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By Gilbert Abbott A'Beckett

With Reproductions of the 200 Engravings by JOHN LEECH

And Twenty Page Illustrations


George Routledge And Sons, Limited

Broadway, Ludgate Hill Manchester and New York

[Illustration: 011]

[Illustration: frontispiece]

[Illustration: 014]


In commencing this work, the object of the Author was, as he stated in
the Prospectus, to blend amusement with instruction, by serving up,
in as palatable a shape as he could, the facts of English History. He
pledged himself not to sacrifice the substance to the seasoning; and
though he has certainly been a little free in the use of his sauce, he
hopes that he has not produced a mere hash on the present occasion. His
object has been to furnish something which may be allowed to take its
place as a standing dish at the library table, and which, though light,
may not be found devoid of nutriment. That food is certainly not the
most wholesome which is the heaviest and the least digestible.

Though the original design of this History was only to place facts in
an amusing light, without a sacrifice of fidelity, it is humbly presumed
that truth has rather gained than lost by the mode of treatment that
has been adopted. Persons and tilings, events and characters, have
been deprived of their false colouring, by the plain and matter-of-fact
spirit in which they have been approached by the writer of the "Comic
History of England." He has never scrupled to take the liberty of
tearing off the masks and fancy dresses of all who have hitherto been
presented in disguise to the notice of posterity. Motives are treated in
these pages as unceremoniously as men; and as the human disposition was
much the same in former times as it is in the present day, it has been
judged by the rules of common sense, which are alike at every period.

Some, who have been accustomed to look at History as a pageant, may
think it a desecration to present it in a homely shape, divested of its
gorgeous accessories. Such persons as these will doubtless feel offended
at finding the romance of history irreverently demolished, for the sake
of mere reality. They will-perhaps honestly though erroneously-accuse
the author of a contempt for what is great and good; but the truth is,
he has so much real respect for the great and good, that he is desirous
of preventing the little and bad from continuing to claim admiration
upon false pretences.




IT has always been the good fortune of the antiquarian who has busied
himself upon the subject of our ancestors, that the total darkness
by which they are overshadowed, renders it impossible to detect the
blunderings of the antiquarian himself, who has thus been allowed to
grope about the dim twilight of the past, and entangle himself among its
cobwebs, without any light being thrown upon his errors.

[Illustration: 028]

But while the antiquarians have experienced no obstruction from others,
they have managed to come into collision among themselves, and have
knocked their heads together with considerable violence in the process
of what they call exploring the dark ages of our early history. We are
not unwilling to take a walk amid the monuments of antiquity, which we
should be sorry to run against or tumble over for want of proper light;
and we shall therefore only venture so far as we can have the assistance
of the bull's-eye of truth, rejecting altogether the allurements of
the Will o' the Wisp of mere probability. It is not because former
historians have gone head oyer heels into the gulf of conjecture, that
we are to turn a desperate somersault after them. *

* Some historians tell us that the most conclusive evidence
of things that have happened is to be found in the reports
of the _Times_. This source of information is, however,
closed against us, for the _Times_, unfortunately, had no
reporters when these isles were first inhabited.

The best materials for getting at the early history of a country are its
coins, its architecture, and its manners. The Britons, however, had not
yet converted the Britannia metal - for which their valour always made
them conspicuous - into coins, while their architecture, to judge from
the Druidical remains, was of the wicket style, consisting of two or
three stones stuck upright in the earth, with another stone laid at
the top of them; after the fashion with which all lovers of the game
of cricket are of course familiar. As this is the only architectural
assistance we are likely to obtain, we decline entering upon the subject
through such a gate; or, to use an expression analogous to the pastime
to which we have referred, we refuse to take our innings at such a
wicket. We need hardly add, that in looking to the manners of our
ancestors for enlightenment, we look utterly in vain, for there is no
Druidical Chesterfield to afford us any information upon the etiquette
of that distant period. There is every reason to believe that our
forefathers lived in an exceedingly rude state; and it is therefore
perhaps as well that their manners - or rather their want of
manners - should be buried in oblivion.

