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A History of Yorkshire
from Bulmer's Gazetteer (1892)

Part 2


Agricola, as we have seen, was the real conqueror of Britain; but even his conquests did not extend beyond the narrow isthmus between the firths of Forth and Clyde, across which he raised a line of forts, as he had similarly done between the Solway and the Tyne. All the tribes south of this outer barrier were brought under subjection and tribute to Rome, and, so long as the latter was paid, the natives do not appear to have been interfered with.

Thirty years after the departure of Agricola, the northern part of Britain, which he had conquered, was so overrun by the Caledonii and other northern tribes as to necessitate prompt measures of defence on the part of Rome, if she wished to retain possession of the province. The Emperor Hadrian himself visited the country. Of his exploits here history is silent; but he has left a lasting monument of his military and engineering skill in the wall which he erected to connect the forts raised by Agricola between the mouth of the Tyne and the Solway Firth. This barrier lay within the Brigantian territory, and ultimately became the northern limit of Roman rule. There is some doubt as to the nature of the work raised by Hadrian. The Roman historian, Spartian, informs us that Hadrian caused a formidable rampart or wall to be raised to separate the Romans from the barbarians of the north; and the same writer in another place tells us that the Emperor Severus "fortified Britain with a Murus drawn across the island and ending on each side at the sea, and for which work he received the name of Britannicus." These apparently contradictory statements have led to much learned disquisition as to the builder of the wall. Some writers endeavour to reconcile the two passages by supposing the Murus of Hadrian to have been an earthwork, to which Severus afterwards added a wall of stone; and such is the commonly received opinion of the inhabitants that dwell in the immediate neighbourhood. As a further confirmation, the advocates of a Severian origin advance its old name of Mursever, or Gualsever, i.e., the wall of Severus, by which, they say, it was known to the ancient Britons. But Dr. J. Collingwood, the latest and greatest historian of the Roman Wall, combats the claims of Severus, and declares that both the earthen rampart and the stone wall are parts of one work, which he ascribes to Hadrian.

This emperor, who arrived in Britain in the year 120 and brought with him the Sixth Roman Legion, fixed his residence at Eboracum (York), and that station became the head quarters of the legion during the remainder of the Roman occupation.

In the following reign the tribes on the north again broke through the Roman lines, and the Brigantes also gave some trouble; but Lollius Urbicus, who was at that time Propretor of Britain, chastised the latter, and then marched against the outer barbarians, whom he drove hack beyond the firths of Forth and Clyde, where he erected an earthen rampart, connecting the forts which had been raised by Agricola. This he called, in honour of the emperor,. the Vallum of Antoninus.

There is little of interest to record for some years after this. The Roman empire was disturbed by the contests of rival competitors for the imperial purple, and a large British force took part in a battle near Lyons, which left Lucius Septimus Severus without a rival. The Caledonii and the Mæatæ seized the opportunity to devastate the country which lay between the two walls, and the Roman Governor, unable to check the progress of the assailants, stooped to the disgraceful and futile expedient of purchasing the friendship of the invaders. This impolitic act procured only temporary tranquility, for they were more eager to renew hostilities in the hope of receiving a second bribe. So serious had matters become that the emperor deemed his presence in the island necessary to restore the prestige of the Roman name. Accompanied by his two sons,. Caracalla and Geta, Severus arrived in the year 208, and, though the season was far advanced, he collected the scattered forces and set out on his march to the north, leaving Geta to govern the southern and western portions of Britain.

The Caledonians did not attempt to bar his progress, but harassed his army in flank and rear by sudden surprises skilfully planned; and, although he never encountered the regular army, nor fought a single battle, he is said to have lost 50,000 men in the campaign. The troops suffered the greatest hardships during the march, cutting down forests, levelling hills, making marshes passable, and constructing bridges over rivers. Though advanced in years, and so feeble in health that he had to be carried in a litter, Severus persevered until he reached the northern limit of the island, and compelled the Caledonians to sue for peace. Returning to Britain he held his court at York, which thence became the capital of Maxima Cæsariensis, the Roman province comprising all the country which had hitherto formed the possessions of the Brigantes. Here he died, A.D. 211, whilst preparing for a second campaign against the Caledonians, who had broken their treaty, and were harassing the Roman territory to the south of them. His body was cremated, according to the Roman custom, on an eminence outside of the city,. still bearing the name of Severus' Hill, and his ashes conveyed to Rome. The successes of Severus are commemorated on several coins. Caracalla patched up a hasty treaty with the northern enemies, and repaired with his brother Geta to Rome to share the imperial throne, but the latter was soon afterwards murdered by Caracalla, who thenceforth ruled alone. During the next seventy years there is very little mention of Britain.

