F. J. Harvey (Frederick Joseph Harvey) Darton.

The marches of Wessex, a chronicle of England online

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He was probably very tired, and not a Roman at all, but
some countrified lad from Spain or Africa. All he wanted
was a good meal and sleep. The next day he must get up
early and go on to " the next of these beastly barbarian


villages " (he who may so lately have been a barbarian
himself) : ■" more lighting, perhaps : Ibernium, Ivernio,
some such outlandish name." (The correct spelling would
be settled by the scholars five or six generations later.)
" Quite a lot of those Br\'thons there." And a spring, it was
said — better than the swamp he had just crossed below
Badbury (for to-day's lovely old bridge at Spettisbury was
not built till fifteen hundred years later). Ibernium seemed
healthy when he got there : a good place for a properly
sunk well. And so to-day, if you lean on your stick at the
green hut circles above Bere Regis, it may suddenly vanish
into the soft moss whoro Rome made the well for the Roman-
British village.

And thus on to the famous town of Dunium, which Rome
had really heard of : to be rechristened Durnovaria and
provide Thomas Hardy with one of his unerring fictitious
names. Aa the Roman marched over the last stretch of
track, he trod land probably unchanged from then till now
— Hardy's Egdon, the noble brown Rainbairow. He
could see the marshes of Dorchester before him, and the
high menacing Ridgeway beyond to the south and west ;
could discern, as we can still, the notcli in the Purbeck
skyline which is Flowersbarrow camp ; could see far away
the gap in the hills which C'orfe Castle once guarded — long
after his time, long before ours ; and in front of him the
huge white trenches of Mai Dun.

And aft<'r Dunium ? Prisoners probably told of the other
great forts at Abbotsbury (its Celtic name has not survived)
and Eggar Dun and Pils Dun. The troops, with their
amazing celerity of movement, their perfect and compact
ecjuipment, hurry on to the sunset, along the British
track that the inhal)itants would soon have to turn into a
projxjr paved rcnid. It leaves t(j-day's turnpike-era road
about three miles west of Dorcliester, and goes straight up
the hill U> the next view-point. It is a grass-grown lane
betwcin hedges now ; sometimes unherlged, swinging with
the topmost line of the hilln, still, somehow or other, pre-


served ; in some places curiously fenced by slabs of stone
that might once have been its own pavement.

It climbs steadily on for several miles, a little up or down
as the hills run, following the ridge with unyielding certainty.
There is no life on it at all but that which has always been
there — gorse and bramble and hawthorn, harebell and fox-
glove, toad-flax and scabious : green generations that may
outlive us, their younger brother. So deserted is the track
that in all my wanderings upon it I have but once met
another person — a solitary postman. He appeared to be
going nowhere in particular : but he seemed somehow
symbolic, a unit of the organization that was just coming to
its first birth in England when the road itself was first
paved. The Roman posts ran along that road.

Rome is apt to stand out in the mind as a self-contained
thing. But, as the excavations in Cranborne Chase prove,
here in Britain there was the half-fluid life of a frontier.
Here in this last plain stretch of the Roman Road in Dorset
one gains a geographical vision, as it were, of the limits of
the far-flung Empire. The lonely track takes a final slight
bend and runs between thick bramble hedges, where families
of stoats play openly, almost deriding the multitudinous
rabbit. (A hawk once chased and was in turn chased by
my dog here, so aloof and unsophisticated is the place.)
Then the hedge ends, and the sea suddenly blazes on your
left, as though the Channel were a vast heliograph. The
Devon^coast^is before you. A curving promontory, bare but
for one little tree,* ridged with trenches, stretches westwards
for forty score yards, and ends abruptly. You are on
Eggardon Hill, one of the greatest and perhaps the most
nobly placed of all the Neolithic fortresses of the West.
With it ends the chalk backbone of England. Save for
Marshwood Vale, the rest is Devon and Cornwall — Dyvnaint,
the country of the " Welsh." Dorset, as I have said, is the
real English frontier — the place where invasions and con-

* A smuggler once made a plantation of trees there, to be a sea-mark for
his trade ; but an iinsympathetic government cut it down.


quests weakened into fusion : beyond are the purer, older
races, the l)lacker, older faiths.

