Daniel Defoe in Wiltshire

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The stones have always been with us, marking the passing of time like sundials, their circling shadows trace out the days over the Plain.

It’s difficult to imagine, instead of the coach-deposited tourists today, a group of travellers, bewigged and perfumed, stepping down from their coach, to stand in the shadows of the great Sarsens. Even more so, if one was the author of Robinson Crusoe, a writer whose imagination compelled us to join him on a remote desert island, struggling to survive in this exotic yet detached environment, struggling to survive.

And yet, Daniel Defoe was always going to be a survivor, exiled as he was on the exotic island of Britain, born of Dutch parentage, and at odds with the Monarchy of his day. Like Crusoe, he survived through temerity, resourcefulness and inquisitiveness. Dafoe survived bankruptcy, prison and military combat and, in doing so brought to life in his later years the first modern novel and one of the earliest tour guides. 

Stone Henge as Daniel Defoe saw it | Copper plate engraving by Thomas Hearne from 1776 depicting Stonehenge before the 1958 restoration.

Defoe’s lasting curiosity brought him to the stones, those silent sirens to the traveller, to stand under the shadow of the Trilithons and write an account of his travels through Wiltshire.

Daniel Foe was born in Cripplegate, London on 30th September 1660. The son of James Foe, a tallow chandler and butcher of Dutch descent, and his wife, Alice. By his mid thirties, Daniel was calling himself Defoe, possibly reviving a variant of the original family name. Furnished with this more rounded nom de plume, Defoe achieved prominence as a trader, journalist, pamphleteer and spy, but it was his mastery of the pen that would underwrite his fame.

The 1719 publication of Robinson Crusoe was an extraordinary event in the history of literature. Elements of the book, now considered an essential part of the modern novel, were unique to 18th Century readers. It is the tale of an ordinary individual, even if his ordeals were extraordinary, and in placing an emphasis on the spiritual life of the protagonist, and in the very manner of the book’s narration, it asked readers, for the first time, to believe in the possibility that this adventure could happen to them.

Daniel Defoe: Journalist, Pamphleteer, Spy and Travel Writer | Image © Royal Museums Greenwich

The first edition credited Robinson Crusoe as its author, leading many to believe he was a real person and the book a travelogue of his adventures but it would be another twenty years before Daniel Defoe wrote his own travelogue, a tour through England and Wales, and enticed his readers to follow in his footsteps.

Daniel Defoe’s three-volume book, Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain was published between 1724 and 1727, but this was no straightforward travel guide. Defoe was a staunch Dissenter and when the Roman Catholic James II ascended the throne, Defoe, with characteristic impetuosity, sided with the ill-fated rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth, just managing to escape the aftermath of the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685.

Defoe’s card was marked, and once the Tories came to power in 1702, he was prosecuted for seditious libel and arrested in May 1703. Newgate Gaol beckoned, and there he remained while his business collapsed and he became ever more concerned for the welfare of his family. Defoe had married Mary Tuffley, the daughter of a Dissenting merchant, in 1684. She bore eight children, of whom six lived to maturity.

After appealing to the Speaker of the House of Commons, Robert Harley, Defoe finally secured a release. Nevertheless, Harley’s part of the bargain was to obtain Defoe’s services as a skilled pamphleteer and intelligence agent. Defoe served his new master with zeal, travelling extensively, writing reports and recording the economic activity of the country. He paid several visits to Scotland at the time of the Act of Union in 1707, keeping Harley in touch with public opinion. Defoe’s letters to Harley from this period have survived and his itinerary and observations bore fruit in his book Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain.

The Tour is roughly divided into several circuits around Britain. Volume One contains three letters. The first two letters cover circular journeys through Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, and Surrey. Letter three describes a journey out to Land’s End, while Letter four begins Volume two with the return journey. Letter five focuses on London and the Court. Volume two ends with Letters six and seven describing a path out to Anglesey and back. Volume three takes the narrator northwards from the Midlands into Scotland.

The Tour was Defoe’s most popular and financially successful work after Robinson Crusoe. It is a work of recollection of past journeys, as a merchant, as an observer for his political handlers, and of an enquiring mind. This is what made it so successful. According to his Editor, Pat Rogers: ‘Defoe had hit on the best blend of objective fact and personal commentary.’

Daniel Defoe in Wiltshire

Defoe’s journey into Wiltshire begins in Part Two, Letter three, starting in Hampshire as he follows the Pilgrim’s Route from Winchester to Salisbury:

From Winchester about 25 miles, and over the most charming plains that can any where be seen, (far in my opinion) excelling the plains of Mecca, we come to Salisbury; the vast flocks of sheep, which one every where sees upon these downs, and the great number of those flocks, is a sight truly worth observation.

