Richard of Cirencester and the Pennines: Background (Alston Moor)

: ‘Mappa Britanniae Faciei Romanae Secundum Fidem Monumentorum Veterum Depicta ex Exemplo Ricardo Corinensis Amplificata

That mountain chain to the east of Cumbria was given the fake name of The Pennines by Charles Bertram,  an Anglo-Danish student, in the mid-18th century. He claimed to have found the name on a copy of a Roman map, made in the 14th century by the monk Richard of Cirencester.  It wasn't true

In 1747, the leading English antiquary of the day, William Stukeley, got a letter from Charles Bertram, a young English-born student living in Copenhagen, asking for his help. After a number of letters had been exchanged between them, Bertram revealed that he had recently acquired, in possibly shady circumstances, a medieval manuscript by a monk named Richard of Westminster, which comprised a detailed account of Roman Britain – De Situ Britanniae – with an ancient map attached. For Stukeley, this was exactly what he had been looking for – an indirect Roman source revealing the location of many places known from classical sources, but not precisely identified. It was all too good to be true (Spoiler Alert:  it was a fake!).

Stukeley, decided it must be the work of a known 14th century chronicler, Richard of Cirencester. Bertram sent him a facsimile of the first page of the work, together with a copy of the full text, and the map. After studying them in detail, Stukeley decided the man he had identified as Richard of Cirencester must have obtained and copied (with a few amendments) a map which had originally been made by the Roman general Julius Agricola.  Stukeley announced the discovery in 1757 in his book ‘An Account of Richard of Cirencester, Monk of Westminster, and of his Works, with his Ancient Map of Roman Britain and the Itinerary thereof’.  It was a sensation, naming 250 places, of which 100 were not previously known. It identified the Roman province of Valentia as the space between the two Walls – and it gave a new name - Vespesiana - for the region north of the Clyde.

One of the many new place-names was Alpes et Penines Montes (Alps and Pennine Mountains), given to the mountain chain running north to south.  There is absolutely no evidence for this.  ‘Penines Montes’ appears to have been made up by Bertram, copied from the Italian Apennines, as earlier writers such as William Camden had in the 16th century compared the range to the Apennines, for the way it similarly formed the backbone of the country. For many years, Bertram’s fiction went unchallenged, so when the Ordnance Survey came to map the region, they decided to use this name – which had never been used by the inhabitants of the region.  The name stuck, and in time began to be used by people, and so it has continued down to today.

But not only did he make up the Pennines – he made up more than 100 other names.  There’s no evidence that the Romans called the river Derwent Derventia – or the Lune Alauna.  In other places he has taken genuine names, but given them spurious locations – like that Morecambe river between the Derwent and the Lune.  He has also taken the Northern Irish tribe called the Voluntii,-  and brought them over the Irish Sea to Cumbria.

It has never been established exactly why Bertram carried out the hoax.  But once it was published by Stukeley, it was too late to back down.  Bertram published his own book on the map, and was made an Honorary Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.  He went on to build an academic career in Denmark prior to his death, aged 42.   Stukeley died the same year, 1765. There was a little surprise in academic circles that there was no sign amongst Bertram’s effects of the original map and manuscript: but for one hundred years the antiquarian world was convinced the map and text were genuine. Then, in 1866-67, a devastating series of papers appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine by B B Woodward, Librarian of Windsor Castle, who minutely and forensically demolished Bertram’s work, showing it could not possibly have been written by a 14th century monk. But it was now too late to stop people talking about the Pennines!

The attached map extract is from General William Roy’s great work “The Military Antiquities of the Romans in Britain” published in 1793.  Roy used Richard of Cirencester’s map in the introduction to his book, setting the context, and helping to give the Roman names to the sites Roy had surveyed.  Roy did not doubt for one minute that the map was genuine.                

References: David Boyd Haycock, Bertram, Charles Julius (1723-1765), literary forger, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2004)

David Boyd Haycock, Stukeley, William (1687-1765), antiquary and natural philosopher. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2004)

Text: by Bill Shannon

Image: ‘Mappa Britanniae Faciei Romanae Secundum Fidem Monumentorum Veterum Depicta ex Exemplo Ricardo Corinensis Amplificata ‘. From William Roy, The Military Antiquities of the Romans in Britain, Society of Antiquaries of London, 1793, engraved by Basire, 61 x 46 cm. Author’s collection.


To find out more about the history of the Pennine Township of Alston Moor, click here