Caerleon Net
- CHAPTER 10 -

Road from Newport to Caerleon.
Malpas Church.
Roman Antiquities.
Suburbs, Ultra Pontem.
Ancient Encampments in the vicinity.

Two roads lead from Newport to Caerleon; the one crosses the Usk over the new bridge, and continues along the turnpike two miles and a half, then passes the west end of Christchurch, descends to the bridge, and over the Usk to Caerleon; this is the shortest, and most frequented; the other winds round Mal­pas Pill, continues parallel to the right bank of the Usk, and enters the north­western gate of Caerleon. This was the only way during the construction of Newport bridge. The distance from Newport to Caerleon by this road, is four miles and a half.

A principal object of curiosity in this route, is the church of Malpas, on the right side of the road, a mile and a half from Newport.

There was a religious house for two cluniac monks at Malpas, which was a cell to the priory of Montacute, in Somersetshire; and is supposed by Tanner to be the Terra de Cairlion, granted to that monastery by Winebald de Baeluna, in the reign of Henry the first. Edmund earl of Stafford, who possessed Newport Castle, was the patron. It was granted as parcel of Montacute, in 1546, to sir William Herbert of St. Julian’s.

The chapel of this cell, now the parish church, is worthy of being visited by the antiquary, as one of the most ancient religious edifices in these parts.

It is a small building of unhewn stone, of an oblong shape like a barn, with a belfry having two apertures for bells. The arched door which is on the western side, the stone frames of the three principal windows, as well as the arch which separates the chancel from the church, are all rounded, and decorated with friezes of hatched moulding, denticles, and receding columns, peculiar to the Saxon and Norman architecture. The arch of the southern window, which seems to have been a doorway, is more elegantly ornamented, and embossed with roses, not unlike the Etruscan style. All the columns, which are mostly of a rude form, have dissimilar capitals and shafts, a striking feature in Saxon structures. Some modern gothic windows have been introduced into the stone frames of the origi­nal apertures.

The church is dedicated to St. Mary, and is a perpetual curacy in the diocese of Landaff. After the dissolution, it remained in the patronage of the family of St. Julian’s, to whom the site of the priory lands was granted, but is now in the presentation of sir Charles Morgan, the family of Tredegar having purchased the advowson, with the great and small tythes. The extended value of the curacy is only five pounds; but it has been greatly benefited by queen Anne’s bounty; lands having been purchased and annexed to it, which are now let for thirty-five pounds, and are highly improvable.

Malpas is supposed, by those who are fond of tracing etymologies from the Latin tongue, to derive its appellation from Malo passu, or a bad pass; because the Roman road, which is supposed to have passed this way, was rough and hilly; but a more natural derivation is furnished by my friend Mr. Evans, from Malpaes, or a plain within the hills, which exactly corresponds with the situation, it being a plain between hills, and the only plain in the vicinity.

A little beyond Malpas church, I quitted the turnpike road which leads by Lantarnam to Pont y Pool, and followed the route to Caerleon. About midway I mounted a steep and rugged ascent, and looked down on the rich vale, stretching in the form of a bow, with Newport castle and Caerleon church at each extremity, and the venerable mansion of St. Julian’s, seated on the feathered banks of the Usk, occupying the middle of the arc. On one side Caerleon appears in a flat, and on the other the narrow and long town of Newport rises along the side of an eminence to the church of St. Woolos, embowered with trees. I rode under an ancient encampment near the old lodge of Lantarnam park, and passed through the opening which once formed the entrance of Isca Silurum, the residence of the second Augustan legion, and the chief station of the Romans in the country of the Silures, now occupied by the small town of Caerleon, which is seated on the right bank of the Usk. There is no occasion to employ many words in proof of these facts; the remains of the walls and amphitheatre, the numerous sculptures, altars, pavements, inscriptions, coins, and other antiquities discovered within the town and the vicinity, evidently prove it the site of a great Roman city. Immense quantities of Roman bricks, stamped with the impression in relievo of LEG II AVG which still continue to be found, several of which I myself observed, testify that it was the station of the second Augustan legion, during a long course of years.

It is denominated in Antonine’s Itinerary, Isca Legionis secundæ Augustæ; by the monk of Ravenna, Isca Augusta; by others, Isca Silurum; and by Ri­chard, Isca Colonia.

