Monday, June 16, 2014

Bewcastle - History On the Edge

When excavating at the Vindolanda Roman fort site we get the weekends off.  In theory this is to rest sore muscles and do laundry.  In practice we usually pack Saturday and Sunday with expeditions to other area Roman sites, shamelessly exploiting diggers who brought cars!

Last time up several of us went to a place called Bewcastle.  Stepping onto the site I realized, and said aloud, "This church yard has more history than all of Wisconsin combined".  Quite true, and that is not even making allowances for the many things that have been forgotten at this lonesome spot.

We tend to think of Hadrian's Wall as the frontier of the Roman Empire.  While convenient for reference it is not strictly speaking true.  There were Imperial incursions short and long north of the Wall.  But if for several centuries the Wall was the boundary, you can imagine Bewcastle as being an observation post out beyond, out in Hostile Territory.  It had a garrison and fortifications and was linked to the more organized forces seven miles to the south by a series of signal towers.

It was an odd fort.  Most Roman forts are of a standard type.  Roughly the shape of a playing card and with the usual structures - granary, headquarters, latrines - in the usual locations.  Bewcastle fort was in the shape of an irregular hexagon.  It probably was built by simply using the footprint of an already extant British village or hill fort.  This would never pass muster within the Empire proper!

Even the name of the place speaks to its origins.  According to the Ravenna Cosmology - one of those maddening fragmentary Dark Ages sources - there was a fort in these parts called Fanum Cocidi. Since Cocidius was a local British deity, and since six altars to same were found on site, the conclusions are that this was indeed the "Shrine of Cocidius" and that the name preserves the earlier British identity of the spot.

Maybe in fact it preserved it for quite a while.  In 1937 excavations at the site uncovered what was thought to be the fort's strongroom.  In material dated by pottery and coin evidence to circa 266-273 there were found two votive silver plaques of Cocidius.

This raises some interesting questions.  The known garrisons at Bewcastle were from the Provinces of Dacia and Germania.  Does the presence of a Celtic religious item in such a place of prominence mean that the continental troops adopted the local religion?  Or was there extensive recruitment among the local peoples?  If so, does that have something to say about the loyalty of the troops?  Bewcastle, unlike most forts along the frontier, does show convincing evidence of destruction on two occasions.

In the general smash up that was the 5th century collapse of Roman power Bewcastle drops out of history for a while.  Something was certainly going on here, probably a thriving monastic community. As a location for such it did have advantages.  Isolation for serenity and residual fortifications for security.  And who knows, did the early Anglo Saxon (or Irish?) monks specifically chose a spot with strong religious roots?  And if so, did they do it to tap into existing spirituality or to plant the cross of Christ defiantly on the grave of paganism?

Because plant a cross they did.  Bewcastle is the location of what has been described as the best example of an Anglo-Saxon cross still in existence.  It dates to the late 7th or early 8th century.

The crossbars are gone, time has weathered the carvings tragically, but it is still a magnificent specimen.  Scholars have been arguing about its content for over four centuries.  It has weird reliefs of animals and birds, England's oldest sun dial, and runic letters that may link it to Efgrid, nephew of our old pal the far flung St. Oswald.  I refer the interested to a more in depth study of the cross. Wikipedia is a decent starting point.  But here is one image that caught both the light and the mood of the place nicely.

Somewhere in the medieval period the site became known as "Bothycaster".  This combines the Latin term "Castrum" for fortress with an old English word, "Bothy".  The latter means sheds or enclosures for animals.  I presume the term "booth" descends from this root.  So at some point the monastic era ended and "Bewcastle" was a ruin with sheds.

But the location remained strategic, so the Normans built a castle there in the 1090's.  They probably found the local population just as suspect as every government before or since.  The somewhat redundantly named Bewcastle Castle was the site of much fighting between rival families of "Reivers" up until the point of its final destruction by the forces of Oliver Cromwell in 1641.

Celtic shrine, Roman fort, Dark Ages monastery, Norman castle.  It is a lot to pack into one small place.  Bewcastle has been ruled - if often rather loosely - by Emperors, by Kings great and petty, by Abbots and Knights and various levels of war lords and plain brigands.  Sometimes it has in all likelihood been ruled by no man.

It has seen the march of disciplined Roman troops.  Once there was a garrison of 1,000 men here.  It has seen barbarian hordes besieging the place or swarming past it for better pickings in the more civilized lands to the south.  Grim Normans glowered out of stone ramparts and dreamed of sunny, far away France.  Feuding Reivers, those borderland equivalents of the Hatfields and McCoys, carried on their endless cycle of cattle theft and murder and vengeance.

For all that it is an idyllic place today.  There is one farm where nobody seemed to be about.  And a church, open but empty on a Sunday afternoon.  Everything from the ruined castle to the field walls was constructed of robbed out stones from the Roman fort.

A quiet place indeed.  But still a border land.  If Scotland indeed votes for independence there may well be a frontier crossing right down the road.  Times have become less militant of course, so there may be no need to upgrade the current garrison of Bewcastle....which consists of a small troop of placid llamas.

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