Interlude: A Corbridge circular

Corstopitum—Dere Street and Devil’s Causeway—Stanegate—royal estates—end of Roman Britain—General Wade’s road—Heavenfield—finding a farmer—caravanserai

MY COLLEAGUE Colm O’Brien and I needed to track down a farmer whose land we wanted to survey; on an overcast and muggy Thursday early in summer we decided to make a day of it. We set off from Corbridge on the north bank of the River Tyne to walk to Heavenfield, which lies on the Wall some few miles to the north. Heavenfield, where Oswald Iding, fresh from a youthful exile in the kingdom of Dál Riata, returned with a small army in the year 633 or 634 to fight for the Northumbrian kingdom; where he raised a cross the night before battle and had a vision of Colmcille; the place where the northern English Christian state was born.

A Roman town (Corstopitum, or more locally just Coria) constructed in the middle of the second century on the site of earlier forts, Corbridge is a key strategic location in the Roman and Early Medieval landscape. At least three battles have been fought close by. Its bridge has always been one of the most important crossings of this sometimes untameable river. The siting of a garrison on the north, offensive side of a river is absolutely typical of unapologetic, proactive Roman military thinking. The same applies at York, at London and elsewhere. But Corbridge has been bothering us.

Dere Street, the ancient road from York to Edinburgh and the Antonine Wall, crosses the river here and a lateral branch, known as the Devil’s Causeway, links it with the mouth of the Tweed and the harbour at Berwick. The Stanegate runs west from here to the Solway Firth; to the east, twenty-five miles downriver, is the mouth of the Tyne. A major Roman supply fort, Arbeia, stood on the south side of the Tyne near its mouth; another (Segedunum) on the north bank, coincided with the end of the Wall, five miles inland. Corbridge was effectively the garrison supply town for the eastern half of the Wall and all forts to the north; its counterpart, at the other end of the Stanegate, Carlisle (Luguvalium; Brythonic Caer Luel) may already have been a thriving settlement before the Romans came, perhaps the civitas capital of the Carvetii. But, since there is no known Roman road linking Corbridge with its supply forts on the east coast, the question arises whether, in the Roman period and after, the river was navigable this far up. There is much debate. For that matter, the line of the Stanegate, and the point where it must have crossed the North Tyne, have not been satisfactorily traced—yet. And we would like to know for how long the Roman bridge—a mile upstream from the present construction—continued in use after the end of the Empire. These questions are important not just for understanding the geography of the Roman north, but for reconstructing the circumstances in which Oswald’s small army, having perhaps sailed down the west coast to Carlisle and then marched along the old road from Carlisle, was able to surprise and defeat the most formidable force of the day: the battle-hardened veterans of King Cadwallon of Gwynedd.

Several scholars have floated the idea that Corbridge lay at the core of a royal estate in the sixth century, that it formed the heartland of the original kingdom of Bernicia as the principal administrative and strategic centre for the Tyne corridor and its fertile soils. The name Coria probably means something like a tribal assembly or hosting place. Cadwallon of Gwynedd may have chosen the old town as his winter quarters before his fateful encounter with Oswald. So why, in later centuries, did it lose out to Hexham, just across the river, as the principal town in the valley? By the third quarter of the seventh century a major church had been established on a promontory at Hexham, a little upstream on the opposite, south bank. It became one of England’s earliest bishoprics while Corbridge, despite its location, has never been much more than a large village since the end of the Roman period. History will give up no more clues to its Dark Age: only archaeology, and the landscape, can shed light.

From the bridge, the seventeenth-century survivor of a great flood in 1771 which destroyed every other bridge on the river, Colm and I took the riverside path west, below the flood-proof terrace on which the Roman settlement stood. Much of the town was excavated early in the twentieth century under a regime, typical of the period, when archaeologists removed any overburden to get down to Roman strata and in the process destroyed what evidence might have existed for Cadwallon’s presence or the existence of a Dark Age royal township. It is, to say the least, a pity.

Colm and I were deep in conversation when we found ourselves crossing the Cor burn, turning north past a magnificent mill house and emerging from the path onto Corchester lane. We doubled back along the lane to the entrance of the Roman town and paid our dues to English Heritage for a look at the ruins. They are impressive, more civic than military: the granaries still have their floors; the drains look as if they might still be in good working order; there is a forum and all the urban trappings of civilisation in Britain’s most northerly Roman town. Its location has obvious benefits: it looks down on the broad, fast-flowing river and the site of the ancient bridge, across to the moors above Hexham with their valuable lead deposits; and both ways up and down the valley. Most striking is the metalled road on which we walked to view the ruins: the beginning of the Stanegate before it heads westwards through the North Pennine pass near Gilsland. Apart from its obvious functions in terms of shifting troops and goods at speed through a potentially hostile, then pacified land, it makes one hell of a statement of intent—more so even than the Wall, which it pre-dates. It sent out what modern governments like to call ‘a clear message’. It said, ‘We are here to stay, we know what we’re doing, we’ve subdued every barbarian kingdom on the Continent and this is how we do it. We show you what Rome is like and then you become part of us. Everybody got that?’

