28 February, 2010

February recipe: Stir-fried sweet and sour pork

I’m usually getting to the end of the winter root vegetable crop by the end of February, and this goes well with the leeks that are usually about the only crop left in the garden. It makes a nice change from casseroles and suet puddings, especially when you want a meal that can be ready in minutes.

You can vary the vegetables more or less as you see fit, depending on taste and availability. I hadn’t been organised enough to grow a batch of bean sprouts when I made this, but bean sprouts go very well in this dish.

Stir-fried sweet and sour pork (serves 2)

8 oz (approx 220 g) boneless pork steak
1 piece root ginger, about 1” (approx 2 cm) cube
1 clove garlic
Half an onion, or 3-4 spring onions
Half a green sweet pepper
Half a red sweet pepper
6 oz (approx 150 g) leeks
2 oz (approx 50 g) mushrooms
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) cooking oil

For the sweet and sour sauce:
1 dessertspoon (1 x 10 ml spoon) cornflour
1 dessertspoon (1 x 10 ml spoon) clear honey
1 dessertspoon (1 x 10 ml spoon) soy sauce
2 dessertspoons (2 x 10 ml spoons) wine or cider vinegar
1 dessertspoon (1 x 10 ml spoon) tomato puree
Approx 5 dessertspoons (approx 50 ml) water

Cut the pork into thin strips, about 1/8 inch (approx 3 mm) thick.
Peel the root ginger and shred into thin matchsticks.
Peel and chop the onion. If using spring onions, trim, cut into pieces about 3 inch (approx 6 cm) long and slice in half or quarters lengthwise.
Remove the seeds from the sweet peppers and cut into roughly 1 inch (approx 2 cm) squares or strips.
Wash and trim the leeks and cut into slices about 1/4 inch (approx 0.5 cm) thick.
Peel the mushrooms and quarter if small, or slice if large.

Put the ingredients for the sweet and sour sauce into a cup and mix to a thin paste.

Heat the cooking oil in a wok or frying pan.
When hot, add the pork strips and fry on a high heat for 1-2 minutes.
Add the onion, ginger, peppers and leeks and fry for another 1-2 minutes.
Add the mushrooms and crushed garlic, and fry another 1-2 minutes.
Pour the contents of the sauce cup into the pan, stirring all the time, and cook until thickened (about 30 seconds).

Serve immediately, with rice or noodles.

25 February, 2010

The Stolen Crown, by Susan Higginbotham. Book review

Sourcebooks, 2010, ISBN 978-1402237669, 377 pages. Edition reviewed: uncorrected advance review copy, kindly supplied by publisher.

Set in 1464-1485, with an epilogue covering 1492-1496, The Stolen Crown covers the later years of the Wars of the Roses and the short reign of Richard III, as told by Harry Stafford Duke of Buckingham and his wife Katherine (Kate) Woodville. All the named characters are based on historical figures.

When six-year-old Kate Woodville witnesses her elder sister Elizabeth secretly marrying Edward IV, King of England, she knows her life will never be the same again. The next year, aged seven, she marries the nine-year-old Harry, who is already Duke of Buckingham after the untimely deaths of his father and grandfather and will come into a great fortune when he comes of age. Kate does not particularly like her young husband’s devotion to his hero, the king’s younger brother Richard of Gloucester, though as yet it casts little shadow over her comfortable life and their adolescent happiness together. Harry is annoyed at being excluded from the high office and power that he thinks his rank entitles him to, but his “delicious Kate”, as he calls her, is considerable compensation. Then in 1483 King Edward IV dies unexpectedly, and as Richard claims the throne for himself in place of his two young nephews, Harry suddenly finds himself at the very centre of power. It is the chance he has dreamed of, to make himself indispensable to his hero Richard – but it comes at a terrible price.

The Stolen Crown is narrated alternately in first person by Harry and Kate. I liked seeing two points of view, particularly as Harry is closely involved in the action after the death of Edward IV and so is an actor in events that Kate would have had to be told about at second hand. The tone of the two narrators is rather similar, perhaps reflecting their shared aristocratic upbringing, and I found I had to pay close attention to the chapter headings to check who was speaking.

As with The Traitor’s Wife and Hugh and Bess by the same author, The Stolen Crown is full of historical detail. All the named characters, even down to ladies in waiting and pages, are based on historical figures. The novel covers the intricacies and contradictions of fifteenth-century politics effectively, often by means of older characters explaining matters to Kate when she is a child. It can be tricky keeping track of all the players, especially given the limited number of popular Christian names in use at the time (practically every family had a Margaret, an Anne, an Isabel or Elizabeth, an Edward, a Richard, etc). The lists of characters organised by family at the front of the book are invaluable.

