History of the Isle of Wight

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The Clipper Ship "Flying Cloud" off the Needles, Isle of Wight, by James E. Buttersworth, 1859-60.

The Isle of Wight is rich in historical and archaeological sites. These range from prehistoric fossil beds which include dinosaur remains, to dwellings and artefacts of the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman period and beyond.

During the Mesolithic period, "sea levels in the North Sea and the English Channel were some 30 to 40m lower than those of today – Britain was a peninsula of northern Europe."[1] The Isle is geologically linked to Armorica and there has been some cross-channel tilts that has affected sea level[2] as the Channel can be considered as an active geological fault area.[3] The island was formed at the end of the last Ice age. The River Solent was the largest tributary of the Channel River that drained the Hampshire Basin from the Early Pleistocene or late Pliocene.[4] A rise in global sea level flooded the former river valley of the Solent to the north and the future English Channel to the south. This cut Wight off from the island of Britain and the Continental landmass. Once open to the sea, tidal scouring widened the Solent: the sequence of tidal ingress (whether from east, west or south) remains unclear. The English Channel flooded about 9,000 years ago.[5]

Etymology and early history

In the 1st century BC, the Graeco-Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus (V. 22) refers to an unlocated Ίκτιν (Ictin), which is possibly a reference to the Isle of Wight.[6] A century later, Pliny the Elder uses Vectis and in the mid 2nd century Ptolemy confirms the position of Vectis as "...below Magnus Portus."[7] The form Vectis seems reasonably robust but Rivet and Smith[8] were uncertain of its etymology. A gloss on an AD 1164 MS of Nennius that equates Old English wiht with Latin divorcium has encouraged many writers to think that the Isle of Wight sits like a lever (Latin vectis) between the two arms of the Solent. The word could be Brittonic, from a Celtic root akin to Irish fecht "journey" and Welsh gwaith "work". A 2010 detailed study of the etymology[9] draws attention to the Proto-Germanic word *wextiz, which would have been written Vectis in Latin, and survives in various modern-language forms, including Modern English whit "something small" (English wight is considered a revival of the Middle English word), German wicht "dwarf, imp", Dutch wicht "little girl" and Norwegian vette "being, creature (especially supernatural)". This might suggest that the fundamental meaning is something like "daughter island" or "little companion"; however Germanic languages were not widely spoken in Britain at this time, and the name Vectis is attested before the large-scale migration of Germanic-speaking peoples to Britain (not before the late Roman period).

File:Brading mosaic.jpg
Roman mosaic at Brading Roman Villa

Julius Caesar recognised the culture of this general region as "Belgic", but made no reference to Vectis. Later, Suetonius describes the first century Roman invasion of Vectis by the Second Legion Augusta, commanded by the Claudian legate and future emperor Vespasian, who "proceeded to Britain where he fought thirty battles, subjugated two warlike tribes, and captured more than twenty towns, besides the entire Isle of Vectis".[10]

The Isle of Wight became an agricultural centre in Roman times, and at least seven Roman villas are known on the island.[11] The Roman villas at Newport and Brading have been excavated and are open to the public.[12] When fully developed around 300 AD, Brading was probably the largest villa on the Island, being a courtyard villa with impressive mosaics.[12]

Jutish Kingdom

By the late fourth or early fifth centuries AD, Roman troops and officials had withdrawn from Britain. In Bede's ecclesiastical history, Vecta [sic], along with parts of Hampshire and most of Kent, was settled by Jutes.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cerdic with his son Cynric invaded and conquered the island in the year 530. The Chronicle states that upon the death of Cerdic in 534, the island was given to his nephews, who were Stuf and Wihtgar. It is open to question whether "Wihtgar" was a real person or came from a misunderstood place name. The "Men of Wight" were known as "Wihtwara". Carisbrooke was known as the "Fort of the Men of Wight," or "Wihtwarasburgh". Either of these names could have been changed to the name "Wihtgar".[citation needed] The element gar can mean "spear", but it also survives in place names as gore "promontory".

According to the traditional historical record, the island became a Jutish kingdom ruled by King Stuf and his successors until the year 661 when it was invaded by Wulfhere of Mercia and forcibly converted to Christianity at sword point. When he left for Mercia the islanders reverted to paganism.

