- by -
the Revd. Richard Warner of Bath
in August and September 1798

Second Edition
Printed by R. Cruttwell


Introduction to Caerleon
Mrs Williams' singular adventure
The destruction of Caerleon's antiquities
Roman and Norman remains
Etymology of Caerleon
Academy of two hundred philosophers
King Arthur
The walk from Caerleon to Newport

Descending slowly from the village of Christ-Church, we approached Caerleon, a town famed in Roman, British, and Norman story for its former strength and splendour. None of its ancient magnificence now remains; tho’ some memorials of it may be discovered in ruined walls and fragments of antique masonry, scattered through the town and its immediate vicinity. Time, however, could not rob it of its natural beauties; and the happy situation in which it stands will never cease to afford pleasure to the eye of taste. We entered the town at the east end, by crossing a bridge thrown over the Usk, a passage that had been formerly well defended, as is evident from the ruins of a bastion, or round tower, on the left hand, probably of Norman architecture. The bridge is formed of wood on a similar construction, and for the same reason as that of Chepstow, the tide at each place rising occasionally to the incredible height of fifty or sixty feet. The boards which compose the flooring of this bridge being designedly loose, (in order to float with the tide when it exceeds a certain height) and prevented from escaping only by little pegs at the ends of them, do not afford a very safe footing for the traveller; and some aukward accidents have been known to arise from this cause. A singular adventure occurred about twenty years ago, to a female, as she was passing it at night, which tells so much to the credit of the ladies, that it would be unpardonable in a Tourist, who is less an admirer of the sex than myself, not to detail the particulars.

The heroine in question was a Mrs. Williams, well known in the town, and living there till within these few years; she had been to spend a cheerful evening at a neighbour’s house on the eastern side of the river, and was returning home, (I presume) at a decent hour, and in a decorous state. The night being extremely dark, she had provided herself with a lantern and candle, by the assistance of which she found her way towards the bridge, and had already passed part of the dangerous structure. When about half seas over, however, (don’t mistake my meaning) she unfortunately trod on a plank that had by some accident lost the tennons originally fixed to the ends of it, and had slipped from its proper situation; the faithless board instantly yielded to the weight of the good lady, who, I understand, was rather corpulent, and carried her through the flooring, candle and lantern, into the river. Fortunately at the moment of falling she was standing in such a position as gave her a seat on the plank, similar to that of a horseman on his nag. It may be easily imagined that Mrs. Williams must have been somewhat surprised by this change of situation, as well as alteration of climate. Blessed, however, with a large share of that presence of mind, or patient endurance of evil, which exalts the female character so far above our own, the good lady was not overwhelmed (except with the water) by her fall ; and steadily maintained her seat on the board, taking care at the same time to preserve the candle lighted, rightly supposing it would serve as an index to any one who might be able or willing to assist her. Thus, bestriding the plank, our heroine was hurried down by the river towards Newport, the bridge of which she trusted would stop her progress, or its inhabitants be alarmed with her cries. In both her hopes, however, she was disappointed; the rapidity of a spring-tide sent her through the arch with the velocity of an arrow discharged from the bow, and the good people of the town had long been wrapt in slumber. Thus situated, her prospect became each moment more desperate, her candle was nearly extinguished, and every limb so benumbed with cold, that she had the greatest difficulty in keeping her saddle; already had she reached the mouth of the Usk, and was on the point of encountering the turbulent waves of the Bristol Channel, when the master of a fishing-boat, who was returning from his nightly toils, discovered the gleaming of her taper and heard her calls for assistance, and, after a considerable struggle between his humanity and superstition, ventured at length to approach this floating wonder, and brought Mrs. Williams safely to the shore in his boat.

To the antiquary, Caerleon is a place of much curiosity; you would, therefore, consider us as unpardonable, had we not half blinded ourselves amongst the rubbish of its ruins, and torn our clothes with the thorns and brambles that conceal these venerable remains. Our researches indeed were conducted with all proper spirit and perseverance; but, I am sorry to say, they were not rewarded by any discovery that could throw new light on the history of the place, or make a material addition to what is already written on the subject. Time has been assisted, in his tardy but ceaseless operations of destruction on the antiquities of Caerleon, by the active industry of its own inhabitants; some of whom, stimulated by a principle of avarice, have destroyed or removed many of the finest monuments of its ancient splendour. Within these three years the town has been despoiled of two gate-ways, probably Norman; and the lofty keep which stood on the mound to the north-east of the town has also, since the memory of man, been levelled with the ground. Facts like these certainly detract considerably from the classical character of the Caerleonites, but you will be still more indignant at their want of common curiosity, when I mention an anecdote equally true.

