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The Historic Thames by Hilaire Belloc

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Hilaire Belloc




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

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

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

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

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

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 Somer_ford_ 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

There is no record, and but very little basis for conjecture, as to
the origin of the fortifications at Wallingford. Not much is left of
them, and though there is some Roman work in the place it is work
which has evidently been handled over and over again. It is certainly
somewhat late in English history that this "Walled Ford" is heard
of--with the tenth century. Its first castle is, of course, Norman,
and contemporary with that of Oxford--or rather a year later than that
at Oxford, and from the Conquest onward it remains royal. From that
time, also, it is perpetually appearing in English history. It was the
place of confinement of Edward I. when, as Prince Edward, he was the
prisoner of Leicester. It was the attempt to succour that prisoner
which led to his removal to Kenilworth, and finally to that escape
which permitted him to fight the battle of Evesham. Wallingford passed
to Gaveston in Edward the Second's reign, and, remaining continually
within the gift of the crown, to the Despenser in the succeeding
generation, and finally to Isabella, who declared her policy from
within the walls of Wallingford when she returned to the country. It
was next held by her favourite, Mortimer, and we afterwards find it,
throughout the fourteenth century, a sort of appanage of the
heir-apparent, and especially of the Duchy of Cornwall, to which it
was attached until the Reformation. It was for a moment under the
custody of Chaucer's son: it nursed the childhood of Henry VI., but
with the beginning of the next century it had already lost its
importance. After half that century had passed the castle was already
falling into disrepair; much of the masonry of the town and of the
fortress, lying squared and convenient to the river, had been moved
down stream for the new buildings at Windsor, and when, nearly a
century later again, the Civil War broke out, it was not until after
some considerable repair that the place could pretend to stand a
siege. It fell to the Parliament, and, before the Restoration, was
carefully destroyed, as were throughout England so many foundations of
her past by the orders of Oliver Cromwell.

It has often been remarked with surprise that cities and strongholds
once densely inhabited and heavily built can disappear and leave no
material trace to posterity. That they do so disappear should give
pause to those historians who are perpetually using the negative
argument, and pretending that the lack of material evidence is
sufficient to disturb a strong and early tradition. Those who have
watched the process by which abandoned buildings become a quarry will
easily understand how all traces of habitation disappear.
Three-quarters of what was once Orford, much of what once was Worsted,
has gone, and up and down the country-sides to-day one could witness,
even in our strictly disciplined civilisation, the removal, by
purchase or theft, of abandoned material.

The whole of Wallingford has suffered this fate--the mound, presumably
artificial, upon which the first keep stood, and which was, probably,
a palisade mound of Anglo-Saxon times, remains, but there is upon it
no remaining masonry.

Next down stream of the points with a strategic importance in English
history comes Reading. But the strategic importance of Reading was not
produced by the town's possessing a site of national moment: it was
produced only by local topography. Reading was never (to use a modern
term) a "nodal point" in the communications of England.

It may be generally laid down that mere strength of position is noted
and greedily seized in barbaric times alone. For mere strength of
position is a mere refuge. A strong position (I do not speak, of
course, of tactical and temporary, but of permanent, positions),
chosen only because it is strong, will save you during a critical
short period from the attack of a fierce, unthoughtful, and easily
wearied enemy--such as are all barbarians; but it cannot _of itself_
fall into a general scheme of defence, nor, _simply because it is
strong_, intercept the advance of an adversary or support a line of
opposition and resistance. Position is always of _advantage_ to a
fortress, and, in all but highly civilised times, a _necessity_--as we
shall see when we come to discuss Windsor--but it is not sufficient. A
fortress, when society is organised, and when the feud of one small
tribe or family against another is not to be feared, derives its
principal value from a command of established communications, and
established aggregations of power--especially of economic power. Towns
alone can feed and house armies; by roads and railways alone can
armies proceed.

