after the Departure of the Romans.
Knights of the Round Table.
Church of St. Cadoc.
Modern History, and present State of Caerleon.
Singular Escape of Mrs. Williams.
Soon after the departure of the Romans from
Britain, the reports of tradition and the pages of romance, have
assigned to Caerleon a still greater splendour and importance
than under their domination. It is supposed to have been the metropolis
of the British empire; the favourite residence of the renowned
king Arthur, and his knights of the round table.
Arthur is said to have flourished in the sixth century, and is
usually called the fourth of that race of kings, who are known
by the name of the Armorican line, and from whom the inhabitants
of Britain are styled Armorican Britons. Although numerous authors
of great talents have written in favour of Arthur, and many historians
have assented to the proofs which they have advanced, yet their
opinions are discordant and contradictory. They only agree in
supporting his existence, but differ in the most material circumstances
of his lineage, birth, life, and death. The
incredible accounts of the British hero given by Geoffrey of Monmouth,
have cast an air of fable over his real exploits, and rendered
even his existence suspected.
The natives of Caerleon however, are not inclined to this opinion:
they point out the remains of the Roman amphitheatre, under the
name of Arthurs Round Table, from a supposition that a military
order was here instituted, which first raised the spirit of chivalry
in Europe. Arthur and his knights are recorded to have held their
feasts within the precincts of this area, seated at a round table,
for the purpose of promoting social intercourse, and superseding
the distinctions of state. But this legend has no foundation in
history; and the articles of the order, which have been gravely
quoted as authentic, display an internal evidence of forgery;
they contain notions of chivalry, honour, and gallantry, which
did not in that age prevail in any country of Europe.
The number of these heroes is no less uncertain than their history;
they increase as rapidly as Falstaffs men of buckram.
Some, with Dryden, in the beautiful fable of the flower and the
leaf, limit the number to twelve:
"Who bear the bow were knights in Arthurs reign;
"TWELVE they, and twelve the knights of Charlemagne."
Others make them twenty-four; while the ballad of the noble acts
of king Arthur extends their number from fifty to sixty-five:
"Then into Britain strait he came,
"Where fifty good and able
"Knights then repaired unto him,
"Which were of the round table."
But afterwards, speaking of sir Launcelot du Lake, it is said:
"Who has in prison THREE SCORE knights,
"And FOUR that he had wound;
"Knights of king Arthurs court they be,
"And of his table round."
Boisseau, in his Promptuaire Armoriale, after reciting the names
of the first twenty-four knights, mentions one hundred and twenty-nine
more, and gives a formal blazon of their arms.
On the death of Arthur, the order was supposed to be extinguished;
for it is related, that most of his knights companions in arms
perished in the fatal battle of Camblun, where he received his
mortal wound. The order fell into disrepute among the Saxons,
but abroad a new phoenix arose from its ashes, and produced the
twelve peers and table ronde of Charlemagne.
On the Norman conquest, and the overthrow of the Saxon dominion,
king Arthurs memory acquired fresh renown in England. The
round table rose into great estimation, and was introduced at
the grand martial exercises called hastiludes, tilts, or tournaments,
which were much encouraged by king Richard the first, "as
well" as Ashmole says, "for the delight of men inclined
to military actions, and increasing of their skill in their management
of arms, as in memorial or remembrance, that Arthur had erected
an order of knighthood." The custom was adopted by king
Stephen, and continued by several of his successors. Edward the
first, in particular, gave a new splendour to the solemnity, when,
on the conquest of Wales, he fixed his temporary residence at
Caernarvon: with a view to conciliate the affections of his new
subjects, who fondly cherished the memory of Arthur, and superstitiously
believed that he would re-appear, and establish the seat of empire
at Caerleon, he held a round table, and celebrated it with
dance and tournament.
At length Edward the third, an illustrious example and patron
of chivalry, availed himself of the high notions entertained of
Arthur and the knights of the round table, to establish a similar
fraternity. He kept a solemn tournament at his beloved Windsor,
received the knights who flocked from all quarters of Europe at
a round table, and ordered the solemnity to be repeated at Windsor
every Whitsuntide. The splendour of this meeting, and the consequence
which Edward derived from it in every court of Europe, induced
also Philip of Valois to hold a round table at Paris. This competition
inflamed the spirit of chivalry, increased the reputation of the
round table, and occasioned the institution of the order
of the garter; intended, according to the spirit of the times,
"to adorn martial virtue with honour, rewards, and splendour."
