Saturday, 1 August 2015

Septimius Severus' British campaigns

Coins commemorating the British victories of Septimius Severus and his sons, Caracalla and Geta
In 208 Septimius Severus travelled to Britain with the intention of conquering Caledonia. Modern archaeological discoveries have made the scope and direction of his northern campaign better understood. Severus probably arrived in Britain possessing an army over 40,000, considering some of the camps constructed during his campaign could house this number.

He strengthened Hadrian's Wall and reconquered the Southern Uplands up to the Antonine Wall, which was also enhanced. Severus built a 165-acre camp south of the Antonine Wall at Trimontium, probably assembling his forces there. Severus then thrust north with his army across the wall into enemy territory. Retracing the steps of Agricola over a century previously, Severus rebuilt and garrisoned many abandoned Roman forts along the east coast, including Carpow which could house up to 40,000 soldiers.

Cassius Dio's account of the invasion reads "Severus, accordingly, desiring to subjugate the whole of it, invaded Caledonia. But as he advanced through the country he experienced countless hardships in cutting down the forests, levelling the heights, filling up the swamps, and bridging the rivers; but he fought no battle and beheld no enemy in battle array. The enemy purposely put sheep and cattle in front of the soldiers for them to seize, in order that they might be lured on still further until they were worn out; for in fact the water caused great suffering to the Romans, and when they became scattered, they would be attacked. Then, unable to walk, they would be slain by their own men, in order to avoid capture, so that a full fifty thousand died. But Severus did not desist until he approached the extremity of the island. Here he observed most accurately the variation of the sun's motion and the length of the days and the nights in summer and winter respectively. Having thus been conveyed through practically the whole of the hostile country (for he actually was conveyed in a covered litter most of the way, on account of his infirmity), he returned to the friendly portion, after he had forced the Britons to come to terms, on the condition that they should abandon a large part of their territory."

Severus' campaign was cut short when he fell fatally ill. He withdrew to Eboracum (York) and died there on 4th February 211.

Monday, 25 May 2015

William of Hainaut, Bishop of Cambrai

Sterling, William of Hainaut, Bishop of Cambrai, c. 1292-96, Mayhew 87-8

During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the English penny (or sterling) was imitated on the continent by a number of rulers. They may be divided into pollards (portrait crowned, as on the English prototypes) and crockards where the portrait is garlanded by roses.

I was recently sent an example of a crockard issued by William of Hinaut.

William of Avesnes, or Hainaut, born in 1254 and died in 1296, was a French prelate of the thirteenth century. He is the son of John I of Avesnes and Adelaide of Holland. He is the brother of John II of Avesnes, Count of Hainaut, Holland and Zeeland.

William was provost of Cambrai, at the time of his election as bishop of Cambrai in 1290. There are many arguments between the bishop and the chapter. There can be a lot of sympathy between the bishop and the canons, when we know that they are at war with John of Avesnes, Count of Hainault, brother of William, whose officers had come to the village Onains to burn down several houses, ddemolish the mill, remove the bailiff with other people and many cattle, and they have even hanged a man. After several successive compromises, these disputes did not end until 1335. William died in 1296, on the route to Jerusalem.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Thoth as a seated baboon

One of my few Egyptian antiquities is this late dynastic faience amulet of Thoth in the form of a seated baboon.

Thoth's roles in Egyptian mythology were many. He served as a mediating power, especially between good and evil, making sure neither had a decisive victory over the other. He also served as scribe of the gods, credited with the invention of writing and alphabets (i.e. hieroglyphs) themselves. In the underworld, Duat, he appeared as an ape, A'an, the god of equilibrium, who reported when the scales weighing the deceased's heart against the feather, representing the principle of Ma'at, was exactly even.

The ancient Egyptians regarded Thoth as One, self-begotten, and self-produced. He was the master of both physical and moral (i.e. Divine) law, making proper use of Ma'at. He is credited with making the calculations for the establishment of the heavens, stars, Earth, and everything in them. Compare this to how his feminine counterpart, Ma'at was the force which maintained the Universe. He is said to direct the motions of the heavenly bodies. Without his words, the Egyptians believed, the gods would not exist. His power was unlimited in the Underworld and rivaled that of Ra and Osiris.

The Egyptians credited him as the author of all works of science, religion, philosophy, and magic. The Greeks further declared him the inventor of astronomy, astrology, the science of numbers, mathematics, geometry, land surveying, medicine, botany, theology, civilized government, the alphabet, reading, writing, and oratory. They further claimed he was the true author of every work of every branch of knowledge, human and divine.

Reputedly ex Florence Rossetti collection (c.1948-50)

Sunday, 8 February 2015

William de Ros, Hob Moor in York and the Magna Carta

On a very sunny Sunday in early February I’ve just walked from Woodthorpe in the suburbs into York across Hob Moor. Hob Moor is one of the ancient commons of the city with mediaeval strip fields very evident in parts. There are also the remains of an old golf course, greens and bunkers, that existed between 1920 and 1946.