There are, indeed, examples of a chain of positions so striking that,
from their strength alone, a strategic line imposes itself; but these
are very rare. Another, and much commoner, exception to the rule I
have stated is the growth of what was once a barbaric stronghold,
chosen merely for its position, into a larger centre of population,
through which communications necessarily lead, and in which stores and
other opportunities for armies can be provided. Such places often
preserve a continuity of strategic importance, from civilised, through
barbaric, to civilised times again. Laon is an excellent instance of
this, and so is Constantine another, and so is Luxembourg a
third--indeed they are numerous.

But, in spite of--or, rather, as is proved by--these exceptions the
fortresses of an organised people are found at the conjunction of
their communications, or at places (such as straits or passes) which
have the monopoly of communication, or they are identical with great
aggregations of population and opportunity, or at least they are
situated in spots from which such aggregations can be commanded.
Position is always of value, but only as an adjunct.

Now Reading, save, perhaps, in barbaric times, when the Thames was the
main highway of Southern England, occupied no such vantage until the
nineteenth century. To-day, with its large population, its provision
of steam and electrical power, and above all, its command of the main
junction between the southern and middle railways, Reading would again
prove of primary strategic importance if we still considered warfare
with our equals as a possibility. But during all previous centuries,
since the Dark Ages, Reading was potentially, as it is still actually,
civilian; and, indeed, it is as the typical great town of the Thames
Valley that it will be treated later in these pages.

The long and narrow peninsula between the Kennet and the Thames was an
ideal place for defence. It needed but a trench from the one marsh to
the other to secure the stronghold. But though this was evident to
every fighter, though it is as such a stronghold that Reading is
mentioned first in history, yet the advantage was never permanently
held. Armies hold Reading, fall back on the town, fight near it, and
raid it: but it is never a great fortress in the intervals of wars,
because, while Oxford commanded the Drovers' Road, Wallingford the
western road, and Windsor (as we shall see in a moment) London itself,
Reading neither held a line of supply nor an accumulation of supply,
and was, therefore, civilian, though it was nearly as easy to hold as
Windsor, as easy as Dorchester, its parallel, easier than Oxford, and
far easier than Wallingford, which had, indeed, no natural defences

Proceeding with the stream, there is no further stronghold till we
come to Windsor.

Even to-day, and in an England that has lost hold of her past more
than has any rival nation, Windsor seems to the passer-by to possess a
meaning. That hill of stones, sharp though most of its modern outlines
are, set upon another hill for a pedestal, gives, even to a modern
patriot, a hint of history; and when it is seen from up-stream,
showing its only noble part, where the Middle Ages still linger, it
has an aspect almost approaching majesty.

The creator of Windsor was the Conqueror. The artificial mound on
which the Round Tower stands may or may not be pre-historic. The
slopes of the hill were inhabited, like nearly all our English sites,
by the Romans, and by the savages before and after the Romans; but the
welter of the Saxon dark ages did not use this abrupt elevation for a
stronghold. What military reasoning led William of Falaise to discern
it at once and there to build his keep?

In order to answer that question let us consider what other points in
the valley were at his disposal.

Reading we have discussed. The chalk spurs in the gorge by Goring and
Pangbourne are not isolated (as is that of Chateau Gaillard, for
instance), and are dominated by the neighbouring heights. The
escarpment opposite Henley offered a good site for an eleventh-century
castle--but the steep cliff of Windsor had this advantage beyond all
the others--that it was at exactly the right distance from London.
Windsor is the warden of the capital.

If the reader will look at a modern geological map, he will see from
Wallingford to Bray a great belt of chalk in which the trench of the
Thames is carved. Alluvials and gravels naturally flank the stream,
but chalk is the ground rock of the whole. To the west and to the east
of this belt he will notice two curious isolated patches, detached
from the main body of the chalk. That to the west forms the twin
height of the Sinodun Hills, rising abruptly out of the green sand;
that to the east is the knoll of Windsor, rising abruptly out of the
thick and damp clay. It is a singular and unique patch, almost exactly
round, and as a result of some process at which geology can hardly
guess the circle is bisected by the river. If ever the chalk of the
north bank rose high it has, in some manner, been worn down. That on
the south bank remains in a steep cliff with which everyone who uses
the river is familiar. It was the summit of this chalk hill piercing
through the clays that the Conqueror noted for his purpose, and he
was, to repeat, determined (we must presume) by the distance from

