By Wirt Sikes

Published by
Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington,
Crown Buildings, 188 Fleet Street.

VIII - Entering Caerleon
IX - Caerleon Museum
X - King Arthur's Round Table
XI - The Mound
XII - The Gold Croft Inn
XIII - History & Legend
XIV - Caerleon's Rise & Fall


My first view of Caerleon was near the close of a beautiful September day. Here was a magnificent city, with palaces, theatres, baths, temples, towers, and crowded streets, in the days when Adrian reigned, and the fierce Silures chafed under the yoke of Roman power. I walked down the lane leading to the centre of the city (for city it still is in name), and stood in its lonely main street - an empty thoroughfare where grass grows, lined by poor houses of stone; a city forsaken of man, a wretched little hamlet of perhaps a thousand people, all told. But every foot of this ground is saturated with olden history. Here stood the ancient capital of Britannia Secunda, the “City of the Legions;” and here, half a century after the Romans had taken their last leave of the island where they had been masters for nearly 400 years, King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table held their dazzling court.

The blank of the empty street is enlivened by footsteps - the slow, uncertain footsteps of a boy with nothing to do. I accost him.

“Do you know anybody who could act as a guide for me?”

“Gide, zur?”

“Yes, anybody who could show me about the place?”

“Noa, zur.”

“Do you know a place hereabout called Arthur’s Round Table?” The answer is a delightful surprise:

“Yees, zur.”

“Come, then; I’ll give you a sixpence to show it to me.”

“A saxpence!”

Every reserved force in the boy’s body appears to be called into activity by the prospect of such earn­ings. He wakes up as by a jerk; and I may say at once that I never encountered a more intelligent boy of that low rank in life in all my journeyings on strange soil. He piloted me about like a little hero, and he pointed out the lions of Caerleon and com­mented on them in a way that showed he knew something about the wonderful history of the de­cayed city where it had been his fate to be born.

On the subject of inns, the boy informed me that the Gold Croft was as good as any, and would be able to give me a decent supper. I should hardly have pinned my hungry faith to the Gold Croft on the strength of its appearance. It was a poor little stone house, with low walls, and no sign of life anywhere about it. I went in, and had hardly taken ten steps beyond the threshold when I seemed to find myself in the kitchen. A bare-armed woman was at work there, who looked up at me in surprise. There was no time for apologies, however, and I plumped the question of possible supper. What would I like, the woman asked. “Anything you have,” I answered. If I would tell her what I wanted - some bread and cheese, now, or what? “Can you give me chops?” She thought so. After some hesitation chops were settled upon - to be ready in an hour; and secure in this promise I beckon to the boy, who has been waiting outside, and off we start.

Around two or three corners - I do not remember a village with more corners in it, for its size, than Caerleon - and down a narrow street. In a small square or open place at the foot of a street ambitiously called Broadway, the boy begins his performance of the novel duties of guide by pointing out to me “the museum, zur.” The museum is exactly like a pocket edition of the New York Sub-Treasury; that is to say, a miniature Greek temple, than which certainly nothing could be more incongruous in this city, where Roman power so long held sway, nothing more out of keeping with this village, which poverty seems to have made its own. The museum was built here, on the spot where its contents have been dug from the ground, by a local antiquarian society. It must not be supposed, from the picture I give of Caerleon, that there are not men of wealth here and hereabout. One never loses sight of the elegant abodes of well-to-do people in this fair land of Wales, even when a poor little village occupies the centre of the scene.

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Subsequent acquaintance with the contents of Caerleon Museum proved them to be profoundly interesting. Brass and silver coins of Julia Augusta, Vespasian, Antoninus Pius, Hadrian, Nerva, Clandius, Constantine, Constantinus, Valentian, and Salustius ; fragments of crosses, lamps, statues, altars, columns, friezes, sarcophagi, intaglios, rings, seals, fibulae, vases - all these are in Caerleon’s public or private collections. Of some of the most interesting I had careful drawings made. A sculpture of a dog attacking a wild beast was dug up in a cottage garden in Caerleon a few years ago, and has excited great interest among antiquaries and comparative anatomists. The tablet was doubtless part of a monument erected in commemoration of a valiant dog killed in the arena in fight with a lion. Martial wrote an epitaph on a dog famed in this way, whose name was Lydia:-

A thunderous boar’s tusk sent me to the shades,
Huge as the dread of the Erymanthian glades.
Though early snatch’d away, I murmur not
No end more glorious could have crown’d my lot.