If Defoe made that journey today, he would follow The Clarendon Way, a 24-mile, long-distance walking route that links Salisbury with Winchester. The trail takes its name from Clarendon Park, once the site of Clarendon Palace, a royal hunting lodge for the Norman kings. Described as ‘the most westerly major royal, rural residence in medieval England’, all that remains of this great house today is a single flint wall.

The Clarendon Way follows a more direct route than the British Pilgrimage Trust’s Salisbury Cathedral to Winchester Cathedral route that advertises a 38-mile walk taking three to for days to complete. The Trust currently supports over 250 pilgrim routes across the UK with the aim of advancing the British pilgrimage as a form of cultural heritage and holistic wellbeing.

Salisbury from Harnham Hill Aug 26, 1723, by William Stukeley | Image © rareoldprints.com

Defoe was enchanted with Salisbury, noting its cloth manufactories and the good manners of its citizens:

The city of Salisbury has two remarkable manufactures carried on in it, and which employ the poor of great part of the country round; namely, fine flannels, and long cloths for the Turkey trade, call’d Salisbury Whites:

The people of Salisbury are gay and rich, and have a flourishing trade; and there is a great deal of good manners and good company among them; I mean, among the citizens, besides what is found among the gentlemen; for there are many good families in Salisbury …

During the 17th century, Salisbury’s dependence on Salisbury Whites broadcloth had led to a sharp decline in local trade owing to the loss of foreign markets during the Thirty Years War. Unlike clothiers in the west of the county, those in Salisbury disregarded the new Spanish ‘medleys’ (mingled cloth in which the wool was first dyed and the colours mixed before spinning) and remained dependent on whites dyed in London by The Levant Company and exported to the Eastern Mediterranean.

The collapse in Salisbury’s white cloth industry can be partly blamed on King Charles II who took to wearing mingled dyed woollen cloth during the depression of 1676 to promote and encourage trade. In 1678 the Levant Company stated that it was the only woollen material that was worn by persons of quality. Defoe weighed in on the subject too: ‘all the gentlemen and persons of any fashion in England wore Spanish cloth, while their servants’ liveries were of ‘seconds’ made of English wool.’

Salisbury Cathedral

The cathedral is famous for the height of its spire, which is without exception the highest, and the handsomest in England, being from the ground 410 foot, and yet the walls so exceeding thin, that at the upper part of the spire upon a view made by the late Christopher Wren, the wall was found to be less than five inches thick; upon which a consultation was had, whether the spire, or at least the upper part of it should be taken down, it being suppos’d to have receiv’d some damage by the great storm in the year 1703; but it was resolv’d in the negative, and Sir Christopher order’d it to be so strengthened with bands of iron plates.

Defoe concluded his remembrances of Salisbury with an admiring paragraph on the Cathedral Close (at 80 acres, Britain’s largest Cathedral Close) and an equally repugnant one on the City’s rivers:

This society has a great addition from the Closs, that is to say, the circle of ground wall’d in adjacent to the cathedral; in which the families of the prebendaries and commons, and others of the clergy belonging to the cathedral have their houses, as is usual in all cities where there are cathedral churches. These are so considerable here, and the place so large, that it is … like another city.

Salisbury itself is indeed a large and pleasant city; tho’ I do not think it at all the pleasanter for that which they boast so much of; namely, the water running thro’ the middle of every street, or that it adds any thing to the beauty of the place, but just the contrary; it keeps the streets always dirty, full of wet and filth, and weeds, even in the middle of summer.

After the exaltations of Salisbury’s Cathedral’s Spire and Close, mingled with the ‘filth and weeds’ of the City’s open sewer system, Defoe took refuge in the ancient royal hunting forest of Clarendon Park, a base for future explorations of the antiquities of Wiltshire:

But this being a large county, and full of memorable branches of antiquity, and modern curiosity, I cannot quit my observations so soon, but being happily fix’d by the favour of a particular friend at so beautiful a spot of ground as this of Clarendon Park, I made several little excursions from hence to view the northern parts of this county; a county so fruitful of wonders, that tho’ I do not make antiquity my chief search, yet I must not pass it over entirely …

Clarendon Park

Daniel Defoe’s residence at Clarendon Park was provided by Sir Benjamin Bathurst (1638-1704) whose widow, Dame Frances Bathurst, oversaw the purchase and decoration of Clarendon Park for their second son Peter in 1707.

