THE WAYFARER'S LIBRARY
THE HISTORIC THAMES
O.M. DENT & SONS Ltd.
THE HISTORIC THAMES
England has been built up upon the framework of her rivers, and, in that pattern, the principal line has been the line of the Thames.
Partly because it was the main highway of Southern England, partly because it looked eastward towards the Continent from which the national life has been drawn, partly because it was better served by the tide than any other channel, but mainly because it was the chief among a great number of closely connected river basins, the Thames Valley has in the past supported the government and the wealth of England.
Among the most favoured of our rivals some one river system has developed a province or a series of provinces; the Rhine has done so, the Seine and the Garonne. But the great Continental river systems—at least the navigable ones—stand far apart from one another: in this small, and especially narrow, country of Britain navigable river systems are not only numerous, but packed close together. It is perhaps on this account that we have been under less necessity in the past to develop our canals; and anyone who has explored the English rivers in a light boat knows how short are the portages between one basin and another.
Now not only are we favoured with a multitude of navigable waterways—the tide makes even our small coastal rivers navigable right inland—but also we are quite exceptionally favoured in them when we consider that the country is an island.
If an island, especially an island in a tidal sea, has a good river system, that system is bound to be of more benefit to it than would be a similar system to a Continental country. For it must mean that the tide will penetrate everywhere into the heart of the plains, carrying the burden of their wealth backward and forward, mixing their peoples, and filling the whole national life with its energy; and this will be especially the case in an island which is narrow in proportion to its length and in which the rivers are distributed transversely to its axis.
When we consider the river systems of the other great islands of Europe we find that none besides our own enjoys this advantage. Sicily and Crete, apart from the fact that they do not stand in tidal water, have no navigable rivers. Iceland, standing in a tidal sea, too far north indeed for successful commerce, but not too far north for the growth of a civilisation, is at a similar disadvantage. Great Britain and Ireland alone—Great Britain south of the Scottish Mountains, that is—enjoy this peculiar advantage; and there are few things more instructive when one is engaged upon the history of England than to take a map and mark upon it the head of each navigable piece of water and the head of its tideway, for when this has been done all England, with the exception of the Welsh Hills and the Pennines, seems to be penetrated by the influence of the sea.
The conditions which give a river this great historic importance, the fundamental character, therefore, which has lent to the Thames its meaning in English history, is twofold: a river affords a permanent means of travel, and a river also forms an obstacle and a boundary. Men are known to have agglomerated in the beginning of society in two ways: as nomadic hordes and as fixed inhabitants of settlements.
There has arisen a profitless discussion as to which of these two phases came first. No evidence can possibly exist upon either side, but one may take it that with the first traditions and records, as at the present time, the two systems existed side by side, and that either was determined by geographical conditions. A river is an advantage to both groups, but to the second it is of more consequence than to the first; and in South England, if we go back to the origins of our history, it is in fixed settlements that we find the first evidence of man. With every year of research the extreme antiquity of our inhabited sites becomes more apparent. And indeed the geographical nature of Southern England should make us certain of the antiquity of village life in it, even were there no archaeological evidence to support that antiquity.
South England is everywhere fertile, everywhere well watered, and nowhere divided, as is the North, by long districts of bare country, or of hills snowbound in winter, or of morass. Its forests, though numerous, have never formed one continuous belt; even the largest of them, the Forest of the Weald, between the downs of Surrey and Kent and those of Sussex, was but twenty miles across—large enough to nourish a string of hunting villages upon the north and the south edges of it; but not large enough to isolate the Thames Valley from the southern coast.
From the beginning of human activity in this island the whole length of the river has been set with human settlements never far removed one from the other; for the Thames ran through the heart of South England, and wherever its banks were secure from recurrent floods it furnished those who settled on them with three main things which every early village requires: good water, defence, and communication.
The importance of the first lessens as men learn to dig wells and to canalise springs; the two last, defence and communication, remain attached to river settlements to a much later date, and are apparent in all the history of the Thames.
The problem of communication under early conditions is serious. Even in a high civilisation the maintenance of roads is of greater moment, and imposes a greater burden, than most of the citizens who support it know; but before the means or the knowledge exist to survey and to harden roads, with their causeways over marshes and their bridges over rivers, the supply of food in time of scarcity or of succour in time of danger is never secure: a little narrow path kept up by nothing but the continual passage of men and animals is all the channel a community of men have for communicating with their neighbours by land. And it must be remembered that upon such communication depend not only the present existence, but the future development of the society, which cannot proceed except by that fertilisation, as it were, which comes from the mixture of varied experiences and of varied traditions: every great change in history has necessarily been accompanied by some new activity of travel.
Under the primitive conditions of which we speak a river of moderate depth, not too rapid in its current and perennial in its supply, is much the best means by which men may communicate. It will easily carry, by the exertions of a couple of men, some hundred times the weight the same men could have carried as porters by land. It furnishes, if it is broad, a certain security from attack during the journey; it will permit the rapid passage of a large number abreast where the wood tracks and paths of the land compel a long procession; and it furnishes the first of the necessities of life continually as the journey proceeds.
Upon all these accounts a river, during the natural centuries which precede and follow the epochs of high civilisation, is as much more important than the road or the path as, let us say, a railway to-day is more important than a turnpike.
What is equally interesting, when a high civilisation after its little effort begins to decline into one of those long periods of repose into which all such periods of energy do at last decline, the river reassumes its importance. There is a very interesting example of this in the history of France. Before Roman civilisation reached the north of Gaul the Seine and its tributary streams were evidently the chief economic factor in the life of the people: this may be seen in the sites of their strongholds and in the relation of the tribes to one another, as for instance, the dependence of the Parisians upon Sens. The five centuries of active Roman civilisation saw the river replaced by the system of Roman roads; the great artificial track from north to south, for instance, takes on a peculiar importance; but when the end of that period has come, and the energies of the Roman state are beginning to drag, when the money cannot be collected to repair the great highways, and these fall into decay—then the Seine and its tributaries reassume their old importance. Paris, the junction of the various waterways, becomes the capital of a new state, and the influence of its kings leads out upon every side along the river valleys which fall into the main valley of the Seine.
There are but two considerable modifications to the use for habitation of slow and constant rivers: their value is lessened or interrupted by precipitous banks or they are rendered unapproachable by marshes. The first of these causes, for instance, has singularly cut off one from the other the groups of population residing upon the upper and the lower Meuse, as it has also, to quote another example, cut off even in language the upper from the lower Elbe.
From this first species of interruption the Thames is, of course, singularly free. There is no river in England, with the exception of the Trent, whose banks interfere so little with the settlement of men in any place on account of their steepness.
As to the second, the Thames presents a somewhat rare character.
The upper part of the river, which is in lowland valleys the most easily inhabited, and the part in which, once the river is navigable, will be found the largest number of small settlements, is in the case of the Thames the most marshy. From its source to beyond Cricklade the river runs entirely over clay; thenceforward the valley is a flat mass of alluvium, in which the stream swings from one side to the other, and even where it touches higher soil, touches nothing better than the continuation of this clay. In spite, therefore, of the shallowness and narrowness of the upper river there always existed this impediment which an insecure soil would present to the formation of any considerable settlements. The loneliness of the stretch below Kelmscott is due to an original difficulty of this kind, and the one considerable settlement upon the upper river at Lechlade stands upon the only place where firm ground approaches the bank of the river.
This formation endures well below Oxford until one reaches the gap at Sandford, where the stream passes between two beds of gravel which very nearly approach either bank.
Above this point the Thames is everywhere, upon one side or the other, guarded by flat river meadows, which must in early times have been morass; and nowhere were these more difficult of passage than in the last network of streams between Witham Hill and Sandford, to the west of the gravel bank upon which Oxford is built.
Below Sandford, and on all the way to London Bridge, the character of the river in this respect changes. You have everywhere gravel or flinty chalk, with but a narrow bed of alluvial soil, upon either bank to represent the original overflow of the river.
At the crossing places (as we shall see later), notably at Long Wittenham, at Wallingford, at Streatley, at Pangbourne, and, still lower, at Maidenhead and at Ealing, this hard soil came right down to the bank upon either side.
