Here at the History Centre, we’re no stranger to Morris Dancers. We’ve had dancers on the staff, while each May Bank Holiday Chippenham hosts its popular Folk Festival. It’s great fun watching the street theatrics, but there was once a darker side to Morris Dancing that led to the following stories being recorded by the Wiltshire Magistrates (and now appear in Records of Wiltshire).
What happened at Woodborough in May 1652 caused official concern, but how was it that Morris Dancing threatened the pillars of the state?
Capers against the Commonwealth On the evening of Sunday, May 16th 1652, Edward Smyth and Edward Hawking left their homes in Woodborough and went to All Cannings, where they met and conspired with about a dozen people. That same Sunday, Robert Golfe went from Woodborough into Marlborough “to get a drummer”, while Thomas Beasant went to Ram Alley in Easton and “there invited and procured a fiddler”.
The following day, their plans were revealed when a crowd gathered from the surrounding countryside; according to the records, “three hundred persons, or thereabouts … gathered together in a Riotous, Routous, Warlike and very disorderly manner’.” If anyone thought about stopping them, they were armed “with muskets, pistols, bills, swords drawn and other unlawful weapons”.
The musicians led the crowd from Woodborough to Pewsey where they “very disorderly, danced the Morris Dance”, and committed other misdemeanours, including “drinking and tippling in the inn and Alehouse”. While the prevalence of weapons may, happily, be less, it’s reassuring to see that the drinking still continues in and around Morris circles to this day (and sometimes, people still disapprove).
Public nuisance, party, or Sedition? In 1652, England was a republic, following the execution of Charles I. The Commonwealth kept a close eye on signs of dissent, looking for evidence of Royalist insurgency: traditional sports and pastimes were suspect. Ales, Morris and other customs had been the target of religious reformers since before the Civil War. The opposition from these authorities meant that Morris and other customs now symbolised the old order prior to the Civil War, when license and liberty were, supposedly, more freely allowed; as such, Morris dancing and the open drinking of ale was as much an open challenge to the authorities as the bearing of arms. Although the weapons offered a challenge to the authorities, the Morris spoke of tradition, culture, custom and a perceived stability before the upheavals of the 1640s. The new rulers of England were right to view the emotional power of such demonstrations with suspicion.
While the Morris at Pewsey may not be as famous as folksinger Pete Seeger, who was blacklisted by McCarthy in Cold War America, or Victor Jara, the Chilean musician executed during the 1973 coup, the Wiltshire boys used their folk art and their rootedness in the traditions of their place to show dissent toward the Authorities. Were the ringleaders seeking to incite rebellion, or just standing up for traditional fun? No doubt motives were mixed and shifting, including a mass of local and national grievances, as well as people being there for the fun, the beer and the free entertainment. What also seems remarkably modern was the casting of The Commonwealth as an alien, faceless Authority that stopped fun and meddled in the lives of “ordinary folk” (“Bonkers Conkers” anyone?).
However, as our next story shows, the dancers in Pewsey were evoking an idealised past in an “imagined village” …1
We could see the enemy’s whole body of horse face about and run with speed… and our horse in close body firing in their rear, till they had chased them down the hill in a steep place, where never horse went down and up again.
Sir Henry Slingsby, Royalist Cavalry Commander, describing the endgame of the battle of Roundway Down.
Slingsby’s laconic words describe the best-known moment of the 1643 Battle of Roundway Down, when the broken Parliamentarian cavalry were chased from the field by the troopers of King Charles I. During this rout, both those fleeing and their pursuing enemies rode off the steep, western edge of the chalk down. The moment captured the imagination and that part of the down is known as the Bloody Ditch!
The rout of the Roundheads might be the most famous part of the action, but it was part of a bigger battle that was, in turn, part of a wider campaign as both sides tried to take control of the west of England. Both sides were seeking to exploit the region’s resources, recruit its menfolk, seize the horses and tax the populace, who were, often unwilling, participants in the increasingly bitter civil war that had broken out in 1643. Meanwhile, the battle took place on chalk downland that had already seen millennia of human activity, the landscape is rich in archaeological remains as a result, with barrows and a hillfort. The edge of the downs also gives superb views across the surrounding landscape and its archaeology.
In early September, we led an archaeological walk across part of the battlefield to explore and explain both the flow of the battle and the more ancient remains in the area.
The Roundway Landscape
The Wiltshire Historic Environment Record includes data for a number of later Neolithic or Bronze Age barrows. Like many other barrows in Wiltshire these occupy prominent locations with extensive views into the wider landscape. They have also, like many similar monuments, been investigated by 19th century antiquarians. Although some of these monuments are similar to others in the county, with prehistoric burials beneath and within earthen mounds, one barrow is exceptional. When it was opened in the 19th century a number of metal fixings were found that suggested there may have been a bed burial inserted into the Bronze Age mound during the Anglo-Saxon period. Bed burials are an unusual Saxon burial practice, usually reserved for women of high status, another example in Wiltshire comes from Swallowcliffe, between Salisbury and Shaftesbury, with others known elsewhere in Wessex and around Cambridge. These bed burials appear to date to the 7th Century AD and may relate to the conversion of England to Christianity, and the woman was buried with a dress pin decorated with a cross. The burials may also relate to the wider power struggles between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, including the expansion of Wessex. The mound and the artefacts were re-investigated by Sarah Semple and Howard Williams in 2001 when they suggested that the Roundway burial might actually have included an elaborate coffin, rather than a bed. Whatever the mode of burial, the status of the deceased remains in no doubt, while the reuse of the much older burial mound is typical of Anglo-Saxon burials associated with barrows. This practice suggests not only the use of the barrows as landmarks, but also that they retained some form of mythic or folkloric power to the people of Anglo-Saxon England.
