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Wiltshire


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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. 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. 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 2001 had risen to more than 180,000.

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. 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. 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.

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. Of Cricklade, Cobbett remarked in 1821 that, ‘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.

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Subjects: British History.


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