Somerset Day – when will it be, and why I think we should keep it ‘gurt’!

The Duke of Monmouth – whether you agree or not with his claim to the throne, the cause of so many horrific deaths in Somerset.  Should we celebrate this?

So, business group ‘A Passion For Somerset‘ is trying to launch a day specific to Somerset, and want to base it around events in Somerset’s history.  They have proposed 3 dates that cover nearly 1000 years of Somerset history.  I think it’s a great idea, why shouldn’t we celebrate all that is great about Somerset.  So, have you cast your vote?  The three dates proposed are:

11th May (878 AD) – the date Alfred the Great led ‘all the people of Somerset’ to defeat the Danish Army (and burn some cakes in the process, apparently).

19th May (910 AD) – St. Dunstan’s birthday.  And he was born in Somerset, don’t ya know!

6th July (1685 AD) – The Battle of Sedgemoor.  Every schoolchild in Somerset knows about this one, but just in case – the Duke of Monmouth (Charles II’s illegitimate son) led an army of rebels (most of whom were from Somerset) to fight against King James II’s army at Westonzoyland, the last battle on English soil.  More about that in a minute….

St. Dunstan. Handy with a pair of pincers.

Three key dates in Somerset history.  The ‘Twitter Vicar’ is urging Somters to vote for St. Dunstan, citing the importance of St. Dunstan in the medieval world.  However, given that it could end up being shortened to ‘Dunnie‘s Day’ (not great to the Australian ear, certainly), this wouldn’t be my choice.

You see, while the Battle of Sedgemoor is a very popular subject among primary schools, and as someone who grew up in Sedgemoor and even took part in the tercentenary re-enactment of the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1985, I am well versed in the importance of the Battle for the region.  However, I am not sure it is entirely appropriate as a day to celebrate Somerset.  You see, of all three of the prospective dates, this one represents a day of utter defeat and decimation for the population of Somerset.  The rebels that weren’t killed during their failed raid of the King’s army were rounded up and either hanged within a matter of days, subjected to the whim of Judge Jeffries at the Bloody Assizes (and possibly hanged, drawn and quartered), or sent off for hard labour in the West Indies.  Somerset was left without fathers and sons, and that meant breadwinners and workers.  Somerset was so shunned by the Monarchy that it’s said that even Queen Victoria pulled the blinds down on her train carriage when she stopped at stations in the county.

King Alfred the Gurt. You heard me.

King Alfred the Great (or ‘Gurt’, after all a local King for local people!), however, led the people of Somerset (along with Wiltshire and Hampshire, but hey, I’m sure we were better looking, or carried bigger swords, or something!) to a battle that they won.  Against the Danish army, no less, and back then, they were a pretty terrifying bunch.  But this isn’t something that gets taught in Primary School, and therefore isn’t as well known as the Battle of Sedgemoor.  But despite a few burnt buns and randomly strewn jewels, Alfred’s achievements in Somerset are significant for both Somerset and England.  He built forts at Axbridge, Lyng, Watchet and Langport, and setup fortifications and a monastery at Athelney (which got destroyed during the Reformation, unfortunately).  He went on to become the dominant ruler in England, and kept those pesky vikings at bay.

But back to the burnt buns – and the story that I think makes me pick this day among all others as the right choice to celebrate all that makes this county great…  Alfred was taken in by an old peasant woman, who didn’t recognise him, and asked him to watch her cakes on the griddle while she popped out (possibly to Ye Olde Sainseburyes for some jam to go in the cakes).  So preoccupied was Alfred with the state of his Kingdom, he daydreamed and let the cakes burn.  The peasant woman returned, and tore strips off him, until she realised who he was, and profusely apologised.  BUT, Alfred instead insisted that he was wrong for ruining her cakes, and apologised to her.  So – in short, an old woman from Somerset shouted at the King, and the King apologised to her.  Isn’t that the absolute in Somerset attitude?  And definitely worth my vote for Somerset Day!

Whichever date you pick, cast your vote before 31st January.  I can’t wait to see which date Somerset picks, and more importantly, how we celebrate it.

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