As the book starts when Kate and Harry are both children, for the first half of the book they are often on the periphery of events as observers rather than participants. It was interesting to watch them growing up and being shaped by their families and experiences, particularly the development of their relationship from children through adolescent romance and into a loving marriage. On the other hand, I found this made the book seem rather slow for the first 200 pages or so, until Edward IV dies and the pace steps up a gear.

The key strength of the book for me was the portrayal of Harry’s relationship with Richard III, which on Harry’s side appears to be mainly hero-worship with faintly homoerotic overtones. This fits well with Harry’s character as developed in the story; having inherited his dukedom as a child and (astonishingly, given the political turmoil of the times) never having been seriously threatened, Harry seems to be still an overgrown teenager even in his late twenties. Imperious, with an inflated sense of his own importance and inclined to speak first and think about the consequences later, he is hopelessly unsuited to high politics. (It’s no surprise that he is affectionately greeted in the afterlife with, “Well, Harry, you certainly made a fine mess of things, didn’t you?”). Richard, who is three years older and has been involved in the cut and thrust of war and politics since the age of sixteen, is a stronger, tougher character and it seems natural that the immature Harry would look up to him. I’m curious about Richard’s side of the story, if only to see whether the relationship was as one-sided as it appears. Yes, the book does give an unequivocal answer to the perennial mystery of the Princes in the Tower, and no, I’m not going to tell you what it is.

Kate is sweet and likeable, with the emotional resilience characteristic of Susan Higginbotham’s other medieval heroines. Picking up the pieces to rebuild her life after personal and political disaster, she reminded me of Eleanor de Clare in The Traitor’s Wife.

The novel is written in straightforward modern prose, attractively salted with occasional wry humour. A helpful Author’s Note at the back sets out the historical background and the rationale for some of the author’s decisions about the various unsolved historical problems. It also very helpfully summarises what happened to the various main characters after the end of the story, and in some cases gives some information about the role their descendants played in later history.

Unsentimental portrayal of the turbulent events surrounding the short and ill-starred reign of Richard III, and in particular the dramatic role played by Henry Stafford Duke of Buckingham.

19 February, 2010

Birdoswald Roman Fort: post-Roman activity on the site

Location of Birdoswald

Birdoswald is a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall in north-west England. It’s the sixth fort from the western end of the Wall, sitting on the western edge of the Pennines where the hills start to roll off into the plain of North Cumbria and the Solway Firth. The fort site itself is strategically located on a steep-sided promontory formed by a deep meander of the River Irthing, with wide-ranging views in all directions. It occupies the western end of the communication route across the Pennines formed by the valleys of the Rivers Irthing and Tyne, and commands the crossing of the River Irthing at Willowford.

The location was compared to Troy by a romantically-minded eighteenth-century Earl of Carlisle and an estate agent trying to sell the property in 1901. Like most such comparisons a large grain of salt is required – I can’t see many people arriving at Troy, either Homer’s legendary city or Schliemann’s Hissarlik, and saying “Lo, behold the Birdoswald of Asia Minor!” Nevertheless, it’s an impressive, if rather rain- and windswept, site. Scroll around and zoom in and out of the map and satellite image links at the bottom of the page to get an idea.

Place name

The Roman name of the fort was Banna, attested by an altar found at the site in 1821 and dedicated to the woodland god Silvanus by the ‘Venatores Bannienses’, which translates as ‘the hunters of Banna’. Until recently it was thought to have been called Camboglanna*; however this is now thought to have been a mistake in the Notitia Dignitatum (Wilmott 2001 p. 97).

The modern name Birdoswald is first recorded as ‘Burthoswald’ or ‘Bordoswald’ in 1194-1220, when charters granted land there to the Priories at Lanercost and Wetheral (Wilmott 2001 p. 131). The name elements consist of the Old English man’s name Oswald and the Brittonic (Welsh) element ‘burth’ or ‘buarth’, meaning a pen or farmyard (Ordnance Survey glossary of place name elements), so the name means ‘pen or farmyard of Oswald’. The name elements are ordered in the Welsh format, with the personal name second (Old English names are typically ordered with the personal name first, in the format ‘Oswald’s farm’). This suggests to me that the name was coined and established by people who spoke Welsh or its Brittonic ancestor.

