Corbridge Roman Town

Winter is taking over. Daylight is becoming scarce as the season claims more hours for the night, giving us opportunities to indulge in activities more animal than the civilized ways of the morning. It’s easy to let yourself go when there’s no danger of being found out. That’s probably why what has traditionally been called The Dark Ages seem to be especially violent and primitive.



We’re not really sure about the details of what happened to mankind from the time the Roman Empire collapsed until Michelangelo decided to decorate buildings during the Renaissance. People from the Dark Ages didn’t leave many records, as many of them seemed unable to write. It’s a pity, as it was during this time that the Anglo-Saxons displaced the truly “native” inhabitants of Britain, instead of merely concentrating on the aristocracy as the Romans did. Constant invasions of Angles and Vikings during the Great Migration would have surely left an indelible mark on both the cultural and racial make up of the country, but we don’t have enough records about this time in our history.

Archaeology has shed some light on how people lived during the 5-10th centuries, but not much on how they thought. So, it’s difficult for us to discern the culture during this era, and historians are left to make suppositions that aren’t readily corroborated. One book can say, “The Vikings must surely have felt confident as they arrived to make a new home in Britain” while another can say, “The Vikings must have been worried about the new challenges they would face as they arrived to make a new home in Britain” and the statements would be no less difficult to prove when I say, “The Vikings must have been relieved to leave their longboats and steady diet of rotting fish as they arrived to make a new home in Britain.”

The lack of cultural output led to stereotypes of a savage, barbarous and backward era, and it was easy to accept these depictions because unlike the Romans, these people did not conform to our idea of what civilization means. Literature, architectural improvements, legal systems and scientific discoveries–these are some of the things we take into account when speculating how advanced a society is. How alike are they to our civilized selves? If this is the measure of humanity, then Rome had it in spades. Togas and laurel leaves can be easily disregarded.  In Corbridge, remains of a Roman town (nicknamed Coria) tell us the Romans actually introduced to us the very concept of urban settlement.

Corstopitvm (Coria) AD79-AD410

Corioopitum (Coria)

It’s the only place in Britain where you can walk on the original surface of a Roman “High Street.”  Originally a fort, the town developed into a civilian settlement over the course of many centuries and emperors.  Designed in the familiar form of a grid, the excavated remains reveal granaries, markets, a fountain house, workshops, military compound and temples. The site is thought to have originally housed a unit of about 500 auxiliary cavalrymen. Since a child’s grave was also found here, we can assume the soldiers lived with their families, prompting the area’s development.

It looked kinda like this.

It looked kinda like this.


You are free to explore the site, and an audio guide will suggest interesting places to look at. With appropriate background music and narration, you can walk along its main street, Stanegate, which ran from east to west between Solway Firth and the river Tyne, connecting to the only road to Scotland, and immerse yourself in all aspects of Roman life. It’s only a couple miles from Hadrian’s Wall, and it was a major regional centre in the North East. It provided entertainment, supplies, liquor and everything a weary soldier might require.

From personal letters that have been discovered, we know that soldiers requested time off from their post at Hadrian’s Wall to go to Corbridge. Things we associate with modernity, like a good drainage system, piped water and underfloor heating, were available in this Roman town.


The granaries had raised floors for air circulation and to deter vermin.

From Apicius, we know the Romans are familiar with the concept of fast food. They even had their own version of the hamburger, only they called it Isicia Omentata because it sounds fancier. Latin was the standard/official language, so everyone sounded smart. They lived just like us, had birthday parties and made grocery shopping lists. Our version of Gladiators may lack lions and can be a bit more kitsch than theirs, but the important aspects of what we call civilization are easily recognizable in the Roman Empire. But as with any empire, whether it’s British, Roman or American, this quality of life was not enjoyed by all. Like many civilized societies, it was built on a foundation of huge inequality of wealth and exploitation. Their slaves worked in farms and villas, ours work in Vietnamese sweat shops.

Just like us.

Just like us.

The sophistication of a society provides a veneer of peace and stability over the brutality that exists within. The Roman Empire was led by murderous regimes that are comparable to any dictators today. Julius Caesar had 400,000 people massacred in his campaign in Germany. In this town, slaves were worked to death, their owners’ initials branded on their forehead, and just beyond Hadrian’s Wall, there existed the “painted people” who refuse to be vanquished. In Britain, the rebellions made fortifications a requirement for any city the Romans established. This may be accepted standards of warfare, but somehow I doubt people from 3 AD would say, “Don’t impose your modern morality on us. Things were different in our day. We don’t hate being massacred at all.”

When advancement or progress is built on snobbery and inequality, the injustice and exploitation it breeds create resentment and all those things that eventually lead to either a war or a revolution. Of these “painted people,” the Caledonian chief Calgacus summed up the Roman system thus:

“Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.”

