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The first human visitors to Dorset were Mesolithic hunters, from around 8000 BC. The first permanent Neolithic settlers appeared around 3000 BC and their populations were small and concentrated along the coast in the Isle of Purbeck, the Isle of Portland, Weymouth and Chesil Beach and along the Stour valley. These populations used tools and fire to clear these areas of some of the native oakforest. Further clearances took place in the Bronze Age, making way for agriculture and animal husbandry, Dorset's high chalk hills have provided a location for defensive settlements for millennia. There are Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds on almost every chalk hill in the county along with a number of Iron Age hill forts. Probably the most famous of these structures is Maiden Castle, which was built around 600BC and is one of the largest in Europe.

Dorset has Roman artefacts, particularly around the Roman town Dorchester, where Maiden Castle was captured from the Celtic Durotriges by a Roman Legion in 43 AD under the command of Vespasian, early in the Roman occupation. The Romans also had a presence on the Isle of Portland, constructing - or adapting - hilltop defensive earthworks on Verne Hill. A large defensive ditch, Bokerley Dyke, delayed the Saxon conquest of Dorset for up to 150 years. By the end of the 7th century however, Dorset had become part of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex. The Domesday Book documents many Saxon settlements corresponding to modern towns and villages and there have been few changes to the parishes since. Many monasteries were also established, which were important landowners and centres of power.

In the 12th-century civil war, Dorset was fortified by the construction of the defensive castles at Corfe Castle, Powerstock, Wareham and Shaftesbury, and the strengthening of the monasteries such as at Abbotsbury. The 12th and 13th centuries saw much prosperity in Dorset and the population grew substantially as a result. In order to provide the extra food required, additional land was enclosed for farming during this time. The quarrying of Purbeck Marble, a limestone that can be polished, brought wealth into the county and provided employment for stonecutters and masons. The trade continued until the 15th century when alabaster from Derbyshire became popular. During the Middle Ages, Dorset was used by the monarchy and nobility for hunting and the county still retains a number of deer parks. Melcombe Regis, now part of Weymouth, was a busy port at this time and it was in July 1348 that a ship from the continent brought with it the bubonic plague. The residents of Melcombe were the first casualties of a disease which went on to wipe out a third of the population of the country.

The Tudor period and the dissolution of the monastries saw the end of many of Dorset's abbeys including Shaftesbury, Cerne and Milton. In 1588, eight ships from Dorset assisted in the destruction of the Spanish Armada. The flagship San Salvador still lies at the bottom of Studland bay. Sir Walter Raleigh later settled in Sherborne and served as MP for Dorset.

In the 17th-century English Civil War, Dorset had a number of royalist strongholds, such as Portland Castle, Sherborne Castle and Corfe Castle, the latter two being ruined by Parliamentarian forces in the war. Corfe had already been successfully defended against an attack in 1643 but an act of betrayal during a second siege in 1646 led to its capture and subsequent slighting. The residents of Lyme Regis were staunch Parliamentarians who, in 1644, repelled three attacks by a Royalist army under King Charle's nephew, Prince Maurice. Maurice lost 2,000 men in the assualts and his reputation was severely damaged as a result. In 1645 some 5,000 angry civillians, annoyed by the disruption caused by the war, gathered to do battle with Cromwell's forces. Armed only with clubs and farming tools, they were easily chased off.

In 1685, James Scott Monmouth, the illegitimate son of Charles II, and 150 supporters landed at Lyme Regis. After the failed Monmouth Rebellion, the 'Bloody Assizes' took place in Dorchester where over a five day period, Judge Jeffreys presided over 312 cases. 74 were executed; 29 were hanged, drawn and quartered; 175 were deported and many were publicly whipped. In 1686, at Charborough Park, a meeting took place to plot the downfall of James II of England. This meeting was effectively the start of the Glorious Revolution.

During the 18th century the Dorset coast saw much smuggling activity; its coves, caves and sandy beaches provided ample opportunities to slip smuggled goods ashore. The production of cloth was a profitable business in Dorset during the 17th and 18th centuries. The absence of coal however meant that during the Industrial Revolution Dorset was unable to compete and so remained largely rural. The Tolpuddle Martyrs lived in Dorset, and the farming economy of Dorset was central in the formation of the trade union movement.

During World War I and II Dorset, located on the English Channel, was important to the Royal Navy. Portland Harbour was for many years the largest man-made harbour in the world, and one of the largest Royal Navy bases. Portland, Weymouth and Poole harbours were the main embarkation points on D-Day. Training for the landings also took place in Dorset, on the long sandy beach at Studland which was chosen because of its similarities to the beaches of Northern France.

Since the early 19th century, when George III took holidays in Weymouth, Dorset's tourism industry has grown, with the seaside resorts of Bournemouth and Weymouth, the Jurassic Coast and the county's sparsely populated rural areas, attracting millions of visitors each year. With farming declining across the country tourism now rivals agriculture as the main economy of the county.

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