valley of the River Usk would have provided plentiful resources
for prehistoric hunter-gatherers; their transitory passage left
little lasting trace on the landscape. With the development of
farming it is likely that the area was gradually settled, albeit
By the Iron Age, a recognisable pattern of settlement had developed
around Caerleon. Lodge Wood hillfort,
overlooking Caerleon, was the largest of a group of defended sites
clustered around the confluence of the Afon Lwyd and the River
Usk. Smaller enclosures on surrounding hills, such as those at
Pen-toppen-ash and Cae Cam, were probably family-held farmsteads.
The inhabitants of these farms would, of necessity, have practised
a mixed agricultural strategy of cultivation and animal husbandry.
Limited archaeological evidence suggests that in the Iron Age
the land below Lodge Wood hillfort was grassland with patches
of scrub and small trees, probably used for grazing.
Caerleon lay within the territory of the Silures, a tribe whose
conquest cost the Roman army
much time and blood. Wales was not pacified until around AD 75;
only then could the final disposition of the legionary garrisons
be decided. York, Chester and Caerleon were chosen as the sites
for the three permanent legionary fortresses of Roman Britain.
Together with Chester, Caerleon was responsible for the military
administration of the Welsh tribes.
As a permanent base, the site was selected with care; the fortress
was built on the end of a low ridge stretching from Lodge Hill
to the River Usk, on ground above the level of the surrounding
floodplain. To the south and west the ridge was surrounded by
a bend in the Usk, to the east by the Afon Lwyd, producing a site
well provided with natural defences and free from flooding. Siting
the fortress close to the mouth of a tidal river allowed supply
by sea, vital if the fortress was to maintain a year's supply
Caerleon was known to the Romans
named for the river
beside which the fortress was built. Isca
by the Second Augustan Legion; the soldiers of the legion not
only built the fortress, but also the network of roads and auxiliary
forts through which the newly-subdued tribes were controlled.
At its peak the fortress was a small town in itself, with a garrison
of 5500 professional soldiers. Within the walls were barracks,
a large baths complex, drill halls, workshops and granaries. Some
of the main streets were lined with small shops selling food and
drink, pottery and other goods to the soldiers, either run by
the army or contracted civilians. Outside, a small town grew up
with temples to Diana, Jupiter Dolichenus and Kithras and further
baths, shops and houses. The
amphitheatre, built just outside the fortress walls, was used
by the army for training, as well as gladiatorial shows. Roads
leading out of the fortress were lined with cemeteries, as burial
was not permitted within the bounds of built-up areas.
the base of the second Augustan Legion for over two centuries,
although much of the garrison was posted elsewhere for long periods.
The Second Legion fought in Scotland and built a share of Hadrian's
Wall and the Antonine Wall, while detachments fought in the Empire's
wars abroad. The fortress must have been partially abandoned at
times, for dedication stones record the periodic reconstruction
of buildings which had fallen down, probably due to neglect.
The army abandoned Isca
the end of the third century AD, after dismantling or demolishing
some of the major buildings. Many others remained standing and
in use long after the departure of the army; the fortress remained
inhabited following the end of Roman rule in the fifth century
AD. The still-standing fortress baths were turned into cattle-pens
and small structures were built among the ruins inside and outside
the fortress walls.
In contrast to the squatter occupation suggested by archaeology,
post-Roman Caerleon is linked in legend with King
Arthur. The Mabinogion
of Monmouth, among others, site King Arthur's court at Caerleon,
while the overgrown ruin of the amphitheatre became linked with
the Round Table. Caerleon was also popular with medieval tourists,
notably Gerald of Wales who
wrote a vivid description of The Roman remains.
Julius and Aaron, two early Christians, were martyred at Caerleon,
possibly in the early fourth century, a church dedicated to them
stood across the river from Caerleon on Chepstow Hill. The dedication
of Caerleon Church to the Celtic St. Cadoc suggests a pre-Norman
date for its foundation, possibly as a Welsh clas,
although this is
Caerleon castle appears in the Domesday book, and was probably
founded by Caradoc ap Gryffyd, Lord of Caerleon, or his son Owain.
Castle and lordship remained in Welsh hands, with some interruptions,
until the thirteenth century. The early castle
would have been constructed of earth and timber, the impressive
motte survives in The Mynde.
A borough is first mentioned in 1171; as no charter survives it
remains uncertain whether it was founded by the Welsh or Normans.
Castle and borough were seized in 1217 by William Marshal the
Elder, and separated from the remainder of the Lordship, which
remained in Welsh hands until taken in 1270 by Gilbert de Clare.
After the castle fell into Norman control it was rebuilt in stone;
it was probably at this time that the shell of the fortress baths,
which had survived for more than a thousand years, was demolished
for its building materials. The new castle extended as far as
the riverside, a single tower still stands next to the Hanbury
Caerleon was largely sustained by its market and port;
ships from Caerleon maintained a thriving trade across the Severn
and reached as far as Portugal. Profits from trade paid for a
on the High Street and for large town houses; two sixteenth century
houses survive as the Hanbury Arms and the Bull Inn. The town
remained small, occupying less than half of the area of the fortress.
As a result, much of the below-ground Roman remains survive.
Until the end of the eighteenth century, the Usk was spanned by
a timber bridge, sited
just upstream of the current bridge and probably on the site of
the Roman bridge. The decking of the bridge was loosely fixed
to allow it to rise and fall with the tide, a feature which impressed
visitors to Caerleon when they first encountered it. This bridge
was in poor repair for much of the eighteenth century and was
largely destroyed in a storm in 1779. The present stone bridge
was built early in the nineteenth century, although its dedication
slab may be from another bridge entirely.
Caerleon was largely bypassed by the Industrial Revolution, which
was concentrated in the Valleys and these looked to Newport as
an outlet for their products. Although a
tin plate works was opened on the outskirts of the town in
the mid-eighteenth century, linked by tram
road to the river and the Monmouthshire Canal at Cwmbran,
had overtaken Caerleon in importance and rapidly stifled it. In
due course Caerleon became a suburb of Newport.
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