On all this lower half of the Thames marsh was rare, and was to be found even in early times only in isolated patches, which are still clearly defined. These are never found facing each other upon opposite banks of the stream. Thus there was a bad bit on the left bank above Abingdon, but the large marsh below Abingdon, where the Ock came in, was on the right bank, with firm soil opposite it. There was a large bay, as it were, of drowned land on the right bank, from below Reading to a point opposite Shiplake, the last wide morass before the marshes of the tidal portion of the river; and another at the mouth of the Coln, above Staines, on the left bank, which was the last before one came to the mud of the tidal estuary; and even the tidal marshes were fairly firm above London. From Staines eastward down as far as Chelsea the superficial soil upon either side is of gravels, and the long list of ancient inhabited sites upon either bank show how little the overflow of the river interfered with its usefulness to men.
The river, then, from Sandford downward has afforded upon either bank innumerable sites upon which a settlement could be formed. Above Sandford these sites are not to be found indifferently upon either bank, but now on one, now on the other. There is no case on the upper river of two villages facing each other on either side of the stream. But though the soil of this upper part was in general less suited to the establishment of settlements, a certain number of firmer stretches could be found, and advantage was taken of them to build.
There thus arose along the whole course of the Thames from its source to London a series of villages and towns, increasing in importance as the stream deepened and gave greater facilities to traffic, and bound together by the common life of the river. It was their highway, and it is as a highway that it must first be regarded.
Of the way in which the Thames was a necessary great road in early times, perhaps the best proof is the manner in which various parishes manage to get their water front at the expense of a somewhat unnatural shape to their boundaries. Thus Fawley in Buckinghamshire has a curious and interesting arrangement of this sort thrusting down from the hills a tongue of land which ends in a sort of wharfage on the river just opposite Remenham church. In Berkshire there are also several examples of this. On the upper river Dractmoor and Kingston Bagpuise are both very narrow and long, a shape forced upon them by the necessity of having this outlet upon the river in days when the life of a parish was a real one and the village was a true and self-sufficing unit. Next to them Fyfield does the same thing. Lower down, near Wallingford, the parish of Brightwell has added on a similar eccentric edge to the north and east so that it may share in the bank; but perhaps the best example of all in this connection is the curious extension below Reading. Here land which is of no use for human habitation—water meadows continually liable to floods—runs out from the parish northward for a good mile. These lands are separated from the river during the whole of this extension until at last a bend of the stream gives the parish the opportunity it has evidently sought in thus extending its boundaries. On the Oxford bank Standlake and Brighthampton do the same thing upon the Upper Thames and to some extent Eynsham; for when one thinks how far back Eynsham stands from the river it is somewhat remarkable that it should have claimed the right to get at the stream. Below Oxford there is another most interesting instance of the same thing in the case of Littlemore. Littlemore stands on high and dry land up above the river somewhat set back from it. Sandford evidently interfered with its access to the water, and Littlemore has therefore claimed an obviously artificial extension for all the world like a great foot added on to the bulk of the parish. This "foot" includes Kennington Island, and runs up the meadows to the foot of that eyot.
The long and narrow parishes in the reaches below Benson, Nuneham Morren, Mongewell, and Ipsden and South Stoke are not, however, examples of this tendency.
They owe their construction to the same causes as have produced the similar long parishes of the Surrey and the Sussex Weald. The life of the parish was in each case right on the river or very close to it, and the extension is not the attempt of the parish to reach the river, but the claim of the parish upon the hunting lands which lay up behind it upon the Chiltern Hills. The truth of this will be apparent to anyone who notes upon the map the way in which parishes are thus lengthened, not only on the western side of the hills, but also upon the farther eastern side, where there was no connection with the river.
There are many other proofs remaining of the chief function which the Thames fulfilled in the early part of our history as a means of communication.
We shall see later in these pages how united all that line of the stream has been; how the great monasteries founded upon the Thames were supported by possessions stretched all along the valleys; how much of it, and what important parts, were held by the Crown; and how strong was the architectural influence of towns upon one another up and down the water, as also how the place names upon the banks are everywhere drawn from the river; but before dealing with these it is best to establish the main portions into which the Thames falls and to see what would naturally be their limits.
It may be said, generally, that every river which is tidal, and whose stream is so slow as to be easily navigable in either direction, divides itself naturally, when one is regarding it as a means of communication, into three main divisions.
There will first of all be the tidal portion which the tide usually scours into an estuary. As a general rule, this portion is not considerably inhabited in the early periods of history, for it is not until a large international commerce arises that vessels have much occasion to stop as they pass up and down the maritime part of the stream; and even so, settlements upon its banks must come comparatively late in the development of the history of the river, because a landing upon such flooded banks is not easily to be effected.
This is true of the Dutch marshes at the mouths of the Rhine, whose civilisation (one exclusively due to the energy of man) came centuries after the establishment of the great Roman towns of the Rhine; it is true of the estuary of the Seine, whose principal harbour of Havre is almost modern, and whose difficulties are still formidable for ocean-going craft; and it is true of the Thames.
The estuary of the Thames plays little or no part in the very early history of England. Invaders, when they landed, landed on the sea-coast at the very mouth, or appear to have sailed right up into the heart of the country.
It is, nevertheless, true that the last few miles of tidal water, in Western Europe at least, are not to be included in this first division of a great river.
The swish of the tide continues up beyond the broad estuary, the sand-banks, and the marshes, and there are reaches more or less long (rather less than twenty miles perhaps originally in the case of the Thames, rather more perhaps originally in the case of the lower Seine) which for the purposes of habitation are inland reaches. They have the advantage of a current moving in either direction twice a day and yet not the disadvantage of greatly varying levels of water. Thus one may say of the Seine in the old days that from about Caudebec to Point de L'Arche it enjoyed such inland tidal conditions; and of the Thames from Greenwich to Teddington that similar advantages existed.
The true point of division which separates, so far as human history is concerned, the lower from the upper part of such rivers is the first bridge, and, what almost always accompanies the first bridge, the first great town. To repeat the obvious parallel, Rouen was this point upon the Seine; upon the Thames this point was the Bridge of London. It is with the habitable and historic Thames Valley above the bridge that this book has to deal, and it will later be to the reader's purpose to consider why London Bridge crossed the stream just where it did, and of what moment that site has been in the history of the Thames and of England.
The second division in a great European tidal river, considered as a means of communication, is the navigable but non-tidal portion.
The word navigable is so vague that it requires some definition before we can apply it to any particular stream. It does not, of course, mean in this connection "navigable by sea-going boats." One may take a constant depth of so little as three feet to be sufficient for the purpose of carrying merchandise even in considerable bulk.
The legislatures of various countries have established varying gauges to determine where the navigability of a river may be said to cease. In practice these gauges have always been arbitrary. The upper reaches of a river may present sufficient depth but too fast a current, or they may be too narrow, or the curves may be too rapid, or the obstruction of rocks too common, for any sort of navigation, although the depth of water be sufficient.
Conversely, in some streams of peculiar breadth and constancy very shallow upper reaches may have early been converted to the use of man. The matter is only to be determined by the experience of what the inhabitants of a river valley have actually been able to do under the local circumstances, and when we examine this we shall usually be astonished to see how far inland a river was used until the history of internal navigation was transformed by the development of canals or partially destroyed by the development of railways. Thus it is certain that so small a stream as the Adur in Sussex floated barges up to the boundaries of Shipley Parish; that the Stour was habitually used beyond Canterbury; that so tiny a tributary as the Ant in Norfolk was followed up from its parent Bure to the neighbourhood of Worsted.
In this connection the Thames is of an especial interest, for it had, in proportion to its length, the greatest section of navigable non-tidal water of any of the shorter rivers in Europe. Until the digging of the Thames and Severn Canal at the end of last century it was possible, and even common, for boats to reach Cricklade, or at any rate the mouth of the Churn. And even now, in spite of the pumping that is necessary at Thames head and the consequent diminution of the volume of water in the upper reaches, the Thames, were water carriage to come again into general use, would be a busy commercial stream as high up as Lechlade.
This exceptional sector of non-tidal navigable water cutting right across England from east to west, and that in what used to be the most productive and is still the most fertile portion of the island, is the chief factor in the historic importance of the Thames.
From Cricklade to the navigable waters of the Severn Valley is but a long day's walk; and one may say that even in the earliest times there was thus provided a great highway right across what then was by far the most thickly populated and the most important part of the island.