The modern name of Caerleon is generally supposed to be derived from Caer, the British word for a fortified city, and Leon, a corruption of Legionum, meaning the city of the legions. But this derivation is denied by Mr. Owen, author of the Welsh Dictionary, and one of the best British linguists: he affirms its British name to be Caer Lliön, or the city of the waters; this etymology is not inapplicable to its situation on the banks of a tide river which rises very high, and near the Avon Lwyd, a torrent inundating the country.

Giraldus Cambrensis gives a brilliant account of its ruins in the twelfth cen­tury: “Many remains of its former magnificence are still visible; splendid palaces which once emulated with their gilded roofs the grandeur of Rome, for it was originally built by the Roman princes, and adorned with stately edifices; a gigan­tic tower, numerous baths, ruins of temples, and a theatre, the walls of which are partly standing. Here we still see, both within and without the walls, sub­terraneous buildings, aqueducts, and vaulted caverns; and what appeared to me most remarkable, stoves so excellently contrived, as to diffuse their heat through secret and imperceptible pores.”

The present ruins, however, are extremely inconsiderable, and consist only of walls, and the excavation of the amphitheatre. The form and size of the ancient town may be discovered by the line of the walls, which though in many places dilapidated, and in others covered with buildings, have been traced by Mr. Evans: with his kind assistance I examined their site, and am enabled to present to the public an accurate plan of the town, taken by Mr. Morrice.

The shape of the fortress appears to be oblong, inclining to a square; three of the sides are strait, and the fourth, like the northern wall of Caerwent, curvi­linear: the sides are of different dimensions, and inclose a circumference of about 1800 yards; the corners are gently rounded, like most of the Roman stations in Britain, and the four angles nearly correspond with the cardinal points of the compass.

We commenced our survey at the southern angle, near the extremity of the Round Table field, where the walls exhibit the most striking remains of their an­cient structure; their present elevation is in no place more than fourteen feet, which is considerably less than their original height: their greatest thickness between eleven and twelve.

The walls are more dilapidated than those of Caerwent, but formed in the same manner, with fragments of stone bedded in cement. Near this angle, the mortar, after the Vitruvian method, not uncommon in Italy, is tempered with pounded brick, particles of which chequer the surface, and are incorporated with the substance. The facings have been mostly removed for the construction of other buildings: those which remain are principally of hewn grit stone.

The south-western side passes the Round Table or amphitheatre, in a direction parallel to the Usk, and skirts the lawn of the abbey, now Miss Morgan’s house; where part has been rebuilt with the Roman facings, and part remains in its ori­ginal state. At the northern extremity of the Round Table field, it is intersected by the Broad way, which from its straitness and uniform breadth, appears to have been a street leading from the fortress to the meads on the banks of the river. Here was probably a gateway, which seems to be marked by the eleva­tions at each end of the breach. In crossing the stile on the other tide of the Broad way, Mr. Evans pointed out to me a Roman Terminus, used as one of the cap-stones, bearing the inscription TERMIN.

From hence the line of wall re-appears, and continues along the Bear-house field, where a foss is quite plain; but only detached masses of wall, fringed with shrubs, are visible.

At the western angle it turns along the side of the Malpas road, to the re­mains of a gateway leading into Goldcroft common, and proceeds in a direct line, occupied by several cottages and gardens, where the foss is only visible, to the turnpike, near the junction of the Usk and Pont y Pool roads.

At the northern angle the wall forms part of the stable of a public house, called the New Inn, trends through several gardens, orchards, and tenements, is occasionally lost in the streets and lanes, becomes again conspicuous in the castle yard, and terminates in the east angle, which projects over the rail road, near the foss of the castle.

The line of wall from this point to the south angle is curvilinear. It passes through the precincts, and skirts the foss of the castle; is intersected by Bridge street, near a gate which has been recently taken down; forms the foundation of the gable end of a house, now occupied by Mr. Andrew Butler; passes through his garden; is lost in a narrow lane, leading to the quay, and re-appears an the adjoining field, gradually rising in height, until it ends in the southern angle.

It appears from this survey, that the foss is only visible on part of the western, and the whole of the northern side. On the other parts it was perhaps unneces­sary, from the greater abruptness of the ground, or the traces of it have been obliterated by outworks and buildings.

The four principal gates seem to have been placed in the middle of the four sides. The first in Bridge street, the second at the Broad way, the third leading into the Newport high road, which was the site of the Julia Strata, and the fourth into Mill street, through which the Roman road passed to Gobannium or Abergavenny.

