remarkable features are explored.
The Romantic poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge suffered a major opiate induced mental breakdown in December 1813 whilst living in the Wiltshire hamlet of Ashley half a mile from Box. Convalescing in Bristol, by September he was able to move back to Ashley where he was looked after by his friends John and Mary Morgan and Mary's sister Charlotte Brent. Whilst at Ashley, Coleridige made friends of Paul Methuen of Corsham House (now Corsham Court), and Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice 3rd marquis of Lansdowne of Bowood Park.
Coleridge's Bristol doctor, Dr Daniel, put him in touch with Dr Brabant of Devizes. Brabant became Coleridge's new doctor. He and his family were well liked by the poet who often visited Brabant in Devizes. Coleridge also visited his old friend and fellow poet, the parson-poet, William Lisle Bowles at his parsonage in Bremhill, two miles from Calne. Brabant knew the Calne surgeon Dr Page, who had a house for rental in Church Street in Calne. Coleridge and the Morgans thought it a good opportunity so in November 1814, Coleridge and the Morgans moved to Calne.
Coleridge's political radicalism came out when he exhorted the people of Calne to petition Parliament opposing the Corn bill which threatened to keep the price of bread high at a time of hunger and depression.
Whilst in Calne, Coleridge wrote his seminal work, the "Biographia Literaria", a fusion of literary criticism, semi-autobiography, and philosophical analysis. In the summer of 1815 Coleridge's 18 year old son, Hartley, stayed with his father in Calne during the long summer recess from his Oxford College. In August, Mr Faulknor's stage players performed Coleridge's bestselling Drury Lane play "Remorse" at the theatre in Calne making Coleridge a local celebrity.
Despite relapsing into laudanum and alcohol in the late autumn, Coleridge prepared his collection of poems, the "Sibylline Leaves" for publication, added the marginal gloss to his "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner", and even wrote another play, "Zapolya" inspired by Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale".
Fearing another relapse would kill him, Coleridge left Calne for London in March 1816 where he lived with the Highgate doctor, Dr Gillman and his wife until he died aged 61 in 1834. Coleridge's time in Wiltshire was highly productive and therapeutic. The Irish bard, Thomas Moore, commented of the effect Wiltshire had on him as "a giant refreshed with sleep."
A battle was fought between Aescwin of Wessex and Wulfhere of Mercia at Crofton near Great Bedwyn in the year 675 AD. The battle began a bloody war between the rival kingdoms which lasted for a century and a half. At Ellendune (Wroughton near Swindon) in the year 825, king Egcberht defeated the Mercian king Beornwulf: “Ellendune’s stream was tinged with blood, and choked with the slain, and become foul with the carnage”. Within a few years Egcberht became king of both Wessex and Mercia.
Wiltshire saw mayhem in the 9th century when the Danish Vikings attacked. In 878 Chippenham was sacked. King Alfred’s victory at the battle of Ethandune (Edington) brought peace for a century. War came again during king Aethelred’s reign. Sweyn Forkbeard’s Viking army burnt Wilton in 1003. In 1006 they returned and defeated a Wiltshire militia at “the Kennet”. Sweyn’s son, Cnut, fought the English king Edmund Ironside to a standstill at Sherston in 1016.
Wiltshire was at the centre of the 12th century civil war between Stephen and Matilda. Bishop Roger of Salisbury helped the usurper, Stephen, to seize the throne. Roger’s castles at Malmesbury and Devizes were to suffer vicious attacks. King Stephen’s siege of John the Marshal’s castle at Marlborough was abandoned when news arrived of the landing of Matilda and Robert of Gloucester at Arundel. Humphrey de Bohun reinforced his castle at Trowbridge to see off Stephen in a skilful action.
In December 1642 Marlborough was attacked by a Royalist army. After a spirited defence the town was taken and pillaged; captives were marched through the snow to imprisonment in Oxford castle.
