In 1747 the antiquarian William Stukeley received an unexpected letter from an English-born resident of Copenhagen. This was from Charles Bertram, a 24 year old student at the University of Copenhagen, and was a letter of introduction from the younger man to Stukeley, who was 60 and a published author on subjects as diverse as stone circles and other megalithic remains, druids, medicine, and illness.
This was the beginning of a number of years of correspondence which started off being a discussion on Danish ancient monuments but quickly moved onto a tantalising revelation that he was in possession of a previously unknown manuscript, a history of Roman Britain including a map written by ‘Richard of Westminster’. Stukeley, after initial scepticism (with good reason, Bertram never allowed Stukeley access to the original manuscripts, saying he was sworn to secrecy by the owner), was slowly convinced of the legitimacy of Bertram’s discovery as Bertram carefully included his copied out versions of sections from the manuscript during their correspondence.
Amongst the earliest examples of the work sent to Stukeley was a map, ‘Mappa Brittaniæ…’ dated 1747.
Gough Maps British Isles 12
After showing the material to others Stukeley was told that it was around 400 years old, and that the probable author was in fact Richard of Cirencester, a 14th century cleric. This would put it roughly in between the early British maps of Matthew Paris and the famous Gough Map of Great Britain, held here at the Bodleian (more information on these maps can be found here Mr. Gough’s map (arcgis.com) ). Bertram’s copy of the manuscript map included more detail on Roman Britain than had previously been known and was a more accurate portrayal of the outline of the country than these and other early maps.
The correspondence continued, reaching a cartographic height in 1755 when Stukeley received from Bertram the first copy of the map printed from a plate. On the reverse is a letter which Bertram signs off, ‘I am for the present & forever, dear sir, your most obedient Servant…’ He could also have added liar and forger to his dedication as Bertram had made the whole thing up.
The recto and verso of Gough Maps British Isles 13, sent from Copenhagen on October 16th, 1755.
A number of different versions of this map then appear. Bertram a had a plate made so he could include the map in book published in 1757 but before this Stukeley had made his own copy where he’d changed the orientation to put north at the top and tidied up the general appearance to create a more pleasing looking map.
Stukeley’s manuscript copy of Bertram’s print, Gough Maps British Isles 14. 1755
The full text of the manuscript appeared in a 1757 book with histories of Britain by the 6th century monk and cleric Gildas and the 9th century monk Nennius. By associating the forged work of “Richard of Westminster” with two established works Bertram intended to give the work legitimacy as part of an established tradition of writing on ancient and Roman British history.
Title page of Britannicarum gentium historiæ antiquæ scriptores tres: : Ricardus Corinensis, Gildas Badonicus, Nennius Banchorensis, 1757. Gough Gen. Top. 80
In the same year Stukeley published an account of a talk he’d given the year before on Richard of Cirencester to the Antiquarian Society, ‘with his antient map of Roman Brittain [sic]; and the itinerary thereof‘. This is the map sent to Stukeley by Bertram in 1755.
Bertram sought no financial gain from his association with Stukeley, turning down a number of requests by Stukeley to purchase the manuscripts. His motives seem unclear; a possible attempt by a younger man to have fun at the expense of an older historian, a delusional attempt to gain some fame or a cynical plan to gain the respect of an established figure so when he eventually published the work he’d be able, as he does in the introduction, to mention favourably Stukeley’s name and association with the project. That Bertram first raises the ‘manuscript’ with Stukeley in 1747, ten years before publication of the book, and draws the first map the same year suggests the latter.
Bertram died in January 1765 (Stukeley was to follow 3 months later). It was after his death that the lack of any evidence of this mysterious manuscript began to raise questions about its existence. An English translation and original text version was published in 1809 but by the middle of the century the work was broadly dismissed as a forgery, not before it had managed to damage the reputation of Stukeley and been used by Edward Gibbon when writing the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Major-General William Roy, whose mapping of Scotland after the Jacobite Rebellion led to the creation of the Ordnance Survey. Roy’s book on Roman Antiquities in Britain, posthumously published in 1793, used Bertram’s map as a source for some of the location names, as did early editions of Ordnance Survey maps.
Of all the parts to this story possibly the most interesting are the letters from Bertram to Stukeley, which are also stored here at the Bodleian. In an old green book titled ‘Bertram’s letters to Dr. Stukeley. M.S. 1746 & c. (MS. Eng. Letters b.2) are 31 letters starting with the original introduction written in 1746 but not sent till the following year and then followed at first with information and drawings about Danish megalithic monuments.
A drawing of megalithic remains from Bertram’s letter, dated October 16th 1753.
The most important letter in the collection dates from 1747. After first complementing Stukeley by down-playing Danish remains compared to those that Stukeley had worked on and published about (‘Some circles and hinges of stone are also to be found here, but none, i believe in the whole World to equal that on Salisbury Plain’) Bertram mentions for the first time the
manuscript in his possession that would lead to so much correspondence, speculation, maps, published work and, eventually, condemnation and tarnished reputations. Stukeley’s letters are lost so we only have Bertram’s side, no chance to see how Stukeley dealt with this revelation, and these drip with so much sugary flattery it’s hard to get an idea of how Stukeley reacted to the news of the manuscript, but judging by the infrequent mention of the manuscript in the following few letters it seems caution was the approach taken.
This rich and fascinating archive came to the library in 1809 from the collection of the antiquarian and collector Richard Gough. As well as the maps and items shown here the collection also includes Stukeley’s original drawings and writings on Stonehenge, Avebury and other ancient monuments as well as a large quantity of maps, plans and prints of British topography.