There is a striking peculiarity in the situation of the ancient Roman fortress, which has hitherto escaped the notice of travellers, and would have escaped mine, had not Mr. Evans pointed it out to me. Caerleon appears on a super­ficial view to occupy a flat position, but in fact, that portion of the present town, which is inclosed by the Roman walls, is placed on a gentle rise, con­nected at one extremity with the lower part of the eminence, on which the encampment of the Lodge is situated. This rise shelves on the west and south sides towards the Usk, and on the east towards the Avon Lwyd, and seems to have formed a tongue of land, which before the draining of the meadows, was probably a kind of peninsula. Hence the fortress, from its position on a rise between two rivers, and almost surrounded with marshy ground, was a place of considerable strength, and well calculated to become the primary station of the Romans in Britannia Secunda.

The era in which the Roman fortress was built, cannot be ascertained with precision; conjectures may be formed, and Horsley, whose opinion deserves great weight, supposes that the Romans first settled here in the reign of Antoninus Pius. It is mentioned in Antonine’s Itinerary; and the numerous coins of the early emperors, which have been here discovered, seem to confirm this opinion. The walls however appear to have been constructed under the lower empire.

According to Richard of Cirencester, Caerleon was a Roman colony, and the primary station in the country of the Silures; circumstances which sufficiently account for its extent and magnificence.

In a field close to the banks of the Usk, and near the south-west side of the wall, is an oval concavity, measuring seventy-four yards by sixty-four, and six in depth. The sides are gently sloping, and covered, as well as the bottom, with turf. It is called by the natives Arthur’s Round Table; but is undoubtedly the site of a Roman amphitheatre. According to the prevailing opinion, it was merely a campestrian amphitheatre, hollowed in the ground, and surrounded with banks of earth, in the sides of which turf seats were formed for the spec­tators. This opinion is however disproved by the express assertions of Giraldus, who describes the walls as standing in his time. The author of the Secret Memoirs of Monmouthshire also observes, “in 1706 a figure of Diana, with her tresses and crescent, moulded in alabaster, was found near a prodigious founda­tion wall of freestone, on the south side of King Arthur’s Round Table, which was very wide, and supposed to be one side of a Roman amphitheatre.” Within the memory likewise of many persons now living, stone seats were discovered on opening the sides of the concavity.

That part of Caerleon inclosed by the walls, was the site of the ancient camp or fortress; but the suburbs extended to a considerable distance. As I walked along the banks of the Usk, beyond the Bear-house field, near half a mile to the west of the town, I observed great quantifies of Roman bricks and hollow tiles. These suburbs are said to have occupied both hides of the river. According to tradition, they comprised a circumference of not less than nine miles, and reached as far as Christchurch and St. Julian’s; and the village on the southern hide of the bridge, still bears the old Roman name of Ultra Pontem. Large foundations have likewise been discovered in the elevated grounds to the north and north-west of the walls, particularly beyond the skirts of Goldcroft common.

Most of the Roman antiquities discovered at Caerleon have been removed from the place. The only specimens now remaining, are a few coins in the possession of Miss Morgan, which on account of her absence I could not inspect; a rude sculpture, in basso relievo, of a Venus Marina holding a dolphin in her hand, of which Mr. Wyndham has given an etching in his tour, and an antique intaglio.

This intaglio is a cornelian seal set like a ring, and representing the figure of Hercules strangling the Nemean lion. It is very small, but not ill executed. According to Mr. Wyndham, who saw it soon after it was discovered, and extols its workmanship, it belonged to Mr. Norman, maltster. Mr. Strange says, that it was found in digging the foundation of a cellar, opposite the White Hart public house. An engraving of it is given in the Archæologia. It is now the property of Mr. Nicholl, a gentleman resident at Caerleon, who readily permitted the inspection, and to whom I was indebted, not only for his polite attentions, but for much information, which he was so obliging as to communicate. Pritchet the shoemaker, who possessed the large hollow tile, which Mr. Wyndham describes as part of a sarcophagus, was alive at the time of my first journey to Caerleon. He was eighty-five, and died in the winter of 1798. He informed me, that in digging his garden, he had discovered many coins and rings, all of which he had disposed of; among the coins he mentioned a Julius Cæsar, and a Drusilla, in high preservation.

The four columns of freestone which support the market-house, probably belonged to some Roman structure. They are of the Tuscan order, low and massive. In repairing the streets of Caerleon, about 1784, two bases of the same dimensions, materials, and workmanship as those of the columns, were discovered near the house now occupied by Mr. Blanning, which stands close to the an­cient walls.

