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  • Secret Cambridge by Andrew Sargent

    It is difficult to write something fresh about a place which is as well known and loved as Cambridge. The run of colleges along The Backs are a vital part of our national heritage, and King’s College Chapel is familiar the world over from the televised Christmas Eve broadcast of Carols from King’s.

    Friends asked me to justify offering a new book. The answer is that, while a small slice of the town is a national treasure visited by millions every year, most of its long history passes them by. The focus on the colleges means that much else is hidden in plain sight; more is tucked away and forgotten. I studied and lived in Cambridge for fifteen years, and was aware that even in that time I barely scratched the surface.

    The Mathematical Bridge at Queens' College, originally designed by William Etheridge in 1749, has been rebuilt several times. (Author's collection, Secret Cambridge, Amberley Publishing)

    Secret Cambridge is probably unique in its approach. It explores the whole town, not just the famous colleges, and it takes in the whole story of Cambridge from its Roman origins to the present day. But it is not just a history: it also looks for the places where events happened, and traces the surviving physical clues to the past – things you can see and touch. It will be as stimulating for Cambridge residents who want to know more about their town as for visitors.

    There was a town here, beside the Cam, a thousand years before the first scholars made it their home. That town continued alongside the growing university, the two becoming increasingly intertwined and their relationship becoming ever more complex. It is easy not to appreciate today, but for much of history Cambridge was a transport hub. It was an important river crossing and the last bridging point before the fens and the sea. It was also the highest navigable point for seagoing vessels, a place where cargoes could be transferred between road and water. The city arms still show three ships riding at anchor beneath a bridge.

    The Saxon tower of St Ben't's Church is the oldest structure in Cambridge. (Author's collection, Secret Cambridge, Amberley Publishing)

    The Roman conquerors were quick to recognize the strategic importance of this crossing point, and a bridge was soon built. A small settlement sprang up on the bluff overlooking the crossing to service passing travellers, while a suburb grew up on the opposite bank along what is today known as Bridge Street. This settlement – barely a town – appears in itineraries under the name Duroliponte. In the fourth century AD the hilltop town, though not its suburb, was surrounded by a wall; its course is preserved in the street plan.

    Despite this Roman history, the settlement disappeared in the succeeding ‘Dark Ages’ – this was true of most British towns. There was no Cambridge at this date, although archaeology has discovered a lot of rural activity within the area of the modern city boundary. The settlement by the river crossing reappears in the documents in 875 when the Viking army over-wintered there. Notably, this was the first use of the place name Granta Brycge. In other words, someone (perhaps King Offa of Mercia) had built a new (presumably timber) bridge at this important location, and it would be reasonable to imagine a small settlement of entrepreneurs had sprung up around it. From this point onward, the town grew. About 50 years later, Edward the Elder, King of Wessex and son of Alfred the Great, cemented its importance by creating a burh (a fortified place) which became the administrative centre for his new shire. The oldest building in Cambridge, the 11th-century tower of St Bene’t’s church, is a relic of the thriving late Saxon town.

    The earthen motte of the first Norman castle offers wide views over the town. Other castle buildings lay beneath the Shire Hill and car park. (Author's collection, Secret Cambridge, Amberley Publishing)

    The conquering Normans left their stamp in the form of the castle motte (or mound) which commands the view from the top of Castle Hill. Meanwhile, the Norman town prospered, in common with many market centres across the region. What marked Cambridge out was the annual Stourbridge Fair. Originally granted by King John as a fundraising venture for the leper hospital on Newmarket Road, it developed into the most important fair in England, attracting merchants from across Europe.

    The game-changing date was 1209. Oxford University temporarily suspended itself in protest at an unusually severe outbreak of violence by the townsfolk, and its scholars scattered. Most subsequently returned to Oxford, but a group decided to settle in their quiet fenland haven. At first they were probably unnoticed, but gradually the tensions between the civic and academic communities grew. As the conflict intensified, nobles, and even the King himself, were pressed into service in support of one side or the other. The university gained the upper hand, and it was only in the 19th century that relations began to be normalized.

    The great hall of 1290 and seventeenth-century chapel of Peterhouse, Cambridge's first college. (Author's collection, Secret Cambridge, Amberley Publishing)

    Today the name Cambridge immediately brings to mind the many beautiful and venerable colleges. The early scholars, however, lived simply in rented lodgings. In the 13th century the friars and monks built their own monastic houses in the town where members of their orders could study. The foundation of the first college, Peterhouse, is reckoned from 1284 when Bishop Hugh de Balsham of Ely established a band of scholars in some buildings beside the church of St Peter without Trumpington Gate (now called Little St Mary’s). Even so, it was many years before the small community could afford to erect any new college buildings. Other wealthy and powerful donors followed the Bishop’s lead, resulting in the dramatic remodeling of the town centre which created the Cambridge we know today. A road named Milne Street which ran parallel to the High Street (now St John’s Street-Trinity Street-King’s Parade) was swept away; many houses were bought up and a church was demolished to make way. Unlike today, these first colleges were for graduates only; undergraduates were left to find accommodation around the town. The need to control their unruly behaviour formed part of the drive for students to live in colleges.

    One of the most striking features of Cambridge is the way the countryside seems to wind through the town. It is possible to follow the river from Grantchester to Fen Ditton walking only a couple of short sections on the pavement. This gives the town a unique atmosphere.  Inevitably, it is in part a legacy of the university and colleges’ stubbornness which forced most suburban development to the east of the historic core.

    Today both town and university are growing. The university must add new facilities if it is to maintain its remarkable position as a world leader. As the fields of West Cambridge succumb to these pressures, this flexible town looks towards a new phase in its colourful life.

