Caerleon - on - Usk
by Geoffrey Boumphrey
Typescript of Home Service Broadcast
Transmitted Sunday, 28th May 1950, 11.15 - 11.30am
Good- morning. I think the name Caerleon will touch a chord in most people’s minds, King Arthur, of course. Let me just refresh your memory from Malory’s “Morte d’Arthur”. The young king had managed to conquer the whole of England, Scotland and finally Wales “through the noble prowess of himself and his knights of the Round Table”, as Malory puts it. “Then the king removed into Wales, and let cry a great feast that it should be holden at Pentecost after the incoronation of him at the city of Carlion”. And many other feasts and tournaments he is said to have held there in later years. Caerleon is two miles north east of Newport, in South Wales - or rather it’s in Monmouthshire, that curious county which is neither Wales nor England, but partly both. Although it’s so near the big town, the second largest port in Wales, after Cardiff, it’s remarkably unspoiled, lying there on the silver Usk which winds about between the mercifully screening hills, with their woods and rich green fields. If you look up Caerleon on almost any large scale map (though not on the latest one-inch Ordnance Survey) you’ll see a large area of dotted lines boldly labeled “King Arthur’s Round Table” - and I wonder what you’d expect to find if you went there:
It’s not true, of course. The only evidence of Arthur’s court at Caerleon is purely literary - or legendary. As a matter of fact the evidence for his very existence is hardly stronger, though it is coming to be thought nowadays that there probably was a Romanised Briton, Artorius, who organised resistance against the invading Saxons in the dark days at the beginning of the sixth century. He must have fought a losing battle in the end, of course, but his deeds must have been heroic enough for his name to collect round itself all sorts of half forgotten Celtic and even continental legends, as well as the customs of the Provencal courts of love. But why connect him with Caerleon? Well, listen to what was written about the place in the twelfth century. “Many traces of its former splendour may yet be seen, immense palaces, formerly ornamented with gilded roofs …… a town of prodigious size, remarkable hot baths, relics of temples and theatres, all enclosed within fine walls, parts of which remain standing. You will find on all sides, both without and within the circuit of the walls, subterranean buildings, aqueducts, underground passages; and, what I think worthy of notice, stoves contrived with wonderful art to transmit the heat insensibly through narrow tubes passing up the side of the wall”. So there was something at Caerleon, then; and if you were writing the life of a legendary hero, what better background could you find for his exploits than the mysterious ruins of a city whose true history was lost in the mists of the Dark Ages? The clue to what the ruins really were is given by that bit about “narrow tubes insensibly transmitting heat up the side of the walls”. The flue-tiles of a Roman hypocaust, of course. There s little trace of them today, nor of most of what struck the twelfth-century historian as so magnificent - I only wish we could see a Roman-British town as it must have been after even eight hundred years of neglect; but there’s still more than enough to identify the place to a trained archaeologist. In fact Caerleon was the Roman legionary fortress of Isca Silurum - Isca of the Silures - headquarters of the second Augusta legion after it was moved from Gloucester. The Silures were the local Celtic tribe of Monmouthshire and Glamorgan, and they proved a very tough nut to crack. Ostorius Scapula had hammered them in A.D. 47 to 50 and taken their King, Caractacus, prisoner; but they retaliated by storming his camps with some success, and then retreated into the hills. They got quarter of a century’s respite after that; but in the end between A.D. 74 and 80, Julius Frontinus brought them properly to heel. It was some time in those six years that the legionary fortress was built. The site of Caerleon shows two things very clearly; that the Romans liked a warm sheltered place, whenever possible, and secondly – what an eye they had for strategic considerations! It’s a perfect spot, just where the hills close round and shelter the valley of the Usk, accessible from almost every side by land or water, and yet easily defended. The fortress was the usual rectangular shape, enclosed, at first by earth walls, replaced later by stone about fifty acres in extent — but you’ll notice in the twelfth century description I quoted, reference to buildings “both without and within the circuits of the walls”. So no doubt a considerable civil settlement grew up around the fortress, and a charming little Roman-British town it must have made. As I said, there’s little enough of it left to see today, except parts of the walls. One thing there is, however, - the King Arthur’s Round Table of the maps - in other words the Roman amphitheatre - the only amphitheatre in this country well enough preserved to give you a real idea of what such places must have been like. I great oval of level turf, big enough to take perhaps four tennis Courts - the whole thing measures about 260 by 220 feet - surrounded by stone walls still six feet high, and rising steeply up from these the grass banks, thirty feet high at the back, where the seats once stood. Eight gangways, each about sixteen feet wide cut down to the arena. Some of these lead to the sites of the rooms where the gladiators waited to go into the ring; some of them to the dens where the wild beasts were kept, At capacity the place could have held the full paper strength of a legion - six thousand men. It doesn’t take much imagination to recreate the scenes that must have been enacted there: the hot sun beating down on the excited faces of the spectators, the sounds of deathly struggle in the arena - the snarls pf the savage beasts or the sudden hush as the triumphant gladiator looked up for the fateful signal “Thumbs up” or “Thumbs down”. Yes, Caerleon’s a place to see, even if you won’t find the Round Table there. But it wasn’t only by military force that the Romans finally succeeded in subduing the intractable tribesmen. Leave Caerleon, climb the steep hill across the river, with St. Julian’s wood between you and. Newport, and the Usk sparkling below, and follow the main road eastwards, along the line of the old Roman road, for eight or nine miles till you come to the little village of Caerwent. On your left as you go is the beautifully wooded line of hills that run from Newport to Chepstow, on your right, across three or four miles of rich and undulating country, is the Bristol Channel with the hills of Somerset rising beyond.

