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.
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
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
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
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
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.