Uffington, White Horse of


Uffington, White Horse of
(Oxfordshire, formerly Berkshire)
   This famous *hill figure certainly existed in the middle of the 12th century, when it is mentioned in a legal document as a landmark, but its true age and purpose have been hotly debated. Aubrey asserted that 'the White Horse was made by Hengist, who bore one on his arms or standard'; in 1738 the Revd Francis Wise said Alfred the Great had it cut to celebrate his victory over the Danes at Ashdown in 871. Archaeologists assigned it to the *Celtic period c.100 bc, because of its style - a disjointed figure composed of single thin lines, with a schematically rendered head (Piggott, 1931). This argument was challenged by supporters of Saxon dating, arguing that traces of a more realistic design remained (Woolner, 1967). In the 1990s, excavation confirmed the Horse's disjointed outline; moreover, luminescent silt dating produced the startlingly early date of c.1000 bc, making stylistic arguments irrelevant (Miles and Palmer, 1995).
   The White Horse needed regular scraping, and in 1677 a tourist noted that 'some that dwell herabout have an obligation upon their lands to repair and cleanse this landmark, or else in time it may turn green'. Thomas Cox, in his edition of Britannia (1720), said it was weeded annually, the workmen ending the day 'in feasting and merriment'. The Scouring of the White Horse, a novel by Thomas Hughes (1857), gives a lively description of the accompanying fair, with stalls, sideshows, and games - including toboganning down the steep hill on the jawbone of a horse.
   Legends and beliefs concerning the White Horse are few. It was sometimes said that *St George killed his dragon on a nearby hill, and that the White Horse is a picture of the saint's horse (according to some), or the dragon itself (according to others). A wish made while standing on the horse's eye would come true. A tradition that it was 'creeping up the hill' makes sense, as the figure's position did change slightly over the centuries.
   ■ Marples, 1949: 28-66; Stuart Piggott, Antiquity 5 (1931), 37-46; Diana Woolner, Folklore 78 (1967), 90-111; David Miles and S. Palmer, Current Archaeology 12: no. 10 (1995), 372-8.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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