Seven years ago I finished my Renaissance quartet with A Gift for the Magus and was faced with the question of what to do next. What — or where — did I love as much as Florence? The answer was very close to home: White Horse Hill, Uffington. I have always been drawn to the place, going there when convalescing or getting over some prolonged virus. Up on the hill, eye to eye with skylarks, you feel part of the elements and it is easy to imagine being a lookout standing on the walls of the nearby hill fort.
The sinuous lines cut into the chalk downs date back to the late Bronze Age (between 1380 – 550 BC). The figure can only be seen from the ground at a few places. Close-to it is just a series of enigmatic white lines. 
The downs have always been horse country. Even today top race horses are bred at nearby Lambourn, trained on local gallops and often go on to win the Derby or the Grand National. Early medieval literature gives us a picture of the Iron Age warriors as cattle raiders. In these parts it would be much more likely that they stole horses rather than cows. Caratacus, in his famous speech to Claudius after his capture, began, ‘I had horses, men, arms and wealth…’ in that order. 
This horse carved in chalk for the pleasure of the gods was the spirit animal of the local tribes of Atrebates (Hampshire, Berkshire) and Dobunni (Gloucestershire, Somerset). Both tribes used the horse in their coins. This one, part of the Henley Hoard in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, is of the Atrebates.

Triple-tailed horse2

The capital of the Atrebates was at Calleva (Silchester) and the bronze horse found there (now in the Reading Museum) is clearly based on the Uffington Horse but is always shown facing left for some reason (the design is repeated on both sides). Flip it over and you see the horse all joined up, as perhaps it was in those days.

Calleva horse1

The territory of the Atrebates once ran from the Thames down to the sea but by AD43 it had shrunk to the southern-most settlement at Noviomagus (Chichester). The bones of the story may be found in Martin Henig’s The Heirs of King Verica in which we are introduced to Togidubnus, once called ‘Great King’ but now almost entirely forgotten. Yet he was the first, according to Henig, of a line that includes Arthur and Alfred who shaped the nation now called England.

Based on a post in ‘Ancestral Voices’ December 28th, 2017

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