Caerleon has also been described as no less pre-eminent in learning,
than in extent and magnificence. On the authority of an ancient
author, Alexander Elsebiensis, and of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Caerleon
is said to have contained, at the time of the first Saxon invasion,
a school of two hundred astronomers. These idle assertions are
credited even by Camden; and an obscure inscription in the church
of Usk, has been perverted into an epitaph on Seliff Sunjwr, the
Solomon of these astronomers.
Caerleon is equally pre-eminent in the annals of the church:
here St. Julius and St. Aaron are said to have suffered martyrdom,
and two chapels were erected to their honour; one near the present
site of St. Julians, to which it communicated the name,
and the other at Penros, in the vicinity of the town. A third
chapel was dedicated to St. Alban, another martyr, which was constructed
on an eminence to the east of Caerleon, overlooking the Usk. A
yew tree marks the site; an adjoining piece of land is still called
the chapel yard, and in 1785 several stone coffins were discovered
in digging for the foundations of a new house.
In its splendid days, Caerleon enjoyed the honour of being the
metropolitan see of Wales. According to the annals of the church,
Dubricius, the great opponent of the Pelagian heresy, was the
first archbishop. He was succeeded by St. David, called by bishop
Godwin uncle of king Arthur, and son of Zanctus, a prince of Wales,
who removed the see from Caerleon to Menevia, which from him was
called St. Davids. The reason for this translation, and
the extraordinary accounts of his sanctity, are detailed
by bishop Godwin:
"It seemeth he misliked the frequency of people at Caerlegion,
as a means to withdraw him from contemplation; whereunto
that he might be more free, he made choice of this place for a
see, rather than for any fitnesse of the same otherwise. He fate
long, to witte, 65 yeeres, and died at last ann. 642."
No remains of the ancient cathedral exist.
The present church was constructed in the Norman era, and is dedicated
to St. Cadoc, from whom it is called in Welsh, Langattoc, or the
church of St. Cadoc. It is built with coarse materials, and plastered,
and consists of a nave, two aisles and chancel; the tower is high
and massive. The inside exhibits an elegant specimen of gothic
architecture; and the old clerk exultingly told me, that the bishop
of Landaff at one of his visitations, had called it the handsomest
church in his diocese. He likewise pointed out to me a large
bone with an inscription: "This bone is part of a rib which
has been preserved in this church many years." He boasted
that it was part of the rib of the dun cow slain by Guy earl of
Warwick; but in fact it is half the rib of a small whale.
On expressing my satisfaction at the beauty and neatness of the
church, the old clerk expatiated on the bounty of Mr. Williams,
a native of Caerleon, who bequeathed £1000 for the purpose
of repairing it, and to whose memory the natives are much attached
for the establishment of a free-school.
Charles Williams, esq. was born and educated at Caerleon, and
lived in his native town, until an unfortunate rencontre with
his cousin Mr. Morgan of Penros, which terminated in the death
of the latter, compelled him to quit his country. He fled to Smyrna,
and after acquiring a considerable fortune by trade, returned
to England, in the reign of king William, and lived in London
incognito. He increased his fortune by loans to government, and
by purchasing in the funds, which were recently established. He
died in 1720, aged eighty-seven, and after bequeathing the bulk
of his fortune to the family of Hanbury, left considerable legacies
for the advantage and improvement of his native town .
Tanner mentions a cistertian abbey at Caerleon,
and observes, that king John, whilst earl of Morton, privileged
the abbot and monks to he free of paying toll at Bristol. The
quadrangular house belonging to Miss Morgan, and some adjacent
tenements, exhibit traces of the ancient structure, in their gothic
windows and doorways.
During the middle ages, the history of Caerleon is obscure and
uncertain. Notwithstanding its real strength under the Romans,
and fabulous consequence in the annals of romance, its name
seldom occurs in the pages of history. Although specified in the
Triades as one of the thirty-three fortresses of Britain, it is
only once mentioned by Caradoc, during the Saxon era. He relates
that Alfred the Great sent his fleet to subdue Caerleon upon Usk,
but was obliged to recall it, before he had effected the conquest,
on account of the progress of the Danes. It may have been forced
and pillaged by the Saxons in their predatory incursions, and
was probably taken by Harold, when he overran this part of
Gwent, and built his palace at Portscwit.
At the time of the conquest, there is much
doubt and uncertainty concerning its real situation. According
to Domesday Book, William de Scohies a great Norman chieftain,
held of the crown part of the demesnes belonging to the castle
of Caerleon, which are called waste lands in the time of Edward
the Confessor; but whether he occupied the castle, or possessed
the entire lordship of Caerleon is not ascertained.