The walk also visited Oliver’s Castle, an Iron Age hillfort that overlooks St Edith’s Marsh. This monument includes a ditch and bank creating a rampart that encloses a promontory on the edge of the downs. The ramparts respect two earlier Bronze Age burial mounds. When excavations took place in the later 19th century, there was little trace of settlement, suggesting that the hillfort was, perhaps, used as a place of safety in time of danger, or that it was used for ceremonial events. In either case, the prominent location meant that views of the surrounding landscape were excellent, whether to see enemies or to be closer to the gods. The site enjoyed a later life as a sheep fold; a dew pond, providing water for sheep and probably originating in the 18th century, still survives within the ramparts. By the later 19th century, a shepherd is known to have had his hut close to the pond.
Below the fort is a site known as Mother Antony’s Well. This has been the site of excavations in recent years that have found probable Bronze Age barrows, an Iron Age enclosure, and Roman remains that included kilns used to dry grain. In addition, the Romano-British population seem to have regarded the springs in the area as special, and one had an elaborate well head that may suggest a shrine.
We all know and love the historic town of Malmesbury and plenty is known and has been written about the place. However, there was a flurry of excitement in the Archaeology team, Wiltshire Buildings Record and in the local media in September last year.
We were asked to come and look at a void that had unexpectedly been discovered by workmen during the course of ground works at 7 King’s Wall. This unlisted house dating to 1823, is located close to where the line of the town defenses is known to have been in medieval times. Following an initial visit there was just enough time before the building work was completed for a very brief investigation by Dorothy Treasure from the Wiltshire Buildings Record.
In the void, below the 20th century concrete floor of what had been the kitchen, was a small square room three and a half metres deep and measuring around two and a half metres on each side. Rubble masonry,probablylocal cornbrash or ragstoneset inanearthmortarcomprisedthreesides and but the north side was cut from solid rock.
We have been experiencing some very fine weather recently and with this day trips come to mind, and visits to some of Wiltshire’s lovely country houses. One such is Avebury Manor, run by the National Trust and restored in 2011.
Here at the History Centre we have a collection of over 1,000 prints dating from the 17th century to the late 19th century; artistic snapshots of our county in time. A selection will be on show in our reception area in the form of a mini exhibition, running from the 28th of September 2013 to the 3rd January 2014. Entry to the exhibition is free, open during our normal working hours. Please feel free to pop in and take a look; they are beautiful works of art in themselves!
The earliest examples of printed illustration are the woodcuts used by William Caxton to illustrate his books in the late 15th century. Saxton’s atlas of England and Wales was published in 1579 and has been called the greatest publishing achievement of the 16th century, being the first national atlas of its kind to be produced in any country, utilising the latest technology of line engraving.
By the 17th century it had become established practice to issue books with engraved title pages and portraits. The process required a different printing process to text and led to an increase in the use of the copper plate press. Demand for this new type of publication increased, resulting in the establishment of two new trades; the publisher and print seller.
The popularity of etching in Britain was predominantly due to one man, Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-77) from Prague. He arrived in Britain as a member of the household of the Earl of Arundel, one of Charles I’s Ministers of State who was a great patron of the arts. Less than 10 years later both the Earl and Hollar had to flee due to the Royalist defeat in the Civil War.
A re-enactment of events is being staged in Monkton Park on the first weekend in July. With this in mind, I have delved into the Local Studies Library to arm you with further information regarding exactly what occurred in Chippenham during the Civil War period.
Tony MacLachlan has written an excellent account in his book ‘The Civil War in Wiltshire’, which is well worth looking at, and is the basis for the information provided here.
I will give a run down of the events for Chippenham as they occurred:
Sir Edward Bayntun and Sir Edward Hungerford sided with Parliament…
Beginning of 1643 The war had not touched Chippenham as yet…
20th March, 1643 The Parliamentarian Sir William Waller heard that a small number of Royalist forces were attacking Rowden House, the home of Sir Edward Hungerford. He intercepted them at Sherston. At the same time, the small Royalist army camped out in Chippenham was driven out.
8th July, 1643 Royalists headed towards Chippenham as ‘fugitives’, pushing east through Wraxall and Guideahall. Outside Chippenham, scouts reported that Waller’s cavalry were threatening their rear from Pickwick. The Royalist commanders halted the Cornish regiments and sent messengers to Waller, ‘offering to contest the issue afresh’ between Biddestone and Chippenham. Waller declined and each force spent the night within talking distance of each other! Cannon could be heard in the countryside surrounding the town.
9th July, 1643 (early hours) Detachments of Parliamentary Cavalry raced through Chippenham. There were dog fights between the cavalry and infantry of both sides. A ‘ferocious’ cavalry charge took place near the northern edge of Pewsham Forest. A withdrawal was made southward towards Bromham.
17th July, 1643 Having been defeated at Roundway Down a few days before, a large number of Roundheads took refuge in Chippenham, ‘cruelly killing a townsman, William Isles, who unwisely crossed their path’…