When they had taken Eggardon — and they approached,
one can hardly d(>ul)t, from the only direction from which
it could be taken by force, for all the sides other than the
eastern are precipices, up which oven a terrier after rabbits
must go slowly — the Romans looked out towards the
uttermost west to which they ever penetrated. On Pilsdon
Pen alone is there a western prospect comparal^le to this,
and that view is inferior because it does not include the same
vision of Golden Cap, nor the same bare deep wide cleft
made by the tiny Bridport rivers.

It is a magical vision, that from Eggardon. You are
looking into sunset kingdoms into which you must almost
fear to enter, lest there be in them enchantments from
which you cannot escape : but happy enchantments. You
see, as elsewhere in England, the " colomed counties,"
the whole of several huge valleys parcelled like a map.
You see depths of shade, of luminous mist, spaces of blazing
sea, clean-outlined hills, billowing in waves to a horizon
thirty or more miles away ; and at the same time you have
fields almost under you — but several hundred feet beneath
you. Nowhere in Dorset, nowhere, for that matter, in the
south of England, have I felt (and resisted) so strongly the
call to the West that has made European civilization.

I say resisted, for here to me England, except for a little
necessary streteh of fof)t hills, ends. Here, on this glorious
headland, is all Uui ha])j)ines8 and peace T can over desire.
Hero I can look out and be sure that in the end I shall
attain to Tier-nan-Oge, as my forefathers the Ancient
liritons hoped — to f(jrtunato isles " beyond (lie baths of
all the western stars." I can look down on life hence, as I
look down on the lane below, and say " I am on the heights :
I have lost the whole world and gained my own soul,"

" Some, therefore, of the miserable remnant, being taken in the mountains,
were muulered in great numbers ; otliers, coiist rained by famine,
came and yielded themselves to be slaves for ever to thoir foes, riuuiing
the risk of being instantly slain, which truly was the greatest favour
that could be offered them : some others passed beyond the sea with
louxl lamenttUions instead of the voice of exliortation. ' Thou hast
given us as sheep to bo slaughtered, and among the Gentiles hast thou
dispersed us.' Others, committing the safeguard of their lives, which
were in continual jeopardy, to the mountains, precipices, thickly
wooded forests, and to the rocks of tho seas (albcMt with trembling
hearts), remained still in their country."


(Ed. J. A. Giles).

" In the meantime, [Alfred] tho King, during tho fr(>quont wars ami other
trammels of this present life, tho invjvsion of the pagans, and his own
daily infirmities of body, continued to carry on the government, and
to exercise lumting in all its branches ; to teach his workers in gold
and artificers of all kiniLs, his falconers, hawkers, and dogkeei)er8 ;
to build houses majestic and good, beyond all tlio precedents of his
ancestors, by his new mechaiiiial inventions ; to recite tho Saxon
books, and especially to learn by heart tho Saxon poems, and to make
others learn them ; and he alone never desisted from the mass and
other daily services of religion ; he wius frequent in psalm singing
and prayer, at the hours both of the day and the night. He also went
to the churches in the night time to pray, secretly, and unknown to
his courtiers ; ho bestowed alms and largesses on both natives and
foreigners of all countries ; ho was affable and pleasant to all, and
curiously eagi-r to investigate things unknown."





• Iiucrnc


|i To



WHEN Rome wont, peace went. Peace herself
had indeed already set about going, for the
barl)arians had long been raiding Britain as
well as the inner Empire, But the withdrawal of the
legions, and with them of authoritative central govern-
ment, meant that organization (which may be much more
important tlian phiusiblc peace) also disappeared. The
picture given by all the chroniclers, whatever their value,
and however great their discrepancies, is of a country
di.sorganized, frightened, incoiierent : not so much of civil
war, though that may also have taken phice, as of civil

It ifl not agreed how or when Dorset became Saxon.
Thf! battle of Mons Badonicus, whether it took place at
liadliury Iviiigs or not, was probably fought in 510. It



seems likely that the invaders left Dorset alone (save for
peaceful penetration) until, proceeding westwards from
Salisbury, they conquered Somerset in the days of King

By then, however, the county had a strong Saxon tinge.
Ine's own sister founded Wimborne Minster in 705, and
his Bishop Aldhelm Sherborne Abbey : Aldhelm had also
associations with the Isle of Purbeck. There was a monastery
at Wareham, too, though the Saxon church still standing
on the walls there may not have been built till much later.

