Musing from the Museum 29

The Stukeley Hoax

Friends, Romans, SGS Members, Lend Me Your Ears!


This story begins on the 11th of June 1747, when the postman delivers a letter to William Stukeley. It was written by Charles Julius Bertram, an Englishman born in London in 1723. Bertram lived and worked in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he was a scholar and friend of Hans Gram the royal librarian. Stukeley found the letter full of compliments, and a correspondence between them ensued. A few letters later, Bertram mentioned a manuscript handwritten by Richard of Westminster. It was a document on Roman Britain and included an ancient map of the British Isles. Bertram said that the manuscript and map had been stolen by a friend from an English library, and that the friend had sworn him to secrecy. Stukeley was desperate to get a hold of the items from Bertram, he offered to buy them from him, but he refused. Instead, Bertram mailed him snippets of the manuscript and the map. Stukeley showed them to David Casley of the Cottonian Library, and he immediately recognised them as being a 400-year-old document, and that it could have been stolen from the Cottonian after a fire in 1732. Bertram had told Stukeley that the manuscript and map were the work of Richard of Westminster, a 15th century monk, but Stukeley preferred to believe it was the work of Richard of Cirencester, a 14th century monk, who was known to have compiled historical documents. Stukeley was very excited, he trusted Bertram, and he believed that the map was genuine. Stukeley was convinced it contained more than 100 named new cities, roads, and peoples, from across the British Isles. Bertram engraved the map in 1755, and I own an original A3 size copy of it, see below.


Stukeley had drawn his own version of the map from the details Bertram had sent him, and he decided to orientate it north south. He published it in De Situ Britanniæ (The Description of Britain) in 1757.

The Society has a copy of Itinerarium Curiosum, published by Stukeley in 1776 eleven years after his death, in which there is an engraving of the map with the east-west orientation. Themap and manuscript were treated as legitimate, and Stukeley presented the information to the Society of Antiquaries in 1756, and probably the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society as well. Stukeley then helped Bertram become a member of the Society of Antiquaries. Britishscholars were slow to accept the truth about the map, and Bertram had never given the original manuscript to Stukeley.  For the next 100 years though, the information contained in the map was used as a major source in publishing numerous books on Roman Britain.