In the highly unlikely event that I should ever think it worthwhile writing my memoirs I think they would be called “The Accidental Advocate”. Accidental because before ever I wanted to be a barrister I had already fallen I love with history. If things had worked out differently I might have ended up in some ivory tower surrounded by old books full of Norse sagas, ancient chronicles like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and other accounts by the likes of Bede. Over the years many different events from different centuries and different continents have grabbed my attention but in the end I always seem to return to my first love, the history of England between the arrival of the Romans and the coming of the Normans in 1066.
Quite why it is this period that so attracts me I am not entirely sure of but there is something about wanting to know where I come from, who were my ancestors, how a group of disparate Iron Age tribes became a series of kingdoms and eventually by the 10th century had evolved into a genuine kingdom of all the English. One powerful factor in all this for me is that the perfect answer to racist and nationalist bigots who bang on about racial purity and “England for the English” is that to study the development of these island over this thousand year period is to realise how complete a collection of mongrels the inhabitants of these islands really are. Even identifying ourselves as the “English” is only to have seized on the name of one of many cultural and linguistic groups who settled in this country from whom we might just as easily have taken our name.
For a start the Romans weren’t really Romans at all or at least lots of them weren’t. One very successful concept developed by the Romans as they extended their empire was to raise legions consisting of peoples who they had already conquered as a way presumably of convincing them of the benefits of being ruled by Rome. Whether a Belgian or Spaniard being stationed in Britain on the wild north-west frontier of the empire in the first century AD would necessarily have seen it that way is perhaps open to question. Nonetheless that is what happened. The IX legion Hispana which set up camp in Lincoln before moving north across the Humber in about AD 70 to establish a home in what later became the ancient city of York, were as their name suggests mainly recruited from Spain. Units who were later stationed on Hadrian’s wall in modern Northumberland and Cumbria in the second century included cohorts from the modern Netherlands and Belgium, early examples of the free movement of peoples perhaps. Other units came from Germany, Croatia, North Africa and shock-horror even Syria! So much for immigrants being the fault of the EU or the 21st century civil war in Syria!
I like to imagine a group of first century AD Yorkshiremen from the British tribe from around the York area known as the Brigantes sitting around a fire on a Friday night drinking the local ale. I imagine them complaining about the bloody foreigners coming over here and ruining the lovely unspoilt countryside with building a huge wall of stone, laying roads across previously open land with aquaducts and viaducts and vineyards and all the other things Reg’s group in Life of Brian complain about the Romans bringing with them. And then of course there will have been the inter-breeding and before long those foreigners will have been settling down with British women and before you know it you would have had an even more multi-cultural population that we have in Britain today.
And after the Romans we had the Angles, Saxons and Jutes of whom the fabled “English”, the Angles were just one part. They came from the areas of modern north Germany and Holland. Other groups came from the south of modern Denmark. From the late 8th century the Danes made their appearance in England and were here in large numbers until the Normans arrived in 1066. Before that though we also “welcomed” the Vikings from Norway although some of these had spent a century or so in Ireland before they took the short trip across to Lancashire. And those Normans were sort of French but their very name contains an important clue to their origins. These were the dreaded “Northmen”, cousins of those who attacked and then settled in England in the 9th and 10th centuries, who in the space of about four generations had become native Frenchmen. So pick the bones out of that lot before you start all this “England for the English” nonsense. When we speak of “the English”, we aren’t actually speaking of a tribe of thoroughbreds, but a collection of mongrels with all the fabulous diversity that mixing together and interbreeding has brought.
For me the study of history has to be about much more than merely reading books and ancient documents even if they include the works of writers like Bede or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, contemporaneous as they were from about the late 9th century or the study of fabulous creations like the Lindisfarne Gospels. Museums can also play an important part in helping to bring history to life but for me what really sets the sparks flying is to go to places were great things or maybe even rather mundane things happened and just stand there and soak in the atmosphere, close your eyes and imagine how this scene was at some much earlier time in history.
