Portrait of William Stukeley, the Society’s first Secretary, which hangs on the staircase at Burlington House

This blog was written to accompany the “Fakes, Forgeries and The Society of Antiquaries” Library exhibition, which ran from May-August 2022.

During the late 1740s, Charles Julius Bertram (b.1723), an English expatriate living in Copenhagen, began a flattering correspondence with leading antiquary William Stukeley FSA. Bertram told Stukeley of a manuscript in a friend’s possession by ‘Richard, monk of Westminster’. It purported to be a late-medieval copy of a contemporary account of Britain by a Roman general, which included an ancient map.

Intrigued by this potentially revelatory new discovery, Stukeley “press’d Mr Bertram to get the manuscript into his hands, if possible, which at length, and with some difficulty he accomplished”. Stukeley gradually received a transcript of De Situ Britanniae (The Description of Britain) over a series of letters from Bertram, beginning with a facsimile ‘copy’ of the first page, and lastly a drawing of the map. The copy of the script was shown to the keeper of the Cotton Library and swiftly verified to be around 400 years old. Such circumstantial evidence led Stukeley to conflate Bertram’s Richard with a recognised historical one: Richard of Cirencester, a Benedictine monk and historical chronicler at Westminster Abbey during the 14th century. Despite Bertram’s repeated excuses to prevent the original manuscript from being seen, Stukeley’s faith in its authenticity was cemented.

Facsimile of the beginning of De Situ Britanniae (from Stukeley’s 1757 printed edition of ‘An account of Richard of Cirencester’)

The excuses, of course, were because there was no De Situ Britanniae – it was all a clever deception by Charles Bertram! Bertram was only too happy to accept his fake manuscript was written by Richard of Cirencester at Stukeley’s suggestion, as this bolstered its credibility as a legitimate historical work.

Bertram’s ‘Britannicarum gentium historiae antiquae scriptores tres’ (Copenhagen, 1757). A note by Charles Lyttleton FSA in this copy reads: “This book was never sold publicly in England, but a few copies sent from Denmark to Dr. Stukeley were sold by him. It is a most valuable treasure to British Antiquarys…”

 

 

Our Minute Books for the Society’s meetings record Stukeley’s intentions to publish the manuscript and map (28 November 1754; 6 November 1755). At the meetings of 18 March and 8 April 1756, Stukeley presented the Society with his account of Richard of Cirencester, “particularly of his MSS. History of Roman Britain, which was lately retrieved from obscurity, and in Danger of being totally Lost; but which the Dr. as a common Friend to the Republick of Letters has promoted the Publication of”.

With Stukeley’s backing, Bertram was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Society on 29 April 1756. Stukeley’s account was published the following year, and, at his urging, Bertram published the manuscript in Copenhagen. Bertram’s edition of De Situ Britanniae was cunningly included in a volume alongside two well-known historical accounts of Britain: Gildas’ Ruin of Britain, and the History of the Britons traditionally ascribed to Nennius.

Minutes of the meeting 29 April 1756: Charles Bertram is elected an Honorary Fellow of the Society

The “discovery” of the manuscript caused immense excitement amongst British antiquaries and historians, and its authenticity was widely accepted. As well as drawing on known Roman authors such as Tacitus and Caesar, Richard of Cirencester appeared to have access to numerous lost original sources. The text included new information about Roman roads in the style of the Antonine Itinerary, adding some 60 stations to the (legitimate) register. The ‘antient map’, alleged by Bertram to be older than “Richard’s” work, filled out the least-known region of Roman Britain – Scotland – with a wealth of new cities, provinces and peoples. Bertram’s skilful amalgamation of details missing from the historical record with genuine classical sources was key to his incredible success as a forger.

Stukeley’s draft title-page of 'Itinerarium Curiosum: Centuria II, being a Translation of Richardi de Cirencester’

Stukeley’s draft title-page of ‘Itinerarium Curiosum: Centuria II, being a Translation of Richardi de Cirencester’

Another version was prepared by Stukeley to expand a second edition of his Itinerarium Curiosum (published posthumously in 1776; the draft copy is preserved in our archive [MSS/0494/002]). Histories including as John Pinkerton’s An enquiry into the history of Scotland (1789), George Chalmers FSA’s Caledonia (1807) and Robert Stuart’s Caledonia Romana (1845) all incorporated De Situ Britanniae as a primary source. Edward Gibbon was more sceptical: “it may not seem probable that he [Richard of Cirencester] wrote from the MSS of a Roman general”. Nonetheless, Gibbon still cites De Situ Britanniae in his monumental The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-9), noting Richard “shews a genuine knowledge of antiquity, very extraordinary for a monk of the fourteenth century”[1].

Perhaps most lamentable of all were the intense scholarly labours of Major-General William Roy FSA, an innovative Scottish surveyor and engineer. Roy had laid the foundations of the Ordnance Survey with his Military Survey of Scotland (1747-55), but he based much of his later major historical work, the Military Antiquities of the Romans in Britain, on “Richard’s” description of Scotland. An incomplete manuscript copy of the text and some 50 coloured drawings of maps and plans [ROY Collection] are held in our collection.

Roy’s work was published posthumously in a magnificent folio by the Society in 1793 – it is still widely valued for its careful, thorough and detailed topographical plans. But as for Roy’s accompanying text: “some of the chapters are so permeated by the pernicious influence of the De Situ Britanniae that it seems sheer waste of time to read them”[2].

Part of Roy’s ‘Plan shewing the Course of the Roman Wall called Grime’s Dyke’ [the Antonine Wall]

The limited print run of Bertram’s edition in Copenhagen meant many historians were reliant on Stukeley’s work. Its authenticity remained virtually unquestioned until into the 19th century (Bertram himself died a highly-respected scholar in 1765). But with no trace of the manuscript to be found amongst Bertram’s papers, suspicions began to mount; particularly when attention was focussed to problematic aspects of the text and dubious errors in its “script”. Some of these were explained away, particularly by British scholars, reluctant to admit they had been taken in by a spurious document. It was finally firmly and conclusively debunked in a series of articles published 1866-7 in The Gentleman’s Magazine by B. B. Woodward FSA[3]. There was no getting around the truth: a century of historical research was based on a clever fabrication. De Situ Britanniae was a lie.

B. B. Woodward’s concluding remarks on the Richard of Cirencester forgery (1867):
“But it is high time the true character of his [Bertram’s] “discovery” should be universally acknowledged… English archaeologists ought, with especial care, to… vindicate for their inquiries, and their conclusions alike, the authority which belongs to historical research alone.”

[1] Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 3, London (1871). Ch. 31, p.275, n.180

[2] “General William Roy and his ‘Military Antiquities of the Romans in North Britain”, G. Macdonald, Archaeologia, vol. 68 (1917), pp.161-228

[3] “”A Literary Forgery: Richard of Cirencester’s Tractate on Britain”, B. B. Woodward, The Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 1, new ser. (1866), pp. 301-327, 618-624; vol. 2, new ser. (1866), pp. 458–466; vol. 4, new ser. (1867), pp. 443–451