[Illustration: 029]

It was formerly very generally believed that the first population of
this country descended from Æneas, the performer of the most filial act
of pick-a-back that ever was known; and that the earliest Britons
were sprung from his grandson - one Brutus, who, preserving the family
peculiarity, came into this island on the shoulders of the people. *
Hollinshed, that greatest of antiquarian _gobemouches_, has not only
taken in the story we have just told, but has added a few of his own
ingenious embellishments. He tells us that Brutus fell in with the
posterity of the giant Albion, who was put to death by Hercules, whose
buildings at Lambeth are the only existing proofs of his having ever
resided in this country.

* The story of Brutus and the Trojans has been told in such
a variety of ways, that it is difficult to make either head
or tail of it. Geoffrey of Monmouth says that Brutus found
Britain deserted, except by a few giants - from which it is
to be presumed that Brutus landed at Greenwich about the
time of the fair. Perhaps the introduction of troy-weight
into our arithmetic may be traced to the immigration of the
Trojans, who were very likely to adopt the measures - and why
not the weights - with which they had been familiar.

Considering it unprofitable to dwell any longer on those points, about
which all writers are at loggerheads, we come at once to that upon which
they are all agreed, which is, that the first inhabitants were a tribe
of Celtæ from the Continent: that, in fact, the earliest Englishmen were
all Frenchmen; and that, however bitter and galling the fact may be,
it is to Gaul that we owe our origin. We ought perhaps to mention
that Cæsar thinks our sea-ports were peopled by Belgic invaders, from
Brussels, thus causing a sprinkling of Brussels sprouts among the native
productions of England.

The name of our country - Britannia - has also been the subject of
ingenious speculation among the antiquarians. To sum up all their
conjectures into one of our own, we think they have succeeded in
dissolving the word Britannia into Brit, or Brick, and tan, which would
seem to imply that the natives always behaved like bricks in tanning
their enemies. The suggestion that the syllable tan, means tin, and that
Britannia is synonymous with tin land, appears to be rather a modern
notion, for it is only in later ages that Britannia has become
emphatically the land of tin, or the country for making money.

The first inhabitants of the island lived by pasture, and not by trade.
They as yet knew nothing of the till, but supported themselves by
tillage. Their dress was picturesque rather than elegant. A book of
truly British fashions would be a great curiosity in the present day,
and we regret that we have no _Petit Courier des Druides_, or Celtic
_Belle Assemblée_, to furnish _figurines_ of the costume of the period.
Skins, however, were much worn, for morning as well as for evening
dress; and it is probable that even at that early age ingenuity may
have been exercised to suggest new patterns for cow cloaks and other
varieties of the then prevailing articles of the wardrobe.

The Druids, who were the priests, exercised great ascendancy over
the people, and often claimed the spoils of war, together with other
property, under the plea of offering up the proceeds as a sacrifice to
the divinities. These treasures, however, were never accounted for; and
it is now too late for the historians to file, as it were, a bill in
equity to inquire what has become of them.

Cæsar, who might have been so called from his readiness to seize upon
everything, now turned his eyes and directed his arms upon Britain.
According to some he was tempted by the expectation of finding pearls,
which he hoped to get out of the oysters, and he therefore broke in upon
the natives with considerable energy.

[Illustration: 031]

