Common section

Image The Cradle of Virginia: The South of England

Virginia’s recruiting ground was a broad region in the south and west of England, running from the weald of Kent to Devon and north as far as Shropshire and Staffordshire. This area was not defined by its physical features. It did not share the same soil resources or a single topography or a dominant agricultural regime. Its regional character was formed not by any of these material factors, but by its culture and history.

The heart of this territory was Wessex, Hardy country. Thomas Hardy’s fictional Wessex included the counties of Wiltshire (“Mid Wessex”); Dorset (“South Wessex”); Somerset and Gloucestershire (“Outer Wessex”); Devon (“Lower Wessex”), Hampshire, West Sussex and Surrey (“Upper Wessex”), plus Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire (“North Wessex”).1 This area sent large numbers of gentry and servants to the Chesapeake. The first families of Virginia even included the Turbervilles from Bere Regis (Hardy’s Kingsbere) who were the originals for Hardy’s fictional D’Urbervilles. In the court records of the Chesapeake colonies, one may also find the saga of many a tidewater Tess.2 But Virginia’s recruiting ground was larger than Hardy’s modern literary Wessex. It more nearly resembled the ancient historical Wessex of Alfred and Athelred, which with its Mercian protectorate reached east as far as Canterbury, and north beyond Warwick and Northampton.

Through many centuries, this area developed its own distinctive culture. Its language and laws were those of the West Saxons, rather than the Danes who settled East Anglia, or the Norse who colonized the north country, or the Celts who held Cornwall and Wales. Its shires were divided into hundreds rather than wapentakes; its tax units were reckoned in hides instead of carucates; its weights and measures were old British rather than Scandinavian.3

The countryside of this region was divided into comparatively large manors—larger than in the east of England—and dominated by a small landholding class. The boundaries of its estates were very ancient. Historian J. H. Bettey writes that “the arrangement of the Wessex landscape and its administrative divisions and estate boundaries had already been in existence for many centuries before the Norman conquest.”4

During the early middle ages slavery had existed on a large scale throughout Mercia, Wessex and Sussex, and had lasted longer there than in other parts of England. Historian D.J.V. Fisher writes that “the fate of many of the natives was not extermination but slavery.”5 This was not merely domestic bondage,


but slavery on a larger scale. During the eighth and ninth centuries, the size of major slaveholdings in the south of England reached levels comparable to large plantations in the American South. When Bishop Wilfred acquired Selsey in Sussex, he emancipated 250 slaves on a single estate. Few plantations in the American South were so large even at their peak in the nineteenth century.6 Serfdom also had been exceptionally strong in this region. Painstaking analysis of the Domesday book by historical geographers has shown that the proportion of servi was larger in Wessex than in other parts of England.7

By the time of American colonization, both slavery and serfdom were long gone from this region. But other forms of social obligation remained very strong in the seventeenth century. A smaller part of the population were freeholders in the south and west of England than in East Anglia.8

The political character of southwestern England was consistent with its social history. This was the territory that remained loyal to King John in 1215. It rallied to Richard II in 1381, and generally stood by the Tudors in the mid-sixteenth century. Most of this region supported the Stuarts during the Civil War.9 With a few exceptions it was stony ground for Puritan proselytizers and dissenting denominations in the seventeenth century.10

In its religion this region leaned toward the orthodox side of the Anglican spectrum. Its churches and monasteries had nourished a rich tradition of liturgical Christianity for many centuries. In 1549, this region supported the Western Rebellion, a violent protest against Protestant innovations which spread through Hampshire, Dorsetshire, Devonshire, Warwickshire, Somersetshire and Leicestershire.11 In 1655 it was also the place of Penruddock’s Rebellion, the largest armed rising against Puritan rule in England. The leader of this movement, Col. John Penruddock, called himself “a free-born gentleman of England.” His lieutenants were drawn from the county gentry of Wessex. In the words of the Roundhead who ordered their execution, they were “many of good quality, many of ingenious education, some of better parts than myself.”12