Caedwalla of Wessex

In 685 it was invaded by Caedwalla of Wessex. The Jutish king of the Isle of Wight, Arwald, died in action and his nephews were betrayed to Caedwalla, who subsequently died of wounds received in the battle. The two boys were converted to Christianity and immediately executed. Their names are unknown, but are called collectively "St. Arwald", after their pagan uncle (who died fighting Christianity).

The West Saxon invasion was by all accounts prolonged and bloody.

Bede states that "...After Caedwalla had obtained possession of the kingdom of the Gewissae, he took also the Isle of Wight, which till then was entirely given over to idolatry, and by merciless slaughter, endeavoured to destroy all the inhabitants thereof, and to place in their stead people from his own province; binding himself by a vow, though it is said that he was not yet regenerated in Christ, to give the fourth part of the land and of the spoil to the Lord, if he took the Island. He fulfilled this vow by giving the same for the service of the Lord to Bishop Wilfrid..."

It is reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that during Caedwalla's attempts to subdue the population he was gravely wounded - wounds from which he would die within a couple of years. Before final subjugation most of the Jutish population of the island were killed and the remnant forced to accept Christianity as their religion and the West Saxon dialect as their language. Bede states that Caedwalla endeavoured to "mercilessly" destroy the population, but that 300 "hides" were given to the Church in the person of St Wilfrid. A "hide" was the amount of land required to support a family, and the Island was rated at 1200 hides. Caedwalla was a Christian sympathiser under the tutelage of St Wilfrid and St Aldhelm and had promised Wilfrid a quarter of the land in return for his assistance in claiming the Wessex throne. Unfortunately for them, the Jutish Islanders were not only heathens, but apostates, and the mass conversion of the Island probably did not occur as smoothly as had been planned.

From 685 therefore the island can be considered to have become part of Wessex and following the accession of West Saxon kings as kings of all England then part of England. The island became part of the shire of Hampshire and was divided into hundreds as was the norm.

The Saxons

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells how Wiht-land suffered particularly from Viking predations. Alfred the Great's navy defeated the Danes in 871 after they had "ravaged Devon and the Isle of Wight". During the second wave of Viking attacks in the reign of Ethelred the Unready (975-1014) the Isle of Wight was taken over by the Danes as a base to harry Southern England, referred to as their "frith-stool." The inlet on the west of the River Medina at Werrar Copse seems to have been their main base. In 1002 Ethelred ordered the killing of all the Danes in England in the St. Brice's Day Massacre but the Danish Army remained intact, based on the Isle of Wight. In 1012 Sweyn Forkbeard revenged the Danish defeat. Ethelred was forced to flee England: he spent Christmas on the Isle of Wight en route to refuge in Normandy.

The Island again played a critical role in English history as the base for Harold Godwinson and his brothers in their revolt against Edward the Confessor and yet again in 1066, when Tostig Godwinson arrived to collect supplies - but very little other support - en route to his defeat by Harold at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Both men had manors on the Isle of Wight - Harold at Kern and Tostig at Nunwell.

The Norman Conquest

In the Domesday book (1086) the Island's name is Wit. The Norman Conquest of 1066 transferred the overall manorial rights of the Island to William FitzOsbern as Lord of the Isle of Wight. Carisbrooke Priory and the fort of Carisbrooke Castle were founded. The Island did not come under full control of the Crown until it was sold by the dying last Norman Lord, Lady Isabella de Fortibus, to Edward I in 1293.

The Lordship thereafter became a Royal appointment, with a brief interruption when Henry de Beauchamp, 1st Duke of Warwick was crowned King of the Isle of Wight, King Henry VI assisting in person at the ceremony, placing the crown on his head. He died in 1445, aged 22. With no male heir, his regal title expired with him.


15th century gatehouse of Carisbrooke Castle

After the Norman Conquest, the title of Lord of the Isle of Wight was created and William Fitz-Osborne who subsequently founded Carisbrooke Priory and the fortifications on what was to become Carisbrooke Castle became the first to hold the title. (It is possible that the site of Carisbrooke Castle had previously been fortified originally by Romans and subsequently by Jutes or Saxons; there still remains a late Saxon burgh, or defensive wall, built to defend the site from Viking raiders.) The Island did not come under the full control of the crown until the Countess Isabella De Fortibus sold it to Edward I in 1293 for six thousand marks.