The most famous Oswald associated with the approximate locality is the seventh-century king of Northumbria, killed in battle in 642 and revered as a saint (Bede, Book III ch. 9), but as far as I know there’s absolutely nothing to connect him with Birdoswald except the obvious romantic appeal of such a notion. Incidentally, I don’t think the ‘buarth’ element of the name necessarily rules out a royal or aristocratic connection. Assuming that the ‘pen’ meaning of ‘buarth’ meant a livestock pen, a place where animals could be corralled, it could refer to the gathering of livestock for payment of tax or tribute as well as to agricultural use.

Post-Roman occupation at Birdoswald: the timber halls

The buildings visible in the north-west corner of the fort on the satellite image are those of the Georgian and Victorian farm, now a modern visitor centre. Occupation at Birdoswald is attested – though not continuously – from the Roman period to 1984, when the last farming tenants moved out. Much of the information we have comes from a series of excavations led by Tony Wilmott in 1987-1998 (for a fascinating, detailed and very readable account, I highly recommend his book on the subject, see references for details).

For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on the post-Roman phases of construction and occupation at Birdoswald on the site of the former fort granaries, discovered and excavated in 1987.

Sketch plan of the location of the Roman granaries in Birdoswald fort (A) and of the second-phase post-Roman timber hall in relation to the north granary (B)

Photos of the posts marking the site of the timber halls and the granary foundations on Gabriele's blog here.

The Roman fort at Birdoswald had two large stone granaries, built between the central headquarters building (principia) and the west wall, south of the west gate (see sketch plan A). The exercise basilica or indoor drill hall (which must have been a welcome facility in rainy north-west England) and a long rectangular building of uncertain function stood opposite the granaries, north of the west gate (for pictures of the reconstruction of the slightly smaller exercise basilica at Saalburg in Germany, see Gabriele’s post). The granaries were built some time in the second century (date uncertain) and repaired or rebuilt according to an inscription in 205-8. Around the same time, early to mid third century, the south portal of the west gate was walled up (Wilmott 2001 p. 93), leaving the north portal in use.

The stone roof of the north granary collapsed in around 350, dated by a coin of 350-353 found beneath the drifts of fallen roof tile, and the ruins were then used as a rubbish dump (Wilmott 2001 p. 118).

At about the same time, the south granary had a new stone floor laid (dated by the coins found beneath the floor, which cease in 348) (Wilmott 2001 p.119). This floor later became covered with deposits of silt interspersed with patches of stone, and two successive hearths were built at the western end. Around the hearths were found a fourth-century glass finger ring, a gold and glass earring, and a worn coin from the reign of Theodosius (388-395) (Wilmott 2001 p. 121). The hearths indicate residential use, the jewellery suggests the presence of women, and the presence of jewellery and a coin indicates high-status occupation. This is consistent with the south granary being used at this period as something akin to a chieftain’s hall. The jewellery, coins, hearths and stone floor were found beneath a layer of collapsed stone roof tiles, indicating that the roof fell in some time after the date of the coin (Wilmott 2001 p.121).

The north granary had been used as a rubbish dump after its roof collapsed in around 350, and the rubbish deposits included coins dated to the 380s and two penannular (ring) brooches of a type dated to the very end of or just after the Roman period in Britain (Wilmott 2001 p.121). A new flagstone floor was laid on top of these deposits, and shallow post-holes were made in the tops of the surviving walls by removing a few stones from the wall core. At the western end, the post-holes continued beyond the end of the original granary structure, encroaching on the Roman street. This suggests that the north granary was rebuilt as a timber building, re-using the remaining Roman walls as foundations (Wilmott 2001 p. 121). This timber building was the same width as the Roman granary and a little longer, and was therefore a large building, something like 25-30 m long. This is comparable with the size of the fifth/sixth century hall excavated at South Cadbury (though a different shape; the South Cadbury hall was 10 m x 20 m, while the Birdoswald granary was longer and narrower), so it was big enough to be the hall of an important ruler. It must have been built after the 380s on the evidence of the coins beneath the new flagstone floor. If it was the functional replacement of the “chieftain’s hall” in the south granary, then it was presumably built at or after the time of the roof collapse in the south granary.

At some later date, this timber hall constructed mainly on the foundations of the north granary was replaced by a second timber building with a different footprint. This second timber building was also hall-sized, 23 m by 6.8m, and was built partly over the site of the granary and partly over the adjacent street to its north (see sketch plan B). On the street, a line of stone post pads that would have supported timber posts were laid on the street surface, and on the granary shallow trenches were cut into the floor and stone post pads laid on the bottom of the trenches (Wilmott 2001 p.121). The north wall of this second timber building aligned with the centre pillar of the west gate; as the south portal of the gate had been walled up in the Roman period (see above), the hall was now lined up about as closely as it could get to the current entranceway, and would have been the first structure seen by anyone entering through the west gate (Wilmott 2001 p.121). (Constructing a hall directly opposite the gate would probably have been difficult because of the rectangular building and the exercise basilica on the north side of the street. Whether the exercise basilica was still intact or partly ruined by this date its massive walls and pillars would presumably have constrained any subsequent construction for some considerable time).

