History of the Isle of Wight

History of the Isle of Wight

Today, the Isle of Wight is rich in historical and archaeological sites dating from prehistoric periods from an extraordinary wealth of fossil discoveries including dinosaur bones through to remains from the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman periods onwards.

The origins of the island can be traced to the end of the last Ice age when post-glacial rebound caused the global sea level to rise, due to melting glaciers, and thus flooded the former river valley of the Solent to the north and the future English Channel to the south, cutting Wight off from both the Continent, and main island of Britain.

The date at which the West of the Solent became flooded is contentious, as once sea water broke through and created an island, the Solent channel would have been scoured out by strong tides. The English Channel may have been flooded later.

However in all known historical records, the area is referred to as an Island.

Early history

The early references to the Island now known as the Isle of Wight are few, and despite various suggested theories the origin of the name Wight is not certain. The pre-Roman name for the island was possibly "Ynys Gywth" meaning "channel island", a name given by the early celtic speaking inhabitants of the island. These people may have been displaced around 50 BC by Belgic refugees from Gaul fleeing the expanding Roman Empire. Later Roman documents describe the island as within the bounds of a Belgae tribe who were probably related to the Belgic people of northern Gaul.
Suetonius in his dramatic biography "The Lives of the First Twelve Caesars" records some news on the first century Roman invasion of Vectis by The Second Legion Augusta, commanded by the legate Vespasian who was later to become emperor: "Vespasian proceeded to Britain where he fought thirty battles, subjugated two warlike tribes, and captured more than twenty towns, besides the entire Isle of Vectis" [ [http://www.channel4.com/history/microsites/T/timeteam/yaver_suet.html Channel 4 - Time Team 2002 ] ] .

The Isle of Wight is first mentioned in writing in "Geography" by Claudius Ptolemaeus written in the mid 2nd century AD stating in the final entry of chapter II ;

"...below Magnus Portus is the island Vectis..."
Following the demise of the Roman Empire Bede tells us that the Isle of Wight, along with parts of Hampshire and most of Kent, was settled in the fifth century onwards by the Jutes, a Germanic tribe from Northern Europe. Some believe they became victims of a policy of ethnic cleansing by the West Saxons in England. [http://www.channel4.com/history/microsites/T/timeteam/archive/timeteamlive2001/feature_ethnic.html]

Jutish kingdom

In the year 534AD, according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle Cerdic with his son Cynric invaded and conquered the island. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle states that the Island was given to Cerdic's nephews, who were Jutes- Stuf and Wihtgar. It is open to question whether "Wihtgar" actually existed, since Carisbrooke was known as the "Fort of the Men of Wight", or "Wihtwarasburgh", which could have been changed to "Wihtgarasburgh" and the name "Wihtgar" (an unusual name meaning "White Spear").

The island and the adjacent shore of southern Hampshire 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 685AD 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. :St.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 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 became 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

During the reign of Egbert of Wessex, half the Island was given to the Church.

The Island suffered particularly from the Vikings. 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 Ethelred had to flee England after Sweyn Forkbeard defeated him in revenge and spent Christmas on the Isle of Wight en route to Normandy.

The Island again played a critical role in English history as the base for Harold Godwinson and his brothers when in revolt against Edward the Confessor and yet again in 1066, when Tostig Godwinson arrived to collect supplies and very little support en route to 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

The Norman Conquest created the position of 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.


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. The first Governor to hold the crown representative title used now of Lord-Lieutenant was Lord Louis 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.

Henry VIII who developed the Royal Navy and its permanent base at Portsmouth, fortifications at Yarmouth, East & West 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 returm=n 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

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 nineteenth and twentieth 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.

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. [ [http://www.tiscali.co.uk/reference/encyclopaedia/hutchinson/m0011566.html overlander ] ]

People born on the island are colloquially known as Caulkheads (sometimes 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. [ [http://www.invectis.co.uk/iow/facts.htm Isle of Wight Nostalgia Site: Island facts ] ]

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. [http://www.iwcp.co.uk/ViewArticle2.aspx?SectionID=1263&ArticleID=1357321] 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 sixteenth 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 April 1, 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 decimated 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, [ [http://www.isleofwightfestival.com The Official Isle of Wight Festival 2008 website ] ] 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, [http://www.bbc.co.uk/southampton/music/iow_rev.shtml BBC - Southampton Music - Rock Island - Isle of Wight Festival 2002 ] ] which expanded to two days in 2003, then three days by 2004. [ [http://www.bbc.co.uk/southampton/music/iow_2004_day3_review.shtml BBC - Southampton - Music - Isle of Wight Festival 2004 ] ]

ee also

* History of England
* Isle of Wight Rifles
* Michal Morey


External links

* [http://www.channel4.com/history/timeteam/archive/timeteamlive2001/feature_jutes.html The Jutes in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight]
* [http://www.channel4.com/history/timeteam/archive/timeteamlive2001/feature_ethnic.html Were the West Saxons guilty of ethnic cleansing?]
* [http://members.lycos.co.uk/bartie/ Old Isle of Wight Postcards and Pictures]
* [http://wightundercliff.mine.nu Old Isle of Wight Undercliff Postcards and Pictures]
* [http://www.btinternet.com/~rob.martin1/fort/home.htm A website describing fortifications that existed on the Isle of Wight]

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