The command of a great town, especially a metropolis, is but partially
effected by a fortress situated within its limits. In case of a
popular revolt, and still more in case the resources of the town are
held by an enemy, such a fortress will be penned in and find itself
suffering a siege far more rigorous than any that could be laid in an
open country-side. On this account the urban fortresses of the Middle
Ages are to be found (at least in large cities) lying upon an extreme
edge of the walls and reposing, as far as possible, upon uninhabited
land or upon water, or both. The two classic examples of this rule
are, of course, the Tower and the Louvre, each standing down stream,
just outside the wall, and each reposing on the river.

But in an active time even this precaution fails, and that for two
reasons. First, the growth of the town makes any possible garrison of
the fortress too small for the force with which it might have to cope;
and, secondly, this same growth physically overlaps the exterior
fortress; suburbs grow up beyond the wall, and the castle finds itself
at last embedded in the town. Thus within a hundred and fifty years of
its completion the Louvre was but a residence, wholly surrounded, save
upon the water front, by the packed houses within the new wall of

A tendency therefore arises, more or less early according to local
circumstance, to establish a fortified base within striking distance
of the civilian centre which it is proposed to command; and striking
distance is a day's march. The strict alliance between Paris and the
Crown forbade such an experiment to the Capetian Monarchy, but, even
in that case, the truth of the general military proposition involved
is proved by the power which Montlhery possessed until the middle of
the twelfth century of doing mischief to Paris. In the case of London,
and of a population the wealthier of whom were probably for some years
hostile to the Conqueror, the immediate necessity for an exterior base
presented itself, and though the distance from London was indeed
considerable, Windsor, under the circumstances of that moment, proved
the most suitable point at which to establish the fortress.

Some centuries earlier or later the exact point for fortification
would have lain at _Staines_, and Windsor may be properly regarded as
a sort of second best to Staines.

The great Roman roads continued until the twelfth century to be the
main highways of the barbaric and mediaeval armies. We know, for
instance, from a charter of Westminster's, that Oxford Street was
called, in the last years of the Saxon Dynasty, "Via Militaria," and
it was this road which was still in its continuation the marching road
upon London from the south and west: from Winchester, which was still
in a fashion the capital of England and the seat of the Treasury. Now
Staines marks the spot where this road crossed the river. It was a
"nodal point," commanding at once the main approach to London by land
and the main approach by water.

But there is more than this in favour of Staines. I have already said
that a fortress commanding a civilian population--an ancient fortress,
at least--can do so with the best effect at the distance of an easy
march. Now Staines is not seventeen miles from Tyburn, and a good road
all the way: Windsor is over twenty, and for the last miles there was
no good, hard road in the time of its foundation.

But, though Staines had all these advantages, it was rejected from a
lack of position. Position was still of first importance, and remained
so till the seventeenth century. The new Castle, like so many hundred
others built by the genius of the same race, must stand on a steep
hill even if the choice of such a site involved a long, instead of a
reasonable, day's march. Windsor alone offered that opportunity, and,
standing isolated upon the chalk, beyond the tide, accessible by water
and by road, became to London what, a hundred years later, Chateau
Gaillard was to become for a brief space to Rouen.

The choice was made immediately after the Conquest. In the course of
the Dark Ages whatever Roman farms clustered here had dwindled, the
Roman cemetery was abandoned, the original name of the district
forgotten, and the Saxon "Winding Shore" grew up at Old Windsor, two
or three miles down stream. Old Windsor was not a borough, but it was
a very considerable village. It paid dues to its lords to the amount
of some twenty-five loads of corn and more--say 100 quarters--and it
had at least 100 houses, since that number is set down in Domesday,
and, as we have previously said, Domesday figures necessarily express
a minimum. We may take it that its population was something in the
neighbourhood of 1000.