It must have seemed, indeed, under the beneficent
episcopate of Aldhelm, as though order and peace were
coming back to the troubled county, now veritably part of
the strong kingdom of Wessex. But two generations later,
in 787, came the first sign of new torment. Three ships of
the Northmen appeared off the Dorset coast (probably at
Weymouth) and slew the King's reeve when he sought to
question them. He was the first Englishman they killed.
The ninth century was to suffer worse and more frequent
raids, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records with blunt
accuracy : —


A.D. 833. This year fought King Egbert with thirty-
five pirates at Charmouth, where a great slaughter was
made, and the Danes remained masters of the field. . . .

" A.D. 837. Alderman Ethelhelm, with the men of Dorset-
shire, fought with the Danish army in Portland Isle, and for
a good while put them to flight : but in the end the Danes
became masters of the field, and slew the Alderman. . . .

" A.D. 840. This year King Ethel wulf fought at Char-
mouth with thirty-five ship's crews, and the Danes remained
masters of the place."

Before the tenth century ended, to sack Wareham had
become almost an annual pastime with the pirates. It took
an AKred to deal with them.

From the time when he buried at Wimborne the brother
whom he succeeded, till the last year of the ninth century,
when he himself was laid to rest at Winchester, Alfred must


have been constantly in Dorset. So also, unhappily for
Dorset, were the Danes : " the greater part of that province
was depopulated by them." They lay much of one whole
winter at Dorchester (very probably in Poundbury). But
in 876 their fleet of 120 vessels was caught in a mist and storm
off Swanage. and utterly destroyed. Yet through all those
years of trouble .Elfric was at Cerne Abbas, making it a
centre of learning for half England.

The next century and a half was as full of tragedy as
Alfred's reign was of splendid romance. Immediately on
his death his nephew seized Wimborne : and though he was
easil}' suppressed by Alfred's son Edward, his attempt was
prophetic of the domestic strife to come. The Wessex
Kings of all England were at constant war with Mercia or
the Danes or their own kin. Under Edward's son, Athelstan,
however, Dorset may have enjoyed greater peace. He
established four miiitH there — at Shaftesbury, Warehara,
DorchcHter, and Bridport — and his connection with the
county, apart from his foundation of Milton Abbey, seems
to have been close. In his reign, it is probable, the bones
of St. Wite or Candida were brought in their leaden reliquary
to Whitchurch Canonicorum, where they still rest.

For some little time Dorset itself was untroubled, though
it may well be that her sons had to perform their military
service with the Fyrd in the north, where most of the fight-
ing took place. And then, in 978, occurred the event which
stirrcnl the imagination of England as well as of Dorset,
and helped to give Shaftesbury in years to come a glory that
spread far beyond England : the murder of the boy King
Edward at Corfe by his stepmother.

It will be convenient, before considering the direct
effect of that crime on Dorset, to look forward to the uneasy
perio<l that ended with the coming of " King Norman."
The chroniclers say that it was ushered in with portents :
" this name year (979) was seen a bloody welkin oft-times in
the likeness of fire : and that was most aj)parent at midnight ,
aud so in misty beams was slujwn : but when it began to


dawn, then it glided away." Three years later " the pirates "
landed and plundered Portland. In 998 they encamped at
Frome-mouth, " and went up everywhere, as widely as they
would, into Dorsetshire." In 1001 they marched through
Hampshire and Dorset into Devon and back, burning and
laying waste. In 1003 Sweyn ravaged the land from Devon
to Hampshire. In 1006 all the population from Wessex was
called up and " lay out all the harvest under arms against
the enemy." In 1015 Canute himself encamped at Wareham,
" and then plundered in Dorset and in Wiltshire and in
Somerset " ; and there was a battle near Gillingham the
next year, in which the Danes were defeated.

When Canute became King of all England, there was
greater peace, and by the time he died at Shaftesbury in
1035, Dorset may well have recovered from the incessant
ravaging. It was his steward Ore who founded the abbey
of Abbotsbury (where still the Saxon carving of the Trinity
survives), and Ore's wife Tola had possessions in mid-
Dorset, where her name lives in Tolpiddle. The mother of
the Confessor owned Dorset land, and the great Earls
Godwin and Harold held estates there. Godwin was fre-
quently at Portland, from which base he hariied the south
coast in 1052. Brihtric is recorded to have held many
hides. Aiulf the Sheriff had estates at Durweston and Marsh-
wood, growing vines, according to his fancy, in the almost
forgotten Celtic way (he alone in the county suffered little
loss of lands at the Norman Conquest). But save for a few
name? like that, there is little direct evidence of the country's
activities after 1015 until in 1066, " very many " Dorset men
fell fighting round Harold under the Dragon Flag at Hastings.