    Andrew Sargent's new book Secret Cambridge is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Richmond & Swaledale by Andrew Graham Stables

    Queen Cartimandua - an Iron Age Soap Opera

    Stanwick Fortifications SE. (Author's collection, Secret Richmond & Swaledale, Amberley Publishing)

    The Brigantes were an Iron Age tribe who lived throughout the north but mainly inhabited the counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Durham. Their name actually means 'upland people' or 'hill dwellers’, a very appropriate appellation when the Pennines are at the heart of their territory. After the Roman invasion of Britain in 43AD, the Romans pushed north defeating Caractacus in 51AD and Boudicca in 61AD, but the Queen of the Brigantes chose to collaborate with the Romans. She is even credited with handing the British resistance fighter Caractacus over to the Romans, after he fled north hoping for sanctuary from another indigenous tribe. It should be remembered that Britain was not a nation at this time, but was rather a collection of independent and sometimes hostile tribes, who may have had longer held grievances with their neighbours than the Romans.

    Stanwick Fortifications Sign. (Author's collection, Secret Richmond & Swaledale, Amberley Publishing)

    Just to the north of Richmond are the Stanwick Fortifications, where it is believed the main residence of the Brigantes and their Queen, Cartimandua, was established. By 68AD, York and Catterick were the main northern bases for the Roman invader on the eastern side of the country, Chester being the largest on the west. They protected the main routes north and particularly the Pennine crossing, now known as the A66 or Stainmore Pass. The Catterick fort was situated on the river Swale less than a day’s march (10-12 miles) from the main concentration of Brigantes at Stanwick and excavations at the Stanwick site do show extensive trade with the Romans, demonstrated by pottery and glass objects. This clearly shows there must have been a form of communication and acceptance of the Mediterranean power on the edge of their lands. During excavations at the site hundreds of artefacts were discovered including a money hoard, chariot harnesses, swords and a horse face plate. Some of these are stored and sometimes displayed at the British Museum in London.

    Stanwick Fortifications still visible. (Author's collection, Secret Richmond & Swaledale, Amberley Publishing)

    The Stanwick site covers a huge area, with the 700 acres of land still clearly defined by the visible and very obvious earthworks, and to put the size of the site into some perspective, the famous Iron Age site of Maiden Castle at Dorchester is a mere 47 acres.

    The historical soap opera that unfolded at this time involved Cartimandua’s husband, who was called Venutius, and it is believed he came from the Carvetti tribe who inhabited Cumbria, maybe as part of a marriage alliance. He was anti-Roman and didn’t agree with his wife’s policies of cooperation with the invaders, which must have led to arguments, as Cartimandua divorced him and instead took his armour bearer as her lover. As you might imagine Venutius was a little upset with this dishonour, so he gathered other disaffected nobles and followers to attack his former wife. The Romans were distracted following the death of Nero and the political turmoil in Rome and Venutius managed to win, taking over the tribe, now hostile to the Roman forces.

    Stanwick Map overmarked to show area. (Author's collection, Secret Richmond & Swaledale, Amberley Publishing)

    By late 69AD the distractions in Rome were resolved and the Romans gathered their forces and very quickly defeated Venutius. There is no further mention in the histories to the fate of Cartimandua, no mention of her death and she seems to have simply fade away from history. This defeat of the Brigantes was the catalyst for the Roman expansion north and they moved from York and Chester, eventually reaching at least as far north as Dundee. This push north only took 10 years and before much longer the Romans established control over the whole of the north of the country.  They eventually fell back to Hadrian’s Wall which became the northern extent of the empire in the 120’s.

    The significance of this lovers tiff is huge, leading to Roman domination for the next 350 years and it all happened in the countryside surrounding Richmond and Swaledale.

    Andrew Graham Stables' new book Secret Richmond & Swaledale is available for purchase now.

  • The Romans in 100 Facts by Jem Duducu

    In the classic comedy The Life of Brian in it the Monty Python team have the classic sketch ‘So what have the Romans ever done for us?’ In it innovations such as roads, aqueducts and schooling are raised (and then dismissed). It's the perfect summary of Rome's greatest achievement which is PR. I say this because in reality, the Romans did not invent anything on the list of ‘Roman’ achievements in the sketch.

    The single greatest thing the Romans ever did for us is make us believe they were a ‘civilising’ force for good. They had had an advantage in Western Europe as the Celtic civilisations had no real writing. The Romans then could preserve for history their side of the story, but the fact the Gauls, Picts etc couldn't write does not make them uncivilised barbarians who ‘needed’ Roman overlordship.

    The further east you go, the more obvious it is that the Romans were the young upstart civilisation. For example in terms of time we are all closer to Julius Caesar and Cleopatra then they are to the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The Romans could bring nothing to the table in terms of history or culture in Egypt. Similarly the Romans owed a huge debt to the Hellenic Greek culture, but that didn't stop them conquering that area either.

    The simple fact is that the arrival of the legions in a new area did not herald a peaceful takeover, but war and enslavement. Civilisations were crushed, ruling families killed; this was in no way a meeting of minds and a merging of two equal partners. Going back to The Life of Brian and indeed the real time of Jesus, the Romans had actually only recently arrived on the scene and we're still coming to grips with ruling such an ancient culture. That's one of the reasons the Romans were resented so much in Judea - and the rest as they say is history.

    With my new book "The Romans in 100 Facts" I do my best to summarise over a thousand years of Roman history in short stories about certain key people, places and battles to open up this complex and hugely important world for the casual reader. I point out their achievements but I also show the flaws and brutality of this civilisation. This is the civilisation after all that watched men fight to the death for fun and yet perfected stoic philosophy. They had a massive slave trade but also built public baths and toilets for its poor citizens. The Romans then are a fascinating series of contradictions.

    9781445649702

    Jem Duducu's The Romans in 100 Facts is available for purchase now.

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