Professor Rolleston, of Oxford, learned in comparative anatomy, contributed to the museum an elaborate paper, in which he decided that the dog was a Canis molossus mastivus, and very like an English mastiff of his acquaintance ‘‘in Oxford, where it is studying at present” - which remark is the only joke, I think, included in the contents of Caerleon Museum.

Very grim and impressive are the faces on the two antefixa for whose excavation the world is indebted to Sir Digby Mackworth. These were Roman tiles used as ornaments on the roof of a temple, where they were set up, instead of a parapet, at regular intervals, being fixed in place by a projection behind. These specimens show on the back a mark like a reversed U, where the projections have been broken off. The faces are very rude and fantastic - one almost triangular, and the other elliptical. The whole tile was a triangle in shape, and the space not occupied by the faces is ornamented by trees and a chariot wheel.

Great numbers of specimens of the beautiful pottery known as Samian-ware have been found at Caerleon; a fragment exhumed in digging the foundation of the Red Lion Inn is interesting. It represents a gladiator attacking a lion. The structure of this ware is peculiarly close-grained, and the exterior surface polished with a beauty exceeding modern glazing. Such fragments are almost always numerous on the sites of the old Roman stations in Britain, and indicate a knowledge of pottery surpassing the science of the present day. But many scholars think this ware was brought to Britain from some foreign shore, and that only the coarser specimens were of home manufacture. A large quantity of the ware has been dredged up from the sand at the month of the Thames, and its presence there has been variously accounted for. Some antiquaries suppose there was anciently a large pottery there, and that the sea has since encroached on its site. Others think - and this also is the popular notion - that a vessel freighted with this ware was wrecked here in old times.

Another kind of pottery, of which a lamp found in the churchyard is an illustration, is of coarse red clay; but the shape of the lamp is extremely graceful.

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Turning to the right by the museum, and walking down Broadway a few paces, we are in the open country. At the left of the road is the field of Arthur’s Round Table. A well-worn stone stile leads into the field; and on the opposite side of the road I observe another like stile, which would indicate the presence of some feature of interest in that field also. The boy explains:

“Do you see tha’ pool, zur? They do say as that were a bath o’ the Roomans. There be always water there, zur, wet weather or dry - always water there. ‘Tis called the Bear-house Field, zur; an’ they do say the animals did use to be kep’ there, zur, for the Rooman sports.”

But in the presence of Arthur’s Round Table, I do not tarry at the field of the defunct bears, but hasten to climb the stile at the left, and enter the field of the immortal knights.

Now, if the renowned table of the good King Arthur was really a structure of such huge proportions as has been said, I see no more reason to doubt that here it stood, than that Arthur lived and feasted his knights, as has been related in Sir Thomas Malory’s noble and joyous book entitled “Morte d’Arthur.” Once admitting the existence of the good king, in the full plenitude of heroic story which Caxton printed and Tennyson later wrought into verse, and all minor drafts on our credulity are honoured easily. Caerleon was the chief residence of Arthur, not only according to the testimony of such history as we have concerning him, but according to Tennyson. Here the Poet Laureate laid the central scene of his “Idylls of the King,” in which we read that Arthur - “Held court at old Caeeon upon Usk.”

Tennyson lived for some time at an inn here while penning the “Idylls of the King” (a fact of which the landlord, with whom I chatted about the poet one evening, subsequent to the present visit, is very proud), thus adding one more to the list of interesting individuals who have lived here since the early ages. Arthur and Merlin, according to the Caxtonian volume, seem to have been constantly going back and forth between the two great cities, London and Caerleon. London was the younger city of the two. And, by-the-way, London was Caerludd in the beginning of its career - after King Ludd. The sixth chapter of the first book of “Morte d’Arthur” begins with this sentence:

“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.” In the next chapter is the account of a great battle here, in which the people had a hand “And then the commons of Carlion arose with clubs and staves, and slew many knights.” And the prophet Merlin was continually turning up in Caerleon in all sorts of queer shapes.