The Lordship thereafter became a Royal appointment with a brief interruption when Henry de Beauchamp, 1st Duke of Warwick, was crowned King of the Isle of Wight, King Henry VI assisting in person at the ceremony, placing the crown on his head. He died in 1445, aged 22. With no male heir, his regal title expired with him. The title of Lord of the Isle of Wight expired in the reign of Henry VII with the title of Governor or Captain being used for sometime thereafter. During the English Civil War King Charles fled to the Isle of Wight believing he would receive sympathy from the governor Robert Hammond. Hammond was appalled, and incarcerated the king in Carisbrooke Castle. Charles was later tried and executed in London.

Henry VIII who developed the Royal Navy and its permanent base at Portsmouth, fortifications at Yarmouth, Cowes, East Cowes and Sandown, sometimes re-using stone from dissolved monasteries as building material. Sir Richard Worsley, Captain of the Island at this time, successfully commanded the resistance to the last of the French attacks in 1545. In July 1545; French troops had landed on the southern coast of the Isle of Wight. Their aim was to seize important areas of the island; allowing the French to gain overall control of the Isle of Wight; giving the French a valuable jumping-off point for further operations against the mainland. However, the French advance was decisively defeated, when the local Isle of Wight militia defeated the French troops in the Battle of Bonchurch. Much later on after the Spanish Armada in 1588 the threat of Spanish attacks remained, and the outer fortifications of Carisbrooke Castle were built between 1597 and 1602.

In 1587 two Roman Catholic missionaries Anderton and Marsden, originally from Lancashire, but trained in France, were returned to England in disguise on the ferry to Dover, but due to a severe gale landed in Cowes in the Isle of Wight. Unfortunately for them, such was the danger they were in that they loudly prayed to God to "save the first of your seminarians to return to England" which was overheard by fellow passengers who reported them to Governor Carey. They were taken to London for trial, but executed by hanging, drawing and quartering in Cowes, although the exact site is unknown. They were declared "Venerable" by Pope Pius XI.

Early Modern and Modern

Charles I evaded custody under the Army at Hampton Court by riding to Southampton in order to escape to Jersey. However,he and his companion became lost in the New Forest and missed their intended ship, and fled to the Isle of Wight instead. The Governor Colonel Robert Hammond had declared for Parliament and Charles was imprisoned in Carisbrooke Castle. Since an extensive bowling green was built for his use this was initially in some comfort, but this was made closer after an abortive escape attempt, when he failed to get through the window to where Royalist sympathisers under John Oglander were waiting with a horse.

Charles was approached by the Presbyterian faction of Parliament and concluded the Treaty of Newport, offering him a constitutional monarchy. However Charles had no intention of accepting its restrictions upon Royal power and also concluded the Engagement with the Scots to invade on his behalf. As a result of his perceived faithlessness, the moderate faction at Parliament were discredited and Charles was moved to more prison-like conditions at Hurst Castle and thence to execution on 30 January 1649.

Later Cromwell was to use Carisbrooke Castle as a place of imprisonment for Fifth Monarchists opposed to his Protectorate including Thomas Harrison and Christopher Feake.

Queen Victoria made the Isle of Wight her home for many years, and as a result it become a major holiday resort for members of European royalty, whose many houses could later claim descent from her through the widely flung marriages of her offspring. During her reign in 1897 the World's first radio station was set up by Marconi at the Needles battery at the western tip of the Island.

The famous boat-building firm of J. Samuel White was established on the Island in 1802. Other noteworthy marine manufacturers followed over the 19th and 20th centuries including Saunders-Roe a key manufacturer of the Flying-boats and the world's first hovercraft. The tradition of maritime industry continues on the Island today.

In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, a sizeable network of railways was built on the island, notable for its punishing gradients and numerous tunnels, particularly to reach the town of Ventnor. Since the early twentieth century, these lines were often linked to plans for a tunnel under the Solent, an idea still talked of today. Most of the rail network closed between 1956 and 1966, and is now a series of cyclepaths.

