The Wooden Stakes in the River Thames

In noticing the two descents of Cæsar upon Britain (page 26) we said, “From the nature of his inroad into the country, no monuments exist, or could have existed, to attest his progress.” But there is a monument, if so it may be called, still existing, which furnishes evidence of the systematic resistance which was made to his progress. Bede, writing at the beginning of the eighth century, after describing with his wonted brevity the battle in which Cæsar in his second invasion put the Britons to flight, says, “Thence he proceeded to the river Thames, which is said to be fordable only in one place. An immense multitude of the enemy had posted themselves on the farthest side of the river, under the conduct of Cassibelan, and fenced the bank of the river and almost all the ford under water with sharp stakes, the remains of which stakes are to be there seen to this day, and they appear to the beholders to be about the thickness of a man’s thigh, and being cased with lead, remain immoveable, fixed in the bottom of the river.” Camden, writing nine centuries after Bede, whose account he quotes, fixes this remarkable ford of the Thames near Oatlands: “For this was the only place in the Thames formerly fordable, and that too not without great difficulty, which the Britons themselves in a manner pointed out to him [Cæsar]; for on the other side of the river a strong body of the British had planted themselves, and the bank itself was fenced with sharp stakes driven into the ground, and some of the same sort were fastened under water.” Camden here adopts Cæsar’s own words: “Ripa autem erat acutis sudibus præfixis munita, ejusdemque generis sub aqua defixæ sudes flumine tegebantur“ (’De Bell. Gall.’ lib. v.). Our fine old topographer is singularly energetic in fixing the place of Cæsar’s passage: “It is impossible I should be mistaken in the place, because here the river is scarce six foot deep; and the place at this day, from those stakes, is called Coway Stakes; to which we may add that Cæsar makes the bounds of Cassivelan, where he fixes this his passage, to be about eighty miles distant from that sea which washes the east part of Kent, where he landed: now this ford we speak of is at the same distance from the sea; and I am the first, that I know of, who has mentioned, and settled it in its proper place.” It is a rational belief of the English antiquaries that there was a great British road from Richborough to Canterbury, and thence to London. Cæsar’s formidable enemy, Cassivelaunus, had retreated in strong force to the north bank of the Thames; and Cæsar speaks of the river as dividing the territories of that chieftain from the maritime states. If we look upon the map of England, we shall see how direct a inarch it was from Canterbury to Oatlands near Walton, without following the course of the river above London. Crossing at this place, Cæsar would march direct, turning to the north, upon the capital of Cassivelaunus,—Verulam, or Cassiobury. Our engraving (Fig. 113) represents the peaceful river gliding amidst low wooded banks, disturbed only by the slow barge as it is dragged along its stream. At the bend of the river are to this hour these celebrated stakes. They were minutely described in 1735, in a paper read to the Society of Antiquaries, by Mr. Samuel Gale: “As to the wood of these stakes, it proves its own antiquity, being by its long duration under the water so consolidated as to resemble ebony, and will admit of a polish, and is not in the least rotted. It is evident from the exterior grain of the wood, that the stakes were the entire bodies of young oak-trees, there not being the least appearance of any mark of any tool to be seen upon the whole circumference, and if we allow in our calculation for the gradual increase of growth towards its end, where fixed in the bed of the river, the stakes, I think, will exactly answer the thickness of a man’s thigh, as described by Bede; but whether they were covered with lead at the ends fixed in the bottom of the river, is a particular I could not learn; but the last part of Bede’s description is certainly just, that they are immoveable, and remain so to this day.” Mr. Gale adds, that since stating that the stakes were immoveable, one had been weighed up, entire, between two loaded barges, at the time of a great flood.

De Bell Gall. lib. v that is, Cæsaris Commentariorvm De Bello Gallico Liber Quintus, and the quote is from chapter 18:

“Cæsar, discovering their design, leads his army into the territories of Cassivellaunus to the river Thames; which river can be forded in one place only and that with difficulty. When he had arrived there, he perceives that numerous forces of the enemy were marshaled on the other bank of the river; the bank also was defended by sharp stakes fixed in front, and stakes of the same kind fixed under the water were covered by the river. These things being discovered from [some] prisoners and deserters, Cæsar, sending forward the cavalry, ordered the legions to follow them immediately. But the soldiers advanced with such speed and such ardor, though they stood above the water by their heads only, that the enemy could not sustain the attack of the legions and of the horse, and quitted the banks, and committed themselves to flight.”

