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Mancunium Roman Fort, Castlefield


The remains of the Roman fort named Mancunium date from AD79 and can be found at Castlefield in Manchester. It was built by Gnaeus Julius Agricola (Born 13 June AD40 – Died 23 August AD93) to guard the Chester to York road (as well as Castleshaw) and the route to Ribchester. There is an Arthurian legend attached to the fort, which, according to the tale, was the home of a giant knight named Sir Tarquin who was eventually vanquished by Sir Lancelot of the Lake.

The following account of the legend appeared in John Roby’s ‘Traditions of Lancashire’ (1872). ‘An old ballad commemorates the achievement; and many other relics of this tradition still exist, one of which, a rude carving on a ceiling in the College at Manchester, represents the giant Tarquin at his morning's repast; it being fabled that he devoured a child daily at this meal. The legs of the infant are seen sprawling out of his mouth in a most unseemly fashion. Some have supposed that Tarquin was but a symbol or personification of the Roman army, and his castle the Roman station in this neighbourhood.

The following extract is from Dr Hibbert's pamphlet on the subject:—

"Upon the site of Castlefield, near Manchester, was originally erected a British fortress by the Sistuntii*, the earliest possessors of Lancashire, comprising an area of twelve acres. It would possess on the south, south-east, and south-west, every advantage, from the winding of the River Medlock, and on its west, from the lofty banks which overlooked an impenetrable morass. By the artificial aid, therefore, of a ditch and a rampart on its east and north sides, this place was rendered a fortress of no inconsiderable importance. This fell afterwards into the hands of the Brigantes, the ancient inhabitants of Durham, York, and Westmoreland. Upon the invasion of the Romans, Cereales, their general, attacked the proper Brigantes of Yorkshire and Durham, and freed the Sistuntii of Lancashire from their dominion, but reserved the former to incur the Roman yoke. In A.D. 79, this British hold was changed into a Roman castrum, garrisoned by the first Frisian cohort, who erected from the old materials a new fort on the Roman construction, part of the vallum remaining to this day. New roads were made, and the British were invited to form themselves into the little communities of cities, to check the spirit of independence kept alive in the uncivilised abodes of deserted forests. The Romans possessed the fortress for nearly 300 years, when they were summoned away to form part of the army intended to repel the myriads of barbarians that threatened to overrun Europe.

"By contributing to their refinement, and protecting them from the inroads of the Picts and Scots, the Romans were regarded in a friendly light by the ancient inhabitants, and their departure was much regretted. It became necessary, however, that the Britons should elect a chief from their own nation. Their military positions were strengthened; and as the Roman model of a fortress did not suit their military taste, instead of one encircled with walls only seven or eight feet high, and furnishing merely pavilions for soldiers within, they preferred erecting, on the sites of stations, large buildings of stone, whose chambers should contain more convenient barracks for the garrison. An infinite number of these castles existed within a century after the departure of the Romans, of which our Castle at Manchester was one, carried to a great height, erected in a good taste, secured at the entrances with gates, and flanked at the sides with towers.

"The Britons, however, unable of themselves to cope with their foes, imprudently invited the Saxons, who, after subduing the Caledonians, laid waste the country of the Britons with fire and sword. The Castle of Manchester surrendered A.D. 488."

We have endeavoured to preserve the character and manner of the ancient chroniclers, and even their fanciful etymologies, in the following record, of which the quaint but not inelegant style, in some measure, almost unavoidably adapts itself to the subject.

Sir Lancelot of the Lake, as it is related by the older chronicles, was the son of Ban, King of Benoit, in Brittany. Flying from his castle, then straitly besieged, the fugitive king saw it in flames, and soon after expired with grief. His queen, Helen, fruitlessly attempting to save his life, abandoned for a while her infant son Lancelot. Returning, she discovered him in the arms of the nymph Vivian, the mistress of Merlin, who on her approach sprung with the child into a deep lake and disappeared. This lake is held by some to be the lake Linius, a wide insular water near the sea-coast, in the regions of Linius or "The Lake;" now called Martin Mere or Mar-tain-moir, "a water like the sea."

The nymph educated the infant at her court, fabulously said to have been held in the subterraneous caverns of this lake, and from hence he was styled Lancelot du Lac.

At the age of eighteen the fairy conveyed him to the camp of King Arthur, who was then waging a fierce and exterminating warfare with the Saxons. Here the young warrior was invested with the badge of knighthood. His person, accomplishments, and unparalleled bravery, having won the heart of many a fair dame in this splendid abode of chivalry and romance, his name and renown filled the land, where he was throughout acknowledged as chief of "The Knights of the Round Table."

