In the pageantry at Northampton in May with representations of interesting episodes in the history of the district no incident before the Norman Conquest found place. Perhaps it was as well as a great deal would have been based on imagination. Still I regret that the opening scene in Abington Park was not laid in Hunsbury, a place still of mystery but from which we have derived more knowledge of the first century Britons than from the whole of England besides.
Hunsbury is a British camp in the parish of Hardingstone, within a couple of miles or so of old Northampton.
It is nearly round, four or five acres in extent, and is surrounded with powerful earthworks which time and juveniles will eventually obliterate. It is commonly called Danes Camp, testimony of the traditional horror of Danish invaders. It is an absolute misnomer, for there is not the slightest evidence that a Dane ever set his foot in it, or, indeed, ever saw it.
Starting from the south side of the riven Nene, very near where it is crossed by South Bridge, is a road called Banbury lane. This road after a mile or two proceeds in a fairly direct line across southern Northamptonshire to Banbury in Oxfordshire. Thence it goes in the same direction on to the Cotswolds and the Severn. From the navigable waters of the Nene at Northampton to the Severn it thus cuts England into two. The Northampton end of Banbury lane is somewhat recent. The old thoroughfare, a couple of miles before it reaches Northampton from Banbury, bears more to the east, passes Northampton south of the Nene and proceeds almost parallel to the river to Wellingborough, or rather to the Roman station of Chester, near Wellingborough, also to the south of the Nene. Hunsbury is situated on the road itself just where it seems to make up its mind to avoid Northampton. It is possible, indeed probable, that before Hunsbury was formed the original road bifurcated near Rothersthorpe, one part taking very much the present line and the other making straight for the Nene at Northampton.
Readers, without the necessity of referring to a map, will remember that the Wash on the east coast and the Bristol Channel and the Severn to the west, leave but a short stretch of land between the two seas. In a direct line the distance is only about a hundred and forty miles. The Nene follows this line fairly well between Wisbech (its mouth) and Northampton. This accounts for about half the distance. The rest is along Banbury lane and its continuation.
It is known that before the Romans came to this country, when British tribes or kingdoms existed by the dozen, this line, the Nene from the sea to Northampton, and a road from Northampton to the Severn, formed a tribal frontier. The road is represented in Northamptonshire today by Banbury lane.
This road or track is very old. Its origins must go back to dim antiquity, to times perhaps as remote as when England was still a portion of the continent. I like to picture it in its palmiest times as a wide track, void of trees and bushes, covered mainly with grass except perhaps in the centre. People of all tribes were free to use the road provided they kept in the middle. Approaching the side in numbers would be an act of hostility. Probably there were watchers to give notice of concerted action by bodies of people. Information would be passed 011 by smoke signals from elevated positions. It is known that Welsh people used this road to drive their mountain cattle in their yearly journeys to what is now East Anglia-Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire-where they exchanged most of them for corn with which they loaded the unsold ponies reserved for transport back.
For such travellers there were places in the nature of enclosures where, if necessary, they could spend the night with their live stock. No doubt the wide open road would ordinarily serve, but if warring tribes were about, or bands of murderous thieves, something in the nature of a stronghold was necessary. Judging from the name, confirmed by the existing earthworks, Rothersthorpe was one such place. " Rothersthorpe " is simply English for " cattle town."
From the vicinity of Northampton these Welsh traders travelled eastward along the continuation of the road which no longer had the character of a frontier. The Nene served that purpose. Pew people realise the formidable obstacle to transit the Nene then presented. Before the river was made navigable, before there was any drainage, when the Wash indented England as far as Peterborough, its swampy length of rushy morass was well night impassible by human beings, except here and there where the high land came near on both sides, or there was a natural ford as at Clifford Hill just below Northampton. Probably it was at Cliff ford that travellers along Banbury lane turned to the right to reach the northern side of the Nene.