In 286 occurred an event which, whilst it disturbed the tranquillity and introduced elements of disunion, shows most forcibly the strength and prosperity to which the country had attained. Carausius, a Menapian by birth, or native of Belgic Gaul, was appointed by the Emperors Maximian and Diocletian to repress the ravages committed by the Saxon pirates on the shores of Britain and Gaul. The title of Count of the Saxon shore was conferred upon him, and a large fleet placed under his command. Having had such a powerful weapon placed at his disposal, he conceived the project of using it for the advancement of his own ambitious designs. His conduct awakened the suspicions of his imperial masters. Maximian prepared to punish his perfidy, but the Menapian, fleeing from their vengeance, crossed over to Britain, assumed the imperial purple with the title of Augustus, and, trusting to the power of his island empire, defied the whole majesty of Rome. During the eight years in which he swayed this western portion of the empire, he raised the naval supremacy of Britain to a height which it did not again attain until the days of Alfred the Great. His authority was not only acknowledged in this island, but also on the opposite shores of Gaul, and his fleet carried the terror of his name to the entrance of the Mediterranean. He who had defied the whole power of Rome for eight years at last fell a victim to domestic treachery. Alectus, his minister, fearing the resentment of a master whose confidence he had abused, murdered Carausius, and usurped the imperial dignity for three years. He was slain while contending against the Roman army under the command of Constantius. This emperor is represented in all the monastic chronicles as having married a British princess, by name Helena, a Christian, the daughter of King Coel of Colchester, the hero of the nursery rhyme, who loved his pipe and his glass, and delighted in the company of "his fiddlers three;" and their son Constantine, on the death of his father, which occurred at York, became the first Christian Emperor of Rome. This fiction of the parentage of Helena was first related in the Chronicle of Mont Michel (A.D. 1056), and was too flattering to native pride not to be eagerly seized and amplified. Concurrent testimony disproves her British birth and princely origin. Eusebius, Venerable Bede, and S. Ambrose declare that she was a person of inferior station. She was a native of Drepanum, on the Gulf of Nicomedia, whose name Constantine afterwards changed to Helenopolis, in honour of his mother.

Constantius resided in the Imperial Palace at York, and died there A.D. 306. Constantine, his son, who is said, but upon very doubtful authority, to have been born in that city, had long been detained a hostage in Rome. Hearing of his father's sickness he yearned to see him before his death, and filial love inspired the means to escape from his guards and elude his pursuers. Selecting the swiftest steed he fled, and at every station where he changed horses he maimed all those he did not require, and reached York in time to receive the blessing of his dying parent. He was chosen by the army at York to succeed his father as Emperor of the West.

Under this emperor and his sons this country appears to have enjoyed fifty years of tranquility, during which time both the system of government and the names of the territorial divisions were altered. Britain was placed under the jurisdiction of the Prefect of Gaul, whose deputy was called the Vicar of Britain, and resided at Eboracum (York). The country was divided into six provinces - Britannia Prima, which included all the south of England from Kent to Cornwall; Britannia Secunda included Wales and all the land west of the Severn; Flavia Cæsariensis included all the midland portion of Britain, from the Thames to the Humber and the estuary of the Dee; Maxima Cæsariensis embraced all the Brigantian territory lying between the estuaries of the Humber and the Dee and the Roman Wall; and Valentia, which included the district lying between the Wall of Hadrian and that of Antoninus. Each of these divisions had its own separate government, but all were subject to the Prefect. The governors of Maxima Cæsariensis and Valentia held consular rank; the other three were inferior dignity, and were styled præsides or presidents. The superintendence of the army was committed to three dukes: the first, called Duke of Britain, commanded from the north frontier to the Humber; the second, with the title of Count of the Saxon Shore, watched over the coast from the Humber to Land's End: and the third, Count of Britain, had command of the forces of the interior.

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