A third section in all such rivers (and, from what we have said above, a short and insignificant one in the case of the Thames) may be called the head-waters of the river: where the stream is so shallow or so uncertain as to be no longer navigable. In the case of the Thames these head-waters cover no more than ten to fifteen miles of country. With the exception of rivers that run through mountain districts this section of a river's course is nearly always small in proportion to the rest; but the Thames, just as it has the longest proportion of navigable water, has also by far the shortest proportion of useless head-water of all the shorter European rivers.
There is a further discussion as to what is the true source of the Thames, and which streams may properly be regarded as its head-waters: the Churn, especially since the digging of the canal, having a larger flow than the stream from Thames head; but whichever is chosen, the non-navigable portion starts at the same point, and is the third of the divisions into which the valley ranges itself when it is considered in its length, as a highway from the west to the east of England. The two limits, then, are at London Bridge and at Cricklade, or rather at some point between Lechlade and Cricklade, and nearer to the latter.
But a river has a second topographical and historic function. It cannot only be considered longitudinally as a highway, it can also be considered in relation to transverse forces and regarded as an obstacle, a defence, and a boundary.
This function has, of course, been of the highest importance in the history of all great rivers, not perhaps so much so in the case of the Thames as in the case of swifter or deeper streams, but, still, more than has been the case with so considerable and so rapid a river as the Po in Lombardy or the uncertain but dangerous Loire in its passage through the centre of France. For the Thames Valley was that which divided the vague Mercian land from which we get our weights, our measures, and the worst of our national accent, and cut it off from that belt of the south country which was the head and the heart of England until the last industrial revolution of our history.
The Thames also has entered to a large, though hardly to a determining, extent into the military history of the country; to an extent which is greater in earlier than in later times, because with every new bridge the military obstacle afforded by the stream diminished. And finally, the Thames, regarded as an obstacle, was the cause that London Bridge concentrated upon itself so much of the life of the nation, and that the town which that bridge served, always the largest commercial city, became at last the capital of the island.
We have already said that the establishment of the site of London Bridge was a capital point in the history of the river and the principal line of division in its course. What were the topographical conditions which caused the river to be crossed at this point rather than at another?
It is always of the greatest moment to men to find some crossing for a great river as low down as may be towards the mouth. For the higher the bridge the longer the detour between, at the least, two provinces of the country which the river traverses. It is especially important to find such a crossing as low down as possible when the river is tidal and when it is flanked upon either side by great flooded marshes, as was and is the Thames. For under such conditions it is difficult, especially in primitive times, to cross habitually from one side to the other in boats.
Now it is a universal rule of early topography, and one which can be proved upon twenty of the old trackways of England, that the wild path which the earliest men used, when it approaches a river, seeks out a spur of higher and drier land, and if possible one directly facing another similar spur upon the far side of the water. It is a feature which the present writer continually observed in the exploration of the old British trackway between Winchester and Canterbury; it is similarly observable in the presumably British track between Chester and Manchester; and it is the feature which determined the site of London Bridge.
From the sea for sixty miles is a succession of what was once entirely, and is now still in great part, marshy land; or at least if there are no marshes upon one bank there will be marshes upon the other. In the rare places down stream where there is a fairly rapid rise upon either side of the river the stream is far too wide for bridging; and these marshes were to be found right up the valley until one struck the gravel at Chelsea: even here there were bad marshes on the farther shore.
There is in the whole or the upper stretch of the tidal water but one place where a bluff of high and dry land faces, not indeed land equally dry immediately upon the farther bank, but at least a spur of dry land which approaches fairly near to the main stream. If the modern contour lines be taken and laid out upon a map of London this spur will be found to project from Southwark northward directly towards the river, and immediately opposite it is the dry hill, surrounded upon three sides by river or by marsh, upon which grew up the settlement of London. Here, then, the first crossing of the Thames was certain to be made.
It is not known whether a permanent bridge existed before the Roman Conquest. It may be urged in favour of the negative argument that Caesar had no knowledge of such a bridge, or at least did not march towards it, but crossed the river with difficulty in the higher reaches by a ford. And it may also be urged that a bridge across the Rhine was equally unknown in that time. But, the bridge once established, it could not fail to become the main point of convergence for the commerce of Southern England, and indeed for much of that which proceeded from the North upon its way to the Continent. Such an obstacle would oppose itself to every invasion, and did, in fact, oppose itself to more than one historical invasion from the North Sea. It would further prevent sea-going vessels whose masts were securely stepped and could not lower from proceeding farther up stream, and would thereupon become the boundary of the seaport of the Thames. Such a bridge would, again, concentrate upon itself the traffic of all that important and formerly wealthy part of the island which bulges out to the east between the estuary of the Thames and the Wash, and which must necessarily have desired communication both with the still wealthier southern portion and with the Continent. But, more important than this, London Bridge also concentrated upon itself all the up-country traffic in men and in goods which came in by the natural gate of the country at the Straits of Dover, except that small portion which happened to be proceeding to the south-west of England: and this exception to the early commerce of England was the smaller from the comparative ease with which the Channel could be crossed between Brittany and Cornwall.
Finally, the Bridge, as it formed the limit for sea-going vessels, formed also if not the limit at least a convenient terminus for craft coming from inland down the stream. It would form the place of transhipment between the sea-going and the inland trade.
Everything then conspired to make this first crossing of the Thames the chief commercial point in Britain; and, since we are considering in particular the history of the river, it must be noted that these conditions also made of London Bridge what we have remarked it to be, the chief division in the whole course of the stream. This character it still maintains, and the life of the river from the bridge to the Nore is a totally different thing, with a different literature and a different accompanying art, from the life of the river above bridges.
We have seen that the river when it is regarded as an avenue of access to men for commerce or for travel is, especially in early times, and with boats of light draught, of one piece from Lechlade to London Bridge. There was in this section always sufficient water even in a dry summer to float some sort of a boat. But the river, regarded as a barrier or obstacle for human beings in their movement up and down Britain, did not form one such united section. On the contrary, it divided itself, as all such rivers do, into two very clearly defined parts: there was that upper part which could be crossed at frequent intervals by an army, that lower part in which fords are rare.
In most rivers one has nothing more to do in describing those two sections than to show how gradually they merge into one another. In most rivers the passage of the upper waters is perfectly easy, and as one descends the fords get rarer and rarer, until at last they cease.
With the Thames this is not the case. The two portions of the river are sharply divided in the vicinity of Oxford, and that for reasons which we have already seen when we were speaking of the suitability of its banks for habitation. The upper Thames is indeed shallow and narrow, and there are innumerable places above Oxford where it could be crossed, so far as the volume of its waters was concerned. It was crossed by husbandmen wherever a village or a farm stood upon its banks. Perhaps the highest point at which it had to be crossed at one chosen spot is to be discovered in the word Somerford Keynes, but the ease with which the water itself could be traversed is apparent rather in the absence than in the presence of names of this sort upon the upper Thames. Shifford, for instance, which used to be spelt Siford, may just as well have been named from the crossing of the Great Brook as from the crossing of the Thames. The only other is Duxford.
While, however, the upper Thames was thus easy to cross where individuals only or small groups of cattle were concerned, the marshes on either side always made it difficult for an army. The records of early fighting are meagre, and often legendary, but such as they are you do not find the upper Thames crossed and recrossed as are the upper Severn or the upper Trent. There are two points of passage: Cricklade and Oxford, nor can the passage from Oxford be made westward over the marshes. It is confined to the ford going north and south.
Below Oxford, after the entry of the Cherwell, and from thence down to a point not very easily determined, but which is perhaps best fixed at Wallingford, the Thames is only passable at fixed crossings in ordinary weather, as at Sandford, where the hard gravels approach the bank upon either side, and at other places, each distant from the next by long stretches of river.
It is not easy, now that the river has been locked, to determine precisely where all these original crossings are to be found.
The records of Abingdon and its bridge make it certain that a difficult ford existed here; the name "Burford" attached to the bridge points to the ancient ford at this spot. It is a name to be discovered in several other parts of England where there has been some ancient crossing of a river, as, for instance, the crossing of the Mole in Surrey by the Roman military road.
The next place below Abingdon may have been at Appleford, but was more likely between the high cliff at Clifton-Hampden and the high and dry spit of Long Wittenham. Below this again for miles there was no easy crossing of the river.