Soon after this period the history becomes less doubtful. Before
the construction of the castle at Newport, there was no other
fortress of considerable strength between Chepstow and Caerdiff;
Caerleon, therefore, was the object of contention between the
English and Welsh, and secured to its possessor the dominion
of an extensive region. It was for some time the residence of
the line of petty chiefs who were descended from Griffith prince
of South Wales, and styled themselves kings of Gwent, and lords
of Caerleon at another time it was wrested from them, and became
the seat of the Anglo-Norman barons. Being repeatedly demolished
in these destructive contentions, the citadel was built by the
Anglo-Normans, which rendered the castle a stronger and more permanent
place of defence; and frequent accounts of its obstinate resistance
are recorded in the annals of the times.
Towards the beginning of the twelfth century, Caerleon was possessed
by Owen surnamed Wan, or the feeble, from whom it was conquered
by Robert de Chandos, founder of Goldcliff Priory. According to
an old deed cited by Dugdale, among other possessions, he assigned
to the monks the tythes of a mill and an orchard at Caerleon,
together with the churches of St. Julius, St. Aaron, and St. Alban,
and their appurtenances. From Robert de Chandos Caerleon was recovered
by Jorwerth and Morgan the sons of Owen; was afterwards taken
by William earl of Glocester and lord of Newport, but again re-conquered
Caradoc describes it as an object of contention between Jorwerth
and Henry the second, who in his progress to Ireland in 1171,
seized and garrisoned the town and castle. In a subsequent year,
Henry being involved in a contest with his sons, Jorwerth invested
Caerleon, and after an obstinate resistance forced the town, and
obtained by composition the surrender of the castle. Animated
with this success, his son Howel reduced the greater part of Nether-went,
and compelled the inhabitants to withdraw their allegiance from
the king of England. Jorwerth, however, did not long enjoy this
independance, for he was treacherously seized by Rhys prince of
South Wales, and conveyed to the king at Glocester. Henry treated
his prisoner with unexpected clemency, and Jorwerth, after doing
homage, had livery of the castle and lordship of Caerleon .
Being again alternately occupied and ravaged by both parties,
Caerleon was not permanently possessed by the English, until the
reduction of Wales by Edward the first; when the puissant family
of Clare re-entered into possession, in virtue of their descent
from Amicia, sole daughter and heiress of William earl of Glocester.
It came by the female line in the same manner as the castle of
Usk, through the great family of Mortimer earl of March, to Richard
duke of York, whole right and title to the lordship of Caerleon,
are proved in a curious deed cited by Dugdale . From him it descended
to his sons Edward the fourth and Richard the third, and continued
for some time in the crown. The lordship of Caerleon was afterwards
possessed by the branch of the Morgan family seated at Lantarnam,
was left by one of the coheiresses of that family to John Howe,
esq. father of the first lord Chedworth, purchased by Mr. Burgh,
and conveyed by his niece to Mr. Blanning, the present proprietor.
According to tradition, the lordship of Caerleon once extended
as far as the neighbourhood of Chepstow, comprehending the chase
of Wentwood, and other tracts of woodland and pasture; and although
gradually diminished by the revolutions of property, even now
stretches in a narrow strip almost as far as Caerwent.
The town of Caerleon is reduced, from its ancient extent and
grandeur, to an inconsiderable place. Since the removal of the
port to Newport, it is no longer the center of trade and communication,
and was scarcely visited even by travellers, until Mr. Wyndham
first excited curiosity by the publication of his tour in Wales.
The number of inhabitants, including the
village, or Ultra Pontem, amounts to no more than 763. The town
contains no manufactures; but is greatly benefited by the tin
works of Mr. Butler, which are established in the vicinity. These
works are capable of manufacturing annually from 14,000 to 20,000
boxes of tin plates, containing each from 200 to 300 plates. Iron
plates are rolled, also patent iron rods, ship bolts, and square
iron bars. The machinery of the mill is worthy of notice: it is
wholly of iron; the two fly wheels, with the water wheel and their
combined powers, weigh seventy-five tons, and make forty-five
revolutions in one minute. It is proposed to annex another system
of powers to the same water wheel, by which a weight of twenty
tons will be added, and the whole will revolve with the same velocity.