At the Tadcaster Road end there are two stone monuments, a weathered coffin lid of a 14th century knight and a “plague stone/bowl”.

During the visitations of the plague in the 16th and 17th centuries, victims were brought from the city and housed in wooden lodges on Hob Moor. They would pay for food brought out to them by placing money in water or vinegar in the central depression in the Plague Stone, following the old belief that bubonic plague was spread by contact with coin.

Beside the Plague Stone is the Hob Stone, the effigy of a knight of the de Ros family. It was sculpted in about 1315 and is now much eroded, but the head, shoulders and shield can still be seen. It may be the coffin of William de Ros or Roos, 1st Baron de Ros of Helmsley (c.1255 – 6 or 8 August 1316), was one of the claimants of the crown of Scotland in 1292 during the reign of Edward I. He was the great grandson of Sir Robert de Ros, one of the twenty-five barons who guaranteed the observance of Magna Carta, and Isabel of Scotland, an illegitimate daughter of William the Lion, King of the Scots, by a daughter of Robert Avenel.

A sketch of Hob Stone was made by George Nicholson in 1825. It shows the wording engraved on the back of the knight’s coffin lid that said 'This image long Hob's name has bore who was a knight in time of yore and gave this common to ye poor'.

These were engraved on a brass plaque that has sadly gone missing.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014


In an uncanny act of synchronicity Peter Hammill's Ophelia was playing in my ears as I walked past the statue of John Everett Millais on the way from Pimlico Station to Horsferry Road this morning.

Maillais’ painting, Ophelia, was completed in 1852 and shows Ophelia, a character from Shakespeare's play Hamlet, singing while floating in a river just before she drowns. The scene is described in Act IV, Scene VII of the play in a speech by Queen Gertrude. The episode depicted is not seen onstage, but exists only in Gertrude's description. Ophelia has fallen into the river from a tree overhanging it, while gathering flowers. She lies in the water singing songs, as if unaware of her danger.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Percy memorial, Bramham Moor

Having driven past it on a daily basis I finally took a photo of the remnants of a monument that marks where Henry Percy fell at the battle of Bramham Moor (albeit relocated slightly from its original location).

The Battle of Bramham Moor on 19 February 1408 was the final battle in the Percy Rebellion of 1402 – 1408, which pitted the Earl of Northumberland, leader of the wealthy and influential Percy family, against the usurper King of England, King Henry IV. The Percy’s had previously aided Henry IV in his coup d'etat against his cousin, King Richard II in 1399.

Silver penny, Richard II, York mint

At Bramham Moor, south of Wetherby, Percy’s army was met by a force of local Yorkshire levies and noble retinues which had been hastily assembled to meet the force, led by the High Sheriff of Yorkshire Sir Thomas Rokeby. The exact sizes and compositions of the contending armies are not known, but the armies were far smaller than the thousands who had gathered at Shrewsbury, the rebels failing to gain widespread support or receive aid from other rebellious factions, such as Wales, where Owain Glynd┼Ár's rebellion was collapsing.

Percy was defeated, and the Earl himself died fighting a furious rearguard action as his army was routed. His severed head was subsequently put on display at London Bridge.

His position as a character in the Shakespearean canon may have inspired the character of Lord Percy Percy, Duke of Northumberland, played by Tim McInnerny in the first series of the historical sitcom The Black Adder that is set during the very late Plantagenet era.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Caracalla assassinated 1797 years ago!

On April 8th 217 AD the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (better known these days from the nickname or agnomen Caracalla, which, according to Aureius Victor refers to a Gallic cloak that Caracalla adopted as a personal fashion, which spread to his army and his court) was assassinated.

While travelling from Edessa to continue the war with Parthia, he was assassinated while urinating at a roadside near Carrhae on 8 April 217 (4 days after his 29th birthday), by Julius Martialis, an officer of his personal bodyguard. Herodian says that Martialis' brother had been executed a few days earlier by Caracalla on an unproven charge; Cassius Dio, on the other hand, says that Martialis was resentful at not being promoted to the rank of centurion. The escort of the emperor gave him privacy to relieve himself, and Martialis then ran forward and killed Caracalla with a single sword stroke. While attempting to flee, the bold assassin was then quickly dispatched by a Scythian archer of the Imperial Guard.

Caracalla was succeeded by his Praetorian Guard Prefect, Macrinus, who (according to Herodian) was most probably responsible for having the emperor assassinated.

The coin at the start of this post is a silver denarius of Caracalla from Rome with Jupiter holding a thunderbolt on the reverse. It was struck during the last year of his reign.