The Thames was certainly impassable at Dorchester. The whole importance of Dorchester indeed in history lies in its being a strong fortified position, and it depends for its defence upon the depth of the river, which swirls round the peninsula occupied by the camp.
It has been conjectured that there was a Roman ford or ferry at the east end of Little Wittenham Wood, where it touches the river. The conjecture is ill supported. No track leads to this spot from the south, and close by is an undoubted ford where now stands Shillingford Bridge.
Below this again there was no crossing until one got to Wallingford; and here we reach a point of the greatest importance in the history of the Thames and of England.
Wallingford was not the lowest point at which the Thames could ever be crossed. So far was this from being the case that the tidal Thames could be crossed in several places on the ebb, notably at the passage between Ealing and Kew, where Kew Bridge now stands; and, as we shall see, the Thames was passable at many other places. But the special character of the passage at Wallingford lay in the fact that it was a ford upon which one could always depend. Below Wallingford the crossings were either only to be effected in very dry seasons or, though normally usable, might be interrupted by rain.
It is at Wallingford, therefore, that the main lowest passage of the Thames was effected, and it was through Wallingford that Berkshire communicated with the Chilterns. Wallingford is, then, the second point of division upon the Thames when one is regarding that river as a defence or a boundary. Below Wallingford there was perhaps a regular crossing at Pangbourne; there was certainly a ford of great importance between Streatley and Goring; and all the way down the river at intervals were difficult but practicable passages—notably at Cowey Stakes between the Surrey and the Middlesex shore, a place which is the traditional crossing of Caesar. The water here in normal weather was, however, as much as five feet deep, and this ford well illustrates the difficulties of all the lower crossings of the Thames.
The effect of the river as a barrier must, of course, have largely depended upon the level to which the waters rose in early times. It is exceedingly difficult to get any evidence upon this—first, because however far you go back in English history some sort of control seems always to have been imposed upon the river; and secondly, because the early overflows have left little permanent effect.
As an example of the antiquity of the regulation of the Thames we have the embankment round the Isle of Dogs, which is Roman or pre-Roman in its origin, like the sea-wall of the Wash, which defends the Fenland; and at Ealing, Staines, Abingdon, and twenty other places we have sites probably pre-historic, and certainly at the beginnings of history, which could never have been inhabited if the neighbouring fields had not been drained or protected. The regularity of the stream has therefore been somewhat artificial throughout all the centuries of recorded history, and the banks have had ample time to acquire consistency.
It is certain, of course, that works of planting, of draining, or of embankment, which required continuous energy, skill, and capital, decayed after the coming of the Saxon pirates, and were not undertaken again with full vigour until after the Norman Conquest. Even to-day the work is not quite complete, though every year sees its improvement: we are still unable to prevent regularly recurrent floods in the flats round Oxford and below the gorge of the Chilterns; but for the purpose of this argument the chief fact to be noted is that no serious interruption to the approach of the river seems to have existed in historic times.
In pre-historic times many stretches of the river must have afforded great difficulties of approach. The mouths of the Ock, the Coln, the Kennet, the Mole, and the Wandle must each have been surrounded by a marsh; all the plain between Oxford and the Hinkseys must have been partially flooded, as must the upper reaches between Lechlade and Witham (on one side or the other of the stream as it winds from the southern to the northern rises of land), and as must also have been the long stretch of the right bank below Reading. The highest spring tides may have been felt as high up the stream as Staines, and both the character of the surface and the contour lines permit one to conjecture that the valley of the Wandle and several other inlets from the lower river were flooded. Yet it is remarkable that in this alluvium, more disturbed and dug than any other in Europe, little or nothing of human relics, of boats, or of piles has been discovered, and this absence of testimony also points to the remoteness of date from which we should reckon the human control of the river.
Here, as in many other conjectures concerning early history or pre-history, one is convinced of that safe rule which, in Europe at least, bids us never exaggerate the changes achieved by the last few centuries or the contrast between recorded and unrecorded things.
The tendency of most modern history in this country has been to exaggerate such changes and such contrasts. In the greater part of modern popular history care is taken to emphasise the difference between the Middle and Dark Ages and the last few centuries. The forests of England are represented as impassable, or nearly so; the numbers of the population are grossly underestimated; the towns which have had a continuous municipal existence of 1500 years are represented as villages.
The same spirit would tend to make of the Thames Valley in the Dark and Middle Ages a very different landscape from that which we see to-day. The floods were indeed more common and the passage of the river somewhat more difficult; cultivation did not everywhere approach the banks as it does now; and in two or three spots where there has been a great development of modern building, notably at Reading, and, of course, in London, the banks have been artificially strengthened. But with these exceptions it may be confidently asserted that no belt of densely inhabited landscape in England has changed so little in its natural features as the Thames Valley.
There are dozens of reaches upon the upper Thames where little is in sight save the willows, the meadows, and a village church tower, which present exactly the same aspect to-day as they did when that church was first built. You might put a man of the fifteenth century on to the water below St. John's Lock, and, until he came to Buscot Lock, he would hardly know that he had passed into a time other than his own. The same steeple of Lechlade would stand as a permanent landmark beyond the fields, and, a long way off, the same church of Eaton Hastings, which he had known, would show above the trees.
There is another method of judging the comparative smallness of the change, and it is a method which can be applied to many other parts of England whose desertion or wildness in the Dark and early Middle Ages has been too confidently asserted. That method is to note where human settlements were and are found. With the exception of the long and probably marshy piece between Radcot and Shifford the whole of the upper Thames was dotted with such settlements, which, though small, were quite close to the banks. Kelmscott is right up against the river in what one would otherwise have imagined to be land too marshy for building until modern times. Buscot, on the other bank, is not only close to the river, but was a royal manor of high historical importance in the eleventh century. Eaton Hastings is similarly placed right against the bank; so was in its day the palace of Kempsford above Lechlade, and so is the church of Inglesham between the two. All the way down you have at intervals old stonework and old place names, indicating habitation upon the upper Thames.
A proper system of locks is comparatively modern on any European river. The invention is even said (upon doubtful authority) to be as late as the sixteenth century, but the method of regulating the waters of a river by weirs is immemorial.
We have no earlier record of weirs upon the Thames than that in Magna Charta; but some such system must have existed from the time when men first used the Thames in a regular manner for commerce.
There is but one place left in which one can still reconstruct for oneself the aspect of such weirs as were till but little more than a century ago the universal method of canalising the river. Modern weirs are merely adjuncts to locks, and are usually found upon a branch of the stream other than that which leads up to the lock. But in this weir the old fashion of crossing the whole stream is still preserved. There is no lock, and when a boat would pass up or down the paddles of the weir have to be lifted. It is, in a modern journey upon the upper Thames, the one faint incident which the day affords, for if one is going down the stream but few paddles are lifted, and the boat shoots a small rapid, while to admit a boat going up stream the whole weir is raised, and, even so, a great rush of water opposes the boat as it is hauled through. Some years ago there were several of these weirs upon the upper river. They have all been superseded by locks, and it is probable that this last one will not long survive.
Such weirs did certainly sufficiently regulate the stream as to make its banks regularly habitable. If no local order, at least the interest of villagers in their mills sufficed to the watching of the stream.
We have in the place names upon the Thames a further evidence of the antiquity of its regulation, for, as will be seen in a moment, none give proof of any important settlement later than the eleventh century.
These place names not only indicate a continuous and early settlement of the banks, but also form in themselves a very interesting series, whose etymology is a little section of the history of England.
Of purely Celtic names very few survive in the sites of human habitation, though the names of the waterways are almost universally Celtic, as is the name of Thames itself. But it is probable that in the Saxon names which line the river there are many corruptions of Celtic words made to sound in the Saxon fashion. We cannot prove such origins. We can surmise with justice that the "tons" and "dons" all up and down England are Celtic terminations; they are almost unknown in Germany. There is a somewhat pedantic guess, drawn (it is said) from Iceland, that we got this national name ending from Scandinavia; so universal a habit would hardly have arisen from an admixture of Scandinavian blood received at the very close of the Dark Ages and affecting but small patches of North England. Moreover, as against this theory, there is the fact that quite half the Celtic place names mentioned in our early history and in that of Gaul had a similar termination. London itself is the best example.
If, however, we neglect this termination, and consider the first part of the words in which it occurs (as in Abing-don, Bensing-ton, Ea-ton, etc.), we shall find that most of the place names are Saxon in form, and some certainly Saxon in derivation.
