Why Wessex? Medieval power centers, literary connections

NEW YORK -- When Prince Edward, the youngest son of England's Queen Elizabeth II, married Sophie Rhys-Jones last June, the two became the earl and countess of Wessex.

The last earl of Wessex was King Harold, who was killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when William the Conqueror brought Norman rule to England.

The new titles of the newlyweds might prompt some U.S. tourists to ask: "Just where is Wessex, anyway?" Touring maps generally don't identify this region by the name Wessex, but chances are that most American travelers to Britain have ventured there (it's less than two hours west of London) and might know it a lot better than they think they do.

Winchester Cathedral in Winchester, England. Travelers will certainly be familiar with some of the better-known landmarks of this important kingdom in medieval England, which is now encompassed by the counties of Wiltshire, Dorset, Hampshire and Somerset in southern England.

Rich in ancient sites, medieval centers of power and learning and literary associations, Wessex is the quintessential English countryside of cathedral cities, historic towns, thatched-roof cottages, stately homes, antique shops, tea shops and pubs.

Take Stonehenge, for example, which is of uncertain age but is proof of a thriving community and culture in these parts long before the Romans arrived in Britain.

Of equally ancient lineage is the stone circle in the village of Avebury and the remains of the Iron Age, Roman and Saxon settlements of Old Sarum, two miles north of Salisbury.

Among the most important centers of Wessex heritage are the cathedral cities of Salisbury and Winchester, and the town of Malmesbury, whose abbey has the tomb and effigy of the 10th century Saxon King Athelstan, the first recognized king of all England.

Winchester was once the capital of Wessex and later of Saxon England and the place where most of its kings were crowned and were buried. The cathedral is considered the longest Gothic church in Europe.

As a center for the medieval cloth trade, Salisbury was one of the most successful of the "new towns" built in the Middle Ages, and its original grid of intersecting streets remains today. Its cathedral, which has the tallest spire in England, was begun in 1220.

Other historic Wessex sites worth visiting include the Saxon church of St. Laurence in the town of Bradford-on-Avon, near Bath; the Dorset town of Shaftesbury, provisional capital of Wessex before the royal throne moved to Winchester; Sherborne, also in Dorset, which dates from the eighth century, and Abbotsbury, on the Dorset coast, which appears to have hardly changed much since the Middle Ages.

The area of Wessex has strong literary ties to Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope and John Keats.

Hardy was born and lived in the county of Dorset, whose towns and villages he thinly disguised in a series of books that have become known as "The Wessex Novels."

Austen lived in the village of Chawton, in Hampshire, and died in Winchester, where she is buried at the cathedral.

Trollope was educated in Winchester and the town of Barchester in his novels was a combination of Winchester and Salisbury.

It was in Winchester that Keats wrote about the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" in his ode "To Autumn."

To help travelers identify these historic and literary sites, a brochure called South of England: Land of Heritage and a map folder titled Literary Britain are available from the British Tourist Authority.

For free copies, call the British Tourist Authority at (800) 462-2748. The BTA's Web site also has information on regional history. It can be found at www.usagateway.visitbritain.com.

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