About eighteen months or two years back, on digging a cavity to receive the foundation of a large warehouse, near the church, the workmen struck upon a mass of fragments of ancient masonry; consisting of capitals, shafts, and pedestals of pillars; entablatures, friezes, architraves, &c. The circumstance was communicated to the owner, and some curious person suggested to him, that by expending a little more money it might lead to a further discovery, and throw new light on the history of the town. He went to the excavation, looked at the remains with perfect indifference, and coolly observing, that “thes’em sort of things had nothing to do with his coal speculation,” ordered the workmen to cover them up.

Much of the present town stands within the precincts of an ancient Roman camp, the walls of which still partially exist, though deprived of their facings, and so dilapidated as to leave their foundation scarcely visible in many places. Their form is parallelogramical, and their extent nearly six hundred yards by five hundred. A little to the north-west of these, in a meadow, a circular depression or concavity of the ground occurs, which is supposed by the initiated to he a Roman amphitheatre; though the profane vulgar consider it as the place of revelry between Arthur and his knights of the round table; and assert that the hero, when he quitted mortal existence, sank into the earth at this his favourite spot. Whatever its former consequence might have been, it is now inferior to many an English cock-pit, and holds out an useful lesson to the pomp of greatness, and the pride of descent. If it be Roman, as many circumstances concur to make us think it is, it would be a castrensian amphitheatre, formed by hollowing out the ground to a certain depth and circumference, and then furnishing its gently declining sides with green turf seats to accommodate the numerous spectators. The mound of earth, called the keep, though probably owing its origin to the Normans, seems to consist partly of Roman ruins; fragments of Roman pottery, and masses of Roman bricks, are easily discovered by penetrating into the ground in the slightest manner. Of more modern antiquity, the only specimen which struck us, was the conventual house of the Miss Morgans’, having an interior quadrangle, originally connected, in all probability, with an abbey of Cistertian monks, which appears to have been settled very early at Caerleon.

It may be amusing, perhaps, to recall to your recollection a few particulars connected with the history of this place.

The present name, Caerleon, (the castle or camp of the legion) clearly points out a Roman origin. Horsley, than whom we cannot follow a better authority, supposes that the Romans arrived at this spot in the reign of Antoninus Pius, about the middle of the second century; and finding it to be a place agreeing in the circum­stances of its situation with their system of castrametation, they made it the station, or head-quarters, of the second Augustan legion. In allusion to this disposition of a particular body of troops, they called it Isca Legionis Secundae Augustae or Isca Silurum, as being the capital city of the Silures or South-Wallians.

Here, it appears, the legion continued till within a short time of the departure of the Romans from Britain; since inscriptions to­wards the close of the empire, and coins of some of the later emperors, have at different times been discovered on this spot.

From these circumstances, as well as from the extensive ruins which have accidentally presented themselves in a circle round the pre­sent town of a mile in diameter, it cannot be questioned that Caerleon became, under the au­spices of the Romans, a large and magnificent place; exhibiting those specimens of grandeur and refinement which generally decorated a Roman city—a forum, temples, baths, and theatres. The arts, indeed, seem to have been cultivated here to a high degree, as the many elegant relics of antiquity, and beautiful frag­ments of Roman masonry, formerly to be seen in the possession of different people at Caer­leon, sufficiently testify. But its chief glory arose from the success with which intellectual acquirements were pursued; for if we give credit to the testimony of an ancient author (Alexander Elsebiensis), we are to believe, that Caerleon was a second Crotona, since he tells us (just previous to the arrival of the Saxons in Britain) there was an academy of two hundred philosophers at this place. Excellence, indeed, is only a relative term, and therefore, sagacious as these men of science would appear to be in the eyes of the ignorant multitude around them, they might, notwithstanding, be still far inferior to the scholars of Pythagoras. The circumstance, however, if it be fact, proves that Caerleon had attained to a very great comparative degree of civilization under the auspices of the con­querors of the world.

