BMCR 2013.09.19

Hadrian’s Wall: A Life

, Hadrian's Wall: A Life. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. xx, 394. ISBN 9780199641413. $150.00.


From a glance at the title, Richard Hingley’s book might initially appear to be an examination of military life along Hadrian’s Wall; however, Hingley’s work looks to investigate Hadrian’s Wall from a new scholarly angle. Hadrian’s Wall: A Life focuses on accounts of the Wall from the sixth century CE up to its state and function in the present day. It offers a fascinating look at the architectural marvel itself and the impact it has had on later generations, juxtaposing those who viewed it as spolia for future building endeavors against those who vehemently sought to preserve this monumental piece of British history. With very little attention given to the lives of those who inhabited the Wall during the Roman period, the Wall itself is the center of the Hingley’s biography. In its fragmented state, heavily quarried for stone by later generations and with many parts obstructed from view after centuries of exposure to the elements, Hingley gives a voice to this silent monument through the words of those who found it interesting, unusual, and an integral part of their cultural history.

Hingley’s preface explains his motivation for writing a book of this nature, detailing the impact the Wall has had on his life from the mere age of ten through his adult years. His research focuses on political representations and cultural practices that have been inspired by the Wall throughout history.1 The opening chapter provides a brief chorography of the Wall, described by Howard Marchitello as“topography not exclusively as it exists in the present moment, but also as it has existed historically”.2 Hingley is not looking at architecture, landscape, and artifacts as they existed within a specific moment of history, but instead treating them as moments that flow together in both past and present. He poignantly notes that while people who have existed along the Wall have come and gone, the Wall itself has never died, providing a constant source of inspiration for all those who choose to engage with it, be they skilled archaeologists or unfamiliar tourists.3 The second chapter provides a very succinct history of the Wall itself during Roman times. Hingley emphasizes construction of the curtain wall, the forts, and the milecastles, setting a useful framework for later discussion about particular sites along the Wall. The book loses no value by having such an abbreviated chapter on this topic. Again, the focus lies with the Wall itself and not the Romans who occupied it.

Part I focuses on The Pict’s Wall, as was the name generally assigned to the ancient structure from the sixth through seventeenth centuries because it was believed to have been built under late Roman rule to protect the lowland Britons from their more hostile neighbors to the north, namely the Picts. Hingley chronicles the scholarship of Gildas, Bede, and even a snippet of Procopius on this topic, carefully separating information that proved to be of use to later scholars from that which could be dismissed as fiction. He analyzes the credibility of these sources and highlights the strengths and weaknesses within their accounts. The reader is given a comprehensive history of how the Wall functioned with respect to border defense during the earlier part of the Middle Ages. A highlight in the history is his account of the Epystle. This work, by an unknown author, poses an argument that in order to preserve the Elizabethan state, the English would be wise to build a frontier made up of ‘skonces’4 to fully separate themselves from the Scots. Hingley describes how this anonymous author was drawing on his knowledge of Hadrian’s Wall to use it as a model for a contemporary solution, thus demonstrating a chorographic unity between England’s past and present history. By the 16th and 17th centuries, Hingley describes how the Wall began to receive the attention of English aristocrats who recognized its cultural impact. William Camden’s work, Britannia, which drew on classical texts to construct an ancestral geography, had a major impact on historical scholarship, and helped to promote awareness of the Wall. Collections of carved and inscribed stones began to form, and noblemen like Lord William Howard even collected them for their own private gardens, mimicking the tradition of displaying Classical treasures that was already common in mainland Europe. Michael Drayton even commemorated the Wall in his two volume work of thirty poems, Poly- Olbion, further demonstrating how the English viewed the Wall as part of their cultural history.