Thus Ea-ton, a name scattered all along the Thames, from its very source to the last reaches, is the "tun" by the water or stream. Clif-ton (as in Clifton-Hampden) is the "ton" on the cliff, a very marked feature of the left bank of the river at this place. Of Bensing-ton, now Benson, we know nothing, nor do we of the origin of the word Abing-don.
The names terminating in "ham" are, in their termination at least, certainly Teutonic; and the same may be true of most of those—but not all of those—ending in "ford." Ford may just as well be a Celtic as a Teutonic ending, and in either case means a "passage," a "going." It does not even in all cases indicate a shallow passage, though in the great majority of cases on the Thames it does indicate a place where one could cross the river on foot. Thus Wallingford was probably the walled or embattled ford, and Oxford almost certainly the "ford of the droves"—droves going north from Berkshire. One may say roughly that all the "hams" were Teutonic save where one can put one's finger on a probable Celtic derivation such as one has, for instance, in the case of Witham, which should mean the settlement upon the "bend" or curve of the river, a Celtic name with a Teutonic ending.
One may also believe that the termination "or" or "ore" is Teutonic; Cumnor may have meant "the wayfarers' stage," and Windsor probably "the landing place on the winding of the river."
Hythe also is thought to be Teutonic. One can never be quite sure with a purely Anglo-Saxon word, that it had a German origin, but at least Hythe is Anglo-Saxon, a wharf or stage; thus Bablock Hythe on the road through the Roman town of Eynsham across the river to Cumnor and Abingdon, cutting off the great bend of the river at Witham; so also the town we now call "Maidenhead," which was perhaps the "mid-Hythe" between Windsor and Reading. Some few certainly Celtic names do survive: in the Sinodun Hills, for instance, above Dorchester; and the first part of the name Dorchester itself is Celtic. At the very head of the Thames you have Coates, reminding one of the Celtic name for the great wood that lay along the hill; but just below, where the water begins, to flow, Kemble and Ewen, if they are Saxon, are perhaps drawn from the presence of a "spring." Cricklade may be all Celtic, or may be partly Celtic and partly Saxon. London is Celtic, as we have seen. And in the mass of places whose derivation it is impossible to establish the primitive roots of a Celtic place name may very possibly survive.
The purely Roman names have quite disappeared, and, what is odd, they disappeared more thoroughly in the Thames Valley than in any other part of England. Dorchester alone preserves a faint reminiscence of its Romano-Celtic name; but Bicester to the north, and the crossing of the ways at Alchester, are probably Saxon in the first part at least. Streatley has a Roman derivation, as have so many similar names throughout England which stand upon a "strata" or "way" of British or of Roman origin. But though "Spina" is still Speen, Ad Pontes, close by, one of the most important points upon the Roman Thames, has lost its Roman name entirely, and is known as Staines: the stones or stone which marked the head of the jurisdiction of London upon the river.
To return to the river regarded as a boundary, it is subject to this rather interesting historical observation that it has been more of a boundary in highly civilised than in barbaric times.
One would expect the exact contrary to be the case. A civilised man can cross a river more easily than a barbarian; and in civilised times there are permanent bridges, where in barbaric times there would be only fords or ferries.
Nevertheless, it is true of the Thames, as of nearly every other division in Europe, that it was much more of a boundary at the end of the Roman Empire, and is more of a strict boundary to-day, than it was during the Dark Ages, and presumably also before the Claudian invasion. Thus we may conjecture with a fair accuracy that in the last great ordering of boundaries within the Roman Empire, which was the work of Diocletian, and so much of which still survives in our European politics to-day (for instance, the boundary of Normandy), the Thames formed the division between Southern and Midland Britain. It is equally certain that it did not form any exact division between Wessex and Mercia.
The estuary has, of course, always formed a division, and in the barbarian period it separated the higher civilisation of Kent from that of the East Saxons, who were possibly of a different race, and certainly of a different culture. But the Thames above London Bridge was not a true boundary until the civilisation of England began to form, towards the close of the Dark Ages. It is perpetually crossed and recrossed by contending armies, and the first result of a success is to cause the conqueror to annex a belt from the farther bank to his own territories.
It is further remarkable that the one great definite boundary of the Dark Ages in England—that which was established for a few years by Alfred between his kingdom and the territory of the Danish invaders—abandons the Thames above bridges altogether, and uses it as a limitation in its estuarial part only, up to the mouth of the Lea.
With the definition of exact frontiers for the English counties, however, a process whose origin can hardly antedate the Norman Conquest by many years, the Thames at once becomes of the utmost importance as a boundary.
Its higher and hardly navigable streams are not so used. The upper Thames and its little tributaries for some ten miles from its source are not only indifferent to county boundaries, but run through a territory which has been singularly indefinite in the past. For instance, the parish of Kemble, wherein the first waters now appear, has been counted now in Gloucester, now in Wilts. But when these ten miles are run, just after Castle Eaton Bridge, and not quite half way between that bridge and the old royal palace at Kempsford, the Thames becomes the line of division between two counties, and from there to the sea it never loses its character of a boundary.
It is a tribute to the great place of the river in history that there is no other watercourse in England nor any other natural division of which this is so universally true.
The reason that the Thames, like so many other European boundaries, has come late into the process of demarcation, and the reason that its use as a limit is more apparent in civilised than in uncivilised times, is simply the fact that limits and boundaries themselves are never of great exactitude save in times of comparatively high civilisation. It is when a complex system of law and a far-reaching power of execution are present in a country that the necessity for precise delimitation arises. In the barbaric period of England there was no such necessity. Doubtless the men of Berkshire and the men of Oxfordshire felt themselves to be in general divided by the stream; but had we documents to hand (which, of course, we have not) it might be possible to show that exceptional tracts, such as the isolated Hill of Witham (which is much more influenced by Oxford than by Abingdon), was treated as the land of Oxfordshire men in early times, or was perhaps a territory in dispute; and something of the same sort may have existed in the connection of Caversham with Reading.
In this old age of our civilisation the exactitude of the boundary which the Thames establishes is apparent in various survivals. Islands now joined to the one bank and indistinguishable from the rest of the shore are still annexed to the farther shore. Such a patch is to be found at Streatley, geographically in Berkshire, legally in Oxford; there is another opposite Staines, which Middlesex claims from Surrey. In all, half-a-dozen or more such anomalous frontiers mark the course of the old river. One arrested in process of formation may be seen at Pentonhook.
A boundary—that is, an obstacle to travel—has this further feature, that the point at which it is crossed—that is, the point at which the obstacle is surmounted—is certain to become a point of strategic and often of commercial importance. So it is with the passes over mountains and with the narrows of the sea, and so it is with fords and bridges over rivers. So it is with the Thames.
The energies both of travel and of war are driven towards and confined in such spots. Fortresses arise and towns which they may defend. Depots of goods are formed, the coining and the change of money are established, secure meeting places for speculation are founded.
Such passages over the Thames were of two sorts: there are first the original fords, numerous and primeval; next the crossing places of the great roads.
Of the original fords we have already drawn up a list. Few have, merely as fords, proved to be of strategic or commercial value. Oxford may have been an early exception; and the difficult passage at Abingdon founded a great monastery but no military post: the rise of each was connected, as was Reading (which had no ford), with the junction of a tributary. Wallingford alone, in its character of the last easy and practicable ford down the river, had for centuries an importance certainly due to geographical causes alone. Two principal events of English history—the crossing of the Thames by the Conqueror and the successful challenge of Henry II. to Stephen—depend upon the site of this crossing. Long before their time it had been of capital importance to the Saxon kings, so early as Offa and so late as Alfred. If the bridges built at Abingdon in the fifteenth century had not gradually deflected the western road, Wallingford might still count the fourteen churches and the large population which it possessed for so many centuries.
Apart from Wallingford, however, the fords, as fords, did little to build up towns or to determine the topography of English history. Of more importance were the crossings of the great roads.
When one remembers that the south of England was originally by far the wealthiest part of the country, and when one considers the shape of Ireland, it is evident that certain main tracks would lead from north to south, and that most or all of these would be compelled to cross the Thames Valley. We find four such primeval ways.
One from the Straits of Dover in the south-east to the north-western centres of the Welsh Marches and of Chester, the Port for Ireland, and so up west of the Pennines. This came in Saxon times to be called the Watling Street, a name common to other lesser lanes.