In digging some foundations, three cap-stones of a cornice, which appeared to have been placed at the angle of a building, were discovered. According to Mr. Evans, who examined them, they were of freestone, and scarcely in­ferior, in elegance of workmanship, to the angular cornices in the ruins of Pal­myra. These fragments have been considered by some persons as parts of the ancient cathedral; but were most probably the remains of a splendid Roman temple.

Great quantities of Roman bricks, coins, and jasper tesseræ, or the square dies which formed the mosaic pavements, have been found at St. Julian’s and Penros, and seem to point out those places as the site of some magnificent mansions. They were probably the villas of the Roman prefects, or generals. This opinion, suggested by Mr. Evans, is corroborated by the vestiges of two causeways; one leading to Pont Saturn, in the road to Penros, and the other through the wood of St. Julian’s.

According to the conjectures of some antiquaries, the Broad way led to the ancient quay; and this opinion has been supported by accounts of iron rings and staples for moorings, fixed in the rocks on the opposite bank. But I could not learn that the smallest vestiges of foundations, indicating the existence of a quay, were ever discovered in these parts; and the accounts of rings and staples, are mere idle and traditionary reports.

The gardens and orchards of Caerleon, are strewed with innumerable quantities of cinders, containing much iron, which are called by the natives Roman cinders, and are considered as pieces of ore, imperfectly smelted by the Romans. These fragments are found in many places which were occupied by the Romans; before the introduction of the Lancashire ore, they were conveyed to the iron works, and by means of the improved state of modern machinery, yielded a con­siderable portion of metal. In some parts of Monmouthshire, not far removed from the iron works, the profit drawn from the Roman cinders has almost de­frayed the purchase of the land.

Without the Roman fortress, we traced several outworks of considerable strength. Near the eastern angle in Mill street, are remains of a line of ancient wall, with the foundation of a gateway, running nearly parallel to the Roman fortifications; but not sufficient to ascertain their purport.

It is more difficult to trace the ruins of the celebrated castle, which resisted so many assaults, while the town, notwithstanding its Roman fortifications, surrendered to each invader. The castle works extended in a line between the south side of the wall and the Usk, beyond a round tower near the Hanbury Arms, and terminated at the remains of two round towers or bastions, which were built upon the rocks on the verge of the river. According to Domesday book, there was a castle in Caerleon at the time of the conquest. Parts of the ancient works still remain, particularly the tower near the Hanbury Arms, which exhibits in its circularly arched doorway, and embrasures, the early style of fortification: it is now pierced with modern windows, and much altered from its original state. The thickness of the walls, the bold sweep of the arches, and the composition of the cement, according to the Vitruvian method, have led some persons to suppose it a Roman structure, which was afterwards included in the works of the castle.

There are no apparent remains of the tower called by Giraldus gigantic; but the mound on which it was constructed is still entire. It is an artificial emi­nence of considerable height, 300 yards in circumference at the base, and 90 at the summit; it stands between the banks of the Usk, and the southern side of the wall, and is generally supposed to be the site of the Norman keep or citadel, and posterior to the other works. In the time of Leland the ruins were very considerable; and Churchyard, who wrote in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, described it, as

“A castle very old,
“That may not be forgot,
“It stands upon a forced hill,
“Not far from flowing flood.” (The Worthiness of Wales)

In the middle of this century, the walls of the tower were not less than forty feet in height; but they were loosened by the severe effects of the frost in 1739, and fell down in enormous fragments. Within the memory of the oldest in­habitants were remains of dilapidated buildings at the bottom, and a flight of stone steps. During my last excursion, some massive foundations were discovered towards the summit. The greater part had been removed by the lord of the manor, and sold to Mr. Williams, a currier, who had built a house with the ma­terials. The remains which I observed were not less than twenty feet in depth, ten in breadth, and thirty in length; the whole forming a solid and compact mass, of large stones bedded in mortar, which the workmen had great difficulty in separating. I noticed among the fragments, much slate, many glazed pantiles, and numerous pieces of burnt and charred wood, which seem to imply, that part of the building had been destroyed by fire.

From the top of this eminence, the wild and beautiful environs of Caerleon are seen to the greatest advantage. The principal objects are the town, gently rising at the extremity of an oval vale; the bridge, supported by lofty and slender piles; the rapid Usk, flowing through fertile meadows; the sloping hills, richly clothed with wood; and Christchurch, towering like a cathedral, on the brow of an overhanging eminence.