Part II progresses chronologically to The Roman Wall, examining further interest and discovery of the monument during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The nomenclature for the Wall changed as a direct result of the 1707 Act of Union, which brought together England and Scotland under one kingdom. As the Pict’s Wall held a naturally derogatory tone towards the kingdom to the north, the focus shifted to its significance for the Romans rather than as a topographical divider. Hingley has taken much care in this section to chronicle the involvement of many notable figures who found the Wall to be a significant part of British history. From John Warburton’s map of Northumberland to John Horsley’s compendium of archaeology and notable inscriptions to George Smith’s detailed letters, knowledge of the Wall began to grow and be communicated among aristocratic circles. Hingley provides a useful chapter in this section on the histories of Carlisle and Newcastle to bring about a better understanding of why the Wall scarcely exists in those cities in the present day. In 1746, George Smith, a map-maker, wrote about the fall of Carlisle in a letter and included A Dissertation on the Roman Wall, detailing the Roman sites around Carlisle and the two forts to the west of it. John Warburton wrote a monograph on the Wall entitled, Vallum Romanum, published in 1753, where he drew parallels between the Roman army in Britain and the contemporary military occupation. Dugal Campbell and Hugh Debbieg conducted an official survey for the Board of Ordnance in 1749, where they marked Roman remains along the landscape, and recorded their elevation. With such attention being paid to the Wall, William Stukeley wrote to Princess Augusta encouraging her to halt construction of a turnpike road that was to be built along the existing Roman military road. Ultimately, his effort was largely unsuccessful and this accounts for much of the remains of the Wall at Newcastle being destroyed. The final chapter of this section explores the important contributions of John Collingwood Bruce and John Clayton. Bruce wrote in similar fashion to Horsley, authoring The Roman Wall and The Wallet-Book, which provided an account of the Wall’s current state, with its visible structures and inscriptions. Clayton, who inherited the Chesters estate from his father, conducted excavations on a scale much larger than those which had been done at Birdoswald, Housesteads, and Vindolanda [5], and he even sought to rebuild sections of the Wall by clearing debris, relaying the face stones, and topping it with a turf. This greatly increased tourism on the Wall and helped to lay the foundation for the modern day approach towards preserving and promoting it to the general public.

Part III discusses Hadrian’s Wall, the modern title given to the structure that was not only recognized as a Roman construction but one commissioned specifically by the emperor of the 2nd century C.E.. Hingley continues with the highlights from the archaeological history for each of the major forts and towns. Robert Henry Forster made great strides to excavate Corbridge, and unlike Clayton, whose papers do not survive, The Amateur Antiquary (published in 1899) detailed Foster’s notes, sketches, and thoughts throughout his work. The beginnings of scientific archaeology on the Wall emerged at Birdoswald under Francis Haverfield, exposing a deviance in the construction pattern of the turf Wall, the stone curtain Wall, and the Vallum. John Collingwood Bruce and Eric Birley were the first scholars who began to analyze the archaeology in a manner that allowed them to start to draw conclusions about how the Wall functioned in Roman times. The Wall became a place of scholarly research, not simply a tourist attraction, but it soon became apparent that the monument needed an organization to assume the custody, care, and maintenance for the structure itself and the number of artifacts which the excavations produced. The National Trust assumed this role and with subsequent efforts to secure lands adjacent to the Wall and forts, Hadrian’s Wall was officially recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

Hingley devotes the final chapters of this section to recognizing the modern efforts taken by the National Trust and English Heritage to preserve and promote Hadrian’s Wall. From the reconstructed gate at Arbeia to the bathhouse at Segedunum, several of the forts now have full scale models of how their structures were believed to have appeared during the Roman period. Coupling centuries of archaeological research with an ever-present desire towards tourism in the region, visitors can experience the Wall as a living monument and encounter notably different experiences at each site. The Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail was established in 2003 to give visitors an even greater opportunity to connect with this ancient treasure by walking an eighty-three mile course that stretches the full length of the Wall and passes through several of the more important forts and towns. A cycleway followed in 2006, and for those looking for a more leisurely approach to visiting the Wall, the Hadrian’s Wall Country Bus facilitated such endeavors. The increased tourism has led to a need for a conservation and management plan for the region to ensure that it can exist in its present state for centuries to come, preserving an integral part of Roman and British history.

Hadrian’s Wall: A Life is well illustrated. One of the most useful features is the map which accompanies each chapter and details the place names mentioned. Hingley is responsible for a large portion of the photographs for many of the sites on Hadrian’s Wall, a testament to his direct involvement as a hands-on researcher of the monument. A minor criticism of Hingley’s work is that chapter titles only reflect a small subsection of that chapter’s content. With such a dense body of research material, a greater characterization of the material within each section would have proven useful, rather than focusing on a small facet of one of the topics. Overall, the book is excellent and provides a much needed comprehensive analysis of the work that has been done to keep the Wall alive throughout recent centuries. Hingley has been remarkably successful in transforming years of exhaustive research into a pleasurable and informative book that can appeal to a wide ranging audience.


1. Tales of the Frontier was the project which ran from September 2007 to August 2009 and served as a research framework for this book.

2. Marchitello, H. Narrative and meaning in early modern England: Browne’s skull and other histories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. p. 78, 85

3. Hingley, p.11

4. Merriman, M. ‘“The Epystle to the Queen’s Majestie” and its “Platte,”’ Architectural History 27, 25-32. Merriman explains that a ‘skonse’ was a term in use in the sixteenth century which generally meant a small fort.

5. The excavation of the bath house and forum led towards further work on public spaces in both South Shields and Hardknott.