Early Britain—Roman Britain eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 242 pages of information about Early Britain—Roman Britain.

A. 2.—­All are familiar with the Roman roads of Britain as they figure on our maps.  Like our present lines of railway, the main routes radiate in all directions from London, and for a like reason; London having been, in Roman days as now, the great commercial centre of the country.  The reason for this, that it was the lowest place where the Thames could be bridged, we have already referred to.[189] We see the Watling Street roughly corresponding to the North-Western Railway on one side of the metropolis, and to the South-Eastern on the other; the Ermine Street corresponding to the Great Northern Railway; while the Great Western, the South-Western, the Great Eastern, and the Portsmouth branch of the South Coast system are all represented in like manner.  We notice, perhaps, that, except the Watling Street and the Ermine Street, all these routes are nameless; though we find four minor roads with names crossing England from north-east to south-west, and one from north-west to south-east.  The former are the Fosse Way (from Grimsby on the Humber to Seaton on the Axe), the Ryknield Street (from Newcastle-on-Tyne to Caerleon-upon-Usk), the Akeman Street (from Wells on the Wash to Aust on the Severn), and the Icknield Way (from Norfolk to Dorset).  The latter is the Via Devana (from Chester to Colchester).

A. 3.—­It comes as a surprise to most when we learn that all these names (except the Watling Street, the Fosse, and the Icknield Way only) are merely affixed to their respective roads by the conjectures of 17th-century antiquarianism, Gale being their special identifier.  The names themselves (except in the case of the Via Devana) are old, and three of them, the Ermine Street, the Icknield Street, and the Fosse Way, figure in the inquisition of 1070 as being, together with the Watling Street, those of the Four Royal Roads (quatuor chimini) of England, the King’s Highways, exempt from local jurisdiction and under the special guard of the King’s Peace.  Two are said to cross the length of the land, two its breadth.  But their identification (except in the case of the main course of Watling Street) has been matter of antiquarian dispute from the 12th century downwards.[190] The very first chronicler who mentions them, Geoffrey of Monmouth, makes Ermine Street run from St. David’s to Southampton, Icknield Street from St. David’s to Newcastle, and the Fosse Way from Totnes in Devon to far Caithness; and his error has misled many succeeding authorities.  That it is an error, at least with regard to the Icknield Way and the Fosse Way, is sufficiently proved by the various mediaeval charters which mention these roads in connection with localities along their course as assigned by our received geography.

As to the main Watling Street there is no dispute.  Running right across the island from the Irish Sea[191] to the Straits of Dover, it suggested to the minds of our English ancestors the shining track of the Milky Way from end to end of the heavens.  Even so Chaucer, in his ‘House of Fame,’ sings: 

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Early Britain—Roman Britain from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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