Wiltshire in the Poly-Olbion

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At the turn of the Century, in 1601 or 1602, William Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night in which he warned his audience of the dangers of excessive drinking:

OLIVIA:  What’s a drunken man like, fool?
CLOWN: Like a drowned man, a fool, and a madman: one draught above heat makes him a fool, the second mads him, and a third drowns him.

It was to be prescient advice. Years later, Shakespeare would be joined by two other great men of English literature for a night of drinking in a Stratford tavern. Within four months of this libaceous meeting, The Bard would be dead. The drinking session was recorded in the notebook of John Ward. As Vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon, Ward compiled extensive notes on religious and literary musings alongside the salacious gossip of the day:

Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.

Shakespeare died on 23rd April 1616, aged 52. Ward’s notebook entry is the only known written account concerning his demise.

Michael Drayton

Unlike his more illuminated drinking companions, few sources exist to throw light on the life of Michael Drayton. Over a forty-year career, he was a prolific poet and occasional playwright and worked within London’s literary circles, where he would meet Shakespeare and Jonson.

Michael Drayton was born in 1563 in the slumberous hamlet of Hartshill in north Warwickshire, three miles south of the market town of Atherstone. Born during the reign of Elizabeth I, Drayton lived through the Jacobean and Caroline periods. By the end of his life, his didactic verse and historical epics upon which Drayton had lavished so much care no longer commanded an audience.

Drayton’s poetic achievement rests largely with Poly-Olbion, a prodigious topographical poem describing the landscape and history of England and Wales. Published in two parts, it is a richly collaborative work that consummated twenty years of writing and research. The 15,000-line poem navigates the nation county by county, embellished by the engraver William Hole’s thirty unique and distinctive maps.

The Poly-Olbion

Drayton’s vision for the Poly-Olbion was to comprehensively record the Elizabethan re-discovery of England; its dramatic landscapes, sparkling streams and the romance of its antiquities. Written in alexandrines (12-syllable lines), Poly-Olbion is among the longest poems in the English language. Although a monumental achievement, it is rarely read today and resides in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

It is William Hole’s frontispiece for Poly-Olbion that attracts attention for its portrayal of Lady Albion, with her prosperous robes, which in their pattern echo Hole’s idiosyncratic maps. The composition is a mirror to the famous Ditchley portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.

Gheeraerts painted Elizabeth during an ‘entertainment’ at the home of Sir Henry Lee (the Queen’s Champion) in Ditchley, Oxfordshire, an event organised as an emblem of forgiveness for Sir Henry’s attachment to his mistress Anne Vavasour. With its theme of exoneration, the thunder departs stage-right to be replaced by a sunny disposition, the royal feet firmly planted in Oxfordshire.

The frontispiece of Poly-Olbion is also remarkable for its portrayal of British history, with a sophisticated sense of archaeological detail: the four men who frame Albion’s portrait are (top left) Brutus, the original ancestor of the Britons; (top right) Julius Caesar, the first Roman to rule Britain; (bottom left) Hengest, leader of the Anglo-Saxon conquerors of Britain and (bottom right) William the Conqueror.

Ornamental title page of Poly-Olbion
The Ditchley Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I

Wiltshire in the Poly-Olbion

Drayton introduces his readers to Wiltshire in the opening argument of Part 1, Song 3. It is striking how every line of the opening argument, reflects what was then the general consensus of Elizabethan England, that the stone monuments, mounds and ditches of England possessed a malevolent presence:

In this third Song, great threatnings are,
And tending all to Nymphish warre.
Old Wansdike uttereth words of hate,
Depraving Stonendges estate.
Cleere Avon and faire Willy strive,
Each pleading her prerogative.
The Plaine the Forrests doth disdaine:
The Forrests raile upon the Plaine.

In threaten, warre, hate, deprave, strive, disdain, and raile we read into this ancient Wiltshire landscape the Elizabethan deep mistrust of the unknown. Dryden’s use of these toxic words makes us re-evaluate how we see the stones, circles, barrows, and henges today. It is no coincidence that Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft had been published 30 years earlier, an attempt to debunk popular and scholarly beliefs about witchcraft, magic, and other superstitions. It is widely believed that Shakespeare read Scot’s Discoveries, and with chapter titles such as Witches, Robin Goodfellows, Transformations of Men into Animals, and Spirit Summoning, it’s easy to conclude the book was an inspiration the plays.

The after-effects of the Catholic schism promulgated by Queen Mary and the incursion of the Spanish Armada left a weight of suspicion hanging over the Elizabethan landscape like lowering clouds. What was needed was a reappraisal of the country, its landscape and its people, even the very essence of what it meant to be English, four hundred years before Brexit. It was time for a renaissance.