In 1643, a Royalist army marched from the West. In July, an exploding ammunition wagon injured Sir Ralph Hopton, the king’s commander. Hopton’s army withdrew to Devizes where they prepared for a siege. Sir William Waller, the Parliamentarian commander, mustered his troops on Roundway Down. Unexpectedly, Royalist cavalry from Oxford, led by Henry Wilmot, the king’s commissary of horse, arrived on the scene. What was to follow was to be a disaster for Parliament .
This talk was given to the Marlborough History Society in 2015 to commemorate the centenary of this imperial adventure. Gallipoli was not the flawed campaign represented in mainstream histories but rather the product of disastrous British diplomacy which led to Turkey siding with the Central Powers in 1914.
Marlborough minted silver pennies during the time of William the Conqueror; a dissident Anglo-Saxon bishop was imprisoned there. It had borough status by the time of the Domesday Book. Who built the castle and when? Is King Arthur’s wizard, Merlin, buried under the castle mound? How did Marlborough begin? Marlborough’s history from the prehistoric Mound to its zenith in the 17th century is recounted.
The image of the town having a quiet history hides its radical past. Just how revolting was Marlborough? This talk explores the themes of Medieval Mayhem, Tudor Ruffians, 17th Century Crisis, and the Reform Bill Riots of 1831 when the town's MPs were burnt in effigy by an angry crowd.
Marlborough developed in the shadow of a major medieval castle. It became a prosperous borough but suffered in the 17th century through Civil War and Fire. The Golden Age of Coaching brought renewed success but the railway from London to Bristol bypassed the town. The school established at the Castle Inn was renamed Marlborough College in 1845. Since then Marlborough has become a place engaged in a Quest for the Picturesque.
Victorian Marlborough was a very different place to what it is now. The gasworks, prison, workhouse, tanneries, brewery, and railway stations are all gone but their influence survives.
Marlborough’s postmasters included; Onesepherous Tapp who ran a coach and horses hiring company, John Eyre who was transported for fraud and embezzlement in 1829; William Wootton Lucy who was mayor in 1867, and Richard Albert Lucy who was forced to resign in 1892 as a “most unsatisfactory officer”. Marlborough’s fascinating postal history is revealed.
In 1997 a developer removed the plaque from the front of the former Marlborough Union workhouse as it was felt reminders of the buildings history should be erased. The workhouse was built in 1837; a century later it was a children’s convalescent hospital. In the 1990s it was left derelict until it was bought for development into luxury retirement homes. A heated argument followed the removal of the plaque as many felt history itself was being erased: whilst not wishing to celebrate or extoll the workhouse, it ought at least to be remembered. The objectors won and the plaque was restored. Picturesque towns like Marlborough were not always the preserve of the wealthy: its real history had been acknowledged.
Behind the façade a remarkable history is revealed. Calne was a major Anglo-Saxon estate and an important town in the Middle Ages, developing as a wool processing town. Its position on the Great West Road made it a leading coaching town. The 19th century saw the rise of Harris's pork processing industry, making Calne a national centre. Since the closure of Harris's Calne has re-emerged as a gem in the Heritage crown.
Calne has amazing connections with the birth of the USA. Isaac Barré, MP for Calne from 1774 to 1790 publicly referred to the American colonists as “the Sons of Liberty” placing Calne at the forefront of the American Revolution. The scientist and thinker, Joseph Priestley, who lived in Calne from 1773 to 1780, was close friends with Benjamin Franklin with whom he shared a fascination for electricity. Franklin was one of the founding fathers of the American republic. The notorious shipyard arsonist and traitor, “John the Painter”, fled Calne leaving his pistol in the church porch after being disturbed burgling a house. William Petty, the Calne lord of the manor, greatly sympathised with the American cause and negotiated, as Prime Minister, the 1783 Treaty of Paris which ended the war.