Whatever Caesar looking for the Pearls for which Britain was formerly
celebrated, may have been Caesar's motives the fact is pretty well
ascertained, that at about ten o'clock one fine morning in August - some
say a quarter past - he reached the British coast with 12,000 infantry,
packed in eighty vessels. He had left behind him the whole of his
cavalry - the Roman horse-marines - who were detained by contrary winds
on the other side of the sea, and though anxious to be in communication
with their leader, they never could get into the right channel. At about
three in the afternoon, Cæsar having taken an early dinner, began to
disembark his forces at a spot called to this day the Sandwich Flats,
from the people having been such flats as to allow the enemy to effect a
landing. While the Roman soldiers were standing shilly-shallying at the
side of their vessels, a standard-bearer of the tenth legion, or, as we
should call him, an ensign in the tenth, jumped into the water, which
was nearly up to his knees, and addressing a claptrap to his comrades
as he stood in the sea, completely turned the tide in Caesar's favour.
After a severe shindy on the shingles, the Britons withdrew, leaving
the Romans masters of the beach, where Cæsar erected a marquee for the
accommodation of his cohorts. The natives sought and obtained peace,
which had no sooner been concluded, than the Roman horse-marines were
seen riding across the Channel. A tempest, however, arising, the horses
were terrified, and the waves beginning to mount, added so much to the
confusion, that the Roman cavalry were compelled to back to the point
they started from. The same storm gave a severe blow to the camp of
Cæsar, on the beach, dashing his galleys and transports against the
rocks which they were sure to split upon. Daunted by these disasters,
the invaders, after a few breezes with the Britons, took advantage of
a favourable gale to return to Gaul, and thus for a time the dispute
appeared to have blown over.

Cæsar's thoughts, however, still continued to run in one, namely, the
British, Channel. In the spring of the ensuing year, he rigged out 800
ships, into which he contrived to cram 32,000 men, and with this
force he was permitted to land a second time by those horrid flats at
Sandwich. The Britons for some time made an obstinate resistance in
their chariots, but they ultimately took a fly across the country, and
retreated with great rapidity. Cæsar had scarcely sat down to breakfast
the next morning when he heard that a tempest had wrecked all his
vessels. At this intelligence he burst into tears, and scampered off to
the sea coast, with all his legions in full cry, hurrying after him.

[Illustration: 032]

The news of the disaster turned out to be no exaggeration, for there
were no penny-a-liners in those days; and, having carried his ships a
good way inland, where they remained like fish out of water, he set out
once more in pursuit of the enemy. The Britons had, however, made
the most of their time, and had found a leader in the person of
Gassivelaunus, _alias_ Caswallon, a quarrelsome old Gelt, who had so
frequently thrashed his neighbours, that he was thought the most likely
person to succeed in thrashing the Romans. This gallant individual was
successful in a few rough off handed engagements; but when it came
to the fancy work, where tactics were required, the disciplined Roman
troops were more than a match for him. His soldiers having been driven
back to their woods, he drove himself back in his chariot to the
neighbourhood of Chertsey, where he had a few acres of ground, which he
called a Kingdom. He then stuck some wooden posts in the middle of the
Thames, as an impediment to Cæsar, who, in the plenitude of his vaulting
ambition, laid his hands on the posts and vaulted over them.

The army of Cassivelaunus being now disbanded, his establishment was
reduced to 4000 chariots, which he kept up for the purpose of harassing
the Romans. As each chariot required at least a pair of horses, his 4000
vehicles, and the enormous stud they entailed, must have been rather
more harassing to Cassivelaunus himself than to the enemy.

This extremely extravagant Celt, who had long been the object of the
jealousy of his neighbours, was now threatened by their treachery. The
chief of the Trinobantes, who lived in Middlesex, and were perhaps the
earliest Middlesex magistrates, sent ambassadors to Cæsar, promising
submission. They also showed him the way to the contemptible cluster of
houses which Cassivelaunus dignified with the name of his capital. It
was surrounded with a ditch, and a rampart made chiefly of mud, the
article in which military engineering seemed to have stuck at that early
period. Cassivelaunus was driven by Cæsar from his abode, constructed of
clay and felled trees, and so precipitate was the flight of the Briton,
that he had only time to pack up a few necessary articles, leaving
everything else to fall into the hands of the enemy.

The Roman General, being tired of his British campaign, was glad to
listen to the overtures of Cassivelaunus; but these overtures consisted
of promissory notes, which were never realised. The Celt undertook to
transmit an annual tribute to Cæsar, who never got a penny of the money;
and the hostages he had carried with him to Gaul became a positive
burden to him, for they were never taken out of pawn by their
countrymen. It is believed that they were ultimately got rid of at a
sale of unredeemed pledges, where they were put up in lots of half a
dozen, and knocked down as slaves to the highest bidder.

