Caerleon Net
- CHAPTER 11 -

Caerleon after the Departure of the Romans.
King Arthur.
Knights of the Round Table.
Church of St. Cadoc.
Ancient Abbey.
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 Arthur’s 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 Falstaff’s 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 Arthur’s 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 Arthur’s 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 Arthur’s 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. Julian’s, 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. David’s. 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 by Jorwerth.

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 Caesar’s 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 o’clock 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. Julian’s, 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.

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