Both these big timber halls on the site of the north granary were associated with smaller timber buildings built against or close to the western fort wall, south of the west gate.

Other post-Roman evidence from Birdoswald

There is no definite archaeological evidence from Birdoswald between the post-Roman timber halls described above and one medieval pottery sherd from the twelfth/thirteenth century (Wilmott 2001 p. 129, 135). All there is from this intervening period is:

  • a sixth-century Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooch of the type called ‘small-long’, of doubtful provenance but probably found at Birdoswald in the 1830s (Wilmott 2001 p. 123);

  • a long cist grave found beside Hadrian’s Wall to the east of the fort site in 1956, ‘post-Roman’ but otherwise undated (Wilmott 2001 p. 172);

  • an eighth-century Anglo-Saxon disc-headed pin found outside the fort to the east (Wilmott 2001 p. 129).

The Anglo-Saxon brooch and pin could indicate contemporary trade contacts, conquest, loot, travel, occupation, marriage links or many other interpretations besides, or perhaps just a casual loss at some much later date. It’s impossible to read much into two isolated finds; the most that can be said is that they are not inconsistent with early medieval occupation or activity at Birdoswald, perhaps extending beyond the likely date of the post-Roman timber halls.

A long cist grave is essentially a stone box or coffin constructed within the grave, usually from stone slabs. As far as I know they are usually associated with early Christian sites in Britain, and Ken Dark considers them to be an indicator of a late/post-Roman Christian culture that spread in the fifth and sixth centuries to areas that had been outside or on the periphery of Roman Britain, such as Wales, Cornwall and the region north of Hadrian’s Wall (Dark 2002). Long cists are widespread in fifth- and sixth-century cemeteries in south-eastern Scotland (Dark 2002, p. 203), which is not so very far from the Birdoswald area. Furthermore, the centurion’s quarters at the end of one of the barrack buildings in the north-west corner of Birdoswald fort was remodelled some time in the late fourth century and acquired a rounded west end (Wilmott 2001, p. 119). This may be an apse, which in turn may indicate that the building was being used as a Christian church, which in turn may indicate that at least some of the occupants of the fort were Christians. A single long cist grave, undated, could mean almost anything. Again, about the most that can be said is that it would not be out of place for an early medieval Christian living at Birdoswald to be buried in a long cist grave.

How long did the post-Roman occupation of Birdoswald last? More on this in a later post.

* Camboglanna is now thought to refer to the next fort west, at the modern site of Castlesteads. Camboglanna is one of the candidates for King Arthur’s (legendary?) last battle at Camlann, favoured by proponents of a northern location for King Arthur.

Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Dark K. Britain and the end of the Roman empire. Tempus, 2002. ISBN 0-7524-2532-3.
Ordnance Survey glossary of place name elements, available online
Wilmott T. Birdoswald Roman fort: 1800 years on Hadrian’s Wall. Tempus, 2001. ISBN 0-7524-1913-7.

Map links
Birdoswald – Streetmap
Birdoswald – Google Maps satellite image

17 February, 2010

Not just pretty feathers

Pheasants have a reputation as the himbos of the bird world. Handsome, brightly plumaged, not at the front of the queue when the brains were handed out. They make assiduous efforts to live up to this image by leaping out of hedges into the path of cars and bicycles, or exploding from cover under the feet of unsuspecting walkers and flapping panickily away over open fields at just the right height to make a perfect target for a shotgun.

One of the local pheasants has taken to regularly ambling round some of the nearby gardens, presumably having figured out that (a) there's food in gardens and (b) he's not likely to be shot with anything other than a camera. Not surprisingly, he became almost resident during the snow and cold weather this winter.

Normally he wanders about on the lawn, pheasants being heavy birds and generally reluctant to fly (except when they can give an unsuspecting walker a shock, see above). After about a week of watching the other birds feeding on the bird table and eating the seeds they dropped, our resident pheasant worked out that there was food up there.

From his precarious perch, we could see him contemplating the assorted blue-tits and finches feeding on the fat ball hanging below the bird table. After a couple of days, he evidently worked out that it was edible and started peering over the edge trying (unsuccessfully) to reach it. A couple more days, and he started pecking at the string. The day after that, he managed to lift the string off the hook and drop the fat ball to the ground, whereupon he flapped down and started tucking in. I didn't get a picture of him doing this, so you'll have to take my word for it. I wonder if this Einstein of the pheasant world will remember his new skills next winter?