I approach the edges of the excavation - or rather graceful depression in the centre of the green grassy field - full of faith that here the Round Table was set up. It is an oval ring of great size, a little more than 200 feet along and a little less than 200 feet across, and it runs down to a narrow point in the centre. Nature did not indulge in this peculiar freak; it is the work of man’s hands; but those hands were Roman hands, and Arthur found the place for his table all ready for occupancy when he came to set it up. It was a Roman amphitheatre in the days of Agricola and of Adrian. The grass grows green over the ranks of stone seats which are ranged about the arena; from time to time specimens of them have been dug from the ground. An alabaster statue of Diana has also been disinterred here.

Imagination finds no difficulty in peopling this scene with a ghostly company of togaed and sandalled revellers looking upon the fierce-browed fighters in the arena, and encouraging them to further displays of prowess. There is no strain on credulity here; and the hour encourages the mood of fancy. It is light, but twilight; with the mellow hue of a Rembrandt; there is light enough to see clearly all objects about us, but in the distance the trees grow indistinct, and the old church-tower on the hill is black with shadows. The full moon is slowly climbing over the horizon, at the precise point where, on many a September night like this, long centuries ago, the Romans of ancient Isca Silurus saw her round face rise; where later, let us believe, Arthur’s men too saw her; and where, later still, but yet more than a thousand years ago, the scholars and monks of early Christianity beheld the same serene spectacle. Oh, thou bland-faced moon, if thou couldst speak of what thou hast seen on this spot! - but let us not bay the moon, whatever our emotions. Let us rather emulate the serenity of yonder speckled cow, browsing as unconcernedly on the grass of this great grave of a mighty past, as if the herbage springing over a Roman amphitheatre were no more to her than the milk-filling pabulum of any udder. My guide speaks:

“They do say, zur, as it’s all stoone hunder ‘ere; old Roman stoone, zur - yees, zur. An’ theer, down theer in the middle at the bottom, zur, as you see, theer is weer they did set up the flagpole w’en the queen was crowned.”

“The Queen! Did the Romans-”

“Yees, zur, the Queen; theer they did set up the flag-pole w’en Queen Victoria was crowned, zur.”

Incongruous boy! Queen Victoria, forsooth! ‘twas yesterday that good queen was crowned. But 1837 is as deep in the past to this unlettered boy as 37 B.C. lie had no mortal existence at either date; ‘twas all one - or rather none - to him.

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We must walk on ere it be dark; there will be time enow (marry come up!) to muse on these sights by-and-by at mine inn. The boy leads the way across the field, and we climb a barred gate into another field, and pass along under the shadow of an old wall, built of rubble-stone and rude fragments, joined with that wondrously hard cement so often met in Welsh ruins, compounded of sand, pebbles, pounded bricks and lime. I try to chip off a piece with another stone, but only succeed in bruising my fingers. Now the boy, not forgetting his function of guide, calls my attention to the bridge, a grey old stone structure of three arches, spanning the placid Usk; a thing of yesterday, hardly older than the Old South Church, in Boston, Massachusetts, and an object to which no antiquary pays the slightest attention at Caerleon. We are looking for an object famed of Caerleon, called “the Mound,” or “the Tump,” for want of a better title-the small, steep hill, raised by Norman hands, upon which stood an ancient citadel, which Giraldus Cambrensis describes in his twelfth cen­tury account of Caerleon, and which he had found a ruin, but a solid one, in his day, viz., 200 years ago. The information of my juvenile guide does not include this spot, I find – at least it is with difficulty he comprehends my desire. He has never heard of the Mound, he says. I describe it as well as I can from what I have heard, and at last he seems to suspect the thing referred to.

“I do think it be in the Castle Villa, zur,” he says; “I can’t goa in theer, but I knows a place where a can see the top of it o’er the wall.”