In the early seventeenth century, the landscape of the south and west of England differed in its appearance from East Anglia. Much of it was a shaggy country, still very heavily wooded. The county of Somerset in 1623 was described as “a great part of it being forest and woodlands.” Berkshire was “covered far and wide with forests and woods.” Similar statements were also made about other counties in this part of England.13

A large part of this region were royal forests, some of enormous size—notably the Forest of Dean, Windsor Forest, and New Forest where two sons of William the Conqueror were killed. These vast tracts were governed by “forest law,” a judicial system of exceptional rigor.14

Much of the land was also kept as parks and chases for the sport of country gentlemen. For many centuries, deer parks had been more numerous in the south and west of England than in the north and east. The Domesday survey, for example, listed thirty-one deer parks in England—of which only three were in East Anglia and none were in the Midlands or the North. Most were in the south and west of England. In the sixteenth century, deer parks continued to be more common in Gloucestershire, Devonshire and Staffordshire than in other counties. They were comparatively rare in Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Huntingdonshire. As late as 1712, Northamptonshire was thought to have more deer parks than any county of England. The long continuity from the twelfth to the eighteenth century was very striking.15

Before 1700, the south and west was less densely settled than East Anglia. This was a cultural region without a capital. One of its modern historians writes that “the Wessex region has no natural center.”16 Between London and Bristol, there were no large towns and remarkably few little ones. In year 1600, for example, the entire county of Hampshire contained only two towns as large as 3,000 inhabitants—Winchester and Southampton, which were both about that size. Only six Hampshire villages were above 1,000 (Alton, Andover, Fareham, Basingstoke, Petersfield and Portsmouth). In Dorset, the largest town was Dorchester with only 1,500 souls; in the county of Sussex, only Chichester and Lewes had as many as 2,000 inhabitants.17

The population of the south and west was mostly scattered in manorial settlements. One local historian writes, “ … the classic manorial system of medieval England decayed only very slowly in Berkshire.”18 The same statement could be made of every county in the south and west. The countryside was dominated by the great estates of the gentry, with their environing clusters of small houses inhabited by tenants and subtenants.19

The economy of this region was organized primarily around the production and sale of agricultural staples—principally grain and wool. The mid-seventeenth century was a dark period for this region. Its economy was as deeply depressed in the 1640s and 1650s as that of East Anglia had been in the 1620s and 1630s.20 From 1642 to 1666, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse rode freely through this troubled countryside. It suffered much from the violence of the Civil Wars, and labored severely under a cruel regime of martial law that was imposed by Parliament. The woolen trade was disrupted in this period; the old cloth towns of the west lost population and poverty rapidly increased. So also did epidemic disease, culminating in major epidemics of plague. Social anarchy became a serious problem. In 1644-45 the risings of the English Clubmen, who sought to restore order in their communities, corresponded almost exactly in their distribution with the region of emigration to the Chesapeake.21

There were many strong links between the character of the south and west of England and the culture of Virginia. Both regions were marked by deep and pervasive inequalities, by a staple agriculture and rural settlement patterns, by powerful oligarchies of large landowners with Royalist politics and an Anglican faith.

Even today, this historian who was born and raised in Maryland feels strangely at home when walking the country lanes of southwestern England. One finds much that seems familiar. Large brick manor houses are set back from the road behind hedges of privet or boxwood. Small farm cottages stand in isolation along the highways, surrounded by green rolling fields. Where two or three roads meet, there is apt to be a humble pub of the sort that seventeenth-century Englishmen called an “ordinary”—a word that long survived in Virginia.22 In summer the roadside is white with Queen Anne’s lace; and the air is heavy with the sweet smell of honeysuckle. The countryside is so shaggy and overgrown that the country roads sometimes become dark tunnels of dense foliage. As the traveler passes through these lanes, he has an eerie feeling that he has entered a tunnel through time. When he emerges into the light and the English landscape opens before him, this American from the Chesapeake Bay has a sense of coming home.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!