So it was that in mid-July I set off on the first leg of my Magical History Tour 2016. First stop was Lincoln. Lincoln is full of fantastic stuff starting of course with its magnificent cathedral.
One of the things I like about driving to Lincoln on the A57 is that you can first see the cathedral from many miles away stuck up on top of a raised plateau as it is. You don’t need to believe in a deity to acknowledge this as one of the greatest and most beautiful buildings in Europe, if not the world. Built and re-built over several hundred years following a previous major collapse you can see the progress of the work in the building itself from the west face of the cathedral. From the crude round arches of the Normans who didn’t really understand load-bearing to the far more elegant and sophisticated structures the higher up you go. For years I have always enjoyed a visit to see the Lincoln copy of Magna Carta which until recently was housed in an unprepossessing council building in the grounds of the castle and Crown Court. In time for the 800th anniversary of this most celebrated document in English history a new room was built to house Magna Carta. Unfortunately the heating doesn’t work properly and was in danger of damaging the document so it has been closed and as a result Magna Carta is currently not on display.
Undeterred by this I set about investigating the Roman origins of Lincoln. Because they built in stone rather than wood a surprising amount of Roman Lincoln survives despite the fact the city had been in constant occupation since Roman times and modern development has undoubtedly destroyed a significant amount of the physical evidence. However the base of the eastern gateway to the city is clearly visible in the grounds of a modern hotel, including the base of a stone staircase.
On the other side of the Roman city, part of the western gate remains on view beside the later gate in the castle walls. In between part of a wall called the Mint Wall survives and is particularly significant because this was part of the civil forum buildings rather than the military part of the city. The columns on one side of the forum were uncovered in the late nineteenth century and their location today is marked by a series of circles set in the roadway and pavement.
My favourite part of the Roman remains of Lincoln however is the Newport gate. This would have been the northern gate of the Roman settlement. It was built on Ermine Street which begins in London. This section marked the start of the length of more than thirty miles of Ermine Street that runs from Lincoln to Winteringham on the south banks of the Humber. What is most remarkable about Newport Gate is that it is still in use to this day as a gateway to the city and traffic can enter the city through its arch as it has done for more than 1700 years.
It is the sole remaining Roman arch in this country that is still in working order for vehicular traffic.
When you approach it is seems to be rather low for a working archway. The explanation for this lies nearby. On the west side of the arch you see the foundations of one of the pillars of the arch. It is set about two metres below the modern ground level. In other words back in the 3rd century the ground level through the arch itself would have been about two metres lower thus leaving plenty of height for the largest of wagons using it.
Lincoln remains a bustling city to this day albeit on a modest scale compared to many other modern cities. But it was easy to stand by the Newport gate and imagine how it must all have looked and sounded back in bustling Roman times.
From Lincoln I drove north on Ermine Street. It is surprising how faithful to the original routes laid down by the Romans over nineteen hundred years ago some of our major roads remain. The A5 for example which runs from London to near Shrewsbury pretty much follows the original route of Watling Street north of London. The same can be said for parts of the A1, the Great North Road although modern requirements have increasingly meant that the modern road has ploughed new furrows not necessary to cope with traffic demands in Roman times. But from Lincoln the present road, the A15 is pretty much a straight road for thirty odd miles until the road nears the Humber river. In Roman times there was a ferry terminal near the modern village of Winteringham, just a few miles west of the modern bridge over the Humber, which linked up with the Roman fort at Brough on Humber (Petuaria) on the north side of the river.
Today there is little trace of either site but on a cloudy morning in July of this year I stood roughly where the Roman fort would have been from around 71 AD and imagined the traffic being ferried to and fro along that important Roman artery from York to the south.
In my next blog I will turn to events at the other end of my favourite period of English history, namely 1066, a very significant year in English history and visit Riccall, York and Stamford Bridge.