|Francis Wise's 1742 "Further Observations on the White Horse and other Antiquities in Berkshire" is often mentioned as the earliest bit of evidence in the 'Is The Bratton/Westbury Horse Old?' debate. I can now bring you the relevant passage. Apologies for the length.
There is a monument of this kind* which I once imagined would have confirmed my opinion beyond all possibility of doubt; though I had the mortification afterwards to find myself disappointed. Now am I right, or is this very hard to understand? What does that penultimate paragraph mean? Is he speculating or what? And if he's so certain, why the last paragraph? To me it sounds like he's saying it's constructed as though it were modern, and for confirmation, you could go and ask. But not that he did ask. He's determined his beloved Uffington horse is the real deal and the standard (no pun intended - he's obsessed with King Alfred) by which all other horses must be judged.
In the neighbourhood of Edington in Wiltshire, the place where Alfred gained the second most remarkable victory of his life, is a White Horse cut on the side of an high and steep hill, and under a large Roman fortification called Bratton-Castle, from the neighbouring town of Bratton: so that in this respect tis not unlike the Berkshire Horse. Bratton Castle is likewise the very place, whither, as antiquaries agree, Alfred after the battle pursued Guthrum the Danish King, and after a siege of fourteen days brought him to surrender: and this was another strong reason for referring it to the time of that prince.
Notwithstanding which I must give my readers a caution about it. For did not the fabrick discover it to be modern, yet the inhabitants of Westbury, a borough town about a mile from it, who made it and instituted a revel or festival thereupon, might inform them as much; it having been wrought within the memory of persons now living, or but very lately dead.
Yet still I think it may deserve the enquiry of others, who have more leisure than myself; How the common people came to be so fortunate in their choice of ground? and whether the authors of it had not preserved the tradition of some older Horse, now obliterated; and of some more ancient festival now forgot?
[* He's talking about ones of iffy antiquity, I think].
The plot thickens slightly with the Richard Gough's comments in his updated 1789 version of Camden's 'Britannia'. He disputes Wise's doubts:
On the south-west face of the hill is a most curious monument unnoticed by bishop Gibson: a white horse in a walking attitude cut out of the chalk, fifty-four feet high from his toe to his chest, and to the tip of his ear near one hundred feet high, and from ear to tail one hundred feet long: an undoubted memorial of this important victory, and like that by which Alfred commemorated his first great victory in Berkshire eight years before. The whole of this figure is hollowed out of the chalk, and not marked with outlines so hollowed, as Mr. Wise seems to insinuate the Berkshire horse is.So, he could find no such tradition?.. so the horse could be older. And besides, when was local rumour ever right!
I am surprized this very learned investigator of these kind of monuments among us should doubt the antiquity of this horse, which so exactly corresponds with the other both in execution and intention, and represent it as of modern make within memory. As I could find no such tradition when I surveyed it in 1772 he must have been misled to confound the scouring as they call it with the orginal making.
Posted by Rhiannon
27th April 2009ce
Edited 27th April 2009ce