He leads the way, and presently we come to a point in front of a greengrocer’s shop, where, by standing at a particular place on the sidewalk, we have a very good view of the mound. Nothing remains of the tower; the tump is merely a sort of domestic lion of the gentleman who dwells in the Castle Villa. The whole place is surrounded by high walls; and the boy confesses utter ignorance as to what is inside the grounds. “I never was in theer, zur,” he says meekly; and somehow it strikes me strangely that a boy should live all his life in a little village like this, and never have solved the mystery of a walled ground by which he must have passed and repassed hundreds of times. Such a boy - or perhaps I should say such a wall - on reflection I will say both - would be a moral impossibility in America. There is no American garden wall so high, and no American village boy so meek, that the one should not be scaled by the other, to the satisfaction of the American spirit of inquiry. But this boy was born among mysteries older than Ethelwolf and Clovis. One small mystery more, in the shape of a garden wall, is not worth thinking about.

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The darkness is fallen now, and at the Gold Croft Inn my supper will be waiting. I return to that hostelry and dismiss the boy, who knuckles his forehead gratefully on finding that my incredible promise of sixpence is followed by glorious performance. I have said that the Gold Croft Inn failed to inspire me with confidence at the time I entered it to order supper, and my estimate of it is not much improved now as I re-enter its little coffee room; but I have been on my feet since early morning, and I am thankful for a chair to sit on and another chair to stretch my weary legs across. The room is lighted by a single lamp and furnished poorly. But the respectability of the inn is very positively indicated by the prints framed on the walls, most of which are of a religious character - Christ blessing little children, and like subjects; and presently the impression is strengthened by the entrance of a pretty child, with bright eyes, auburn hair, and a health­abounding figure, clad in neat attire, who puts her hand confidently in mine (on being invited, for she is shy at first), and tells me her age is eleven, and her name is Polly.

Polly entertains me with pleasant prattle while the maid is setting the supper-table. She is not Welsh, she says; she is English. Her aunt is Welsh; her mother is dead; she don’t know what her father works at; her aunt keeps the inn; her education has not been neglected, and she can read quite well, as she at once proceeds to do by way of evidence on a point so important. She reads in a loud, clear voice the titles written under some sketches of Welsh scenery which I show her, dashing at the hard words without hesitation, and pronouncing them according to her lights. “View on the Husk,” she recites; “Newport Carstle; the Kwah at Newport,” this being her dash at the pronunciation of the word quay. She was born at Usk, but has no remembrance of Usk Castle. The Round Table she has seen - oh, frequently; the children often go there to play.

The question of the respectability and home-like character of the Gold Croft Inn is completely set at rest when the landlady enters, bringing the supper with her own fair hands. She is a buxom person, in her forties, dressed in a stiff and rustling black gown (I suspect its having been donned in my honour), and her appearance would tranquillize the last doubts of a Presbyterian minister if lie were here to sup instead of me. I fall to upon my supper with a cheerful spirit and a prodigious appetite, sure that if it prove uneatable, it will not be for lack of good Christian intentions. But I am bound to confess the supper is most toothsome. The chops are done to a turn, and are juicy and tender with the true Welsh tenderness and juice, and they are supplemented with broiled kidneys and mealy potatoes boiled in their jackets. The dishes shine with cleanliness, and the coarse cloth knows no speck. A pint of wholesome home-brewed ale serves for potable to this repast, and I take mine ease in mine inn with a seren and satisfied spirit.

The landlady frowns at Polly to indicate that she must leave the room while the gentleman is supping, but I quickly protest that Polly is much too nice a little girl to be sent away, and that I wish her to remain; whereupon the frown is chased from the landlady’s face by a broad sunny smile of good­natured acquiescence, as a darkened meadow glistens in a sudden ray of the sun, and Polly stays. The chops disappear. “Now, Polly, if I had a bit of cheese -” Polly flies with my order to the kitchen, and quickly comes the landlady, bearing in her fat hands a huge cheese - a whole one, from which but one thin segment has been cut. With this, bread and butter in abundance are set before me, and if I were twenty men, I should have no excuse for rising from the table hungry. As a final grace to the banquet, the landlady sends me a great honeysuckle, rich with perfume and bright with maiden fairness, and Polly pins it in my button-hole. There is a clean long clay pipe on the mantelpiece - a model of the old Knickerbocker pipe, with stem as long as your arm - and I take it down to examine it idly, whereat Polly rushes from the room, and quickly returns with a pipeful of tobacco wrapped in a bit of newspaper; so I light the long pipe, puff serenely, and call for my bill. I fear there is some mistake when the bill is brought, and, by the aid of my pocket microscope, I discover its sum total; but it seems there is none. It foots up one shilling and sixpence. Less than forty cents for chops and kidneys, mealy potatoes, bread and cheese, a pint of cwrw da, a long pipe, and a honeysuckle!