He may not need them for much longer this season, as winter is gradually loosening its grip and giving ground to spring (touch wood). The hazel catkins are out:

and the snowdrops are in bloom, about a fortnight later than last year and all the more welcome:

12 February, 2010

The Firemaster’s Mistress, by Christie Dickason. Book review

Edition reviewed, Harper 2008. ISBN 978-0-06-156826-8. 507 pages. Review copy kindly provided by publisher.

Set in London and Brighthelmstone (modern Brighton) in 1605-1606, against the background of the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605, The Firemaster’s Mistress features Robert Cecil, Francis Bacon and the known members of the plot, particularly Robert Catesby and Guido Fawkes (Guy Fawkes), as secondary characters. All the main characters are fictional.

Francis Quoynt is a military explosives expert – a firemaster – newly unemployed after the end of a war abroad. Francis dreams of harnessing gunpowder not for destruction but for entertainment and delight, in the form of fireworks. He also dreams of repairing the run-down manor house, Powder Mote, where he lives with his retired father, and possibly of a reconciliation with his former lover, Kate Peach, whom he abandoned two years before. Dreams need money, so Francis accepts when the devious Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, hires him to investigate a mysterious explosion in a warehouse near London Bridge and its possible connection to some nefarious plot. But unknown to Francis, Kate Peach has been instructed to find him by her sinister protector, Hugh Traylor, for reasons unknown but unlikely to be benign. And at Powder Mote, Francis’ father Boomer Quoynt encounters a menacing new neighbour, who is clearly up to no good and whom Boomer knows has no qualms about murder. As the threads twine together, gunpowder, treason and plot, all three find themselves drawn ever deeper into a net of treachery and deception that threatens their lives, their fragile trust in each other, and the future of England itself.

Despite the title, the obligatory headless-woman-in-period-frock cover design and the somewhat breathless jacket copy (“In the midst of chaos and madness, the flame of their romance will be dangerously rekindled…..”), The Firemaster’s Mistress is much more of a thriller than a romance. Kate’s romantic relationships are part of the story but not the dominant component, and the three lead characters are about equally important (No, the title doesn’t refer to Kate). For me this was a definite plus; other readers may have different views.

The Gunpowder Plot, a failed attempt to blow up King James I/VI* and the London Parliament (and probably a good few hundred passers by), was discovered on 5 November 1605 and is still remembered, however sketchily, in the annual Bonfire Night celebration.

The best feature of the novel for me was the period detail, covering topics as diverse as bear-baiting and the technical methods for making, mixing and storing gunpowder. The vigorous, dangerous world of Southwark, seventeenth-century London’s red-light district, is vividly recreated in all its unsavoury glory. Teeming with thieves, whores, pimps, tavern-keepers and drunks – not to mention the shady fixers of the underworld where crime and treason merge – Southwark is no place for a respectable girl fallen on hard times. Kate Peach, alone in the world after her family died in the plague, is trying to earn a living at her craft of glove-making, but her survival in Southwark depends on the protection of the villainous Hugh Traylor and the rough friendship of the brothel-keeper Mary Frith (based on a real historical figure who was the prototype for Moll Cutpurse). Mary, a six-foot, cross-dressing, pipe-smoking dealer in stolen goods, as formidable as the bears in the next door Bear Pit and a leader among Southwark’s unofficial aristocracy, is one of the most memorable secondary characters in the novel. Hugh Traylor provides Kate with cheap lodgings and protection from the rougher criminals, but at the cost of using her rooms as a safe house for fugitive Catholics on the run from the authorities. Kate is a Catholic herself and glad to provide shelter for persecuted priests despite the risk, but she gradually comes to realise that Traylor’s motives are far from altruistic.

All three lead characters are engaging and interesting, with a variety of mysterious histories that are gradually revealed as the novel progresses. Francis needs all his wits and his firemaster’s expertise to tread the dangerous line between the plotters and the devious politicians in high office. Boomer also needs all his intelligence to unravel the deadly plot taking shape at a secluded manor near Brighthelmstone, and the professional and personal rivalry between father and son is well drawn. Kate is quietly courageous as she tries to rebuild her life within the very limited opportunities open to her. The climactic action sequence requires all three to work together, with an unexpected consequence for the relationships between them. Among the secondary characters, Robert Catesby, the leader of the Gunpowder Plot, is an extraordinary contradiction, seemingly a thoroughly nice man who is conscientiously preparing to commit mass murder.

