Stoke Lacy History

STOKE LACY IN THE DARK AGES

Tertullian described life in Roman times: “everywhere there are houses, people, cities, and life.” Not quite everywhere: what is now Stoke Lacy is unlikely to have existed in Roman times at all. The Roman road, which touched it, did not cross the River Lodon north of Stretton Grandison, and there were not enough people to support a mill. ‘Romanitas’[1], in Stoke Lacy was entirely conceptual. In 402 imports to Britain of new coinage ceased. In 406 the Vandals burst across the frozen Rhine into France. In 410 the remaining Roman troops were withdrawn from Britain in a vain effort to deal with the disastrous consequences. Trade ceased, and the Roman road touching Stoke Lacy fell silent. By 420 there were no markets and no schools. Roman Britain, and ‘Stoke Lacy’ with it, had hit the buffers, and the Dark Ages began. I shall refer to three aspects of the Dark Ages: Darkness_U (the Unknowing caused by the lack of written records); Darkness_H (the Horrors of pillage and rape); and Darkness_P (Paganism)

With the collapse of literacy, ‘Darkness_U’ fell, but nothing much worth recording happened for a while. Celtic tribal chiefs with Roman titles and togas continued in charge. Lower status Celts went on cultivating the fields. It took time for the collapse of commerce to cause anything more serious than a shortage of good quality fish sauce. In 429 a visiting bishop described his British congregation as “conspicuous for riches, brilliant in dress and surrounded by a fawning multitude”. Saxon barbarians were coming towards Stoke Lacy, but they suffered a reverse in Wiltshire in the 440s and did not arrive. Setting a precedent to be followed in 1444, 1938, and 2016 the political class now deserted the people they were supposed to protect. The leading Britons, ‘brilliant in dress’, decamped across the Channel, turning into ‘Bretons’. Across England their villas, like the one at Blackwardine, just up the Roman road from Stoke Lacy, mouldered away and fell through lack of maintenance. No-one attacked them, pillaged them, lived in them or burned them down. So much for Darkness_H. By 496 Gloucester was in ruins. The Roman road which skirted Stoke Lacy was now a road to nowhere.

Darkness_H remained on hold thanks to ‘King Arthur’ defeating the barbarians just south of the M4 somewhere (Darkness_U) between 490 and 516. Stoke Lacy remained in the strange twilight of a Roman Britain without towns or trade, which Gildas describes in 539 as ‘our present security’. Managing without the brilliantly dressed expatriates, ‘tyrants’ ruled amid the ‘dismal, deserted ruins’ of former Roman towns. One man’s tyrant is another man’s king: kings like Peibio Clafrog (‘Peibio the Driveller’) filled the power vacuum, setting up kingdoms in the Celtic/Roman/British western area of Britain. Peibio’s was called Ergyng and it overlapped South West Herefordshire. Peibio’s son Dubricius, who was born just 15 miles from Stoke Lacy at Madley, looked at the state of things in 540s, amidst the chaos of the ‘tyrants’, and did something which the distressed powerful were learning to do across the Roman world: he founded monasteries. This novel idea was suggested to him in 529, when St Benedict (20 years younger than Dubricius) founded the original Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino. In around 545 Dubricius founded monasteries at Moccas and Hentland. The monasteries which Dubricius founded were never destroyed by barbarians, and underpinned a religious revival, so Stoke Lacy remained firmly Christian. So much for Darkness_P! Quite a number of churches were built by these ‘Celtic Christians’: it was a feature of their work that they surrounded their churches by roughly circular churchyards. Stoke Lacy churchyard used to be circular.

Roman ‘Stoke Lacy’, waiting for the Saxon onslaught, was part of the kingdom to the north of Peibio’s, called ‘Pengwern’, the creation of the brilliantly dressed Britons with togas who had once ruled the former area of the pre-Roman Cornovii tribe, whose hill fortress on Titterstone Clee had looked down on Herefordshire from the north. Darkness_H may have touched ‘Stoke Lacy’ in 545, with a terrible epidemic of plague. ‘Arthur’ died, and the barbarians struck west again. They beat the Britons near Bath in 577, and the ruins of Gloucester, down the Roman Road from Stoke Lacy, fell into Saxon hands.