See the McDevitte and Bohn translation for example.


Gibson, the editor of Camden, confirms the strong belief of his author that at Coway Stakes was the ford of Cæsar, by the following observations:—“Not far from hence upon the Thames is Walton, in which parish is a great camp of about twelve acres, single work, and oblong. There is a road lies through it, and it is probable that Walton takes its name from this remarkable vallum.” Mr. Gale, in his paper in the ’Archæologia,’ mentions “a large Roman encampment up in the country directly southward, about a mile and a half distant from the ford, and pointing to it.” Here he imagines Cæsar himself entrenched. When we consider that the Romans occupied Britain for more than four centuries, it is extremely hazardous to attempt to fix an exact date to any of their works. Encampments such as these are memorials of defence after defence which the invader threw up against the persevering hostility of the native tribes, or native defences from which the Britons were driven out. For ninety-seven years after the second expedition of Cæsar the country remained at peace with Rome. Augustus (Fig. 117) threatened an invasion; but his prudence told him that he could not enforce the payment of tribute without expensive legions. The British princes made oblations in the Capitol; and, according to Strabo, “rendered almost the whole island intimate and familiar to the Romans.” Cunobelinus (Fig. 121), the Cymbeline of Shakspere, was brought up, according to the chroniclers, at the court of Augustus. Succeeding emperors left the Britons in the quiet advancement of their civilization, until Claudius (Fig. 118) was stirred up to the hazard of an invasion. In the sonorous prose of Milton—“He, who waited ready with a huge preparation, as if not safe enough amidst the flower of all his Romans, like a great Eastern king with armed elephants marches through Gallia. So full of peril was this enterprise esteemed, as not without all this equipage and stronger terrors than Roman armies, to meet the native and the naked British valour defending their country.” (Fig. 114.) The genius of Roman victory inscribed the name of Claudius with the addition of Britannicus (Fig. 116). The coins of Claudius still bear the symbols of his British triumph (Figs. 119, 120). But the country was not yet wholly won. Then came the glorious resistance of Caractacus, which Tacitus has immortalized. Then came the fierce contests between the Roman invaders and the votaries of the native religion, which the same historian has so glowingly described in his account of the attack of Suetonius upon the island of Mona:—“On the shore stood a line of very diversified appearance; there were armed men in dense array, and women running amid them like furies, who, in gloomy attire, and with loose hair hanging down, carried torches before them. Around were Druids, who, pouring forth curses and lifting up their hands to heaven, struck terror by the novelty of their appearance into the hearts of the soldiers, who, as if they had lost the use of their limbs, exposed themselves motionless to the stroke of the enemy. At last, moved by the exhortations of their leader, and stimulating one another to despise a band of women and frantic priests, they make their onset, overthrow their opponents, and involve them in the flames which they had themselves kindled. A garrison was afterwards placed among the vanquished; and the groves consecrated to their cruel superstitions were cut down.” Then came the terrible revolt of Boadicea or Bonduca,—a merciless rising, followed by a bloody revenge. Beaumont and Fletcher have well dramatized the spirit of this heroic woman:—

“Ye powerful gods of Britain, hear our prayers;

Hear us, ye great revengers; and this day

Take pity from our swords, doubt from our valours;

Double the sad remembrance of our wrongs

In every breast; the vengeance due to these

Make infinite and endless! On our pikes

This day pale Terror sit, horrors and ruins

Upon our executions; claps of thunder

Hang on our armed carts; and ’fore our troops

Despair and Death; Shame beyond these attend ’em!

Rise from the dust, ye relics of the dead,

Whose noble deeds our holy Druids sing;

Oh, rise, ye valiant bones! let not base earth

Oppress your honours, whilst the pride of Rome

Treads on your stocks, and wipes out all your stories!”


The Roman dominion in Britain nearly perished in this revolt. Partial tranquillity was secured, in subsequent years of mildness and forbearance towards the conquered tribes. Vespasian extended the conquests; Agricola completed them in South Britain. His possessions in Caledonia were, however, speedily lost. But the hardy people of the North were driven back in the reign of Antoninus Pius. Then first appeared on the Roman money the graceful figure of Britannia calmly resting on her shield (Fig. 122), which seventeen centuries afterwards has been made familiar to ourselves in the coined money of our own generation. Let us pause awhile to view one of the great Roman cities which is held to belong to a very early period of their dominion in England.