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The De Situ Britanniae by Richard of Cirencester, and the eighteen Itineraries contained within it, appear frequently as source material in 18th & 19th century writings on Roman history and Roman roads in particular, and even some 20th century ones. Not least amongst these was the magnificent work, Military Antiquities of the Romans in Northern Britain, by Major-General William Roy, Scottish military engineer, surveyor, and antiquarian, published posthumously by the Society of Antiquaries in 1793. Unfortunately for Roy, his magnum opus was unwittingly a work containing a good deal of fiction, due to his significant use of De Situ Britanniae, one of the most successful and damaging hoaxes ever to be perpetrated on the British antiquarian establishment.

The story begins with William Stukeley, a man who is cited many times in this gazetteer. Stukeley was born in 1697 in Holbeach,  Lincolnshire, the son of a lawyer. He studied classics, theology and science at Corpus Christi college, Cambridge, going on to study Medicine at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1717, helped to establish the Society of Antiquaries in 1718, and became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1720 - a true polymath. His main antiquarian works were on Stonehenge and Avebury in 1740 and 1743, although by then he was already well established as one of the nation’s leading antiquarians.

On the 11 June 1747, Stukeley received a letter from Charles Julius Bertram (Higgins, 2013 p.152), an English teacher at the Royal Marine Academy of Copenhagen, who had emigrated to Denmark from England four years earlier. Bertram reported to Stukeley that he had seen a previously unknown medieval manuscript history of Roman Britain, written by one Richard of Winchester, entitled De Situ Britanniae (On the Situation of Britain), which included 18 itineraries different to the Antonine itineraries and was accompanied by a map of Roman Britain. Understandably cautious but excited, Stukeley pressed Bertram further and he must have been gratified to receive a glowing testimonial about Bertram from Hans Gram, the Danish royal librarian and member of the privy council, who was widely respected in English universities. After further attempts by Stukeley to persuade Bertram to attempt to obtain the manuscript, Bertram eventually admitted that it was in the hands of another Englishman who had stolen it from an un-named English library. Bertram kept Stukeley wriggling on the hook for some time before sending him a “convincer”, a “facsimile” of the first page of the manuscript (fig. 2). Stukeley sent this to David Casley, the keeper of the Cotton Library, who declared that the work was around 400 years old (Stukeley 1757, p.13). It seems that the convincer did its job and thereafter Stukeley did not doubt the authenticity of the work. Stukeley was, however, never to see the original since Bertram always found an excuse.

Bertram rejected all Stukeley’s attempts to purchase the manuscript for the British Museum (Britton, 1847, p.10) although he did supply Stukeley with a copy of the text, delivered piecemeal over time in a series of letters. It wasn’t until early 1750, nearly three years after the first letter from Bertram, that Stukeley eventually received a copy of the map (fig. 3).

Now possessed of at least a copy, Stukeley set to work studying the manuscript, and soon realised that it drew on texts such as the Antonine Itineraries and works by known Roman authors such as Tacitus and Caesar along with, crucially, other unknown authors. He quickly concluded that Richard of Westminster and the known medieval historian Richard of Cirencester were one and the same. Stukeley went on to identify in the text "more than a hundred names of cities, roads, people, and the like: which till now were absolutely unknown to us" and found it written "with great judgment, perspicuity, and conciseness, as by one that was altogether master of his subject" (Stukeley, 1757). In 1757, Stukeley published the itineraries contained in the work, whilst in the same year, at Stukeley’s urging, Bertram published the full work in latin (Bertram, 1757) alongside the known works of Nennius and Gildas.

Once published, despite some misgivings from historians such as Edward Gibbon and John Pinkerton its effect was profound, becoming one of the main sources of information about the  placenames and roads of Roman Britain (sometimes the only one) for another hundred years and more. Indeed, some of its impact will be with us forever. Until the early 19th century, the range of hills running up the spine of northern England did not have one single name; William Daniel Conybeare and William Philips in their Outlines of the Geology of England and Wales, quoted Richard of Cirencester’s “Roman” name of the Pennine Alps and announced that “we shall henceforth call them the Penine Chain” (Conybeare & Phillips, 1822, p.365). It stuck, and the rest is history.

