A History of Wiltshire


The county of Wiltshire is roughly rectangular, about thirty miles broad and fifty miles from north to south. It is unique in southern England in having neither direct access to the sea nor common border with the ‘Great Wen’ of Greater London. It has comparatively little manufacturing or extractive industry today, though its former cloth industry was renowned until its demise in the 1980s, just as were the great railway works at Swindon up to 1987. It was once one of the most heavily populated counties in the country and is now one of the least. In 1971, before the 1974 local government reforms destroyed so many of the historic counties, it was seventeenth in size but thirty-first in total population, while the density of the population was lower than any neighbour, less than half of that of Gloucestershire and Hampshire and less than a quarter of that of non-metropolitan Surrey.

It has long been called the county of ‘Chalk and Cheese’, notably by the 17th-century gossip John Aubrey who tried to explain the social differences between the people of the extensive chalk downs of the south and east and those of the narrower clay vales of the north and west. ‘In the dirty claey country’, he says, ‘they feed chiefly on milke meates which cooles their brains too much and hurts their inventions. These circumstances make them Melancholy, contemplative and malicious

they are generally more apt to be Fanatiques’. On the chalk, however, which occupies two-thirds of the county ’tis all upon Tillage, or Shepherds, and hard labour, their flesh is hard, thier bodies strong; being weary after their hard labour they have not leisure to reade, and contemplate Religion’. While there have been continued differences in the history of north and south, Aubrey’s division, like his sociology, is too simple. There is a belt of ‘corn-brash’ across the clay vales of the north and a fringe of Cotswold limestone along the northern border and there are sandy fringes, still covered with forest, in the south-west and south-east corners. Building stone is limited but a splendid limestone is worked near Box and a sandier limestone was worked for centuries at Chilmark between the downs of the south. Stone from the latter was used for the medieval cathedrals of Old and New Salisbury and as far away as Rochester, long before the virtues of the similar Portland stone were made known by Christopher Wren, who was born at East Knoyle. Other less valuable stones have been worked elsewhere, such as the attractive russet-coloured stone of the Sandy Lane area, the forest ‘marble’ and slates of the Cotswolds fringe, and the ‘burr-stones’ of the Devizes and Warminster areas, bit over the greater part of the county, the chalk lands, there was no good stone save the scattered blocks of sandstone ‘sarsens’, used for the prehistoric circles at Avebury and Stonehenge. This led to the extensive use of thatch, not only to cover houses built of scarce timber but to protect house and walls built of chalk, though panels of flint were commonly used as facing material.

The county has no natural boundaries though in earlier times extensive forests separated it from its neighbours on the east, north and west. It has always been open to the south and it is up the southern, Salisbury, Avon that invasion and settlement have come.