The name of Lancelot is derived from history, and is an appellation truly British, signifying royalty, Lanc being the Celtic term for a spear, and lod or lot implying a people. Hence the name of Lancelot's shire, or Lancashire. From the foregoing it is supposed that he resided in the region of Linius, and that he was the monarch of these parts, being ruler over the whole, or the greater part, of what is now called Lancashire.

Arthur, king of the Silures, being selected by Ambrosius for the command of the army, he defeated the Saxons in twelve pitched battles. Four of these were obtained, as related by Nennius, on the river called Duglas,[8] or Douglas, a little stream which runneth, as we are further told, in the region of Linius. On reference, it will be found that this river passes through a great portion of the western side of Lancashire, and pretty accurately fixes the position here described.

Three of these great victories were gotten near Wigan, and the other is currently reported to have been achieved near Black rod, close to a Roman station, then probably fortified, and remaining as a place of some strength, and in possession of the Saxon invaders. Here, according to rude legends, "the River Duglas ran with blood to Wigan three days."

It was during one of the brief intervals of rest that sometimes occurred in the prosecution of these achievements that the following incident is reported to have happened. Being a passage of some note, and the earliest tradition of the county upon record, we have chosen it as the commencement of a work principally derived from traditionary history.

Sir Tarquin, a cruel and treacherous knight of gigantic stature and prodigious strength, had, as the story is currently told, his dwelling in a well-fortified castle nigh to Manchester, on the site of what is yet known by the name of Castle-field. It was a place of great strength, surrounded by vast ramparts, and flanked at the corners with high and stately towers.

He had by treachery gained possession of the fortress, treating the owner, who was a British knight of no mean condition, with great cruelty and rigour. This doughty Saxon, Sir Tarquin, had, along with many of his nation, been invited over in aid of the Britons against their neighbours the Picts and Scots. These being driven back, their false allies treacherously made war upon their friends, laying waste the country with fire and sword. Then arose that noble brotherhood, "The Knights of the Round Table," who, having sworn to avenge the wrongs of their country, began to harass the intruders, and to drive them from their ill-gotten possessions.

The Saxons were no less vigilant; but many of their most puissant knights were slain or imprisoned during these encounters.

Sir Tarquin could boast of no mean success;—threescore knights and four, it is said, were held in thrall by this uncourteous chieftain.

Sir Lancelot having, as the ballad quaintly expresses it,

"A mighty giant just pulled down,Who lived near Shrewsbury's fair town; With his keen sword his life away did take."

This giant knight was called Sir Carados; and Sir Lancelot, when about betaking himself to these and similar recreations, did hear doleful tidings out of Lancashire, how that Sir Tarquin was playing the eagle in the hawk's eyrie, amongst his brethren and companions. From Winchester he rode in great haste, succouring not a few distressed damsels and performing many other notable exploits by the way, "until he came to a vast desert," "frequented by none save those whom ill fortune had permitted to wander therein." Sir Tarquin, like the dragon of yore, entailed a desert round his dwelling: so fierce and rapacious was he that no man durst live beside him, save that he held his life and property of too mean account, and too worthless for the taking.

The knight was pricking on his way through this almost pathless wilderness, when he espied a damsel of such inexpressible and ravishing beauty that none might behold her without the most heart-stirring delight and admiration. To this maiden did Sir Lancelot address himself, but she hid her face and fell a-weeping. He then inquired the cause of her dolour, when she bade him flee, for his life was in great jeopardy.

"Oh, Sir Knight!" uncovering her face as she spoke, "the giant Tarquin liveth hereabout, and thou wert as good as dead should he espy thee so near his castle."

"What!" said the knight, "and shall Sir Lancelot of the Lake flee before this false and cruel tyrant? To this purpose am I come, that I may slay and make an end of him at once, and deliver the captives."

"Art thou, indeed, Sir Lancelot?" said the damsel, joy suddenly starting through her tears; "then is our deliverance nearer than we hoped for. Thy fame is gone before thee into all countries, and thy might and thy prowess, it is said, none may withstand. This evil one, Sir Tarquin, hath taken captive my true knight, who, through my cruelty, betook himself to this adventure, and now lieth in chains and foul ignominy, without hope of release, until death break off his fetters."

"Beshrew me," said Lancelot, "but I will deliver him presently, and cut off the foul tyrant's head, or lose mine own by the attempt."

Then did he follow the maiden to a river's brink, near to where, as tradition still reports, now stand the Knott Mills. Having mounted her before him on his steed, she pointed out a path over the ford, beyond which he soon espied the castle, a vast and stately building of rugged stone, like a huge crown upon the hill-top, which presented a gentle ascent from the stream.