Even during the times of the Romans in Britain, it appears that Caerleon enjoyed the blessings of the Christian religion. Three noble churches are said to have been erected in it, almost as soon as the gospel found its way into this country, one of which was constituted the metropolitan church of all Wales. Here the archiepiscopal seat continued till the time of St. David, who, towards the close of the sixth century, translated it to Menevia, or, as it was afterwards called, from the name of this canonized prelate, St. David’s. The deities of classical mythology, however, had their wor­shippers also, and the great goddess of the Ephesians boasted a temple erected to her honour in the city of Caerleon. (Camden 719. This is evident from the following inscription discovered at Caerleon in 1608: T. FL. POSTHUMIUS VARUS V. C. LEG. TEMPL. DIANAE RESTITUIT.)

How long the Roman forces were continued at Caerleon is not to be ascertained. The second Augustan Legion had retired from it, previous to the final desertion of Britain by that people; but as coins of the Valentinians have been discovered here, we may conclude that it was a station as low down as the be­ginning of the fifth century.

The enfeebled and emasculated Britons, when deprived of the aid of the Romans, became an easy prey to the fierce hordes of Saxon invaders, who flocked to this country about the middle of the fifth century. Caerleon, with the country surrounding it, fell into their hands, and doubtless suffered severely in the undistin­guishing destruction which followed all the conquests of these barbarous tribes. It soon recovered its pristine splendour, however, and under the protection of the British hero, the renowned Arthur, who wrested it from the Saxons after a fierce battle, it became once more a place of consideration. Here it was that he received the crown from the hand of Dubritius bishop of Llandaff on being elected king of all Britain; and here he in­stituted that order of chivalry, the Round Table, which makes so conspicuous a figure in the old romances.

Thus Caerleon became the scene of royal amusement, in which the British dames of Arthur’s court were, at Easter and Christmas, entertained with the jousts and tournaments of his hundred and thirty noble knights.

A tradition of these revels still exists in the town, and a notice of it occurs in the sign of a publick-house which displays a military figure, intended to represent King Arthur, and subscribed with the following lines:-

1200 years and more are pass'd
Since Arthur ruled here;
And that to me once more he's come
Think it not strange or queere.
Though o'er my door, yet take my word,
To honour you he's able;
And make you welcome with good Ale,
And Knights of the Round Table.

Little occurs relative to Caerleon, during that period of darkness and confusion known by the name of the middle ages. It successively felt the fury of the Saxon and the Dane, and was afterwards alternately in the posses­sion of the English and Welsh. The castle, a remain of which is seen on the north side of the bridge, seems to have been erected about the middle of the twelfth century, if, indeed, it be the same called by Powel the "New Castle upon Usk." At that time the English held the town, but surrendered it, after a desperate resistance, to Jorweth ap Owen, prince of South-Wales, in 1173. On the ensuing year, Caerleon experienced another change of mas­ters, when a large army of English and Normans took possession of it; they retained it, how­ever, but a few months, King Henry II again restoring it to its rightful owner, Jorweth ap Owen, on this prince and the other South-Wallian leaders doing homage to him at Glocester.

In the year 1218, Caerleon fell once inure into the hands of the English, under William Marshall earl of Pembroke, and experienced all the horrors of a complete sacking, the frequent effect of military ferocity in the feudal ages. Llewellyn ap Jorweth recovered it in 1231, and it was retained by his descendants (see Powel's History of Wales, 201, 203, et infra.) till the complete reduction of Wales by Edward I.

Having gratified our curiosity here, we proceeded towards Newport, a town at the distance of two miles to the south-west of Caerleon. Our walk, which conducted us by a foot-road over the fields, presented a variety of rich views, Caerleon forming a prominent feature in them, happily placed on the wooded banks of a fine winding river, in the middle of a rich valley surrounded with hills.

After an hour’s agreeable saunter, we descended towards Newport, and entered the town over a magnificent stone bridge. It is indeed, as yet, incomplete; but a sufficient portion of the structure appears, to do great credit to the architectural skill of its builder, Mr. Edward, son of the William Edward, who is so deservedly famed for having thrown a durable arch over the rapid Taafe at Pont-y-Pridd.

Note: The ‘foot-road’ they traversed (indicated by the dotted line)
is now the route followed by the main road from Caerleon to Newport.
This does not appear on road maps until around 1830.

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