View over Kingley Vale
South eastern and southern England were the first areas of what is now Britain settled by humans. They came across a land bridge from the continent, probably following migrating herds of animals. Initially settlement was temporary, limited to warm periods between successive ice ages. The oldest early human remains in Britain, dated to 500,000 years ago, were found in southern England, at Boxgrove, Sussex. Permanent settlement could only take place at the end of the last Ice Age, about 14,000 years ago.
Around 6500 years ago northern Europe's climate became warmer, and the land bridge disappeared beneath a rising sea. This event is usually presented as the separation of Britain from continental Europe, and of course in a physical sense this is true. But research seems to indicate that communications between what is now Britain and continental Europe actually improved after separation. The historian Norman Davies says: "even with the primitive boats then available, one could paddle or sail from one side of the sleeve to the other more rapidly than one could previously have tramped across the isthmus or, in the intermediary phase, waded through the marshes."(The Isles P9)
The eighteenth century poet Alexander Pope expressed this irony beautifully when he said:
The time shall come, when free as seas or wind
Unbounded Thames shall flow for all mankind
When nations enter with each swelling tide,
And sea but join the regions they divide (Windsor Forest 397 - 400)
Hengistbury Head - site of Britain's first town
Britain's south coast defines the country, and is also where Britain comes into contact with the rest of the world. Britain's first town was thought to have been established at Hengistbury Head in Dorset. Hengistbury Head, once lay beside the river Solent, until the opening English Channel left it as a headland facing a new sea. It was here that people began to take advantage of opportunities for sea bourne trade. History gives the lie to national identity as something fixed and unchanging. An event creating Britain's physical isolation actually created conditions where isolation could be better overcome.
Southern England now became home to an extensive neolithic civilisation which has left its mark at a number of remarkable sites, such as Stonehenge and Avebury. Around 800BC Celts began moving into the British Isles. This migration, combined with new technology allowing manufacture of iron weapons, seemed to make life in southern Britain more violent. Iron age hill top forts still dot the landscape in southern England, the most impressive being Maiden Castle in Dorset. It was at Maiden Castle that British Celts came up against the next major shift in history, when the Romans invaded in 43AD. The Romans remained for over four hundred years and shadows of their presence can be seen in many places - see for example our pages for the Roman Palace of Fishbourne, near Chichester in West Sussex, Silchester in Hampshire, and the Corinium Museum, which tells the story of Roman Cirencester.
Following the Roman withdrawal early in the fifth century, Saxon invaders came into Britain. Within two hundred years the Saxons were themselves being challenged by Scandinavian invaders, who began making serious advances in the ninth century. Southern England became a battleground between these two peoples. It is during this struggle, in the Saxon kingdom of Wessex, that England's beginnings can be found. It was here that King Alfred of Wessex, held out against the Danes who at that time ruled eastern England. On Twelfth Night in January 878 a Viking army attacked the royal Wessex town of Chippenham. Alfred was forced to flee and wage a guerilla war from the swamps of Athelney on the River Severn. By spring of 878 Alfred had managed to organise a resistance, and took command of an army that gathered on the borders of Wiltshire and Somerset. In the battle that followed, Viking chieftain Guthrum was defeated. Perhaps even more significant than his military victory was Alfred's diplomatic move that followed: he invited Guthrum into his tent, won him over and persuaded him to accept baptism. The resulting alliance gave Alfred, and Anglo Saxon England, breathing space. For fourteen years following the alliance, defences were built. Finally in 890 another Viking attack came but Alfred's defences held. An area between the east and west sides of England hardened into a border, the Scandinavian area becoming known as the Danelaw.
Though England was divided, Alfred and Guthrum's alliance had given rise to the idea of a united country. Coins of this time refer to Alfred as "Rex Anglorum" or "King of the English", a title that would be formally bestowed on his grandson Athelstan when he was crowned in 927. The idea of England had emerged.
Thomas Hardy revived the name Wessex in 1874 to give expression to the historical unity of southern England. In a sense England began in Hardy's Wessex. Ironically it is also the place where England is most clearly part of the wider world. After all, England's first town was a port.
Images of Southern England
Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire
View from the Hardy Monument, Dorset