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The landlady retires with her nugget of satisfaction to regale a select circle in the kitchen, and I am left alone with my pipe and Polly. The little girl has now relapsed into silence, and is working at some pretty white tape trimming, which grows inch by inch under her stubby fingers; and the pipe is a capital thought-breeder, so that my reveries wander easily over the strange story of Caerleon’s past. I muse on the time, 700 years ago, when that sturdy old priestly traveller over Wales, and industrious chronicler of the glories of Wales, and enthusiastic lauder of the beauties of Wales, Giraldus Cam­brensis, came tramping into Caerleon, and went about its forlorn streets, seeing its lions much as I have been doing, and musing on them afterward much as I am doing now. And of Caerleon in the twelfth century, 700 years after the Romans had quitted Wales for ever, he wrote that many vestiges of its former splendours were yet to be seen - “immense palaces, whose roofs, once gilded, imitated in grandeur the magnificence of the imperial city raised by the Roman princes, and embellished with beautiful statues.” Here, he says, “were a prodigious high tower, noble baths, remains of temples and theatres, parts of which are still standing; you everywhere find, both within and without the circuit of the walls, subterranean buildings, aqueducts, and underground passages; and here the Roman embassadors received audience at the court of the great King Arthur, and the Archbishop Dubritius ceded his honours to David of Menevia.”

Nor was he an idle romancer, this old Giraldus, as the vast number of Roman relics here found since his day can testify. It cannot be long ago that the ground was rich with them, not only under the sod but on its surface; for old people now living in Caerleon well remember the time when it was a very common thing to pick up on the road pieces of stone with strange letters carved upon them. Even within the present century it has been the custom for the simple folk of Caerleon to quarry for stone in the handiest field, and dig up the buried Roman pavements and ruined structures for building materials. No longer ago than 1866 the vicar of Caerleon, in pulling down an old cottage on his glebe, found two large inscribed stones, one of which was recognized as having been seen in 1801 by an antiquary who was delving here, and which had excited deep interest among scholars, but it had been lost again; and now here it was restored to light once more, after having been hidden for nearly seventy years in the brick and mortar of a cottage. The inference drawn from the half illegible letters is that it was dedicated in the consulate of Maximo II. and Urbano, in the year 234, and the stone probably records the inauguration of a building. The inscription has been almost obliterated, what with the ravages of time and the coarse uses of Caerleon’s house builders in the present era.

The 700 years which lie between the present and the time when Giraldus wrote seem to shrivel up and disappear in the common interest taken by him and by ourselves in old Caerleon. My thoughts keep company with his in going back another 700 years or so, to the time in King Arthur’s reign when the holy St. David was appointed to the see of Caerleon. The good saint was terribly annoyed by the dissipation and gaiety of the royal court, and at once removed the see to Pembrokeshire, to get his monks as far as possible from the dangers and temptations of the populous city. He certainly could have got no further than he went without going into the sea. Pembrokeshire is on the extreme south-western coast of Wales, and the existing ruins of St. David’s palace stand on the jumping-off place, the very end of the land.