If more British antiquaries had been able to access the limited print run of Bertram’s 1757 edition, with its rather dodgy Latin, perhaps the scam would have been revealed sooner. As it was, they were dependent on Stukeley’s translation which disguised many of the clues to the hoax. In 1846, the German writer Karl Wex challenged the authenticity of De Situ Britanniae and demonstrated that at least some passages were entirely spurious (Wex 1846). Doubts grew a little more slowly in Britain and it was twenty years later, in 1866 and 1867, when The Gentleman’s Magazine ran a series of articles by Bernard Bolingbroke Woodward which finally destroyed any notion of authenticity. Amongst other issues, Richard’s Latin was essentially English put into Latin words with the help of a dictionary (Woodward 1866 - 1867) .

In reality, the evidence had been in front of everyone’s eyes all along if only they had chosen to see it. Amongst the list of Latin names for Scottish place names, such as Aberdeen being Devana, was the supposed name for the Grampians, Montes Grampium. Unfortunately, it was misprint in a 1476 edition of TacitusAgricola in which Mons Graupius, the supposed site of the battle in which Agricola finally defeated the Caledonii, became Mons Grampium, the name only then being applied to the mountain range some years  later (Higgins 2013, p. 154). Indeed, the fact that Tacitus was clearly consulted elsewhere in the text should have been enough to cast doubt, as Richard would have had to have read a manuscript copy, which in Richard’s day were all in mainland European libraries, forgotten and not remarked upon. This simply could not have been the work of a 14th century English monk.

As for Bertram, he died in 1765, eighty years before his deception was exposed. His motives for the deception are unknown. As Charlotte Higgins speculated (Higgins, 2013 p.156), “Perhaps he wanted the attention and scholarly kudos, perhaps he was all the time laughing at Stukeley’s gullibility.”

Bertram, Charles J. (1747); Britannicarum Gentium Historiae Antiquae Scriptores Tres: Ricardus Corinensis, Gildas Badonicus, Nennius Banchorensis Society of Antiquaries of London. Digital copy available at : https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=c809AAAAcAAJ&pg=PA13&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false

Britton, John (1847); Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Character, of Henry Hatcher, Author of "The History of Salisbury," &c London

Conybeare, Rev. W. D. & Phillips, William (1822); Outlines of the Geology of England and Wales; London

Higgins, Charlotte (2013); Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain; Jonathan Cape, London

Stukeley, William (1757) [Read at the Antiquarian Society 18 March 1756], An Account of Richard of Cirencester, Monk of Westminster, and of his Works: with his Antient Map of Roman Brittain; and the Itinerary thereof, Richard Hett for Charles Corbet, London

Wex, Friedrich Karl (1846); Ueber Ricardus Corinensis, in  Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, 4, pp. 346–353

Woodward, B. B. (March 1866);  A Literary Forgery: Richard of Cirencester's Tractate on Britain in Cave, Edward, The Gentleman's Magazine, I (New Series); Bradbury, Evans, & Co., London pp. 301–307

Woodward, B. B. (May 1866);  A Literary Forgery: Richard of Cirencester's Tractate on Britain in Cave, Edward, The Gentleman's Magazine, I (New Series); Bradbury, Evans, & Co., London pp. 618–624

Woodward, B. B. (October 1866);  A Literary Forgery: Richard of Cirencester's Tractate on Britain in Cave, Edward, The Gentleman's Magazine, II (New Series); Bradbury, Evans, & Co., London pp. 458–466

Woodward, B. B. (October 1867);  A Literary Forgery: Richard of Cirencester's Tractate on Britain in Cave, Edward, The Gentleman's Magazine, IV (New Series); Bradbury, Evans, & Co., London pp. 443–451

Fig. 1. Portrait of William Stukeley, Mezzotint by J. Smith, 1721, after Sir. G. Kneller 1721 https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0005648.html

© Wellcome Library, London

References:

An 1809 published version of the map which Bertram gave to Stukeley.

Fig. 2. A reproduction of the “facsimile” of the text purporting to be by Richard of Westminster, published in 1809.

The Antonine Itinerary De situ Britanniae - an 18th Century Hoax The Peutinger Table The Ravenna Cosmography Ptolemy's Geography The Notitia Dignitatum