An English Renaissance

The English Renaissance is hard to date precisely, but for most scholars, it begins with the rise of the Tudor Dynasty in 1485 and reaches its cultural summit during the 45-year reign of the final Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I. In Europe, the renaissance movement blossomed into an outpouring of paintings and sculpture. In England, due to technological advances in Elizabethan printing, it was literature.

When Elizabeth I came to the throne in November 1558, the printing press had been in operation in England for over eighty years. William Caxton introduced the first presses with movable type in Britain in 1476, twenty-five years after the first books had been printed by this means on the continent. The Stationers’ Company, who controlled book publication, received a Royal Charter in 1557.

Wiltshire in the Poly-Olbion
The distinctive county maps of Poly-Olbion were produced by the engraver William Hole who aimed less for factual accuracy than for an engagement with the spirit of Drayton’s poem.

Caught up in this whirlwind of renaissance, new printing techniques brought the words of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Jonson to the people. From his shop near Westminster Abbey, Caxton issued over a hundred books between 1476 and his death in 1492. One of his first major books printed was Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in 1477. 

But Caxton was not content to draw on existing markets for manuscripts. He used print to create new demand for novel and new writing, plays and historical studies. Pictures and maps could now be reproduced in print. History and Geography as subjects became an integral dimension in the English Renaissance. This new perspective is one of the defining characteristics of the Elizabethan age.

In Elizabeth I, England had a monarch with a desire to reset Albion and the very matter of Englishness on the world stage. Caxton’s new printing presses could mass produce poetry, prose, guides and maps to satisfy the demand of a new readership absorbed in the pioneering fields of science and nature. The spirit of the age was ripe for Michael Drayton and his Poly-Olbion, a work of geographical and historical importance that attempted to chronicle our ‘Many Albions.’

Elizabethan Wiltshire

Like Daniel Defoe over 100 years later, Drayton began his tour of Elizabethan Wiltshire at Old Sarum:

From Sarum thus we set, remov’d from whence it stood
By Avon to reside, her deerest loved Flood:
Where her imperious a Fane her former seate disdaines,
And proudly over-tops the spacious neighboring Plaines.

Originally an Iron Age hillfort, the Roman settlement of Sorviodunum, and a medieval stronghold of William the Conqueror, Old Sarum had been recently abandoned. In 1514 Thomas Compton, Groom of the Chamber, received ‘the stone walls and stone called the castle or tower of Old Sarum’, with liberty to knock them down and carry away materials which he promptly did. By the time Drayton climbed its ramparts to look down on the floodplain of the River Avon and up towards Salisbury Plain and Stonehenge:

Where she, of all the Plaines of Britaine, that doth beare
The name to be the first (renowned everie where)
Hath worthily obtaind that Stonendge there should stand:
Shee, first of Plaines; and that, first Wonder of the Land.

How would Elizabethan Stonehenge have looked to Drayton when he visited this ‘wonder of the land’? The Flemish portrait painter Lucas de Heere (1534-1584) painted Stonehenge in his guidebook, one of the earliest known accurate depictions of the monument.

Wiltshire in the Poly-Olbion
Stonehenge in Corte Beschryvinghe van Engheland, Schotland, ende Irland‘ now in the British Library

De Heere fled to England after Protestant suppression in Spain. Living in religious exile he became popular in the Tudor court, and compiled his guide to Britain: Corte Beschryvinghe van England, Scotland, ende Irland in 1570. His depiction of Stonehenge is important because of its accuracy and insights into its construction techniques.  The painting shows us an early example of “chorography,” which archaeologist Michael Shanks describes as “antiquarian works that deal in topography, place, community, history and memory.”

Rather than considering Stonehenge as a mystical or sacred site or an architectural marvel, De Heere’s depiction folds both of these interests into a larger concern with English landscape and history. Alongside William Camden’s Britannia, a chorographical survey of Britain, both publications are cornerstones in the Elizabethan re-discovery of England.

The Wansdyke

Hadrian’s Wall and Offa’s Dyke are familiar examples of linear defensive earthworks but it is the lesser known Wansdyke that is perhaps the most mysterious of them all.

Stretching for thirty-five miles through the countryside of Wiltshire and Somerset, this large defensive earthwork was built between twenty and one hundred and twenty years after the Romans left Britain. Set to a east-to-west alignment, it is thought the dyke is the work of the native Britons carving a demarcation line for their native land in the south from the encroaching Anglo Saxons. In the Poly-Olbion, Drayton, although visually critical of this ‘dull heape’, acknowledges the incredible amount of work it took to dig along the high ridge of the North Wessex Downs:

Shee Wansdike also winnes, by whom shee is imbrac’t,
That in his aged armes doth gird her ampler wast:
Who (for a mightie Mound sith long he did remaine
Betwixt the Mercians rule, and the West-Saxons raigne,
… Dull heape, that thus thy head above the rest doost reare,
Precisely yet not know’st who first did place thee there.

