‘Roman Britain’ a brief history of Roman Britain from Julius Caesar including life under Roman rule.
Dr Nick Humphris
During the meeting Nick handed round part of a 3rdor 4thcentury mosaic – origin unknown- this gave us some idea of the workmanship involved in producing the wonderful mosaics we see in surviving Roman villas.
Before the Roman occupation of Britain this country was already a trading nation mainly in axes, pottery, gold and copper. Iron-Age tribes lived in round houses built within forts protected by deep ditches. The south-east tribes were even minting coins. Julius Caesar invaded Britain in August 55 BC and again in 54 BC after conquering Gaul. It is believed he landed between Walmer and Deal but the condition of the coast meant his ships could not get close into shore so his army had to wade ashore.
Strabo the Roman 1stcentury historian was scornful of the invasion writing that Rome already traded with Britain in grain, cattle, gold, silver, iron, hunting dogs and slaves. In 43 AD Claudius invaded and established a permanent presence of 40,000 men, he landed at either Fishbourne or Richborough. His army were required to march 20 miles a day carrying 30 kilograms of weight.
The Foss Way is an early Roman road and stretches 260 miles from Exeter to Lincoln. the roads were built with ditches on either side to drain away the standing water. The roads were mainly for communications and for the ease of troops. Cirencester is the second largest Roman city. The central part of Britain has the most Roman villas showing how prosperous this region was. Nearby Chedworth covers two acres facing east. Mosaic pavements found on the site show satyrs and gods – originally they would have been very bright but centuries underground has dulled the colour. In many cases the Romans built on Iron-Age forts. Late 4thcentury coins have been found in the villa. And at Chedworth there are three hypocaust systems.
After 117 AD the Roman Empire started to decline, Hadrian’s Wall was built circa 120 AD. The Antoine Wall built by Emperor Antonius Pius (138 – 161 AD) lasted a few years. By 170 AD Britain had been divided into two provinces, one capital at York and the other at London. In 50 years there were 26 Emperors in 50 years; and in one year there was 6 Emperors. By 371 AD the Gallic Empire had divided into three provinces. The Emperor Diocletian (284 – 305 AD) unified the Empire with East and West Empires, Diocletian was the only Emperor to retire. Constantine the Great (306 – 337 AD) in 324 AD became the sole Emperor. By 410 AD Britain had been divided into 5 military regions and by 409 AD Roman rule collapsed. Cirencester had been abandoned by 380 AD.
It was the Roman aristocracy that built the villas, the native British people were excluded by the Romans. Dr Humphris is a volunteer site guide at Chedworth and an outreach speaker and gave us a fascinating tourde force of Roman Britain the remains of which are all around us today.
Forty-two members enjoyed the annual KDHS dinner organized by Olive Williams at The Holt Hotel. Olive works hard for the dinner and as always it ran smoothly – even if the coach driver didn’t know the way! Thank you Olive. David Phipps was the usual brilliant Master of Ceremonies and Julie Ann Godson gave a fascinating talk on Oxford’s highwaymen. Our Secretary admitted after the talk that she is descended from one of them!
Pagans and Puritans: the story of May Morning in Oxfordshire
Tim started by saying that we all know of the singing of the Latin hymn from the top of Magdalen Tower and of the students who jumped from the bridge from the 1940s to 2011 when this dangerous pursuit was stopped by the police. This year an estimated 13,000 people watched the ceremony but the largest number was 27,000 in 2017 when it was a Bank Holiday. The Whirly Band only performs on May morning on the Clarendon steps in Broad Street. Morris Dancing can be traced back to the Dark Ages and the early Middle ages. The diarist Anthony Wood in 1695 gives the first record of the Magdalen ceremony but makes no mention of a Christian hymn. The ceremony evolved around Florathe Roman goddess of flora which is the celebration of the common people, but singing only took a minor part at this time.
May Morning was the bringing in of the May – today we associate it with Hawthorne but it could also be Green Broom or birch. An illuminated manuscript of c. 1500 illustrates the Bringing in of the May. In 1250 Oxford University banned the May time revels and dancing in the churches. Morris dancing was first recorded in Britain in 1448 – it was a Moorish entertainment which came back to this country from the Crusades and soon spread to the countryside. Shakespeare refers to them in his plays. In 1620 the Morris dancers at Richmond would be more recognizable to us today – and included a man dressed as a woman.
