I came upon this volume in my capacity as a trustee of the Eden Valley Museum, a social history museum in Edenbridge, in the Kentish Weald. Partly as a result of its proximity to the continent and partly due to its valuable iron seams, fertile soil and mild climate, this corner of the UK is rich in layers of history spanning two thousand years. Edenbridge High Street itself follows the course of one of the Romans’ main routes from the coast to London.
Double history always adds an extra layer to a reading and in this case, we encounter the intrepid Reverend Francis T Vine, a typical Victorian amateur historian, hungry for knowledge and understanding of the world. Vine’s interest in the topic stems from his time as Vicar of Patrixbourne and Bridge, a key location in Caesar’s expedition and subject of the archaeological research of local landowner Lord Conyngham, to whom the book is dedicated, and who probably funded its publication – though the imprint page names Vine as rector of a parish in Gloucestershire, so it looks as if he moved on at around the same time as the book was published.
Vine sets the scene by relating how the Iron Age Gauls, derived broadly from what we now know as the Celtic regions, had control of much of Europe in the few centuries prior to the common era. He comments that they settled in what we now know as Italy and stayed because the wine was so good – proving that little changes – until they were expelled by the rising might of the Romans.
Out to prove his worth to his bosses, Julius Caesar conquered swathes of the northern European continent before setting his sights on the ultimate prize of Britain, seen as unconquerable due to its fearsome warriors, hostile climate and distance across the sea.
Caesar first invaded in 55 BCE, attempting to land at Dover but then moving up the coast to Deal (although as recently as 2017 it was posited that he actually landed further along the Thanet coast). He made some in-roads on land, but was forced to turn around, retreat and return a year later with reinforcements – an astonishing 25,000 soldiers and thousands of horses and chariots, transported on hundreds of boats.
Caesar’s progress on his second attempt was aided by British traitors, who persuaded a council in London that the best tactic was to let the Romans land and fight them fair and square – and then defected to the other side. Caesar fought off the heroic attempts of Cassivellaunus, the British leader who, having originally warred with other domestic states, brought everyone together to fight the cause.
Progressing up through Kent, Caesar was able to cross the Thames using a bridge constructed of wooden piles. With its specific interest in Kent, here Vine’s account ends, with the Victorian flourish: “Enough, if we have done anything to elucidate a page of our country’s history, which has hitherto been much obscured.”
Vine did considerable reading, and is at pains to stay across the detail, tying himself in knots with extensive footnotes and endnotes. The main source is Caesar’s own Commentaries, and the prolific Geoffrey of Monmouth is frequently cited. In fact, at the beginning of the book, Vine notes that some of the sources he was able to uncover only existed in Welsh, itself a point of interest with regards to the balance of power in the British Isles at the time.
What really stands out is how very far away the period was, and how little we know about it. More information is emerging, but very gradually: the Eden Valley Museum is home to an important hoard of Iron Age Gallo-Belgic coins, discovered in the area only in 2016, which may have been buried to hide them from the invading Romans.
Despite writing 135 years ago, the difference between Vine’s distance from the period and our own feels negligible. Looking at this from the opposite perspective, one wonders whether a Roman would be able to spot the difference between an eighteenth-century street scene in and one in the twenty-first century. 2,000 years is simply an unimaginably long time-span in terms of human development.
The book also highlights the importance of the plethora of enthusiastic, knowledge-hungry Victorians in researching and recording our history. This particularly applies to men of the church, who were educated, generally intellectually curious, had a lot of time on their hands and often had wealthy patrons to help fund their amateur research. It would be interesting to gauge just how much these keen, well-funded amateurs have contributed to our body of knowledge of the world today.