Then they fell out again. The despised, abandoned Britons of Gloucestershire, usually thought of as descendants of the pre-Roman tribe known as the Dobunni, beat the Saxons near Bicester in 584. The heathen barbarian Saxon tsunami receded back down the Thames Valley, south of the M4 for good. The Roman twilight in Stoke Lacy continued. Meanwhile, the western Britons were struggling with the Picts from ‘Ireland’, but they never got to Stoke Lacy either. (The nearest Ogham Stone, an indicator of Pictish presence, is at Crickhowell, fifty miles to the south west).

Flushed with their victory over the Saxons, the despised, abandoned (and presumably soberly dressed) Gloucestershire Britons (once the Dobunni tribe from Cirencester but now known by the unpronounceable name of ‘Hwicce’) flexed their muscles, and pushed the men of Pengwern across the Malvern Hills into Herefordshire. In 586 epidemic disease caused widespread depopulation in Europe. In 588 the-soon-to-be Pope Gregory saw British slaves in Rome. Impressed, he remarked that they were “not Angles but Angels”. They were Angles. Arriving from North West Germany they came into the Midlands down the Trent Valley. They were the ‘people of the border with Northumbria’. From the Germanic word for a border area, ‘Mark’, anglicised into ‘Merce’, these Angles became ‘Mercians’, and fought many battles with the Saxons. Between 594 and 603 the Anglian King Pybba, of Mercia conquered the West Midlands.

For the Hwicce, the enemies of their enemies became their friends, and by 600 the Romano-British Hwicce were intermarrying with the Angles. Bede tells us that the South Saxon queen Eafe had been baptised in her own country, the kingdom of the Hwicce. She was the daughter of Eanfrith, Eanhere's brother, both of whom were Christians, as were their people. Their names are Anglo-Saxon. The newly multicultural Hwicce continued to flex their muscles and, following the retreating Pengwernese over the Malvern Hills, occupied Herefordshire.

Finding a Roman town in the middle of the fertile saucer, whose old name, Magnis, was preserved by the locals who called it ‘Caer Magon’, they adopted the Anglo-Saxon name of ‘Magonsaetan’ (‘People who live at Magon’). The farmers in Stoke Lacy carried on as usual. In 591 the Magonsaetan founded ‘Hereford’, ‘the ford of the army’, necessary because the bridge at Magnis having long since fallen into the river. With the arrival of the Angles ‘Stoke Lacy’ found itself for the first time attached to the new ‘England’ spreading from the East. It was also on the direct route between ‘Hereford’ and Tamworth, the heartland of the Angles in central England. Its old Roman road, never much used since the Roman conquest of South Wales in 51 A.D., lay forgotten as important messengers crossed it at right angles on journeys to Tamworth from their new capital at ‘Hereford’. Leaving Moreton Jeffries behind them, and riding towards Tamworth, their way lay across the Lodon and a bridge was needed. At some point in that process Stoke Lacy was born.

In 597, Pope Gregory had dispatched a mission under Augustine to convert the people of Britain to Christianity. Rome was at that time beset by enemies, and needed a little victory which Augustine, he hoped, would provide. Augustine brought Roman, ‘Catholic’ Christianity, not the ‘Celtic’ version of St. Dubricius, St David, St. Patrick or the monks clinging to the remote island of Iona. The Catholics said that the Celtic Christians were politically incorrect, so that from their point of view Stoke Lacy was still in the Dark Ages.

Augustine was aware that there were still Celtic Christians in the west of Britain in need of ‘correction’. He must have believed that this ‘Western’ region began at Herefordshire, because he chose to meet the Celtic bishops at Stanford Bishop, not six miles from Stoke Lacy. There are few relationships pricklier than inter-sectarian ones, and the Celtic bishops soon took offence at this rude foreign toff with his fancy title of ‘archbishop’. They parted without agreement. Stoke Lacy, with what I now imagine to be its Celtic Christian church and its round churchyard by its new bridge, remained outside the pale of Catholic Christianity and so still in the Dark Ages, though never pagan.

Two or three archbishops, and several Mercian Kings later, in the reign of King Wulfhere, a religious conference known as the Synod of Whitby decided in 664 that the Celtic Christians were wrong, and the Catholics right. Hereford became a diocese, and soon had a bishop, called Putta. The arrival of this ‘mild mannered music master’ marked the definitive adherence of the area to that remote, bureaucratic, multinational, elitist, undemocratic organisation called the Roman Catholic Church, from which it would not Brexit until 1533. The Dark Ages were over.

 

 

[1] ‘Roman-ness’ - their word for it.

Credit: Hugh Nicklin 2019

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