The first reference to Maypoles, sacred trees, comes in 1350. Matthew Arnold in his poem The Scholar Gipsymentions an elm as a maypole. The artist Peter Breughel the Younger painted a maypole with no ribbons but a garland at the top. The churchwardens of Thame purchased 30 yards of green fabric for the Morris Men. Commonly the gentry paid for the Morris Men to dance in their stately homes, and while on a visit to Oxford James I was entertained by the Morris Men at Christ Church. The Puritans were against these festivities and Anthony Wood reported that they tore down any maypoles and garlands they found. But by 1660 and the restoration of the monarchy the maypoles were back. In that year twelve maypoles were erected in the city.
In the eighteenth-century boys would blow horns, called Whithorns and the Pitt Rivers Museum has many examples of these. With the Industrial Revolution there was greater tolerance of the May Day festivities, and by now the Latin hymn was being sung. In the nineteenth century the May Queen was introduced. Tennyson in his poem The May Queen helped shape our idea of May Day, and this poem was later turned into a song which was widely popular. John Ruskin introduced the outgoing May Queen as an attendant to the new May Queen. Percy Manning collected material on the Morris Dancers, and Henry Taunt took many photographs of May morning in Oxford during the Victorian period including the display of the brewery drays on Magdalen Bridge. There was even an Oxford City Police Morris Side from 1923 – 1936, the police having decided this was the best way to control the crowds!
Tim mentioned the “Kidlington” custom of May in which the young girls of the village raced against each other and attempted to catch a lamb in her mouth and thus became the Lady of the May. There has always been confusion over this and many historians , including our John Amor, have said that it is not Kidlington but Kirtlington where this event took place. Mrs Stapleton in her Three Oxfordshire Parishes accepts the custom was in Kidlington. The jury is out!
Tim’s web site is: www.maymorning.co.uk
25 June 2019
“The Pursuit of Pleasure: Victorian and Edwardian Leisure”
This was also the night of our AGM – ably dealt with by Henry Brougham our Chairman who was re-elected, along with Clare Lobb as Vice-Chairman and the other Committee were elected en bloc
Simon then gave us a fascinating talk on Victorian and Edwardian leisure – having first passed out a questionnaire which he said he didn’t intend us to answer – it was just an aid for afterwards. During the Victorian era modern forms of leisure came in vogue with the growth of the railways which aided easy access to the sea. The Factory Acts cut the long hours in the factories, also half day working on Saturday was introduced. Have you ever wondered why football matches start at 3pm – that was so the work force had time to get to the match. Monday became known as Saint Monday because workers found a reason to not go into work that day so they could recover from the weekend!
The middle classes dominated leisure. There was at this time a 45% increase in wages. Cycling became popular with the middle classes, particularly women, as a bicycle would cost between £5-£10. Fishing was popular with all classes. Cricket divided the gentlemen into the batsmen and the lesser classes were the bowlers. The first Australian cricket team which toured England in 1868 was composed of Aborigines. Guide books began to dominate their idea of an ideal holiday which was a seaside holiday, or travel abroad which became fashionable.
Food prices dropped and there was an increase in tea and sugar consumption. Cadbury’s run by a Quaker family looked after the welfare of their staff to the extent of having three cricket teams and eight football teams. Thomas Cook was the founder of modern tourism – a printer – he first arranged long trips by train to Scotland. And he organized the transport of 165,000 people to the Great Exhibition in 1851. This attracted 100,000 exhibitors and six million people attended out of a population of twenty-seven million. His son, John, transported troops for the government.
By the 1830’s musical saloons were common in public houses; and at this time in Oxford alone there were 319 licenced premises in the city. Gambling was linked to the public houses, although it was soon found that drink did not make you better at sport. Local man Abel Beesley was a champion at punt racing. In late Victorian Oxford canoes became popular. And the victory of the American yacht in 1851 round the Isle of Wight was the fore runner of the America’s Cup. And the Ben Nevis race from 1895 became an annual test of endurance. In the 1890’s there were 300 musical halls in England. Theatres became popular and were regulated by the 1843 Theatre Regulation Act.
The Methodists while at first hostile to forms of leisure realized in the 1870’s that some leisure could develop health among the poorer classes, and cities began to provide parks for children to play in and adults to walk around.
Even window shopping became a form of leisure. And John Ruskin opened a tea shop in Paddington. From the 1850’s to 1900 travelling fairs were popular.
In the absence of the missing microphone it was a joy to be able to hear the speaker and also to have such an excellent talk to listen to.