Now did Sir Lancelot alight, as well to assist his companion as to bethink himself what course to pursue; but the damsel showed him a high tree, about a stone's-throw from the ditch before the castle, whereon hung a goodly array of accoutrements, with many fair and costly shields, on which were displayed a variety of gay and fanciful devices. These were the property of the knights then held in durance by Sir Tarquin. Below them all hung a copper basin, on which was carved in Latin the following inscription, translated thus—

"Who valueth not his life a whit,Let him this magic basin hit."

This so enraged Sir Lancelot that he drove at the vessel violently with his spear, piercing it through and through, so vigorous was the assault. The clangour was loud, and anxiously did the knight await for some reply to his summons. Yet there was no answer, nor was there any stir about the walls or outworks. It seemed as though Sir Tarquin was his own castellan, skulking here alone, like the cunning spider watching for his prey.

Silence, with her vast and unmoving wings, appeared to brood over the place; and echo, that gave back their summons from the walls, seemed to labour for utterance through the void by which they were encompassed. A stillness so appalling might needs discourage the hot and fiery purpose of Sir Lancelot, who, unused but to the rude clash of arms, and the mêlée of the battle, did marvel exceedingly at this forbearance of the enemy. But he still rode round about the fortress, expecting that some one should come forth to inquire his business, and this did he, to and fro, for a long space. As he was just minded to return from so fruitless an adventure, he saw a cloud of dust at some distance, and presently he beheld a knight galloping furiously towards him. Coming nigh, Sir Lancelot was aware that a captive knight lay before him, bound hand and foot, bleeding and sore wounded.

"Villain!" cried Sir Lancelot, "and unworthy the name of a true and loyal knight, how darest thou do this insult and contumely to an enemy, who, though fallen, is yet thine equal? I will make thee rue this foul despite, and avenge the wrongs of my brethren of the Round Table."

"If thou be for so brave a meal," said Tarquin, "thou shalt have thy fill, and that speedily. I will first cut off thy head, and then serve up thy carcase to the Round Table; for both that and thee I do utterly defy!"

"This is over-dainty food for thy sending," replied Sir Lancelot hastily, and with that they couched their spears. The first rush was over, but man and horse had withstood the shock. Again they fell back, measuring the distance with an eager and impetuous glance, and again they rushed on, as if to overwhelm each other by main strength, when, as fortune would have it, their lances shivered, both of them at once, in the rebound. The end of Sir Lancelot's spear, as it broke, struck his adversary's steed on the shoulder, and caused him to fall suddenly, as if sore wounded. Sir Tarquin leaped nimbly from off his back; which Sir Lancelot espying, he cried out—

"Now will I show thee the like courtesy; for, by mine honour and the faith of a true knight, I will not slay thee at this foul advantage." Alighting with haste, they betook themselves to their swords, each guarding the opposite attack warily with his shield. That of Sir Tarquin was framed of a bull's hide, stoutly held together with thongs, and, in truth, seemed well-nigh impenetrable; whilst the shield of his opponent, being of more brittle stuff, did seem as though it would have cloven asunder with the desperate strokes of Sir Tarquin's sword. Nothing daunted, Sir Lancelot brake ofttimes through his adversary's guard, and smote him once until the blood trickled down amain. At this sight, Sir Tarquin waxed ten times more fierce; and summoning all his strength for the blow, wrought so lustily on the head of Sir Lancelot that he began to reel; which Tarquin observing, by a side blow struck the sword from out his hand, with so sharp and dexterous a jerk that it shivered into a thousand fragments.

"Now yield thee, Sir Knight, or thou diest;" and with that the cruel monster sprang upon him to accomplish his end. Still Sir Lancelot would not yield, nor sue to him for quarter, but flew on his enemy like the ravening wolf to his prey. Then were they seen hurtling together like wild bulls—Sir Lancelot holding fast his adversary's sword, so that in vain he attempted to make a thrust therewith.

"Thou discourteous churl! give me but the vantage of a weapon like thine own, and I will fight thee honestly and without flinching."

"Nay, Sir Knight of the Round Table, but this were a merry deed withal, to help thee unto that wherewith I might perchance mount some goodly bough for the crows to peck at," replied Tarquin. Terrible and unceasing was the struggle; but in vain the giant knight attempted to regain the use of his sword. Then Sir Lancelot, with a wary eye, finding no hope of his life save in the use or accomplishment of some notable stratagem, bethought him of the attempt to throw his adversary by a sudden feint. To this end he pressed against him heavily and with his whole might, then darting suddenly aside, Sir Tarquin fell to the ground with a loud cry; which Sir Lancelot espying, leapt joyfully upon him, thinking to overcome his enemy; but the latter, too cunning to be thus caught at unawares, kept his sword firmly holden, and his enemy was still unprovided with the means of defence. Now did Sir Lancelot begin to doubt what course he should pursue, when suddenly the damsel, who, having bound up the wounds of the captive knight as he lay, and now sat a little way off watching the event, cried out with a shrill voice—

"Sir Knight, the tree:—a goodly bough for the gathering." Then did Sir Lancelot remember the weapons that were there, along with the shields and the body-armour of the knights Sir Tarquin had vanquished. Starting up, ere his enemy had recovered himself, he snatched a broad falchion from the bough, and again defied him to the combat. But the fight was fiercer than before; so that being sore wounded, and the day exceeding hot, they were after a season fain to pause for breath.