The first Governor to hold the crown representative title used now of Lord-Lieutenant was Lord Mountbatten of Burma until his murder in 1979. Lord Mottistone was the last Lord Lieutenant to also hold the title Governor (from 1992 to 1995). Since 1995 there has been no Governor appointed and Mr Christopher Bland has been the Lord Lieutenant.

Caulkheads and other Island terms

Historically, inhabitants of the Isle of Wight have been known as Vectensians or Vectians (pronounced Vec-tee-ans). These terms derive from the Latin name for the Island, Vectis. Vectian is a word used more formally to describe certain geological features which are typical of the Island. As with many other small island communities the term Islander has long been used, and is commonly heard today. The term Overner is used for people originating from mainland Great Britain. This is an abbreviated form of Overlander; which is an archaic English term for an outsider still found in a few other places such as parts of Australia.[13]

People born on the island are colloquially known as Caulkheads (sometimes erroneously written as it is spoken, Corkheads), a word comparable with the name Cockney for those born in the East End of London. Some argue that the term should only apply those who can also claim they are of established Isle of Wight stock either by proven historical roots or, for example, being third generation inhabitants from both parents' lineage.[14]

One theory about the term 'caulkhead' is that it comes from the once prevalent local industry of caulking boats; a process of sealing the seams of wooden boats with oakum. It is said that the shipyard at Bucklers Hard in the New Forest employed labourers from the Isle of Wight , mainly as caulkers, in the building of early warships. Islanders may have been called "Caulkheads" during this time either because they were indeed so employed, or merely as a derisory term for perceived unintelligent labourers from another place. Another more fanciful story is that a group of armoured Island horsemen were chased into the sea by the marauding French, and took refuge on a sandbank when the tide came in, thus appearing to float in the sea despite their heavy armour, hence the name Cork- i.e. Caulk-, -heads When this supposed event happened is not clear, since the Island was frequently attacked in the Middle Ages, however in the last instance in 1546 Sandown Castle was under construction some way offshore and a battle was fought on site, resulting in the French being driven off and this could fit this particular tale.[15] In local folklore it is said that a test can be conducted on a baby by throwing it into the sea from the end of Ryde Pier whereupon a true caulkhead baby will float unharmed. Thankfully there is no record of the test ever being carried out.

Political History

The island's most ancient borough was Newtown on the large natural harbour on the island's north-western coast. A French raid in 1377, that destroyed much of the town as well as other Island settlements, sealed its permanent decline. By the middle of the 16th century it was a small settlement long eclipsed by the more easily defended town of Newport. Elizabeth I breathed some life into the town by awarding two parliamentary seats but this ultimately made it one of the most notorious of the Rotten Boroughs. By the time of the Great Reform Act that abolished the seats, it had just fourteen houses and twenty-three voters. The Act also disenfranchised the borough of Yarmouth and replaced the four lost seats with the first MP for the whole Isle of Wight; Newport also retained its two MPs, though these were reduced to one in 1868 and eventually abolished completely in 1885.

Often thought of as part of Hampshire, the Isle of Wight was briefly included in that county when the first county councils were created in 1888. However, a "Home Rule" campaign led to a separate county council being established for the Isle of Wight in 1890, and it has remained separate ever since. Like inhabitants of many islands, Islanders are fiercely jealous of their real (or perceived) independence, and confusion over the Island's separate status is a perennial source of friction.

It was planned to merge the county back into Hampshire as a district in the 1974 local government reform, but a last minute change led to it retaining its county council. However, since there was no provision made in the Local Government Act 1972 for unitary authorities, the Island had to retain a two-tier structure, with a county council and two boroughs, Medina and South Wight.

The borough councils were merged with the county council on 1 April 1995, to form a single unitary authority, the Isle of Wight Council. The only significant present-day administrative link with Hampshire is the police service, the Hampshire Constabulary, which is joint between Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

From the closing decades of the 20th century onwards, there has been considerable debate on the Island over whether or not a bridge or tunnel should connect the island with mainland England. The Isle of Wight Party campaigned from a positive position, although extensive public debate on the subject revealed a strong body of opinion amongst islanders against such a proposal. In 2002 the Isle of Wight Council debated the issue and made a policy statement against the proposal.