As befits a story centred around the most infamous political plot in English history, The Firemaster’s Mistress has an intricate plot with several interlocking strands. Conspiracy theories abound regarding what “really” happened in early November 1605 and what the government of the day covered up or made up, providing fertile ground for historical thrillers. The Author’s Note at the end of The Firemaster’s Mistress says, “This story might be true”, but doesn’t outline the evidence (if any) in support. I have to say that I have considerable doubts as to whether the well-documented reproductive history of Mary Queen of Scots can really accommodate the conspiracy theory underlying The Firemaster’s Mistress, but I found the plot enjoyable enough to go along for the ride.

A helpful sketch map at the front outlines the terrain around the fictional manor of Powder Mote. It would have been interesting to have a similar map of Southwark and London showing the main landmarks at the London end of the story, though it’s possible to follow the events without one. The Author’s Note is not very detailed, but is interesting as far as it goes.

Intricate historical thriller based on an ingenious (if in my opinion rather unlikely) theory about the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

*He was the first King James in England and the sixth King James in Scotland, hence the somewhat clumsy notation

05 February, 2010

Wroxeter: the sixth-century rebuilding

In earlier posts on Cynddylan and a possible Bishop of Chester in the post-Roman period, I mentioned the Roman town of Wroxeter in modern Shropshire (Roman name Viroconium). Archaeological excavation on the site of the baths basilica has shown that large-scale building was undertaken there at some time in the mid- to late sixth century (White and Barker 2002). What form did this take?

The baths basilica

Roman Viroconium (Wroxeter) was the civitas capital of the Cornovii, whose territory covered roughly the area of modern Cheshire and Shropshire. Like any self-respecting, prosperous and important Roman town, Wroxeter had a large public baths complex, approximately analogous to something like a modern leisure centre. In Wroxeter the baths complex was in the middle of the town, and attached to it was a large exercise hall, the baths basilica. The baths basilica was 74 m long by about 20 m wide, with its long axis oriented roughly east-west. The west side (one of the short sides) opened onto the main road, Watling Street, and a side-street ran along the full north side of the basilica. To the south of the basilica was the baths complex itself and a market hall. The complex was built around 150 AD.

Fast-forward to the late fourth century. The entire baths basilica was refloored some time after 375, dated by a coin of Gratian (367-375) found under the new floor (White and Barker 2002, p. 115). This new floor had been repaired and renewed twice more, indicating substantial usage and maintenance over an unknown, but considerable, period of time. The baths complex may have been the focus of the town during this period, replacing the city forum which had been destroyed by fire at around the early fourth century and not rebuilt (White and Barker 2002, p. 112-116).

The baths basilica continued in use until around the end of the fifth century, getting steadily more dilapidated, as deduced from the successive refloorings (White and Barker 2002, p. 119). Then the building was apparently used as a builders’ yard (perhaps by a maintenance team keeping the adjacent baths building in repair), and a large bread oven was built outside the west door. A magnetic date derived from the remains of the bread oven gave a date range for its last firing of 490-550 (White and Barker 2002, p. 121).

At some point after this, the roof of the baths basilica was taken down and its internal columns removed. A new floor surface made of re-used roofing slates was laid in the interior of the building, which was now presumably something like a walled open-air courtyard, and the bread oven outside the west entrance went out of use (White and Barker 2002, p. 120-121). The new slate floor showed considerable wear. The interpretation is that the shell of the baths basilica was in use by large numbers of people, perhaps as an open-air market (White and Barker 2002, p.121).

The great rebuilding

The next activity on the baths basilica site was to demolish most of the remaining north wall of the baths basilica to ground level. Part of the adjacent Roman street that had run along the north wall was dug out and relaid as a new gravel street.

A series of building platforms was constructed in what had been the interior of the baths basilica, made from carefully sorted and laid demolition rubble. The largest (Building 10) occupied the middle of the north side of the basilica, exactly opposite the doorway in the middle of the south wall. Parts of this building platform were composed of painted plaster from a curved ceiling, probably from one of the vaulted heated rooms in the adjacent baths complex, indicating that the baths had gone out of use and been at least partially demolished. The plaster was broken into pieces of similar size, which is consistent with the room it came from having been demolished at or shortly before the time of the rebuilding (rather than the plaster having been scavenged from a long-derelict site). The rubble platform was 33.5 m by 15.6 m, with two short square projections on the corners on the south side. Between these projections, exactly opposite the doorway in the middle of the south wall of the baths basilica, a column drum and column capital had been placed 3.2 m apart. These stones probably supported a columned porch with a veranda behind, since a narrow rectangular area immediately behind the stones had an untrampled surface, consistent with it having been planked over. The solidity of the building platform suggested that it had supported a very substantial structure, interpreted as a two-storey timber building with towers flanking a columned entrance porch (White and Barker 2002 p. 123-125).