Song 3 continues its sinuous journey through Wiltshire by cascading off the high plains into the sylvan vales along three watercourses that flow into Salisbury, the Rivers Wylye, Nadder and Bourne. Drayton was fixated with the waterways of the landscape. The rivers and streams of Albion are the major feature of William Hole’s maps. Descending root-like in ripples towards the sea, Dryads and Nymphs dip their toes in England’s cool clear waters.

First, Willy boasts her selfe more worthy then the other,
And better farre deriv’d: as having to her mother
Faire a Selwood, and to bring up Diver in her traine;
Which, when the envious soile would from her course restraine

The River Wylye rises amongst the White Sheet Downs. White Sheet Hill tops one of the most westerly areas of downland in Britain. Due to its chalky farmland and rare fauna and flora, the site is a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest. Wylye is one of the rivers mentioned in Edward Rutherfurd’s novel Sarum. Rutherfurd, the pen name of Francis Edward Wintle, was born in Salisbury in 1944.

A mile creeps under earth, as flying all resort:
And how cleere Nader waits attendance in her Court;
And therefore claimes of right the Plaine should hold her deere,
Which gives that Towne the name; which likewise names the Shire.

The Wylye ends in name only when it meets another of Drayton’s rivers, the Nadder, at Wilton. The history of Wilton dates back to the Anglo-Saxons in the 8th century. By the late 9th century it was the capital of Wiltunscire, in the Kingdom of Wessex and the foundation of the Wiltshire name. The author and broadcaster Arthur George Street who wrote under the name A. G. Street, was born at Ditchampton Farm in Wilton. Published by Faber and Faber, his best-known work, Farmer’s Glory, describes his time in Canada and return to his native Wiltshire.

The River Nadder rises near Ludwell in the Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)A tributary of the River Avon, the Nadder merges into the Avon near Salisbury Cathedral:

And what (in her behoofe) might any want supply,
Shee vaunts the goodlie seat of famous Saliburie;
Where meeting prettie Bourne, with many a kind embrace,
Betwixt their crystall armes they clip that loved place.

Left: Detail from Hole’s map of Wiltshire showing Stonehenge and the Rivers Avon and Bourne. The Nadder and Wylie merge west of Salisbury.

The River Bourne is another Salisbury Avon tributary with its source at the eastern end of the Vale of Pewsey near Burbage. At its upper reaches, the river is winterbourne in that it is dry through the summer months. Derived from the Old English winter + burna “the fullness of winter”, winterbourne streams are common on chalkland where the porous rock holds water like an aquifer, slowly releasing it throughout spring until the water table drops below the level of the stream bed causing it to dry up.

In the Parish of Burbage stands Wolfhall, an early 17th-century manor house. The previous manor house on the same site, was the seat of the Seymour family. King Henry VIII stayed at Wulfhall during his royal progress of 1535. This may have been when he first courted Jane Seymour. Wulfhall is the inspiration for the title of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall.

Drayton ended his Song 3 of Poly Olbion, when he turned northwards towards Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. Crossing the North Wessex Downs at Oldbury Hill:

‘survaying of the Vies whose likings do allure’:
Thus ending; though some hils themselves that doe applie
To please the goodly Plaine, still standing in her eie,
Did much applaud her speech (as Haradon, whose head
Old Ambry still doth awe, and Bagden from his sted,
Survaying of the Vies, whose likings do allure
Both Ouldbry and Saint Anne; and they againe procure
Mount Marting-sall: and he those hils that stand aloofe,
Those brothers Barbury, and Badbury, whose proofe …

After the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1606, Drayton hoped to court favour with Elizabeth’s successor, James I, but his poetic overtures towards the new king were ignored and his next project to map Scotland in verse stalled. Drayton fell out of favour and the Poly-Olbion remains his most famous but far from successful of his writings.

In 1691, Michael Drayton succumbed to a fever most often associated with the contraction of malaria, and by Christmas that year was buried in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey. 

The Poly-Olbion Project

Building on a successful conference workshop at the Royal Geographical Society in September 2015, The Poly-Olbion Project is a Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project by Exeter University to produce a new scholarly edition of the text. In tandem with this, The Children’s Poly-Olbion is a collaborative heritage outreach project that looks at British landscape, history and identity through the prism of Michael Drayton’s vision of Albion. Six Special Educational schools across South West England took part: with hundreds of children and young adults with differing abilities learning about Jacobean poetry, art and ideas.

Drayton and the writings of his close associates, William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, crystallized early modern ideas of nationalism, history and memory. The Poly Olbion Project offers more than access to a poetic study of the land. It is a catalyst for children of all abilities to strengthen their own sense of identity, topographical belonging, and positive social attitudes. Ideas that Michael Drayton would be proud of today.

Further Reading

The Poly-Olbion Project

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