Years ago I prepared the accompanying map, inspired by the late Rev. R. S. Baker, of Har-grave. Banbury lane is said to be remarkable for the prehistoric fortifications on either side, circumstances quite natural along a frontier. Mr. Baker connects Banbury lane with a chain of forts which it is understood Tacitus says was erected between the Nene and the Severn by Ostorius Scapula in his conquest of Britain. This passage has been disputed, probably on insufficient grounds. Assuming that the present text of Tacitus is correct there is still a difficulty. The rivers he mentions are the Sabrina and the Antona. The Sabrina is indisputably the Severn : the Antona, Mr. Baker says, is the Nene. We know that the Nene was at one time called the Avon, a word which originally signified river. Mr. Baker connects Avon with An-ton, Latinised into Antona for both river and town. To distinguish the town from another in the south it was called North-an-ton, and to-day the Post Office puts " Northants " for the county, and those who know speak of the inhabitants of the county town as " Northantonians."
Mr. Baker considers that in the reduction of England the frontier forts in the neighbourhood of Banbury lane were taken over by Ostorius, some were strengthened and perhaps some new forts were erected.
Mr. Baker was too enthusiastic for his surmises to be accepted without other evidence. The late Sir Henry Dryden added some little to our information, and more recently the late Mr. J. T. George, who also carefully Marshalled all the known facts. As a consequence just a little of the history of Hunsbury is becoming known.
Hunsbury was a fort merely in the sense that it was a fortified British village, fortified perhaps as a protection against wolves primarily. Its period is well defined : not earlier than 200 B.C., and not later than 100 a.d. There is nothing military about the relics found at Hunsbury except such weapons as were ordinarily possessed by a village community. The place was not long occupied : not more than two centuries, perhaps not more than one. The number of inhabitants was roundabout 500.
In the excavation of the interior of the camp for ironstone in 1882-4 more than three hundred pits were discovered, really cesspits, not all of them in use at the same time. It was in these pits that practically all the finds were made. There were portions of more than a hundred querns or millstones. Four kinds of corn show that agriculture was carried on. There were spindle wheels used in weaving, combs for carding wool, bones of the red deer, roe deer, ox, goat, horse, pig and dog. There were spear heads and darts, a magnificent sword, saws, adzes, sickles, a chisel, a gouge, nails, a key, a pot hook, portions of tyre's of wheels, pins, rings, harness trappings, and many other things. They all belong to what is known as the Late Celtic period-in England after the use of iron had come in and before the Romans.
It is evident that the camp was abandoned by its inhabitants. It was not done in an hour of panic, but it was accomplished hurriedly. The cattle and all household possessions, all tools and weapons, were taken away with one exception. We can imagine men, women and children, horses and cattle loaded to capacity trekking off in one large company. Everything was taken except the hundred millstones, which were used every day for the daily bread. These, too heavy to carry, were thrown into the pits : and they were never taken out. Some enemy compelled the evacuation. It was not wolves-there would have been no need to hide the millstones. It was not a warlike horde of other Britons-they would have found and valued the quern's. What then was the overcoming enemy ? Look at the map on the preceding page. By smoke signals Hunsbury was in easy communication with Northampton and Clifford Hill (essentially a watch tower) and thus with the Nene frontier right down to Peterborough. Similarly information was obtainable from the south and south west, and possibly from the west and north west. But the information came from the east or south because there were the same people, the same tribe, or at least friendly tribes. North of Banbury lane the tribes were hostile. As the information came from the south the invaders came from the south. They could only be Roman legions.
The Rev. R. S. Baker is no doubt right in associating Ostorius Scapula with Hunsbury. It was this Roman general who no doubt caused the evacuation, and if so, it was between 45 and 50 a.d. When the Roman soldiery found the camp empty they had no further interest in it.
It was useless to them from a military point of view, they neither occupied it nor slighted it.
We shall never know, of course, the detailed history of Hunsbury ; but as time goes on and additional facts of British times come to light much more may be ascertained. It is very likely that much will be learned in the next few years from Chester, near Wellingborough. This is a Roman station, possibly on the site of a British encampment.
Many of the stone querns discovered at Hunsbury and a very large collection of other relics are at the Northampton Public Museum in Guildhall Road. Those who are at all interested in the early history of the English people should visit this remarkable assemblage of the personal possessions of the British, our earliest authentic ancestors.