While in Northumberland, we’ll spend some time along the erstwhile borderland between Roman Britain and those people that the Romans considered barbaric, uncivilized, and uncouth in the extreme — the Scots. Or, more accurately, the Caledonians, as the Romans termed the people described as “red of hair and long of limb” by the historian Tacitus.
Rome endured uprisings from the conquered British tribes and raids and invasions from the northern Caledonians for most of the first century. Their territory in Britain reached its greatest bounds in 84 CE, when the general Agricola won a massive victory over the Caledonians in northern Scotland. A generation later, however, the Romans had to pull back to Northumberland — likely because Emperor Trajan was pulling legions from Britain to serve in his Dacian Wars. By the time Emperor Hadrian arrived in 120 CE, he determined that the Romans should build a defensive wall 80 miles long, demarcating the border between Rome and the wilds beyond. (Re-enactments of battles between the Romans and the Caledonians take place regularly along the wall today, as you can see below.)
The exact purpose of the wall is questionable, however. In many places, it is not high enough to serve as a reliable defense, and though the Romans had small forts every five miles along the wall, the expense of patrolling all 80 miles would have been prohibitive. Some scholars have theorized that the wall’s purpose was more symbolic in nature, as Hadrian expressed an interest in defining Rome’s boundaries rather than continuing expansion — and indeed, the Empire began shrinking in size after his reign. Hadrian’s Wall may also have been a way of controlling trade for the purposes of taxation more than repelling invaders.
The first major breach of the wall occurred in 180 CE, when the Picts crossed the border, murdered the Roman governor, and initiated the most serious war of the reign of Emperor Commodus. (Commodus is best known for the villainous role he plays in Gladiator, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, but the film Centurion better depicts the war in Britain). By 410 CE, Roman rule in Britain was at an end.
Over the centuries, portions of the wall were lost to building projects and road construction — including a road built to put down another Scottish rebellion, the Jacobite insurrection of 1745. What remains of the wall owes its survival to a lawyer from Newcastle, who bought large sections of land in the 1830s and began restoration projects. In 1987, Hadrian’s Wall was declared a World Heritage Site.
When we visit Hadrian’s Wall, think of what Shakespeare has to say about the conflicts between the English and the Scots — a contentious relationship, even after the union of the countries under King James. In Henry IV, Part 1, Prince Hal imagines the life of Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, living on the border:
HAL: I am not yet of Percy’s mind, the Hotspur of the north; he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife ‘Fie upon this quiet life! I want work.’ ‘O my sweet Harry,’ says she, ‘how many hast thou killed to-day?’ ‘Give my roan horse a drench,’ says he; and answers ‘Some fourteen,’ an hour after; ‘a trifle, a trifle.’
We’ll also visit Dunstanburgh Castle, an important outpost on the sea. In the 13th and 14th centuries, this castle served as a garrison both for Englishmen fighting the Scots and for Englishmen fighting each other. Possession of the castle switched sides several times during the Wars of the Roses, and by the late 15th and early 16th century, Dunstanburg was falling into disrepair. It was used as a haven for pirates for some time, and though many different owners made efforts at repair, the castle was never fully restored. By the 1800s, poets and artists found it an inspirational destination, representing natural beauty, romantic decay, and the wilds of Scotland.
In the 20th century, Dunstanburgh became unexpectedly important again, as the bays to its north were deemed vulnerable to amphibious assault during World War II. Sir Edmund Ironside oversaw the construction of defenses, including lines of barbed wire, slit trenches, and concrete pillboxes — which still stand north of the castle today.
Today, Dunstanburgh is owned by the National Trust and maintained by English Heritage. It has become a focus for archaeologists, who have discovered evidence of habitation on the site dating back to the Iron Age. It has also become an important site for conservationists, who advocate allowing the area to remain waterlogged to provide a habitat for numerous bird, amphibian, and insect species.
Next time on the NKSC Preview: the gentle beauty of the Cotswolds!
There’s still time for a few more intrepid travelers to join us on our trip, so if you or any of your friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, or coworkers are interested, learn more on our website — or ask me for more information!
Academic Resources Manager