Calne, like several Wiltshire towns, had its own Members of Parliament until 1885. The literary giant, Macaulay, was a leading force behind the 1832 Reform Act whilst serving Calne: all who vote today owe a debt to him. Williams was a Crimean War hero, a military pioneer and a popular Calne MP. In 1862 Robert Lowe paved the way for state education through the Revised Code, whilst MP for Calne: all who attend or attended a state school should be grateful to Lowe. Yet Lowe was not, unlike Williams, a popular MP: his election in 1859 provoked a serious riot. How did things get to this?
Did Eglantyne’s experiences at St Peter’s School in Marlborough inspire her to later found the Save the Children Fund? My article on Eglantyne was published in the May 2019 "Wiltshire Life" magazine.
A school for the sons of clergy and others was founded in 1843. Marlborough College’s first Master faced enormous difficulties: was he the right man for the job?
King John spent much time at Marlborough castle and hunting in Savernake Forest. He granted the town a charter in 1204 which enabled the town to hold twice weekly markets still held today. John is featured on a carved door in the High Street, a visual reminder of the king who made Marlborough a medieval new town. But in 1216, John was on the run and the French occupied the castle. What kind of king was John?
In the year 978 Dunstan, the archbishop of Canterbury, presided at a state council, or witan, at a two-storied royal hall in Calne. The teenage king, Eadward, was absent, “on account of his youth”. A heated debate flared up as Dunstan’s reforms were roundly attacked. The sticking point was the question of clerical celibacy. Dunstan gave the case for adherence to the Benedictine Rule of poverty, obedience, and chastity but was losing the argument amidst shouts and jeers. Suddenly, and without warning, the floor collapsed plunging Dunstan’s opponents to injury and death: Dunstan was miraculously preserved as he was standing on a beam. It was deemed to be a signal from God. Within a year the king was murdered to be followed by 36 years of continuous and sustained Viking attack. In 1016 king Cnut established Danish rule over England. Cnut made Dunstan a saint because he wanted to be associated with a great, holy, and good man. What happened in Calne was a turning point in national history.
From 1814 to 1815, the great Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived in Calne staying with the Morgans’ at their home in Church Street. Dependant on laudanum, Coleridge struggled to deal with his drug addiction, but his time in Calne was healthy and productive. He wrote his Biographia Literaria in Calne and performed his play, “Remorse”. His son Hartley, who loved the picturesque local countryside, spent the summer of 1815 with his father in Calne.
A chilling encounter with the supernatural as experienced by the Calne discoverer of oxygen, Joseph Priestley, and the creator of Cherhill White Horse, the Calne “mad doctor” Christopher Allsup.
The Midland South Western Junction Railway had its headquarters at Swindon Old Town station. The line was a vital north south route through the Cotswolds, Wiltshire, and Hampshire. Until 1923, when it was taken over by the Great Western Raiway, the MSWJR was a serious rival. Its story is a fascinating one.
On 25th June 1861 Robert Lowe, MP for Calne, cut the first sod of the Calne Railway. Opened in 1863 the railway became a vital link with Harris's pork processing factories and access to a wider railway network at Chippenham. The line thrived during the Second World War as it was extensively used to supply the RAF airbases at Yatesbury. The closure of the airbases and the growth in car ownership brought to an end this enchanting line which is now a popular cycle path. Passing through the beautiful Marden Valley, the precinct of the medieval Cistercian Stanley abbey can be discerned through the relics of monastic water courses, and at Hazeland
the carriers and drains of former water meadows are visible. Cycling along the route today really is a ride through history.
All talks are illustrated power point productions and can be tailored to last from 40 minutes to 1 hour as required. All equipment is provided. The venue is the responsibility of the group. The charge is £50 per talk within 10 miles of Calne (SN11 9DN); £55 between 10 and 20 miles, £60 between 20 and 30 miles; and £65 between 30 and 40 miles. Please contact me if the venue is further afield as we may be able to negotiate.
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