"Thou art the bravest knight I ever encountered," said Sir Tarquin, "and I would crave thy country and thy name; for, by my troth and the honour of my gods, I will give thee thy request on one condition, and release thy brethren of the Round Table; for why should two knights of such pith and prowess slay each other in one day?"

"And what is thy condition?" inquired Sir Lancelot.

"There liveth but one, either in Christendom or Heathenesse, unto whom I may not grant this parley; for him have I sworn to kill," said Sir Tarquin.

"'Tis well," replied the other; "but what name or cognisance hath he?"

"His name is Lancelot of the Lake!"

"Behold him!" was the reply; Sir Lancelot at the same time brandishing his weapon with a shout of defiance.

When Sir Tarquin heard this he gnashed his teeth for very rage.

"Now one of us must die," said he. "Thou slewest my brother Sir Carados at Shrewsbury, and I have sworn to avenge his defeat. Thou diest. Not all the gods of thy fathers shall deliver thee."

So to it they went with more heat and fury than ever; and a marvel was it to behold, for each blow did seem as it would have cleft the other in twain, so deadly was the strife and hatred between them.

Sir Lancelot pressed hard upon his foe, though himself grievously wounded, and in all likelihood would have won the fight, but, as ill-luck would have it, when dealing a blow mighty enough to fell the stoutest oak in Christendom, he missed his aim, and with that stumbled to the ground. Then did Sir Tarquin shout for joy, and would have made an end of him, but that Sir Lancelot, as he lay, aimed a deadly thrust below his enemy's shield where he was left unguarded, and quickly turned his joy into tribulation; for Sir Tarquin, though not mortally wounded, drew back and cried out lustily for pain, the which Sir Lancelot hearing, he leapt again to his feet, still eager and impatient for the strife.

The contest was again doubtful, neither of them showing any disposition to yield, or in any wise to abate the rigour of the conflict. Night, too, was coming on apace, and seemed like enough to pitch her tent over them, ere the issue was decided. But an event now fell out which, unexpectedly enough, terminated this adventure. From some cause arising out of the haste and rapidity of the strokes, one of these so chanced, that both their swords were suddenly driven from out of their right hands; stooping together, by some subtlety or mistake, they exchanged weapons. Then did Sir Lancelot soon find his strength to increase, whilst his adversary's vigour began to abate; and in the end Sir Lancelot slew him, and with his own sword cut off his head. He then perceived that the giant's great strength was by virtue of his sword; and that it was through his wicked enchantments therewith he had been able to overcome, and had wrought such disgrace on the Knights of the Round Table. Sir Lancelot forthwith took the keys from the giant's girdle, and proceeded to the release of the captive knights, first unbinding the prisoner, who yet lay in a piteous swoon hard by. But there was a great outcry and lamentation when that he saw his own brother Sir Erclos in this doleful case; for it was he whom the cruel Tarquin was leading captive when he met the just reward of his misdeeds.

After administering to his relief, Sir Lancelot rode up to the castle-gate, but found no entrance thereby. The drawbridge was raised, and he sought in vain the means of giving the appointed signal for its descent.

But the damsel showed him a secret place where hung a little horn. On this he blew a sharp and ringing blast, when the bridge presently began to lower, and instantly to adjust itself across the moat; whereon, hastening, he unlocked the gate. But here he had nigh fallen into a subtle snare, by reason of an ugly dwarf that was concealed in a side niche of the wall. He was armed with a ponderous mace; and had not the maiden drawn Sir Lancelot aside by main force, he would have been crushed in its descent, the dwarf aiming a deadly blow at him as he passed. It fell, instead, with a loud crash on the pavement, and broke into a thousand fragments. Thereupon, Sir Lancelot smote him with the giant's sword, and hewed the mischievous monster asunder without mercy. Turning towards the damsel, he beheld her form suddenly change, and she vanished from his sight: then was he aware that it had been the nymph Vivian who accompanied him through the enchantments he had so happily subdued. He soon released his brethren, and great was the joy at the Round Table when the Knights returned to the banquet.

Thus endeth the chronicle of Sir Tarquin, still a notable tradition in these parts, the remains of his castle being shown to this day.’

* The Sistuntii, or Setantii or Segantii or Sistuntii were probably a sub tribe of the Brigantes.


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