The kingdom of Wessex; the realm of the great Alfred; that state of the Heptarchy which more than any other gave the impress of its character to the England to be, is to-day the most interesting, and perhaps the most beautiful, of the pre-conquest divisions of the country.
As a geographical term Wessex is capable of several interpretations and some misunderstandings. Early Wessex was a comparatively small portion of Alfred's political state, but by the end of the ninth century, through the genius of the West Saxon chiefs, crowned by Alfred's statesmanship, the kingdom included the greater portion of southern England and such alien districts as Essex, Kent, and the distinct territory of the South Saxons.
The boundaries of Wessex in Alfred's younger days and before this expansion took place followed approximately those of the modern counties of Hants, Berks, Wilts and Dorset, with overlappings into Somerset and East Devon.
The true nucleus of this principality, which might, without great call upon the imagination, be called the nucleus of the future Britain, is that wide and fertile valley that extends from the shores of the Solent to Winchester and was colonized by two kindred races. Those invaders known to us as the Jutes took possession of Vectis - the Isle of Wight - and of the coast of the adjacent mainland. The second band, of West Saxons, penetrated into the heart of modern Hampshire and presently claimed the allegiance of their forerunners.
That seems to have been given, to a large extent in an amicable and friendly spirit, to the mutual advantage of the allied races.
It would appear that these settlers - Jutes and Saxons - were either more civilized than their contemporaries, or had a better idea of human rights than had their cousins who invaded the country between Regnum and Anderida to such purpose "that not one Briton remained." Or it may be that the majority of the inhabitants of south central Britain, left derelict by their Roman guardians, showed little opposition. It is difficult for a brave and warlike race to massacre in cold blood a people who make no resistance and are therefore not adversaries but simply chattels to be used or ignored as policy, or need, dictates. In 520 at Badbury Hill, however, a good fight seems to have been made by a party of Britons led, according to legend, by the great Arthur in person. The victory was with the defenders and had the effect of holding up Cerdic's conquest for a short time. Again some sort of resistance would seem to have been made before those mysterious sanctuaries around Avebury and Stonehenge fell to the Saxon. It is possible that the old holy places of a half-forgotten faith were again resorted to during the distracting years which followed the withdrawal of the Roman peace that, during its later period, had been combined with Christianity. Whatever the cause, it is certain that something prevented an immediate Saxon advance across the remote country which eventually became Wiltshire and Dorset. But the end came with the fall of the great strongholds around Durnovaria (Dorchester) which took place soon after the Saxon victory at Deorham in 577, twenty-five years after Old Sarum had capitulated, thus cutting off from their brothers of the west and north those of the British who still remained in possession of the coast country between the inland waters and savage heathlands of East Dorset and the still wilder country of Exmoor, Dartmoor and Cornwall.
So, by the end of the sixth century, the Kingdom of Wessex was made more or less an entity, and the dark-haired, dark-eyed race who once held the country were in the position of a conquered and vassal people; for the times and the manners of those times well used by their conquerors, especially in the country of the Dorsaetas, where at the worst they were treated as useful slaves, and at the best the masters were but rustic imitators of their forerunners, the Romans. To the most careless observer a good proportion of the country people of Dorset are unusually swarthy and "Welsh" in appearance, though of the handsomer of the two or three distinct races that go to make up that mixed nation, which has among its divergent types some of the most primitive, both in a physical and mental sense, in Europe.
In the ninth century the Kingdom of Wessex had assumed a compact shape, its boundaries well defined and capable of being well defended. The valley of the Thames between Staines and Cricklade became the northern frontier; westwards Malmesbury, Chippenham and Bath fell within its sphere, and Bristol was a border city. To the east of Staines the overlordship of Wessex extended across the river and reached within twenty miles of the Ouse at Bedford. These districts were the remnants of the united state of the first King of the English - Egbert, whose realm embraced not only the midland and semi-pagan Mercia, but who claimed the fealty of East Anglia and Northumbria and for a few years made the Firth of Forth the north coast of England. To the south-west the country that Alfred was called upon to govern reached to the valley of the Plym, and so "West Wales" or Cornwall became the last retreat of those Britons who refused to bow to the Saxon.
It will be seen how difficult a matter it is to define the district this book has to describe, so the southern boundary of the true Wessex must be taken as the coast line from the Meon river on the east side of Southampton Water to the mouth of Otter in Devon. On the north, the great wall of chalk that cuts off the south country from the Vale of Isis and the Midlands and that has its bastions facing north from Inkpen Beacon to Hackpen Hill in the Marlborough Downs. East and west of these summits an arbitrary line drawn southwards to the coast encloses with more or less exactitude the older Wessex.