It’s worth noting that this impressive building has its back to the newly-laid gravel street north of the old baths basilica, and that its monumental columned-and-towered entrance way looks out onto what had been the interior face of the south wall of the old basilica. The positioning of the column bases exactly opposite the position of the doorway in the middle of the south wall suggests that the south wall still stood to some height at the time of construction. It is also worth noting that the cold room (frigidarium) of the baths complex stood immediately behind the basilica south wall to the east of the doorway. Given that some of the frigidarium walls are still standing to this day (known as the ‘Old Work’), they must still have been standing at the time of the rebuilding, and the frigidarium may well still have been intact and roofed.

Another, somewhat smaller building platform (Building 11) was laid between the big building and the west wall of the baths basilica, and another was laid at the east end of the former baths basilica interior, more or less opposite the frigidarium. Six more building platforms were laid out along what had been the interior face of the baths basilica south wall, between the west wall and the doorway in the middle of the south wall (so these face across the remains of the interior towards the columned entrance fa├žade of the big building and the building to its west). Four of these platforms were 28 Roman feet long, and the two others were 29 and 27 Roman feet long. This is consistent with them having been laid out by someone using a Roman system of measurements (White and Barker 2002 p. 124-125).

On the north side of the new gravel street, north of what had been the baths basilica, there were six or seven buildings of 20 or 24 Roman feet in length. These were later replaced by a set of five buildings, also built to Roman measurements (White and Barker 2002 p. 127).

Along the south side of the new gravel street there were several small lightweight structures, too small to be houses and interpreted as market stalls or similar (White and Barker 2002 p. 127). If the shell of the baths basilica had indeed been used as an open-air market before the rebuilding, these structures may have been continuing its function

Outside what had been the west wall of the baths basilica there were two building platforms, one blocking the former west doorway and one on the corner of the new gravel street. Three successive pairs of these buildings were erected on more or less the same sites (White and Barker 2002 p. 127-128). In all, 33 separate buildings constructed during this phase were identified in and around the baths basilica site (White and Barker 2002 p. 128).

Dating the ‘great rebuilding’

The exact dates and duration of this ‘great rebuilding’ phase are not known, but it is book-ended by two pieces of dating evidence:

  • it happened after the bread oven at the west entrance went out of use (last firing dated to 490-550)

  • it happened before a grave was cut through the platform of Building 11, radiocarbon dated to 600-790 (White and Barker 2002, p. 136)

Taking the mid-points of these two book-end dates, the ‘great rebuilding’ falls into the period between around 520 and around 700 AD, in other words some time in the later sixth and seventh centuries. Since there was time to replace the buildings along the north side of the new gravel street at least once, and to replace the buildings outside the former west entrance at least twice, the phase clearly lasted quite a long time. White and Barker suggest about 75 years (p. 136). It may have been longer, since timber buildings can have lives considerably longer than 25 years; it’s hard to see that it can have been much less, though of course parts of the site may have gone out of use earlier or later than others.

Who was responsible?

Alas, no helpful inscriptions along the lines of “Built by X, who held the position of Y, in the year Z” came to light in the excavations, so the identity of the individual or authority who was responsible for this massive redevelopment project in sixth/seventh century Wroxeter is unknown. Some inferences can be drawn:

  • whoever was responsible had sufficient authority to take over and redevelop the whole area of the baths basilica, and presumably also had the authority to terminate whatever activity had previously been going on in the shell of the buildings (i.e. the postulated open-air market);

  • if the demolition of the heated rooms in the baths complex happened at the same time, this authority extended to the baths complex as well;

  • whoever was responsible controlled substantial resources, since digging up and relaying the street and constructing the building platforms and the buildings they supported (especially Building 10) would have required considerable amounts of labour. If the buildings were massive timber-framed constructions, as seems likely from the platforms, access to large quantities of building timber would also be required;

  • whoever was responsible had some organisational ability, since managing a construction project of this size is not a trivial task, and the arrangement of the buildings is consistent with the site having been planned in advance;

  • whoever did the site surveying and layout used Roman measurements (though not Roman building techniques);

  • whoever ordered the construction of Building 10 wanted an imposing and important-looking building, and so was presumably important (or at least wished to convey the impression of being important);

  • whoever ordered the construction of Building 10 was focussed not on the new gravel street at the back of the building and any commercial activity taking place on it, but on the former interior of the baths basilica, since this is the orientation of the impressive columned entrance;

  • the deliberate placing of a building to block the west entrance to the former basilica is consistent with the former interior being used as a restricted or private space, presumably for the use of the occupant of Building 10 and its immediate neighbours, like a sort of private close or courtyard.