It’s remarkable how quickly Celtic life reasserted itself after the empire’s collapse. After four centuries of occupation, the Romans seemed to have very little impact on the British way of life until they were rediscovered hundreds of years later by aristocrats who made their family motto even more boring by writing it in Latin.


Alnwick Castle

Upon entering Alnwick Castle, I wasn’t thinking how popular a choice it is for filming locations even before it became Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies, or that it’s one of the top 10 most visited stately homes in England and welcomes around 800,000 visitors a year. Like many people, I entered the cobbled courtyard that housed the principal rooms looking a little dazed and conflicted.

There’s nothing particularly bewildering about Alnwick Castle’s layout, even if it’s one of the oldest castles to never have a square keep. No, our strange expression was caused by an experience we all shared immediately before being granted access to what has been the Percy family’s principal seat for over 700 years.

Entrance is £14.50

Entrance is £14.50, and that’d be £26.25 each if you also want to see the garden. Enjoy!

Well, thanks a bunch, Your Grace. Being the Duke of Northumberland, you’re probably strapped for cash and after all, “we are all in this together.” Poor thing, it must be dreadful living in the country’s biggest inhabited castle save for Windsor and being one of the major landowners in England. Maybe that’s why castle visitors only have access to the one restroom? Of course I’m willing to pay to see some of your priceless collection of art. At least it’s cheaper than Warwick Castle. No, Alnwick doesn’t have knights jousting or the world’s largest trebuchet, but it’s just as historical and it really is my pleasure.

The castle is the birthplace of the brave but kinda dim teenage knight Henry “Hotspur” Percy (20 May 1364 – 21 July 1403), who was immortalized in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. It also houses 3 museums and in one of them I saw Elizabeth I’s bespoke gloves (proving she had elegant and long, tapered fingers) and Oliver Cromwell’s nightcap showing the man had not only the famed “warts and all” but also an unusually tiny head.

For his speed and readiness to attack, they called him Hotspur.

For his speed and readiness to attack, they called him Hotspur. Naturally.

The castle is situated just below the border to Scotland, and under constant threat of invasion from the north. So, by necessity the earliest Percys  had to be skilled in warfare. For simplicity, they were also mostly named Henry. Hotspur was the 2nd Earl of Northumberland. Too impatient to wait for the Bishop of Durham’s troops during the Battle of Otterburn in 1388, Hotspur launched an attack on the Scots headed by Douglas, under cover of darkness.

It was a fearless move, the Scots would never see them coming. Unfortunately, Hotspur can’t see in the dark either so his troops mistakenly attack camp followers and servants instead of the soldiers. Amazingly, some of these Scots fought back and alerted the main forces. So Hotspur lost about a thousand men and was captured because of his impatience, while the Scots only lost 200.  Luckily, Douglas is killed in victory and Hotspur, along with his brother Ralph, were ransomed back to England.

To show his appreciation for being released, Hotspur betrayed his savior Richard II and put Henry IV on the throne.  Together, the two Henrys successfully fought against the raiding Scots but Hotspur really was a “loose cannon” and during an argument about what to do with the Scottish prisoners in the 1402 Battle of Humbleton Hill he rebelled against Henry IV and in 1403 Hotspur made his best move yet by dying in the Battle of Shrewsbury in hand to hand combat.

Probably learning from his ancestor’s folly, Henry, the 6th Earl of Northumberland (1502-1537), was “a lover, not a fighter.” Oh, he did engage in border warfare, but he wasn’t like his brothers, Sir Thomas and Sir Ingelram, who just like their ancestor Hotspur rebelled and were leaders in the Pilgrimage of Grace even while heartbroken Henry remained loyal to the King.

Today, Henry Percy is mostly remembered as being Anne Boleyn’s loving fiancé who was forced to break their engagement when Henry VIII became interested in Anne. Percy was then immediately wed to Mary Talbot, and so started a marriage so bad that within 4 years the couple separated and refused to see each other forever. And then a few years later, he was ordered by the King to be one of the jurors at Anne Boleyn’s trial. Percy collapsed after the verdict was announced and had to be carried out. He died just one year after Anne’s execution.

Anne Boleyn's first Henry, 6th Earl of Northumberland.

Anne Boleyn’s first Henry, 6th Earl of Northumberland.

Through the next  Percy generations, over and over remnants of  the passionate and foolish Hotspur would emerge. The 8th Earl was found dead in the Tower of London after being imprisoned for plotting to marry Mary, Queen of Scots. And then there was 9th Earl of Northumberland, also called Henry and known as The Wizard Earl, who was a long time prisoner in the Tower because he employed Thomas Percy, who was one of the conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot.

How hard could it be to learn from the mistakes of others? The issues that are fought about change with the times, but the reactions and arguments are always the same. The lessons learned seem as lost as the £14.50 I will never get back, but at least I got to laugh at Cromwell’s tiny hat.