Another, the converse to this, proceeded from the metal mines of the south-west to the north-east until it struck and merged into other roads running north and east of the Pennines. This came to be called (as did other lesser roads) the Fosse Way.
A third went more sharply west from the southern districts, and connected them not with the Dee, but with the lower Severn. This track ran from the open highlands of Hampshire through Newbury and the Berkshire Hills to Gloucester, and was called (like other lesser tracks) the Ermine Street.
Finally, a fourth went in a great bend from these same highlands up eastward to the coast of the North Sea in East Anglia. This was called in Saxon times the Icknield Way.
All these can be traced in their general direction throughout and for most of their length minutely. All were forced to cross the Thames Valley, which so nearly divided the whole of South England from east to west.
Of these four crossings the first in point of interest is that which the Ermine Street makes over the upper Thames at Cricklade.
These old roads are of capital importance in the story of England, and though historians have always recognised this there are a number of features about them which have not been sufficiently noted—as, for instance, that armies until perhaps the twelfth century perpetually used them; for the great English roads, though their general track was laid out in pre-historic times, were generally hardened, straightened, and embanked by the Romans in a manner which permitted them to survive right on into the early Middle Ages; and of these four all were so hardened and strengthened, except the Icknield Way. Not one of them is quite complete to-day, but the Ermine Street is perhaps the best preserved. It is a good modern road all the way from Bayden to Gloucester, with the exception of a very slight gap at this village of Cricklade.
It originally crossed the river half-a-mile below Cricklade Bridge, so that the priory which stood on the left bank lay just to the south of the old road. How and when the old bridge at Cricklade fell we have no record, but one of the most important records of the Thames in Anglo-Saxon history is connected with this passage of the river.
The importance of Cricklade as a station upon the upper Thames does not only proceed from its being the crossing place of a great road, it is also the point when the first important tributary stream, the Churn, joins the Thames. Above this junction the Thames nowadays is hardly a stream; and even in the eighteenth century and earlier, before the digging of the Severn and Thames Canal, it must have depended on the weather whether there were any appreciable amount of water in the upper part or not. It would probably be found, if records could be examined, that the mills at Somerford Keynes were not continually worked throughout the year, even when the supply of water had been left undiminished by modern engineering. But when once the Churn (which, as we have seen, has a larger volume of water than the Thames) had fallen in at Cricklade the two formed a true river, with depth in it always sufficient to support a boat, and with a fairly strong stream, as also with a width sufficient for minor traffic; and it is after Cricklade that you get a succession of villages and churches dependent upon the river and standing close to its banks.
But though this piece of hydrography has its importance the chief meaning of Cricklade in history lay in the fact that it was the spot where this Ermine Street on its way from the south country to the Severn Valley got over the Thames, and the village connected with it was entrenched certainly in Roman and probably in pre-Roman times. This entrenchment may still be traced.
The crossing of the Thames by the Icknield Way, unlike the crossing of the Ermine Street at Cricklade, presents a problem.
Cricklade, as we have seen, is a perfectly well-established site, and we owe our certitude upon the matter to the fact that the Romans had hardened and straightened what was probably an old British track. But with the crossing of the Icknield Way no such complete certitude exists, for the Icknield Way was but a vague barbarian track, often tortuous in outline, confused by branching ways, and presenting all the features of a savage trail. Doubtless that trail was used during the four hundred years of the high Roman civilisation as a country road, just as the similar trail, known as the "Pilgrims' Way" from Winchester to Canterbury, was used in the same epoch. There are plenty of Roman remains to be found along the track, and there is no doubt that all such roads, even when the State was not at the expense of hardening or straightening them, were in continual use before, as they were in continual use after, the presence of Roman government in this island; but the Icknield Way does not approach the river in a clear and unmistakable manner as would a Roman or a Romanised road. It is on this account that the exact point of its crossing has been debated.
The problem is roughly this: the high and treeless chalk downs have been used from the beginning of human habitation in these islands as the principal highways, and any single traveller or tribe that desired in early times to get from the Hampshire highlands to the east and north of England must have begun by following the ridge of the Berkshire Hills, and by continuing along the dry upland of the Chiltern Hills, which continue this reach beyond the Thames. But the spot at which the pre-historic crossing of the Thames was effected cannot be determined by a simple survey of the place where the Thames cuts through the chalk range. Wallingford up above this gorge has certain claims, both because it was the lowest of the continually practicable fords upon the river, and because its whole history points to an immemorial antiquity. Higher still, Dorchester, on which every historian of the Thames must dwell as perhaps the most interesting of all the settlements upon the banks of the river, has also been suggested. Just above Dorchester, on the Berkshire side, stands the peculiar isolated twin height which forms so conspicuous a landmark when one gazes over the plain from the summit of the Downs. Such landmarks often helped to trace the old roads. And Dorchester has also an immemorial antiquity—a pre-historic fortification upon the hills above, and fortifications, probably historic, on the Oxford bank below, but Dorchester has no ford.
When all the evidence is weighed it seems more probable that the regular crossing from the Berkshire Hills to the Chilterns was effected at Streatley.
Of this there are several proofs. In the first place, the name of the place suggests the passage of some great way. Place names of this sort are invariably found upon some one of the principal roads of England. In the second place, a lane bearing the traditional name of the Icknield Way can be traced to a point very near the river and the village. Another can be recovered beyond the river. The name would hardly have been so continued—even with considerable gaps—both upon the Oxfordshire and the Berkshire side unless the place of regular crossing had been here.
Within a mile or two of Streatley this lane begins to descend the side of the Berkshire Downs. Just before it falls into the Wantage Road and is lost it has begun to curl round the shoulder of the steep hill; but there is no way of telling at what precise spot it would strike the river upon the Berkshire side, because a thousand years or so of building, cultivation, and other changes have obliterated every trace of it.
Luckily, we have some indication upon the farther bank. A way can then be traced here as a lane (and in the gaps as a right of way, as a path, or sometimes only by its general direction) for some miles on the Oxfordshire side as it approaches Goring and the river coming from the Chilterns. And we know the point at which it strikes the village. This point is at the Sloane Hotel close to the railway; the inn is actually built upon the old road. Beyond the railway the track is continued in the lane which leads on past the schoolhouse to the old ferry, where there was presumably in Roman times a ford. If we accept this track we can conjecture that the vicarage of Streatley, upon the Berkshire bank, stands upon the continuation of the Way, and give the place where the pre-historic road crossed the river with tolerable certitude, though it is, I believe, impossible to recover the half-mile or so which lies between Streatley vicarage and the point where the Wantage Road and the Icknield Way separated upon the hillside above.
If the ford lay here the site was certainly well chosen, just below a group of islands which broadened the stream and made it at once shallower and less swift, acting somewhat as a natural weir above the crossing.
The third crossing place of a great pre-historic road, that of the Watling Street, is believed to correspond with the line of that very ugly suspension bridge which runs from Lambeth to the Horseferry Road in Westminster. This is, according to the most probable conjecture, the place at which the great road which ran from the Straits of Dover to the north-western ports of the island crossed the Thames.
Here, of course, there could be no question of a ford; there can only have been a ferry. Such a ferry existed throughout the Middle Ages and up to the building of Westminster Bridge, and produced a large revenue for the Archbishop of Canterbury. The memory of it is preserved in the name of the street upon the Middlesex shore. The Watling Street is fairly fixed in all its journey from the coast to the Archbishop's palace on the banks of the river. On the Middlesex shore it is lost, but it may be conjectured to have run in a curve somewhere in the neighbourhood of Buckingham Palace up on the higher ground west of the Tybourne, parallel with or perhaps identical with Park Lane until we find it certainly again at the Marble Arch, whence in the form of the Edgware Road it begins a clear track across North-Western England.
As for the Fosse Way, it only just touches the valley of the Thames. It crosses the line of the river in a high embankment a mile or so below its traditional source at Thames head, but above the point where the first water is seen. A small culvert running under that embankment takes the flood water in winter down the hollow, but no longer covers a regular stream.
Besides these four crossings of the old British ways above London Bridge there is the crossing of the Roman Road at Staines, which may or may not represent a passage older than the Roman occupation. We have no proof of its being older. The river is deep, and, unless the broken causeway on the Surrey shore is regarded as the remains of British work, there is no trace of a pre-Roman track in the neighbourhood.