All these are consistent with the rebuilding having been ordered and controlled by the ruler of the local area. The most obvious candidate for a local ruler is a king, and it is possible that Wroxeter was the seat of a king or sub-king of Powys or a territory based on the territory of the Cornovii. Cynddylan, who according to Welsh poetry was a powerful ruler in the first half of the seventh century, would be contemporary with the later part of the date range for the ‘great rebuilding’, and he or his predecessor(s) must be a candidate for the ruler of Wroxeter. If Cynddylan died in 655 at the Battle of Winwaed (see earlier post on Cynddylan for the rationale), his death could also coincide with the approximate end-date of the baths basilica site. It should be noted that there is no evidence at all of destruction at any of the buildings on the site, so if “The court of Pengwern is a raging fire” as the Canu Heledd poetry has it, either the court wasn’t at the baths basilica site in Wroxeter, or the evidence for its destruction hasn’t survived, or a certain amount of poetic licence was being applied.

A local secular ruler need not have been a king, although the distinction may be largely one of semantics. Gildas says:
“Britain has kings, but they are tyrants; she has judges, but unrighteous ones”
--Gildas, De Excidio (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) III, 27, available online

Ken Dark argues that some sort of bureaucratic government by officials, rather than royal government by kings, existed in parts of west-central Britain, including the Wroxeter area, in the fifth and sixth centuries (Dark 2000, p.147-149). The ‘judges’ mentioned by Gildas could be rulers of this type, perhaps derived from the remnants of Roman civitas councils. Such a ruler may have been responsible for rebuilding Wroxeter’s baths basilica site (though how much he differed from a king, except in title, is open to question).

Another possible candidate for a local ruler may be a bishop. Cities run by bishops existed in fifth-century Gaul, where Sidonius Apollinaris, bishop of what is now Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne, governed his city and negotiated with the local king (of the Goths) in 470-480. The writing styli found on the site (Dark 2000, p.142), may be a pointer in favour of ecclesiastical occupation, although I personally wouldn’t assume automatically that secular aristocratic society was not literate.

White and Barker suggest that the frigidarium of the baths complex, which was diagonally opposite the grand front entrance of the new Building 10, may have been in use as a church (p. 125-126). It was in more or less the correct east-west orientation and would have had a plunge pool for use in baptisms. Built in stone in the Roman fashion, and perhaps still retaining painted wall plaster and decorations, it would have been an obviously ‘Roman’-looking building and perhaps therefore suitable for use by a religion that had been strongly associated with Rome and Roman government in Britain. A dozen burials found in the surrounding hypocaust in the nineteenth century would be consistent with a graveyard around a church*.

The use of Roman measurements for the building layout also suggests an engineer or surveyor familiar with Roman techniques. While such skills could have been handed down locally in a secular context, they could also indicate access to Roman knowledge handed down in written form through the church, or clerical contact with craftsmen from continental Europe.

These possibilities may not be mutually exclusive. There seems no obvious reason why a bishop might not also have been one of Gildas’ ‘judges’, especially if such non-royal government was indeed a distant descendant of the Roman civitas council.

A bishop could also have had close links with a royal dynasty. Several early medieval churchmen had aristocratic or royal connections. For example, Sidonius Apollinaris and Gregory of Tours (late sixth century) in Gaul were both members of the aristocracy, and Sidonius was married to a relative of the emperor. Saint Columba (late sixth century) was descended from Irish royalty. Gildas says that his contemporary King Maglocunus (usually identified with Maelgwn of Gwynedd, died mid-sixth century) became a monk for a while before becoming king (De Excidio III, 34-37). A hypothetical Bishop of Wroxeter could have been equally well connected, and if so may have been the brother or nephew or cousin of a local king.

Dark K. Britain and the end of the Roman Empire. Tempus, 2000, ISBN 0-7524-2532-3.
Gildas, De Excidio (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), available online
White R, Barker P. Wroxeter: Life and death of a Roman city. Tempus, 2002, ISBN 978-0-7524-1409-7.

Map links
Wroxeter at 1:25,000 scale, showing the location of the modern village in relation to the Roman town wall and the surviving remains of the Roman baths complex

*These burials were luridly interpreted by the Victorian excavator as the wretched remnants of the city’s population who had taken refuge from barbarian attack by hiding in the hypocaust and perished there miserably.