Descending from the mount, and tracing the foss, I observed, towards its south-western side, heaps of Roman bricks and tiles, which had been recently dug up in making excavations. Among these were some fragments of large bricks, two feet square, and two inches in thickness. They formed part of a Roman sarcophagus, which measured six feet and a half in length. It was found on the side of the mount, several feet above the ground; and Mr. Blan­ning, who politely accompanied me, and supplied me with these particulars, pointed out the place where it had been discovered, which was apparent from the red colour communicated by the bricks to the surface. The situation of this sarcophagus seems to indicate, that the lower part of the mount existed in the time of the Romans, and was a continuation of a natural ridge, which stretches nearly the same height, not far from the banks of the Usk, and that the upper part was raised, since the deposition of the sarcophagus, to its present elevation.

In the street leading from the bridge, and near the passage to the castle, are the ruins of a portal, which seems to have once formed the entrance of the castle works. Parts of a round tower still remain, with the groove for a portcullis, and a public house called the Gate-house marks its situation. (At the time of my last excursion these remains were taking down.)

Close to the southern extremity of the bridge, in the district sometimes called the village of Caerleon, and sometimes distinguished by the Roman appellation of Ultra Pontem, are the ruins of an ancient fort, intended for the purpose of guarding the passage over the river. Grose has given an engraving as it existed in 1778, and from the roundness of the arches and the mode of construction, concludes that it was a Roman edifice; but the dilapidated state of the work renders it difficult to ascertain its exact form or era.

As it was the invariable custom of the Romans to construct fortified camps near their principal stations, for airing the troops, exploratory purposes, securing convoys, and guarding cattle, we should expect to find traces of their ancient encampments in the neighbourhood of Caerleon. The remains of four encampments, two on the north and two on the south side of the Usk, are still visible in the vicinity; but neither of them seems to bear a positive Roman character.

The most remarkable of these is the encampment of the Lodge, in the old park of Lantarnam, near a mile to the north-west of Caerleon, anciently called Bellingstocke, which is supposed by Harris to have been the æstiva or summer camp of the second legion: it is of an oval, or rather an elliptical shape, large dimensions, and surrounded with double ramparts, excepting to the south­-west, where there is a quadruple line of ramparts and ditches. The entrenchments are in some places not less than thirty feet in depth. The entrance is to the west, and defended by a tumulus, twelve yards in height, which is placed on the inner rampart. It bears more the appearance of a British, than of a Roman encampment; and if I may be allowed a conjecture, was the site of the British town on the arrival of the Romans. This conjecture is strengthened by the authority of an ancient chronicle of the kings of the isle of Britain, which mentions the existence of a British town built by Beli, on the banks of the Wysc, or Usk.

Probably this British fortress afterwards became a summer camp of the Romans, was again a strong post of the Britons on their departure, and subsequently occupied by the different nations who besieged Caerleon. The depth of the ditches, and height of the vallum, seem to indicate a Saxon station, as their camps are distinguished by those peculiarities. Perhaps Harold, on his conquest of lower Gwent, here established himself when he invested Caerleon, as it was a place of great importance, either for the defence or attack of the town. The Normans likewise did not omit to seize this post, called by Churchyard “Caerleon’s hope" in the numerous assaults which Caerleon sustained in feudal times.

The second encampment, on the north side of the Usk, is at Penros, an emi­nence above the Avon Lwyd, to the north-east of Caerleon; it is environed only by a single rampart, and the form is nearly square, with five bastions. From the remains found at Penros, it may have been also the site of a Roman camp, which was altered and strengthened with bastions during the civil wars of the last century.

The third encampment, to the south of the Usk, is near the high road leading from Caerwent to Newport, above Mayndee, the seat of William Kemeys, esq. who has erected a summer-house in the midst of the area, which commands a singular and beautiful prospect. It is a small circular entrenchment, and could only be calculated for exploratory purposes, or guarding cattle.

The fourth camp is in the wood of St. Julian’s, above the Usk. As I was several times prevented by bad weather from visiting it, I shall only observe, that from the plan and description given by Mr. Morrice, who took the sur­vey, it was probably a Saxon encampment, formed by Harold to command the river, and to cut off all communication between Caerleon and the south, as the camp at the Lodge did to the north. It certainly could never be intended as a defence of Caerleon, because the farthest side has no ram­part or ditch, and is only secured by a natural ravine, at some distance from the camp. It must have been often occupied by the Anglo Normans, who frequently besieged and possessed themselves of Caerleon.

Pictures from Coxe's Monmouthshire can be viewed in Caerleon Net Archive, prints section.