Everybody, almost everybody, did get it; they bought into it with enthusiasm, especially the native elite who subsequently became the magistrates and civil servants, burgesses and masters of Roman Britain, doing rather well, thank you, under the overlordship of distant masters. The more or less permanent garrisoning of the frontier zone by troops ensured a lively economy (probably the odd riot and local scandal too). But Corbridge must have found itself on the front line when the Wall was overrun by revolting Northern Britons in the later fourth century, and those with material wealth were tempted to bury it in a safe place. We find those hoards from time to time and it goes almost without saying that their owners never came back for them. How long it took for the native warrior elite to become effete toga-wearers petty-politicking in the town’s forum is hard to say. Human communities are nothing if not adaptable.

At the fifth-century end of the imperial project, we would very much like to know if, when and how those town-dwellers cast off their togas, picked up their ancestral swords, took to the hills and became warlords once more in the face of civil strife, invasion and piracy. An obvious answer is that they did not, having forgotten over the previous three centuries how to fight. They might, then, have either devolved responsibility for security onto the existing commanders along the Wall, as at Birdoswald, or hired mercenaries. Either way, the best fighters were those from Saxony and Jutland, the tribes beyond the Rhine frontier that had never been tamed; everyone knew that. But in the west and south-west of Britain, and north of the Wall—so-called Outer Brigantia—those native tribes still handy with spear and shield might well have taken matters into their own hands. As late as the early seventh century, the British of Gwynedd could realistically hope to wrest this region from its Germanic kings.

We popped into the town’s well-furnished museum to say hello to Frances McIntosh, its curator, and assistant curator Graeme Stobbs, a veteran excavator of the Tyne’s archaeology; we were treated to tea and biscuits and a question. They took us back into the museum and showed us a sculpture—a gravestone, perhaps, or an altar, not much more than a foot high. The relief carving depicted a (now headless) woman stirring something in a barrel. What did we make of it? Roundels had been carved either side of where her face had been before being chiselled away. To the right was a repeated motif of what looked like eagles—it was hard to tell in the low light. The roundels, we speculated, might have been flabella, like the decorative cross on the slab at Ellary—and, therefore, possibly Christian. Who was this woman? A native or Roman God, otherwise unknown? Or the depiction of a real woman, erected by loved ones? What was in the pot? The closest parallels depict the goddess of medicine, Meditrina, surrounded by barrels of potions. We know that in the long history of the Wall and in Roman towns across the Empire, native and Roman deities often became associated with each other by virtue of their common attributes. That Corbridge had a shrine to a medical deity, or a sign outside a pharmacy, would not surprise. By the time those with medicinal skills resurfaced in the literature of the Dark Ages, they had either become something more arcane, even sinister, or they were being called hermits and saints.

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CORBRIDGE

After this tantalising glimpse afforded by archaeology of the Roman town and its road, there is no sign of the ancient highway for a few miles. But it’s always worth having a good nose around on foot, to get the lie of the land and look for subtle clues that might be preserved in the line of a hedge or wall, a low ridge through a meadow, a curious hump in a field. The Stanegate must have crossed the North Tyne somewhere between its confluence with the main river at Warden, just below the hill fort, and the nearest Wall fort at Chesters, nearly three miles to the north. So we followed the small road that keeps to the base of the valley side before climbing the hill up to the hamlet of Anick, peering over hedges and musing on those ancient routes through the land that might survive as footpaths, droveways and twisting deep-sunk lanes. We were detained for a minute by the curious sight of a flock of unmoving crows in a field. As we looked closely at them to confirm that in fact they were models—quite good models, convincingly disposed—a man with a shotgun wearing camouflage emerged from the hedge behind us, amused that his decoys had fooled us as he hoped they would fool other crows; it was slightly unnerving.

A tiny, straight lane led out of Anick, heading due west, along the line of the three-hundred-foot contour; with its commanding views of river and approaches, it seemed to us that this would make a very good line for the Stanegate. After a mile, where the lane swung north aping the line of the North Tyne beyond, we stopped at St John Lee, a little parish church perched on the hillside without a community, apart from a small cluster of farmhouses. It may be the site of a very ancient foundation, mentioned by Bede as a retreat used by John of Beverley, a Bishop of Hexham, and originally dedicated to the Archangel Michael. Michael was a frequent and popular dedicatee for early churches, especially those founded on high ground.44 Our convenient road may be the ancient route to this church and yet have nothing to do with the line of the Stanegate; or, we might speculate that the church was sited on the old Roman road deliberately. A Roman altar was found near by and sits in a corner of the church. If nothing else, St John Lee boasts a very decent stained-glass window depicting St Oswald raising his cross at Heavenfield, along with images of Edwin and Oswald’s brother Oswiu.

