Westbury White Horse
The Westbury or Bratton White Horse is a hill figure on the escarpment of Salisbury Plain, approximately 2.5 km (1.6 mi) east of Westbury in England. Located on the edge of Bratton Downs and lying just below an Iron Age hill fort, it is the oldest of several white horses carved in Wiltshire. It was restored in 1778, an action which may have obliterated a previous horse which had occupied the same slope. A contemporary engraving of the 1760s appears to show a horse facing in the opposite direction, and also rather smaller than the present figure. However, there is at present no documentary or other evidence for the existence of a chalk horse at Westbury before the year 1742.
The origin of the Westbury White Horse is obscure. It is often claimed to commemorate King Alfred's victory at the Battle of Eðandun in 878, and while this is not impossible, there is no trace of such a legend before the second half of the eighteenth century. It should also be noted that the battle of Eðandun has only tentatively been identified with Edington in Wiltshire.
Another white horse, that of Uffington, featured in King Alfred's earlier life. He was born in the Vale of White Horse, not far from Uffington. Unlike Westbury, documents as early as the eleventh century refer to the "White Horse Hill" at Uffington ("mons albi equi"), and archaeological evidence has dated the Uffington White Horse to the Bronze Age, although it is not certain that it was originally intended to represent a horse.
A white horse war standard was associated with the continental Saxons in the Dark Ages, and the figures of Hengest and Horsa who, according to legend, led the first Anglo-Saxon invaders into England, are said to have fought under a white horse standard (a claim recalled in the heraldic badge of the county of Kent).
During the eighteenth century, the white horse was a heraldic symbol associated with the new British Royal Family, the House of Hanover, and it is argued by some scholars that the Westbury White Horse may have first been carved in the early eighteenth century as a symbol of loyalty to the new Protestant reigning house.
In the 1950s, the horse was vandalised. It was repaired, but the damage could still be seen. The horse was fully restored in 2007 but less than four years later is again showing signs of serious visible distress. The BBC announced on 2 March 2012 that it is to be cleaned again in 2012. Work began 11 April 2012, complete 19 April 2012.
In popular culture
- Illtyd Trethowan, 'Alfred and the Great White Horse of Wiltshire', in Downside Review vol. LVII (1939)
- Reverend Francis Wise, Further Observations on the White Horse and other Antiquities in Berkshire (1742)
- William Plenderleath, White Horses of the West of England (1885, 2nd edition 1892)
- Morris Marples, White Horses and Other Hill Figures (1949)
- Westbury White Horse at Wiltshire White Horses
- The White (ish) Horse at ThisisWestbury.co.uk, Westbury's history website
- Wiltshire Web information
- Plenderleath, Rev. W. C., The White Horses of the West of England (London: Allen & Storr, 1892)