Autonomy and Political Recognition

A number of discussions about the status of the island have taken place over many years, with standpoints from the extreme of wanting full sovereignty for the Isle of Wight, to perhaps the opposite extreme of merging with Hampshire. The pro-independence lobby had a formal voice in the early 1970s with the Vectis National Party. Their main claim was that the sale of the island to the Crown in 1293 was unconstitutional. However, this movement now has little serious support. Since the 1990s the debate has largely taken the form of a campaign to have the Isle of Wight recognized as a distinct region by organizations such as the EU, due to its relative poverty within the south-east of England. One argument in favour of special treatment is that this poverty is not acknowledged by such organizations as it is distorted statistically by retired and wealthy (but less economically active) immigrants from the mainland.

In more recent times, the regionalist movement has been represented by the Isle of Wight Party.

Isle of Wight Disease

In 1904 a mysterious illness began to kill honeybee colonies on the island, and had nearly wiped out all hives by 1907 when the disease jumped to the mainland, and devastated beekeeping in the British Isles. Called the Isle of Wight Disease, the cause of the mystery ailment was not identified until 1921 when a tiny parasitic mite, Acarapis woodi was first described by J. Rennie. The mite inhabited the tracheae of individual bees, and greatly shortened their lifespan, causing eventual death of the colony. The disease (now called Acarine Disease) frightened many other nations because of the importance of bees in pollination. Laws against importation of honeybees were passed, but this merely delayed the eventual spread of the parasite to the rest of the world.

The Isle of Wight Festival

A large rock festival took place near Tennyson Down, West Wight in 1970, following two smaller concerts in 1968 and 1969. The 1970 show was notable for being the last public performance by Jimi Hendrix before his death. The festival was revived in 2002 and is now an annual event,[16] with other, smaller musical events of many different genres across the Island becoming associated with it.

The first of the modern festivals was a one day affair termed Rock Island,[17] which expanded to two days in 2003,[17] then three days by 2004.[18]

See also


  1. Momber et al. 2011. "Mesolithic Occupation at Bouldnor Cliff and the Submerged Prehistoric Landscapes of the Solent". Cite journal requires |journal= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. King 1954, William Bernard Robinson. "The geological history of the English Channel". Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society (1954). 110 (1–4): 77–101. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Lagarde et al. 2003., J.L. "The structural evolution of the English Channel area". Journal of Quaternary Science. Special Issue: The Quaternary History of the English Channel March - May 2003. 18 (3.4): 201–213. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Antoine et al. 2003., Pierre. "The Pleistocene rivers of the English Channel region". Journal of Quaternary Science. 18 (3–4): 227–243. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Larsonneur et al. 1982, Claude. "The superficial sediments of the English Channel and its Western Approaches". Sedimentology December 1982. 29 (6): 851–864. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. St. Michael's mount at Land's end is another possibility. Full but inconclusive discussion is at romanmap.com - [1] (accessed 11 August 2009)
  7. "The Great Port", possibly at or near the site of modern Bosham Harbour, between Portsmouth and Chichester: [2]
  8. Rivet, A. and Smith, C., The Place-Names of Roman Britain, Book Clubs Associates (1979), 487-9.
  9. Durham, A, The origin of the names Vectis and Wight, Proc. Isle Wight nat. Hist. archaeol. Soc. 25, 93-97.
  10. Channel 4 - Time Team 2002
  11. Villas are known at Brading, Carisbrooke, Clatterford (southwest of Carisbrooke), Combley (on Robin Hill), Gurnard, Newport, and Rock (north of Brighstone).
  12. 12.0 12.1 David Wharton Lloyd, Nikolaus Pevsner, (2006), The Buildings of England: Isle of Wight, pages 15-16. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-10733-1
  13. overlander
  14. Isle of Wight Nostalgia Site: Island facts
  15. http://www.iwcp.co.uk/ViewArticle2.aspx?SectionID=1263&ArticleID=1357321
  16. The Official Isle of Wight Festival 2008 website
  17. 17.0 17.1 BBC - Southampton Music - Rock Island - Isle of Wight Festival 2002
  18. BBC - Southampton - Music - Isle of Wight Festival 2004

External links