A little further into the past and we come to that year 508 when Arthur was crowned at Caerleon. Ah! those were gallant days and debonair. What a scene must that have been when there came clanking through the gates of Caerleon troop after troop of knights armed cap-a-pie, on horses gaily caparisoned, to attend Arthur’s Pentecostal feast! For in procession there came “King Lot of Lothian and of Orkney with five hundred knights with him” and “King Urieus of Gore with four hundred knights with him,” and “ King Nentres of Garloth with seven hundred knights with him,” and the glittering cavalcades passed into the city, shaking the ground beneath their horses iron tread. “Also there came to the feast the King of Scotland with six hundred knights with him, and he was but a young man. Also there came to that feast a king that was called the King with the Hundred Knights, but he and his men was passing well beseen at all points. Also there came the King of Carados with five hundred knights. And King Arthur was glad of their coming, for he wend that all the kings and knights had come for great love, and for to have done him worship at his feast, wherefore the king made great joy, and sent the kings and knights great presents. But the kings would none receive, but rebuked the messengers shamefully, and said they had no joy to receive no gifts of a beardless boy that was come of low blood, and sent him word they would have none of his gifts, but that they were come to give him gifts with hard swords betwixt the neck and the shoulders.” And then there was a glorious fight indeed! “And Sir Bandwin, Sir Kay, and Sir Brastias slew on the right hand and on the left hand that it was marvellous; and always King Arthur on horseback laid on with a sword, and did marvellous deeds of arms.” Would I had been there to see! I rise, and going to the window of mine inn, look out upon the street, in case any knight should by chance be strolling by. No soul is stirring; and if there were, I should find a great contrast between the ideal Welsh knight and the actual one.

Still into the dim backward and abysm of time, to a day when Arthur was unborn; when the very stones of old St. Paul’s still slept in their unbroken quarries; when Hengist and Horsa were yet in the womb of the future; and Caerleon was the brilliant capital of Britannia Secunda from the Severn westward to the sea, Constantine the Great its ruler, and the Romans undisputed possessors of the island. The luxury and splendour of old Rome were here repeated; the theatres were crowded at night with brilliant throngs; dinners, balls, and routs succeeded each other in unending succession; by day the fashionable drive was over yonder bridge and through the suburb which the villagers still call Ultra Pontem, out on the road named Julia Strata. The magnificence of Rome was at its height, and its decline in the near future, but peace reigned throughout Britain, and Caerleon shared the luxurious hush of the lull preceding the storm of battles which soon shook the world.

One more step backward, and the Roman was a stranger looking with curious eyes on Britain. There was one brave soldier who opposed the advance of the Roman conquerors step by step. This was Caractacus, king of the fierce Silures, who held his court at Caerleon. London was not yet founded, but Caerleon was the seat of a king. It was not a splendid place, I fancy: Caractacus was not a wealthy monarch, but he was as brave a hero as the world has seen from the days of Joshua and Agamemnon to those of Havelock and Grant. With his handful of the warriors of South Wales this deter­mined patriot continued for nine years to harass and oppose the Roman armies. He was captured at last only through the treachery of his wife’s mother the first victim of a mother-in-law, so far as we have any record in history.

Caractacus was sent in triumph to Rome; and as he was led in chains through the Eternal City, he gazed about on the splendours which surrounded him, and his thoughts went back to Caerleon.

“Alas !” cried he, “how is it possible that a people possessed of such magnificence at home could envy me a humble cottage in Britain?”

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Such are a few of the records of this profoundly interesting spot. After a brilliant history, stretching over many centuries of time, the great city vanished from the face of the earth, leaving the traces of its former grandeur buried in profusion beneath the soil. Precisely when Caerleon began to fall into final decay is unknown, but probably it was soon after King Morgan removed the royal court to Cardiff.

The present name of the city is supposed to come from caer, the ancient British word for a fortified camp or city, and leon, a corruption of legionum. Why London should have grown so great, and Caerleon shrunk so small, is a matter not altogether lacking in the element of mystery. Caerleon was once the larger city of the two. At its zenith it is judged to have covered a tract of country nine miles in circumference; and though the present village is situated some five miles from the Bristol Channel, it is not further off from navigable waters than Apsley House is from the Thames. Indeed, the Usk is navigable for barges and “such small deer” even far above here, to a place called Tredunnock. If, some 2000 years hence, Chicago should be a grand metropolis of 3,000,000 inhabitants and New York a village of a few hundred poverty-stricken people, it would hardly be more strange and wonderful than the contrasting fortunes which have befallen London and Caerleon.

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