Patronising smiles are the usual response when we point out that Wessex remains under the Norman yoke. Not so funny is the press release issued by Eric Pickles’ Department for Communities and Local Government today to mark the flying of the Somerset flag outside their London headquarters.
The historic Somerset does not in fact have a flag but the red dragon logo of Somerset County Council has been employed on this occasion to represent Somerset as a whole, including those parts outside the county council’s authority. This dragon is a local variant of ‘the Dragon of Wessex’, first adopted by the council as its emblem in 1906. The colour was changed from gold-on-red to red-on-gold when a coat-of-arms was granted in 1911, presumably so that Somerset would be distinguished from Wessex as a whole. The council’s motto too has a Saxon origin. Sumorsæte Ealle is a phrase from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, meaning ‘all those of Somerset’. It appears in the account of events in 878 that led up to King Alfred’s decisive victory over the Danes.
Imagine the surprise upon reading in Pickles’ press release that “The county of Somerset was a Norman creation.” The use of ‘county’ in place of ‘shire’ may indeed be attributed to the conquerors but to read the press release is to take away the impression that a couple of minor Norman barons are more worthy of acknowledgement than Wessex kings like Ine and Alfred who made a positive difference to Somerset. Any true Cuckoopenner will be reaching for their chequebook and joining the Wessex Regionalist Party this instant.
Our history ignored. Our dialect mocked. Our environment trashed. Our institutions destroyed. Our right to self-government denied. And the best the national debate on devolution can now offer is a Norman-style English Parliament to impose one-size-fits-all solutions and continue a centuries-old onslaught on regional identity. After 945 years, what really has changed?