The modern road bypasses Caerwent a quarter of a mile to the north. The old road goes straight through it - and straight through the old Roman civil town of Venta Silurum — Venta of the Silures. The village of today is built inside the line of the old walls, walls that still stand sixteen feet high in places. But Caerwent isn’t a patch in size or importance with what the old tribal capital of the Silures must once have been. Forty four acres, divided into twenty blocks of buildings by three streets parallel to the long axis of the town and four at right angles to them, a fine forum and basilica, at least two sets of luxurious Roman baths, inns, town houses in the most Roman style built round three if not four sides of a corridor, several inns with up to fifty rooms, a temple, a water supply both from wells and by wooden pipes from outside the walls, and a proper sewage system. It does seem extraordinary that in this remote corner of Roman Britain such an extremely Roman and ultra-luxurious type of town should have sprung up. One suggestion that may have something in it is that having found the Silures uncommonly difficult to conquer by the sword - partly owing, no doubt, to their habit of slipping back into the hills - the Romans found it a better policy to conquer them by luxury - “the bath is mightier than the blade” so to speak. Well, it evidently succeeded, because an inscription found on the remains of a pediment shows that the statue it once carried was dedicated to a legate of the Second Legion “by the republic of the Silures, by order of its Senate”. That was in the third century, and it proves that the Romans had been able to follow their usual plan of giving a good deal of local independence. Another inscription, a century earlier, shows that there were established tradesmen’s guilds in Venta Silurum – which also argues a settled and prosperous community, even if the remains of the buildings themselves didn’t. I ought to make it clear perhaps, that practically nothing of these buildings remains today at Caerwent, except the walls and very fragmentary sites. The place has now been thoroughly excavated and practically everything of interest from it is to be seen in Newport museum - a fact that I believe is unknown to a good many archaeologists. The great importance of Venta Silurum is that of Roman British civil towns, only it and Silchester, near Reading, have been thoroughly excavated. The rich Silchester collection in Reading museum is well-known; the Newport collection, which comes only second in Britain, seems hardly known at all. It’s largely the fault of Monmouthshire for being neither in England nor Wales, so that it has no Victoria County History and yet is not under the auspices of the Welsh National Museum. The collection at Newport is more than rich enough to make the personal lives of those Romanised Silures come alive to you - a Roman pocket knife, a shoemaker’s last (which might be used today), a charming little bronze flower vase, almost Chinese in style, manicure implements - it is things like these which give the personal touch. There is a lot of the early history of the Silures still awaiting the spade in Monmouthshire. Their later history is dark, but rather less so. As to Caerleon - Isca - it’s known that the garrison was withdrawn about 300, though the place was inhabited at least sixty years later. Caerwent can tell a longer story. Early in the fourth century A.D. its walls were strengthened by the addition of bastions. This was not long after the building of the forts of the Saxon shore, and it suggests that just as eastern and Southern Britain were being menaced by the attacks of the Saxons, so Venta Silurum was in danger of raids by sea-borne Irish. Another sign is that the two smaller gates of the town, to north and south, were deliberately blocked up - presumably to make defence easier. What the end was, nor how soon it came we cannot be sure. A tumbled heap of skeletons, found in a temple outside the walls and more than a hundred shallow burials in the town have been held to bear witness to a final overthrow by raiding Irish or Saxons. But the buildings themselves were never sacked, and at least some observers took the shallow burials to be mediaeval. Again, just a few coins were found linking Roman days with later Saxon and English - and there is a local legend dating back to at least the 13th century and probably much earlier, that an Irish saint named Tathan came and set t led in Venta Silurum early in the sixth century. Perhaps the truth is that for a time sporadic raids by land or sea made the placed definitely unhealthy, and that then as the menace subsided, the Silures crept down from the hills again and among the quiet rich farmlands that encircle Caerwent, lived in a pale shadow of the luxury they had once enjoyed, under Roman rule.

Source: Newport Library and Information Centre