The wooden bridge over the Usk may be considered
as similar to that erected by the Romans; the frame is not unlike
the carpentry of Caesars bridge over the Rhine, which he
has described in his Commentaries, and of which Stukeley has given
a plan, in the second volume of his Itinerarium Curiosum. The
floor, supported by ten lofty piers, is level, and divided by
posts and rails into rooms or beds of boards, each twelve feet
in length; the apparently loose and disjointed state of the planks,
and the clattering noise which they make, under the pressure of
a heavy weight, have not unfrequently occasioned alarm to those
who are unused to them; Some travellers, from a superficial view
of the structure, have asserted that the planks are placed loose,
to admit the tide through their interstices when it rises above
the bridge, and which would, if they were fixed, force them from
the frame and carry them away. But in fact the tide has never
been known to rise above the bridge, nor was the flooring
constructed to obviate this inconvenience. Formerly the planks
were fattened at each extremity with iron nails; but the
wood being liable to split, and the nails frequently forced up,
by the elastic agitation of the beams, under the pressure of heavy
carriages, the planks were secured from rising by horizontal rails,
fattened to the posts, and prevented from flipping sideways, by
a peg at each end, within the rail.
The height of the water, at extraordinary
tides, exceeds thirty feet, but though it has never risen above
the floor, yet the united body of a high tide, and the floods
to which the Usk is subject, have been known to carry away parts
of the bridge. An accident of this kind which happened on the
29th of October 1772, occasioned a singular event, to which I
should not have given credit, had it not been authenticated by
the most respectable testimony.
As Mrs. Williams, wife of Mr. Edward Williams, brazier, was returning
from the village of Caerleon to the town, at eleven oclock
at night, with a candle and lanthorn, the violence of the current
forced away four piers, and a considerable part of the bridge.
On a fragment of this mass, consisting of an entire room, with
the beams, posts, and flooring, she was hurried down the river;
but preserved sufficient presence of mind to support herself by
the railing. On arriving near St. Julians, the candle was
extinguished; she immediately screamed for help, and was heard
by several persons, who started out of their beds to assist her;
but the violence of the stream had already hurried her beyond
their reach. During this time she felt little apprehension, as
she entertained hopes of being delivered by the boatmen of Newport;
her expectations were increased by the numerous lights which she
discerned in the houses, and she accordingly redoubled her cries
for assistance, though without effect.
The fragment on which she stood being broken to pieces against
a pier of Newport bridge, she fortunately bestrode a beam, and
after being detained for some minutes by the eddies at the bridge,
was rapidly hurried along towards the sea. In this perilous situation
she resigned herself to her approaching fate, and addressing herself
to Heaven, exclaimed, "Oh Lord, I trust in thee, thou alone
canst save me."
About a mile from Newport, she discerned a glimmering light,
in a barge which was moored near the shore, and redoubling her
cries, was heard by the master of the vessel. After hailing her,
and learning her situation, he cried out, "keep up your spirits,
and you will soon be out of danger," then leaping into the
boat, with one of his men, rowed towards the place from whence
the screams proceeded; but some time elapsed before he overtook
her, at a considerable distance from the anchorage of his
barge. The night was so dark that they could not discern each
other, and the surf swelling violently, the master repeated his
exhortations, charged her to be calm, and not attempt to quit
her station. Fortunately a sudden dispersion of the clouds, enabled
him to lash the beam fore and aft to the boat. At this moment,
however, her presence of mind forsook her, and eagerly attempting
to throw herself forward she was checked by the oaths of the seamen,
who were at length enabled to heave her into the boat; but could
not disengage themselves from the beam, till they had almost reached
the mouth of the Usk. This being effected, not without great difficulty,
they rowed to the shore, and embayed themselves till the first
dawn of the morning, when they conveyed her in the boat to Newport.
Though Mrs. Williams was in an advanced state of pregnancy, she
received so little injury from this perilous accident, that after
a few hours repose she returned to Caerleon.
I have been thus minute in detailing the particulars of this
providential escape, because it has been related with so many
improbable circumstances, as to occasion doubts of its reality.
For the truth of this narrative, I can adduce the testimony of
Mr. Jones of Clytha, Mr. Kemeys of Mayndee, and the Rev. Mr. Evans;
all of whom soon afterwards conversed with Mrs. Williams. To Mr.
Evans in particular, she uniformly repeated the same account,
and confirmed it on her death bed, with the most solemn asseverations.
The distinterested conduct of the master and boatman ought not
to be omitted: notwithstanding the peril to which they were
exposed, and their active exertions, they repeatedly declined
the liberal recompense offered by Mr. Williams.