[Illustration: 033]

Before quitting the subject of Caesar's invasion, it may be interesting
to the reader to know something of the weapons with which the early
Britons attempted to defend themselves. Their swords were made of
copper, and generally bent with the first blow, which must have greatly
straitened their aggressive resources, for the swords thus followed
their own bent, instead of carrying out the intentions of the persons
using them. This provoking pliancy of the material must often have made
the soldier as ill-tempered as his own weapon. The Britons carried also
a dirk, and a spear, the latter of which they threw at the foe, as
an effectual means of pitching into him. A sort of reaping-hook was
attached to their chariot wheels, and was often very useful in reaping
the laurels of victory.

For nearly one hundred years after Cæsar's invasion, Britain was
undisturbed by the Romans, though Caligula, that neck-or-nothing tyrant,
as his celebrated wish entitles him to be called, once or twice had
his eye upon it. The island, however, if it attracted the Imperial eye,
escaped the lash, during the period specified.


It was not until ninety-seven years after Cæsar had seized upon the
island that it was unceremoniously clawed by the Emperor Claudius. Kent
and Middlesex fell an easy prey to the Roman power; nor did the brawny
sons of Canterbury - since so famous for its brawn - succeed in repelling
the enemy. Aulus Plautius, the Roman general, pursued the Britons under
that illustrious character, Caractus. He retreated towards Lambeth
Marsh, and the swampy nature of the ground gave the invaders reason to
feel that it was somewhat too

"Far into the bowels of the land
They had march'd on without impediment."

Vespasian, the second in command, made a tour in the Isle of Wight, then
called Vectis, where he boldly took the Bull by the horns, and seized
upon Cowes with considerable energy. Still, little was done till
Ostorius Scapula - whose name implies that he was a sharp blade - put his
shoulder to the wheel, and erected a line of defences - a line in
which he was so successful that it may have been called his peculiar
_forte_ - to protect the territory that had been acquired.

After a series of successes, Ostorius having suffocated every breath
of liberty in Suffolk, and hauled the inhabitants of Newcastle over the
coals, drove the people of Wales before him like so many Welsh rabbits;
and even the brave Caractacus was obliged to fly as well as he could,
with the remains of one of the wings of the British army. He was taken
to Rome with his wife and children, in fetters, but his dignified
conduct procured his chains to be struck off, and from this moment we
lose the chain of his history.

Ostorius, who remained in Britain, was so harassed by the natives that
he was literally worried to death; but in the reign of Nero (a.d. 59),
Suetonius fell upon Mona, now the Isle of Anglesey, where the howlings,
cries, and execrations of the people were so awful, that the name of
Mona was singularly appropriate. Notwithstanding, however, the terrific
oaths of the natives, they could not succeed in swearing away the lives
of their aggressors. Suetonius, having made them pay the penalty of so
much bad language, was called up to London, then a Roman colony; but he
no sooner arrived in town, than he was obliged to include himself among
the departures, in consequence of the fury of Boadicea, that greatest
of viragoes and first of British heroines. She reduced London to ashes,
which Suetonius did not stay to sift; but he waited the attack of
Boadicea a little way out of town, and pitched his tent within a modern
omnibus ride of the great metropolis. His fair antagonist drove after
him in her chariot, with her two daughters, the Misses Boadicea, at her
side, and addressed to her army some of those appeals on behalf of "a
British female in distress," which have since been adopted by British
dramatists. The valorous old vixen was, however, defeated; and rather
than swallow the bitter pill which would have poisoned the remainder of
her days, she took a single dose and terminated her own existence.

Suetonius soon returned with his suite to the Continent, without having
finished the war; for it was always a characteristic of the Britons,
that they never would acknowledge they had had enough at the hands of an
enemy. Some little time afterwards, we find Cerealis engaged in one of
those attacks upon Britain which might be called serials, from their
frequent repetition; and subsequently, about the year 75 or 78, Julius
Frontinus succeeded to the business from which so many before him had
retired with very little profit.

The general, however, who cemented the power of Rome - or, to speak
figuratively, introduced the Roman cement among the Bricks or
Britons - was Julius Agricola, the father-in-law of Tacitus, the
historian, who has lost no opportunity of puffing most outrageously his
undoubtedly meritorious relative.