There were, then, in this corner of Wessex, three main
factors at work in the five or six centuries after the Roman
peace crumbled : the wars of races and eventually of
dynasties : the. slow progress of the resettlement of
agriculture, with the obscure gradual birth of what we still
call the agricultural labourer — a greater figure, a greater
problem, than any dynasty : and the solemn, sincere vision


and gi'owing power of Holy C'huich. Tiioy were all to become
dominant in tmn: the labom'cr not till the Black Death
altered economic conditions, and then only for a moment ;
the dynasts as soon as the strong rule of the Conqueror ended.

The Chmch, made strong in the West by Aldhelm and
Alfred and Dunstan, was to hold men's imaginations for six
centuries more, under the impulse of such scenes as were
inspired by tlie murder of Edward. Follow the path of the
mart}T from Corfe to Shaftesbury.

The story of the murder is simple and well known.*
The boy-king had reigned three years and eight months,
when, having hunted in the woods round Wareham (" now
only a few bushes," says the chronicler, writing perhaps in
the twelfth century), ho remembered tliat his younger
brother Ethelred lay at Corfe a few miles away (" wlierc
now " — and by implication not then — " a large castle
has been built."). He loved Ethelred with a pure and sincere
heart. He dismissed his attendants, and rode to Corfe
alone, fearing no one, since not even in the least thing
was he aware that he had offended any man.

Word of his approach was brought to Elfrida, his step-
mother, who, " full of wicked plans and guile," rejoiced at
the opportunity of obtaining her desire, and hastened to
meet him and offer him hospitality. He said he had l)ut
come to SCO his brother, whereupon she invited him to
refresh himself with drink. As the cup touched his lips,
one of her servants, " btjlder in spirit and more vilo in
crime " than others, staljbed him from behind. He fell
dead, " changing his earthly kingdom for a heavenly one,
his transitory crown of a day for the unfading diadem of
eternal huj)piness."

The b(Miy was hurriedly caiTied for concealment to a
cottage (local tradition says it was tiu'own into a \\tli)j".

• Tlu> a<.'<ount hom given w frwly iwhvptcil frmu tlm Si. .IhIhi'h Collogi",
Oxford, M.S. lifo in inunkirth I^idri, lirMt printed by the protwnt Dcim
of WinclipHtor in 15M>3. Mr. \V. J[. Hudson luw givon a iino rnnmntio
v«TMi(»n of thi) Mt<jry in Uvad Man'ii i'lark.

t Tho chronii'li-r HtatoH titut u h|)riiig of pure wator broko out fri>iii tho
place wlii>ru tlw lx»dy wum cutit Lalor.


But that night the woman of the cottage, old, and blind
from birth, a pensioner of the Queen's, watching by the
body, had a vision : the glory of the Lord filled her hovel
with a great splendour, and she recovered her sight and saw
that which she guarded. When the Queen heard of this, she
was struck with terror, and had the body cast out into the
marshes that lie between Corfe and Wareham. Herself she
went hastily to her house at Bere Regis, northward across
the Heath, taking the new king, Ethelred the Redeless, with
her. He, poor boy, gave way to grief, and did not cease
to weep and lament. But Elfrida, driven to fuiy, beat him
with candles so savagely (" she had no other weapon to her
hand ") that ever after he could not bear candle-light.

But her bitterness could not prevail to hide her deed.
In a short time, the legend says, a column of fire stood over
the spot where the body had been thrown down. Certain
devout men of Wareham perceived it, found the body,
and bore it to their town, amid a great concourse of people
mourning as it were with one voice. They carried it past
the Priory to the church of Lady St. Mary, and laid it in a
rude shrine there. The shrine still stands, in part, at the
south-east of that gracious and beautifully placed house of
God ; and still St. Edward's stone coffin rests in the

The divine pillar of light must have shone down on the
same brown heathlands of Stoborough (mother-town of old
Wareham, it is said) as the sun looks down upon to-day.
Had the devout men had our book-learning, they might
have had a vision of another old chieftain, a nameless king
of the Neolithic Age, who lay buried in a deer-skin near their
path : they might have remembered those strange British
or Danish Christian chieftains whose memorial stones, in
Wareham Church, were plainer then, perhaps, than in the
poor fragments left to-day. They must have seen the almost
newly built castle by the river as they crossed it to go to the
shrine, and have thought of this fresh renewal of the terror
their town seemed to have passed through — not knowing


Cc] tX

















that worse was to come. Their act, however, was perhaps
just what the chronicler calls it — devout, a duty of religion
and the expression of human grief.

