The Emperor of Filey

Local historian Michael Fearon, in his Story of Filey Through the Centuries (1990) has this to say:-

The Romans were competent seamen and it is reasonable to assume that they were familiar with Filey Bay. There is, however, nothing to substantiate legends associating the Emperor’s Bath, a large rock pool on the Brigg, with the Emperor Constantine!

Bummer. It is such a romantic notion. When I first heard the “legend” after arriving in Filey about ten years ago, I so wanted it to be true.

I set out for an evening walk yesterday, diverting from my intended path because of mist rolling in from the sea. I was drawn to the Emperor’s Bath, aka Emperor’s Pool, which nestles in the Second Doodle at the back of Filey Brigg.

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Heavy rain in 1857 caused a slip on Carr Naze which revealed a portion of a wall. The first people to notice this unexpected evidence of human occupation removed some of the stones, finding an earthen vase, human and animal bones and some ornamented shells. A more rigorous excavation was funded by the landowner, the Reverend BROOKE, and this uncovered the five stones that now reside in Crescent Gardens, in their original disposition as foundations for a Roman Signal Station.

Five such towers were built on the east coast about 370 AD, at a time of Pictish incursions from the north and “barbarian” raids from across the sea. Constantine the Great was long gone by then so the notion of him making the journey from York to inspect the outpost at Filey on a warm summer day can indeed be discounted. There is, however, at least one picture of him taking a bath (of sorts).

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This is a detail from a Romanesque fresco in Santi Quattro Coronati Church in Rome, showing Constantine being baptized by St Sylvester.

Chronology appears to kill the legend but myths are like pearls. In so many instances they are found to have some grit of reality at their centre.

Enter Constantine III,  a career soldier at the sunset of Empire. Following a power struggle in Britannia, in 407 he declared himself the Western Roman Emperor before crossing to Gaul to establish his power base. He locked horns with Honorious, was accepted as co-Emperor in 409, abdicated in 411 and was killed soon afterward. Perhaps one of his last thoughts was of a day at the seaside and a refreshing plunge into a rock pool.

A pedigree on FamilySearch Tree shows Constantine III to be the great-grandson of Constantine the Great, the brother of King Vortigern of Britain and the father of King Uther Pendragon. No shortage of romance there already, even before reaching Arthur and Guinevere. Heading back in time will bring you eventually to Troy.

Dr. Cortis Speaks

On this day in 1857, at possibly his first meeting in the Town Hall after being elected Mayor of Scarborough, Henry SPURR introduced William Smithson CORTIS to the gathering. The good doctor of Filey read a paper about the recent finds of Roman artifacts on Carr Naze, following a landslip caused by heavy rain. I haven’t yet found a transcript online – and accounts of the more recent excavations of the Signal Station are not freely available either. Some of the brief online references to the discovery say Dr. Cortis led the excavation and gave his talk to Filey antiquaries. Neither “fact” seems to be true.

Dr. Cortis credits “a painter belonging to Filey, named Wilson” as the finder of the revealed objects. Filey Genealogy & Connections identifies Jeffrey WILSON as the man of that moment. He was about 65 years old at the time but still working in 1861 so could have been sprightly enough to descend “at some risk…down the falling cliff” to retrieve what he initially thought were pieces of jet. He died aged 76 in October 1872.

Carr Naze was then the property of the Reverend Richard BROOKE  of Gateforth and it was he who organized the excavation. It is not clear from the talk if Filey’s doctor got his hands dirty or was merely an interested observer at the dig.

You will see from Today’s Image how narrow the spine of Carr Naze is now. The Information Board at the site gives an indication of how much of the promontory has been eroded since the Romans left Britain.

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The five stone blocks found at the base of the tower can be seen now in Crescent Gardens, and the “hunting scene” of the Information Board is described by Dr. Cortis as “a dog chasing a stag”. Over the years I have looked for the animals a number of times. I think they may still be visible if the light is favourable, but perhaps not as clearly as in this old photograph of poor quality and unknown provenance. (There is a more recently taken image here.)

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William Smithson CORTIS is on the FamilySearch tree.

Henry SPURR, born Doncaster in 1795, died 30th May 1865 at Westfield House, Scarborough after a short illness. He has at least two nascent pedigrees on FST, both generated by “the system”. One gives his parents and the other his son, James Frederick, by first wife Eleanor WHITE. Eleanor died age 48 in 1844 and Henry married Louisa Amelia BLIGHT almost four years later, in East Stonehouse, Devonshire.

“Jeffry” WILSON is also unmarried on FST. His granddaughter, Mary WILSON, married the grandson of the William PASHBY who died suddenly in Friday’s post – but you will have to go to Kath’s Filey Genealogy to see that Connection.