[Illustration: 035]

Agricola certainly did considerable havoc in Britain. He sent the Scotch
reeling oyer the Grampian Hills, and led the Caledonians a pretty dance.

Portrait of Julius Agricola. He ran UP a kind of rampart between the
Friths of Clyde and Forth, from which he could come forth at his
leisure and complete the conquest of Caledonia. In the sixth year of his
campaign, a.d. 83, he crossed the Frith of Forth, and came opposite to
Fife, which was played upon by the whole of his band with considerable
energy. Having wintered in Fife, upon which he levied contributions to
a pretty tune, he moved forward in the summer of the next year, a.d.
84, from Glen Devon to the foot of the Grampians. He here encountered
Galgacus and his host, who made a gallant resistance; but the Scottish
chief was soon left to reckon without his host, for all his followers
fled like lightning, and it has been said that their bolting came upon
him like a thunderbolt.

Agricola having thoroughly beaten the Britons - on the principle,
perhaps, that there is nothing so impressible as wax - began to think of
instructing them. He had given them a few lessons in war which they
were not likely to forget, and he now thought of introducing among
their chiefs a tincture of polite letters, commencing of course with the
alphabet. The Britons finding it as easy as A, B, C, began to cultivate
the rudiments of learning, for there is a spell in letters of which few
can resist the influence. They assumed the toga, which, on account of
the comfortable warmth of the material, they very quickly cottoned;
they plunged into baths, and threw themselves into the capacious lap of

For upwards of thirty years Britain remained tranquil, but in the reign
of Hadrian, a.d. 120, the Caledonians, whose spirit had been "scotched,
not killed," became exceedingly turbulent. Hadrian, who felt his
weakness, went to the wall of Agricola, * which was rebuilt in order to
protect the territory the Romans had acquired. Some years afterwards the
power of the empire went into a decline, which caused a consumption
at home of many of the troops that had been previously kept for the
protection of foreign possessions. Britain took this opportunity of
revolting, and in the year 207, the Emperor Severus, though far advanced
in years and a martyr to the gout, determined to march in person against
the barbarians. He had no sooner set his foot on English ground than
his gout caused him to feel the greatest difficulties at every step,
and having been no less than four years getting to York, he knocked
up there, a.d. 211, and died in a dreadful hobble. Caracalla, son and
successor to the late Emperor Severus, executed a surrender of land
to the Caledonians for the sake of peace, and being desirous of
administering to the effects of his lamented governor in Rome, left the
island for ever.

* The remains of this wall are still in existence, to
furnish food for the Archeologians who occasionally feast on
the bricks, which have become venerable with the crust of
ages. A morning roll among the mounds in the neighbourhood
where this famous wall once existed, is considered a most
delicate repast to the antiquarian.

[Illustration: 036]

The history of Britain for the next seventy years may be easily written,
for a blank page would tell all that is known respecting it. In the
partnership reign of Dioclesian and Maximian, a.d. 288, "the land we
live in" turns up again, under somewhat unfavourable circumstances, for
we find its coasts being ravaged about this time by Scandinavian and
Saxon pirates. Carausius, a sea captain, and either a Belgian or Briton
by birth, was employed against the pirates, to whom, in the Baltic
sound, he gave a sound thrashing. Instead, however, of sending the
plunder home to his employers, he pocketed the proceeds of his own
victories, and the Emperors, growing jealous of his power, sent
instructions to have him slain at the earliest convenience. The wily
sailor, however, fled to Britain, where he planted his standard, and
where the tar, claiming the natives as his "messmates," induced them
to join him in the mess he had got into. The Roman eagles were put to
flight, and both wings of the imperial army exhibited the white feather.
Peace with Carausius was purchased by conceding to him the government of
Britain and Boulogne, with the proud title of Emperor.

The assumption of the rank of Emperor of Boulogne seems to us about as

Online LibraryGilbert Abbott À BeckettThe Comic History Of England → online text (page 1 of 64)