The contour-hugging lane became a path which brought us, via a small stream where there was once a mill, into the pretty stone-built village of Acomb (a ‘valley of oak trees’), one of Tynedale’s most desirable residential addresses. From here the path reverted to a road and rose steadily for a mile, still heading north, with majestic, open views towards Warden Hill and beyond. It topped out at something like six hundred and fifty feet above sea level. Below and before us the line of General Wade’s road and the vallum underscored the hills beyond, the Wall itself having been scavenged here to send the general’s own Clear Message to the local Jacobites. From here, road and vallum, heading west, descend into the North Tyne valley and to the site of a Roman bridge which carried the Wall across, just as it had near Birdoswald. We came out onto the Military Road at Heavenfield, the site of Oswald’s famous vision of Colmcille and his last camp before doing battle with Cadwallon.

There is a wooden cross (less than a hundred years old) at the roadside and a path leads across pasture to the small church of St Oswald in Lee which is supposed to lie on the site of a much earlier building, erected, according to Bede, in ‘recent times’—that is, in the late seventh or early eighth century. If the current church is modest, plain and uninspiring, its setting is not, for it looks north onto a vast sweep of open Northumbrian countryside towards the Cheviot Hills and the border. What made Oswald choose this precise spot for his pre-battle camp is not absolutely clear. One of the objects of our prospective geophysical survey was to get some idea of what happened here both before and after his army’s overnight stay in 633 or 634. Oswald had been exiled in his thirteenth year on the death of his father, King Æthelfrith, in battle against his (Oswald’s) Uncle Edwin. He cannot have recognised the geography; one must suppose that he had both native guides to assist him and older companions, survivors of his father’s warband, to advise. But Heavenfield has advantages: it cannot be seen from the south or east, where the enemy may have lain at Corbridge.

A mile to the east along the line of the Wall, Colm and I took afternoon refreshment at St Oswald’s Farm café. We were looking for the farmer in whose fields the church sits. We were in luck. John Reay was not there, but we met his mother, were able to explain to her what we were about (we did not disturb the rhythm of her knitting, I am glad to say) and to get his phone number.

Mission accomplished, we followed the Wall path eastwards towards its junction with Dere Street. The Wall is invisible here, not because it was removed by the thrifty general to build his road (now the B6318), but because Wade had his redcoats build the road directly on top of it: nothing like a firm foundation.

Before the Wall’s and road’s junction with Dere Street we struck out across country, with half a mind to reconstruct Oswald’s putative dawn march to Corbridge on the morning after his vision. There is no obvious path; more likely they rode direct, avoiding routes where scouts might have been waiting and watching (the Wall; Dere Street; Warden Hill, perhaps). The surprise was complete, Oswald’s rout of Cadwallon’s British army astonishing and epoch-changing. The green lane we took was wide enough to have been an old droveway, leading to the site of one of the great cattle fairs. Stagshaw Bank, a flattish expanse looking steeply down onto Corbridge from the angle formed by Wall and Dere Street, would see a hundred thousand cattle pass through during these summer months. They came from all over the borders and beyond, on their way to London’s Smithfield or other southern markets. Here they were shod for the hard roads ahead (eight shoes per cow: imagine the sheer weight of iron being forged, shaped and fitted). The droving industry died almost overnight with the arrival of the railways; but how far back this particular gathering might be projected is a moot point. Portgate, where Dere Street pierced the Wall on its northern track, is such an obviously key point in the ancient landscape that it is easy to imagine a very old tradition of gateway communities. There is an unexplained fort-like earthwork here, just on the edge of the road. The distinguished geographer Brian Roberts, noting the presence of large numbers of Roman coins recovered from Great Whittington, just to the north-east of Portgate, suggested to us in a brilliant insight that this may have been a place where merchants and traders from all points north were required to halt before entering the Empire, like caravanserai bivouacs outside the desert towns of North Africa. Here their bona fides were checked; dues were paid; deals and bargains made or broken; selected persons were given privileged access; the riff-raff—slaves, drovers, chancers—were kept out. Think Casablanca; think the Scillies, Peel or Crinan. Think Aldgate and Whitechapel. Was the fair at Stagshaw the successor to such a caravanserai?

Colm and I shadowed Dere Street back to Corbridge, these days a bustling and very attractive village, still trading on its ancient crossing of the river. Corbridge continuing to bother us, we wondered if our modern remote-sensing equipment would soon cast a faint light on a dimly seen past.

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