This considerable place was under the lordship of the abbots of
Westminster. It had been a royal manor when Edward the Confessor came
to the throne; he gave it to his new great abbey. When the Conqueror
needed the whole neighbourhood for his new purpose he exchanged it
against land in Essex, which he conveyed to the abbey, and he added
(for the manorial system was still flexible) half a hide from Clewer
on the west side of the Windsor territory. This half-hide gave him his
approach to the platform of chalk on which he designed to build.

He began his work quickly. Within four years of Hastings, and long
before the conquest of the Saxon aristocracy was complete, he held his
Court at Windsor and summoned a synod there, and, though we do not
know when the keep was completed, we can conjecture, from the rapidity
with which all Norman work was done, that the walls were defensible
even at that time. Of his building perhaps nothing remains. The forest
to the south, with its opportunities for hunting, and the increasing
importance of London (which was rapidly becoming the capital of
England) made Windsor of greater value than ever in the eyes of his
son. Henry I. rebuilt or greatly enlarged the castle, lived in it, was
married in it, and accomplished in it the chief act of his life, when
he caused fealty to be sworn to his daughter, Matilda, and prepared
the advent of the Angevin. When the civil wars were over, and the
treaty between Henry II. and Stephen was signed, Windsor ("Mota de
Windsor"), though it does not seem to have stood a siege, was counted
the second fortress of the realm.

Of the exact place of Windsor in mediaeval strategy, of its relations
to London and to Staines, and all we have just mentioned, as also of
the great importance of cavalry in the Middle Ages, no better example
can be quoted than the connected episode of April-June 1215, which may
be called--to give it a grandiose name--the Campaign of Magna Charta.
It further illustrates points which should never be forgotten in the
reading of early English history, though they are too particular for
the general purpose of this book--to wit, the way in which London
increased in military value throughout the twelfth and thirteenth
centuries; the strategic importance of the few old national roads as
late as the reign of John, and that power of the defensive, even in
the field, which made general and strategic, as opposed to tactical,
attack so cautious, decisive action so rare, and when it _was_
decisive, so thorough.

This book is no place wherein to develop a theme which history will
confirm with regard to the aristocratic revolt against the vice and
the genius of the third Plantagenet. The strategy of the quarrel alone
concerns us.

When John's admirable diplomacy had failed (as diplomacy will under
the test of arms), and when his Continental allies had been crushed at
Bouvines in the summer of 1214, the rebels in England found their
opportunity. The great lords, especially those of the north, took oath
in the autumn to combine. The accounts of this conspiracy are
imperfect, but its general truth may be accepted. John, who from this
moment lay perpetually behind walls, held a conference in the Temple
during the January of 1215--to be accurate, upon the Epiphany of that
year--and he struck a compact with the conspirators that there should
be a truce between their forces and those of the Crown until Low
Sunday--which fell that year upon the 26th of April. The great nobles,
mistrusting his faith with some justice (especially as he had taken
the Cross), gathered their army some ten days before the expiry of the
interval, but, as befitted men who claimed in especial to defend the
Catholic Church and its principles, they were scrupulous not to engage
in actual fighting before the appointed day. The size of this army we
cannot tell, but as it contained from 2000 to 3000 armed and mounted
gentlemen it must have counted at least double that tale of cavalry,
and perhaps five-, perhaps ten-fold the number of foot soldiers. A
force of 15,000 to 30,000 men in an England of some 5,000,000 (I more
than double the conventional figures) was prepared to enforce feudal
independence against the central government, even at the expense of
ceding vast territories to Scotland or of submitting to the nominal
rule of a foreign king. Against this army the King had a number of
mercenaries, mainly drawn from his Continental possessions, probably
excellent soldiers, but scattered among the numerous garrisons which
it was his titular office to defend.