Daniel Defoe in Wiltshire - A View of Clarendon Park
A View of Clarendon Park, Wiltshire 1791 | Image © Salisbury Museum

During the medieval period, Clarendon was an influential residence. A royal deer park surrounded a royal palace, used by successive kings down to James I. Although stripped of most of its deer, trees and enclosure wall during the interregnum, Clarendon and Wilton House were able to offer Defoe pomp and circumstance before sightseeing amidst Wiltshire’s less compliant Neolithic heritage.

It was Lt.-Gen. Henry Herbert, 9th Earl of Pembroke, 6th Earl of Montgomery’s turn to feel the literary love of the once Dissenter, now Reformer, Daniel Defoe:

One cannot be said to have seen any thing that a man of curiosity would think worth seeing in this county, and not have been at Wilton House; but not the beautiful building, not the antient trophy of a great family, not the noble scituation, not all the pleasures of the gardens, parks, fountains, hare-warren, or of whatever is rare either in art or nature are equal to, that yet more glorious sight, of a noble princely palace, constantly filled with its noble and proper inhabitants; viz. the lord and proprietor, who is indeed a true patriarchal monarch.

As we pass’d this plain country, we saw a great many old camps, as well Roman as British, and several remains of the ancient inhabitants of this kingdom, and of their wars, battles, entrenchments, encampments, buildings, and other fortifications, which are indeed very agreeable to a traveller, that has read any thing of the history of the country.

Old Sarum is as remarkable as any of these, where there is a double entrenchment, with a deep graffe, or ditch, to either of them; the area about 100 yards in diameter, taking in the whole crown of the hill, and thereby rendering the ascent very difficult.

‘Tis needless, that I should enter here into any part of the dispute about which our learned antiquaries have so puzzl’d themselves, that several books, and one of them, in folio, has been published about it; some alledgmg it to be a heathen, or pagan temple, and altar, or place of sacrifice, as Mr. Jones; others, a monument, or trophy of victory; others a monument for the dead, as Mr. Aubury, and the like: Again, some will have it be British, some Danish, some Saxon, some Roman, and some before them all, Phenician.

It is reassuring to know that the convention of counting standing stones twice and calculating a different number each time, was no different in the early 16th Century:

I shall suppose it, as the majority of all writers do, to be a monument for the dead, and the rather, because men’s bones have been frequently dug up in the ground near them. The common opinion that no man could ever count them, that a baker carry’d a basket of bread, and laid a loaf upon every-stone, and yet could never make out the same number twice.

The Marlborough Downs

After a scramble up the steep bank at Old Sarum and befuddled by the stones on Salisbury Plain, Defoe turned north towards Marlborough and the Marlborough Downs.

The downs and plains in this part of England being so open, and the surface so little subject to alteration, there are more remains of antiquity to be seen upon them, than in other places; for example, I think they tell us there are three and fifty antient encampments, or fortifications to be seen in this one county.

By far the most numerous of the prehistoric monuments in Wiltshire are the Barrows. Sometimes described as tumuli on maps, these mounds of earth and/or stone of various shapes and sizes are earthwork monuments of the prehistoric periods from 5,800 until 3,400 years ago (3800-1400 BCE).

The Marlborough Downs provides a rich landscape of material for Barrow building:

Also the Barrows, as we all agree to call them, are very many in number in this county, and very obvious, having suffered very little decay. These are large hillocks of earth cast up, as the antients agree, by the soldiers over the bodies of their dead comrades slain in battle; several hundreds of these are to be seen, especially in the north part of this county, about Marlbro’ and the downs, from thence to St. Ann’s-Hill, and even every way, the downs are full of them.

From North Wiltshire, Defoe’s letters to his paymaster Robert Harley describe his journey south through the New Forest towards Devon, with the intention of returning through Wiltshire at a later date. We leave Defoe in good hands, sipping Devon Cider and sitting by the banks of the River Otter, that gave its name to Ottery St. Mary (the village was owned by St Mary in Rouen in 1086) and soon to become the birthplace of the metaphysical & romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

I am now to pursue my first design, and shall take the west part of Wiltshire in my return.

‘From Honiton the country is exceeding pleasant still, and on the road they have a beautiful prospect almost all the way to Exeter … on the left hand of this road lyes that part of the county, which they call the South Hams, and which is famous for the best cyder in that part of England; also the town of St. Mary Oterey.


Further Reading: Vision of Britain | The travels of Daniel Defoe | Full text plus mapping

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