The crossing at Staines was the main bridge over the middle river during the Roman occupation; no other spot on the banks (except London Bridge) is certainly the site of a Roman bridge.
But apart from these there are two unsolved problems in connection with the roads across the Thames Valley in Roman times. The first concerns the passage of the upper Thames south of Eynsham; the second concerns the road which runs south from Bicester and Alchester.
As to the first of these, we know that the plain lying to the north of the Thames between the Cotswolds and the Chilterns was thoroughly occupied. We have also in the Saxon Chronicle a legendary account of the occupation of four Roman towns in this plain by the Saxon invaders. By what avenue did this wealthy and civilised district communicate with the wealthy and civilised south?
It is a question which will probably never be answered. There is no trace remaining of Roman bridges; perhaps nothing was built save of wood.
The obvious short-cut from the Roman town of Eynsham across the Witham peninsula to Abingdon bears no signs of a ford approached by Roman work or of a bridge, nor any record of such things.
As to the second question, the road from Bicester southward runs straight to Dorchester. At Dorchester, as we have seen, there was no ford, though just below it a Roman ferry has been guessed at.
There may have been a country road running down along the left or north bank of the river to the pre-historic crossing place at Goring and Streatley; but if there was, no trace of it remains, save perhaps in the two place names North Stoke and South Stoke.
A barrier has yet another quality in history, and that quality is perhaps the most important of all. In so far as it is an obstacle it is also a means of defence.
All the great rivers of Europe prove this. They are studded with lines of strongholds standing either right upon their banks or close by; and various as is the character of the different great rivers in their physical conformation, few or none have been unable to furnish sites for fortification. For instance, the slow rivers of Northern France, running for the most part through a flat country, were able to afford fortresses for the Gaulish clans in their numerous islands; the origin of Melun and Paris, for instance, was of this kind. The sharp rocks along the Rhone became platforms for castle after castle: Beaucaire, Tarascon, Aries, Avignon, and twenty others all of this sort.
The Thames, curiously enough, forms an exception; it is an exception even in the list of English rivers, most of which can show a certain number of fortifications along their banks.
In the whole course of the great river above London there are but three examples of fortification, or at any rate of fortification directly dependent upon the river. Of these the first, at Lechlade, is conjectural; the second, at Windsor, came quite late in history, and the only one which seems to have been a primeval fortified site was Dorchester.
There were, of course, plenty of towns and castles susceptible of defence. At one time or another every important settlement upon the Thames was capable of resistance: Oxford was walled, Wallingford was a fortress, Abingdon or Reading could be defended. But these were all, so to speak, artificial. The settlement came first, and after the settlement the necessity of guarding it from attack, and it was so guarded, not by natural means, but by human construction. The castle at Oxford, for instance, stood upon a mound of earth raised by human work. The only considerable place in which the river itself suggested defence from the earliest times appears to have been at Dorchester.
The curious importance of Dorchester in the very origins of English history and the still more curious way in which it sinks out of sight for generations, to revive again in the tenth century, is one of the puzzles of the history of the Thames.
It is useless to pursue an archaeological discussion as to the origin of the place, and still more useless to try and determine why, though certainly the most easily defended, it should originally have been the only heavily fortified spot in the whole of the valley. We know that it was Roman: we know that it was a place of pre-historic fortification before the Romans came: we know that a Roman road ran northward towards Bicester from it, and we also know, or at least we can make a very probable guess, that though it was continuously important, and that the interest of early history is continually returning to it, it can never have been large.
Perhaps the best conjecture upon the origin of Dorchester is that the stronghold grew up as an out-lier to the great fort over the river at the top of Sinodun Hill. The exact and regular peninsula between the bend in the Thames and the mouth of the Thames is obviously suited for fortification: the tributary flows just to the east of this peninsula, exactly parallel with the main river beyond, and covers the peninsula not only with a stream on its east flank, but with a marsh at the mouth. One can imagine that the conspicuous heights of the Sinodun Hills were held, from the very beginning of human habitation in this district, as a permanent fortress, into which the neighbouring tribes could retire during war, and one can imagine that when the river was low in summer, and perhaps fordable, the spit of land before it, which formed an exception to the marshes round about, needed to be protected as a sort of bastion beyond the stream. This theory will at least account for the two great ridges of earthwork going from one water to the other and completely cutting off the peninsula, since it is agreed these works are earlier than the Roman invasion. Whatever its origin, the part which Dorchester plays in the early history of England is most remarkable.
The conversion of England was effected by a process of which we know far more than of any other series of national events before the Danish invasions. That process is more exactly recorded, less legendary, and more consecutively told because it was (to all contemporary watchers) the capital event of the time, and to all posterity the one thing that explained men to themselves.
We know also that, not so much the nucleus of the conversion as the secure vantage from which it marched outward, was the triangle of Kent. We can believe that the civilisation of Kent was something quite separate from the rest of the south-eastern portion of England, and that the many customary survivals which are, to this day, native to the county are remaining proofs of its unique character among the petty kingdoms during the mythical period between the withdrawal of the Romans and the arrival of St. Augustine.
The early hold of civilisation upon Kent is explicable. But when the influence of Rome begins to spread again over England you have distances covered which are astounding; there occur sporadic incidents of the highest importance in spots where they would be the least expected. Among the very first of these is the first baptism of a West-Saxon King.
It was certainly at Dorchester that this baptism took place and the choice of the site, little as we know of the village or city, has filled every historian with conjecture. Up to the very landing of St. Augustine we are still dependent upon what is half legendary and very meagre record. The chief point indeed as regards this part of the country is the tradition of a battle fought against the British at Bedford by the West Saxons and the occupation of "four towns." This success was put down by tradition to the year 571, but everything was still so dark that even this success is a legend.
Within the lifetime of a man you have the baptism of Cynegil, the king of the West Saxons, at Dorchester, and that baptism takes place less than forty years after the complete submission of Kent.
The Chronicle, in mentioning this date, is no longer upon legendary ground: it is dealing with an event which was kept on record by civilised men who understood the art of writing, who could speak Latin, who could bear their records to Rome, and, what is more, the fact and the date are confirmed by the Venerable Bede.
It is imagined by some authorities that the fulness of the story and its apparent accuracy depend upon access to some early ecclesiastical record preserved at Dorchester and now lost. At any rate, Dorchester, whether because it had been, up till then, an unconquered Roman town, or for whatever other reason, becomes at once the ecclesiastical centre and one to which, even when this baptism takes place, the King of Northumbria was at the pains of travelling southward to, to be present as sponsor for the new Christian.
The story has a special historical interest, because it shows how very vague were the boundaries and the occupancies of the little wandering chieftains of this period. It need hardly be pointed out that no regular division into shires can have existed so early, and, as we have already insisted, the Thames itself was not a permanent boundary between any two definable societies, yet those who regard the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as historical would show one Penda had appeared a few years before as the chief of a group of men with a new name, the Mercians—probably a loose agglomeration of tribes occupying the middle strip of England; a group whose dialect and measures of land are, perhaps, the ancestors of the modern Midland dialect and most of our measures. Cynegil's baptism could not have taken place in territory controlled by Penda, for he was the champion of all the Anti-Christian forces of the time, and though he had just defeated the West Saxons, and (according to a later legend) pushed back their boundary to the line of the Thames, his action, like that of all the little kings of the barbaric age in Britain, can have been no more than a march with a few thousands, a battle, and a retreat. In a word, the true and verifiable story of Cynegil's baptism is one of the many valuable instances which help to prove the unreliability of that part of the early Chronicle which does not deal with ecclesiastical affairs.
The priest who received Cynegil into the Church was one Birinus, an Italian, and perhaps a Milanese; he appears, from his first presence in Dorchester, to have fixed the seat of a bishopric in that village. His reasons for choosing the spot are as impossible to discover as are the origins of any other of the characteristics of the place. It was, in any case, as were so many of the sees of the Dark Ages, a frontier see—a sort of ecclesiastical fortress, pushed out to the very limits of the occupation of the enemy.
Whether Dorchester continued to be a bishopric from this moment onwards we cannot tell; but no less than three hundred years afterwards—in the tenth century—it appears again, and this time as the centre of the gigantic diocese which stretched throughout the whole of Middle England and right up to the Humber. The Conquest came, the diocese was cut up just afterwards, and the seat of the bishop finally removed from the village to Lincoln, and with the Conquest the importance of Dorchester as a fortified position, an importance which it had held for untold centuries, began to decline in favour of Oxford.