There were other miracles during the year the body
rested at Wareham in its simple slirine : and at last, after
the end of the vear. it was exhumed and found to be yet
incorrupt. It was lifted by the hands of reverent men and
set on a bier, and borne with a great following of clergy and
people to Shaftesbury, to the famous abbey of Mary the
Mother of God.

It is not difficult to see that procession : stately enough,
may be, for ravaged Wessex, but poor beside the splendour
that the martyr was soon to bring to his last resting-place.
The brown figiu-es, straggling over roads or tracks that even
now in April (the month of the translation) are none too
ea.'^y, must have taken more than one day over the twenty-
mile journey. We cannot tell which track they followed :
all the roads north lead in the end to Shaftesbury. I like to
think that they chose that beautiful deserted byway
across the open heath, from which to-day there is a magical
prospect of Corfe Castle, in it« gap, and the shining clear
ridge of Purbeck. The red and green fungi fringe would
star the brown earth then as now, the bog mptle scent the

Thence, in time, I think, the pilgrims would cross the
Stour and climb to the dry clean ridge that runs from
Blandford due north. Leaving the valleys, even the
Minster's chapel at Iwerne, on their left, they would come at
la«t to a place behind Fontmell and Melbury Downs where
the ancient Ox Drove from the east vanishes. There a black
copse makes a cleavage in the green to right and left. The
trees sink abruptly into a steep valley. For a mile or more
thiH valley runs low and slim, interruj)ted, at almost regular
intervals, by long transverse slopes and hollows, whoso
denudt'd flanks show a peculiar cold blue soil. The ghostly
deops are folded regularly, like the narrow central trackways
formed if one interlaces the fingers of the two hands, knuckles


upwards. At the end a huge round hill blocks the channel.
Along the right-hand ridge the Ox Drove begins or ends
its course, and a view of other slopes and uplands to the
north is opened.

Hitherto the western edge of the hills has, at most points,
kept the outer western prospect invisible. And as one looks
to the east from behind Melbury Down, it seems as if a man
might walk for ever, as in Purbeck, poised over void space,
silent, remote, never beholding the dark, patient folk who
live below among trees and streams. And then suddenly the
long track falters. The hills drop all away, and the wide
scroll of Blackmore Vale lies open — " a deep country, full
of pasture, yielding plenty of well-fed beeves, muttons, and
milch kine." Mile upon mile of trim rich land, mapped out
into fields like the pieces of a dissected puzzle, fall and rise
until, half a day's long walk away, they reach the central
ridge of the county, nine hundred feet high. This fertile
country stretches west and south-west almost without
bound : and the eye travels over it equably, to be arrested
only by isolated heights to the south and north : to the
south, those along which the pilgrims' track had already
curved : to the north by Shaftesbury — still Shaston on the
milestones — the legendary British town of Palladour.

It is this northern height which holds the attention most
magically. Here truly is a city set on a hill : neither Rye
nor Glastonbury Tor stands up more sharply from the plain.
A dark skyline of trees, a shining square tower, blue wreaths
of smoke, clustered golden houses all hung upon a green
precipice — that is the city of Palladour. A city of dreams,
the perfect description by a great writer calls it : dreams of
the dead, for whom the multitudinous sad-toned sheep-
bells of the downs seem to be for ever ringing lamentably.
Men live and move and have their being in Palladour busily
enougli to-day. It is as comfortable and pleasing a country
town as any in England. Its civic spirit and corporate
activities are vigorous, and its dwellers prosper. But in the
old time before thom it was no mere country town. It


was a city of prophets, priests, and kings, " dear for its
reputation through the world," a habitation of pride and
beauty and immemorial legend : of which magnificence
to-day even the legend is only a dimly remembered
dream, rcH?orded in a few half-buried stones. Shaftesbury
seems to stand up out of the valley mists like a city
of ghosts.

Not less aerial does it appear from within. If from the

Online LibraryF. J. Harvey (Frederick Joseph Harvey) DartonThe marches of Wessex, a chronicle of England → online text (page 6 of 28)