In the last days of the truce the rebels marched to Brackley and
encamped there on Low Monday--the 27th April. The choice of the site
should be noted. It lies in a nexus of several old marching roads. The
Port Way, a Roman road from Dorchester northward, the Watling Street
all lay within half-an-hour's ride. The King was at Oxford, a day's
march away. They negotiated with him, and their claims were refused,
yet they did not attack him (though his force was small), partly
because the function of government was still with him and partly
because the defensive power of Oxford was great. They wisely preferred
the nearest of his small official garrisons-that holding the castle of
Northampton. They approached it up the Roman road through Towcester.
They failed before it after two weeks of effort, and marched on to the
next royal post at Bedford, which was by far the nearest of the
national garrisons. It was betrayed to them. When they were within the
gates they received a message from the wealthier citizens of London
(who were in practice one with the Feudal Oligarchy), begging them to
enter the capital.

What followed could only have been accomplished: by cavalry, by
cavalry in high training, by a force under excellent generalship, and
by one whose leaders appreciated the all-importance of London in the
coming struggle. The rebels left Bedford immediately, marched all that
day, all the succeeding night, and early on the Sunday morning, 24th
May, entered London, and by the northern gate. Their entry was not
even challenged.

From Bedford to St. Paul's is--as the crow flies--between forty and
fifty miles: whatever road a man may take would make it nearer fifty
than forty. Bearing, as did this army, towards the east until it
struck the Ermine Street, the whole march must have been well over
fifty miles.

This fine feat was not a barren one: it was well worth the effort and
loss which it must have cost. London could feed, recruit, and remount
an army of even this magnitude with ease. The Tower was held by a
royal garrison, but it could do nothing against so great a town.

From London, as though the name of the city had a sort of national
authority, the Barons, who now felt themselves to be hardly rebels but
almost co-equals in a civil war, issued letters of mandate to others
of their class and to their inferiors. These letters were obeyed, not
perhaps without some hesitation, but at any rate with a final
obedience which turned the scale against the King. John was now in a
very distinct inferiority, and even of his personal attendants a
considerable number left the Court on learning of the defection of
London. In all this long struggle nothing but the occupation of the
capital had proved enough to make John feign a compromise. As
excellent an intriguer as he was a fighter he asked nothing better
than to hear once more the terms of the Barons.

He proceeded to _Windsor_, asked for a parley, issued a safeguard to
the emissaries of the Barons, and despatched this document upon the
8th June, giving it a validity of three days. His enemies waited
somewhat longer, perhaps in order to collect the more distant
contingents, and named Runnymede--a pasture upon the right bank of the
Thames just above _Staines_--as the place of meeting.

There are those who see in the derivation of the name "Runnymede" an
ancient use of the meadow as a place of council. This is, of course,
mere conjecture, but at any rate it was, at this season of the year, a
large, dry field, in which a considerable force could encamp. The
Barons marched along the old Roman military road, which is still the
high-road to Staines from London, crossed the river, and encamped on
Runnymede. Here the Charta was presented, and probably, though not
certainly, signed and sealed. The local tradition ascribes the site of
the actual signature to "Magna Charta" island--an eyot just up-stream
from the field, now called Runnymede, but neither in tradition nor in
recorded history can this detail be fixed with any exactitude. The
Charta is given as from Runnymede upon the 15th June, and for the
purpose of these pages what we have to note is that these two months
of marching and fighting had ended upon the strategic point of
Staines, and had clearly shown its relation to Windsor and to London.

In the short campaign that followed, during which John so very nearly
recovered his power, the capital importance of Windsor reappears.
Louis of France, to whom the Barons were willing to hand over what was
left of order in England, had occupied all the south and west,
including even Worcester, and, of course, London. In this occupation
the exception of Dover, which the French were actively besieging, must
be regarded as an isolated point, but _Windsor_, which John's men held
against the allies, threw an angle of defence right down into the
midst of the territory lost to the Crown. Windsor was, of course,
besieged; but John's garrison, holding out as it did, saved the
position. The King was at Wallingford at one moment during the siege;
his proximity tempted the enemy to raise the siege, to leave Windsor
in the hands of the royal garrison, and to advance against him, or
rather to cut him off in his advance eastward. They marched with the
utmost rapidity to Cambridge, but John was ahead of them: and before
they could return to the capture of Windsor he was rapidly confirming
his power in the north and the east.

It must not be forgotten in all this description that Windsor was
helped in its development as a fortress by the presence to the south

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