The artificial chain of fortifications up the Thames Valley, which had their origin under William the Conqueror, will call our attention to many other spots besides Oxford as these pages proceed, but it is interesting at this moment to consider Oxford in its early military aspect, when it succeeded Dorchester, and came forward as the chief stronghold of the upper Thames Valley above Wallingford.
The gravel bank north of the ford, by which what is presumed to have been the drovers' road from south to north crossed the river, had supported a very considerable population, and had attained a very considerable civil importance, long before the Conquest. It is difficult to believe that any new, especially that any extensive, centres of population grew up in Anglo-Saxon Britain, upon sites chosen by the barbarians. The Romans had colonised and densely populated every suitable spot. The ships' crews of open pirate vessels had no qualities suitable to the founding of a town; and when there is no direct evidence it is always safer of the two conjectures in English topography to believe that any spot which we find inhabited and flourishing in the Anglo-Saxon period, even at its close, was not a town developed during the Dark Ages but one which the pirates, when they first entered the island, had found already inhabited and flourishing, though sometimes perhaps more British than Roman. But though this is always the more historical way of looking at the probable origin of an English town it must be admitted that there is no direct evidence of any town upon the site of Oxford before the Danish invasions, and the first mention of the place by name is as late as eleven years after Alfred's death, when it is recorded that Edward, his son, "took possession of London and of Oxford and of all lands in obedience thereunto."
This first mention, slight as it is, characterises Oxford as being the town of the upper Thames Valley at the opening of the tenth century, and we have what is usually a good basis for history—that is, ecclesiastical tradition and a monastic charter—to show us that a considerable monastery had existed upon the spot for a century and a half before this first mention in the Chronicle.
There still exists in the modern town, to the west of it, a large artificial mound, one of those which have been discovered here and there up and down England, and which are characteristic of a late Saxon method of fortification. Before the advent of the Normans these mounds were defended by palisades only, and were used as but occasional strongholds. It may be conjectured that this Saxon work at Oxford dates from somewhat the same period as does the first mention of the town in the Chronicle. Twelve years later Alfred's grandson is mentioned as dying at Oxford. It may be presumed that his death would indicate the presence of a royal palace. We hear nothing more of this town during the remainder of the tenth century, but we have a long account in what is probably an accurate record of the rising of the townsmen against the Danes in the beginning of the eleventh. The Scandinavians made their last stand in the church of the monastery, and the townsmen burnt it. Five years later a new host of Danes took and burnt the town; and four years later again, Sweyn, in his terrible conquering march, captured it, after very little resistance, in the same year in which he took the crown of England. The brief episode of Edmund Ironside again brings the town into history: he slept here upon his way to London in the late autumn of 1016, and here, very probably, he was killed. From that moment the fortress (as it now certainly was) enters continually into that last anarchy which was only cured by a second advent of European civilisation and the success of its armies at Hastings.
The great national council of 1018, which may be called the settlement of Canute, was held at Oxford, and in 1036 another national council, of even greater importance, which was held to decide upon the succession of Canute's heirs, was again held at Oxford, and it was at Oxford that, four years later, the first Harold died.
Meanwhile, in the near neighbourhood of the city, at Islip, Queen Emma had, half a lifetime earlier, borne a son, who, after the death of all these Danes, remained the legitimate heir to the English throne. Islip was, most probably, not royal, but a private manor of the Queen's, which descended to the Confessor, and it is interesting to note in passing that it was his gift of this land and of its church to Westminster Abbey which originated the present connection between the two—a connection which has now, therefore, behind it nearly nine hundred years of continuity.
In the few hurried months before Hastings the last of the great Anglo-Saxon meetings in the town was summoned. It was held at the end of October, 1065, and was that in which Harold's policy was agreed to. Within twelve months Harold himself was dead, and a victorious invading army was marching upon Wallingford.
In all this record it is clear that Oxford held a continually growing place in the life of England, and especially as a stronghold of whoever might be governing England. What battle was fought there, if any, or how the Normans got it, we do not know, but it is presumed that it suffered in the fighting because the number and value of its houses is given in the subsequent Survey as having fallen very largely indeed.
It is always well, whenever one comes across the Domesday Survey in history, to remember that the whole record is very imperfectly understood. We do not know quite what was being measured: we do not know, for instance, in the case of a town like Oxford, whether all the inhabited houses were counted; or whether only those who by custom gave taxes were counted; nor can we be certain of the meaning of the word vastus, save that it has some connection either with destruction or dilapidation, or lack of occupation, or, possibly, even remission of taxation. But the theory of a sack is not without foundation, for we know that in the case of York (which was certainly sacked by Tostig in 1065 and then again by William in 1068) what is probably a destruction of a similar kind, though a rather greater one, is expressed in similar words.
Whether, however, the number given in the town list of the Conqueror is or is not due to the destruction wrought by the Conquest we must be very careful not to estimate the population of that time upon the basis to-day such a list would afford. The figures of Domesday stand for a much larger population than most historians have hitherto been inclined to grant, as may be shown by considerations to which I shall only allude here, as I shall have to repeat them more fully upon a later page when I speak of urban life upon the Thames. The nomadic element in the life of the early Middle Ages; the smallness of the space allotted for sleeping; the large amount of time spent out of doors; the great proportion of collegiate institutions, not only monastic but military; the life in common which spread as a habit to so many parts of society beyond the monastic; the large families which (from genealogy) we can trust to be as much a character of the early Middle Ages as they, were not the character of the later Middle Ages, the crowd of semi-servile dependants which would be discovered in any large house—all these make us perfectly safe in multiplying by at least ten the number of households counted in the Survey if we would get at the population of those households, and it must be remembered that the houses counted, even in those parts of England which were fairly thoroughly surveyed, can only represent a minimum number, whatever was the method of counting. The lists may in some instances include every single household in a place, though from what we know of the diversity of local custom this is unlikely. In most places it is far more likely that the list covered but some portion that by custom owed a public tax, and this is especially true of the towns.
After Dorchester, which was the first of the fortresses of the Thames, so far as we have any knowledge, and after Oxford, which came next, and appears to have been founded since the beginning of recorded history in these islands, there remain to be considered the other strongholds which held the line of the valley.
It would be easy to multiply these if one were to consider all fortifications whatsoever connected with the general strategic line formed by the Thames, but such a catalogue would exceed the boundaries set to this book. It is proposed to consider only those which were strictly connected with the passage of the stream, and of such there are but three besides Dorchester and Oxford, for that at Cricklade is doubtful, and in any case determines a passage which could be always outflanked upon either side, while the great fortress of the Tower, lying as it does upon the estuarial Thames below bridges, does directly protect a highway.
These three strongholds directly connected with the inland river are Wallingford, Reading and Windsor, and of the three Wallingford and Windsor were more directly military: the last, Reading, appears to have been but an adjunct to a large and civil population; the fourfold quality of Reading in the history of the Thames, as a civil settlement, as a religious centre, as a stronghold, and as one of the very few examples of modern industrial development in the valley, will be considered later. We will take each of the three strongholds in their order down stream.
What determined the importance of Wallingford is not easy to fix nowadays. The explanation more usually given to the great part which this crossing of the Thames played in the early history of Britain is the double one that it was the lowest continuously practicable ford over the river, and that it held the passage of the great road going from London to the west.
Now it is true that any traveller making from London to Bath, or the Mendip Hills, and the lower Severn would, on the whole, find his most direct road to be along the Vale of the White Horse, but the convenience of this line through Wallingford may easily be exaggerated, especially its convenience for men in early times before the valleys were properly drained. Though the ford at Abingdon was more difficult than the ford at Wallingford, yet the line through Abingdon westward along the Farringdon road was certainly shorter than the line through Wantage. Whether the old habit, inherited from pre-historic times, of following the chalk ridge had produced a parallel road just at the foot of that ridge and so had made Wallingford, Wantage, and all the southern edge of the Vale of the White Horse the natural road to the west, or whether it was that the great run of travel ran, when once the Thames had been crossed at Wallingford, slightly south-west towards Bath, it is certain that the Wallingford and Wantage line is the line of travel in early history.