Open main menu

BERTRAM, CHARLES (1723–1765), or, as he sometimes chose to sign himself, Charles Julius, the cleverest and most successful literary impostor of modern times, was born in London in 1723. His father who was a silk dyer, removed a few years afterwards with his family to Copenhagen. Here, at an early age, young Bertram obtained the post of English teacher in the school for naval cadets. Being keenly desirous of celebrity, he conceived at the of twenty-four, the idea of bringing himself into notice by means of a literary forgery. He selected as the victim of his imposture the celebrated Dr. William Stukeley, whose reputation for antiquarian learning, and manifest eager credulity, rendered him a suitable object for such a design. In June 174 Bertram commenced a correspondence with Stukeley, in the course of which he mentionted that a friend of his was in possession of manuscript work on Roman antiquities, by monk named Richard of Westminster, which included a copy of an ancient itinerary of Britain, in many points correcting and supplementing the itinerary of Antoninus. Stukeley's interest being excited, he strongly pressed Bertram to obtain possession of the manuscript, 'which, after some difficulty, he accomplished;' and in subsequent letters he transmitted to Stukeley what purported to be copies of successive portions of the work, with a facsimile of a few lines of the manuscript, the writing of which was pronounced by the English palaeographers to be over four hundred years old. In the meantime Stukeley had made inquiries, which resulted in the discovery that Richard of Cirencester, a chronicler of the fourteenth century, was an inmate of the abbey of Westminster. This information he imparted to Bertram, who readily accepted it, and 'Richard of Cirencester' was thenceforward the name by which the supposed author was designated. In 1756 Stukeley read before the Society of Antiquaries a paper containing an analysis of the newly discovered work, and this paper was published in 1757, accompanied by a copy of Richard's map. In the same year Bertram published at Copenhagen a small volume, with the title, 'Britannicarum Gentium Historiæ Antiquæ Scriptores Tres,' containing the works of Gildas and Nennius, and the full text of his own forgery, with an elaborate commentary. It is remarkable that the map given in this volume differs very materially from that in Stukeley's tract. Stukeley, however, adopted Bertram's map in his account of Richard's work, published in his 'Itinerarium Curiosum' in 1776. The ingenuity and learning displayed in Bertram's forgery are really extraordinary, and fully account for the unparalleled success which the imposture obtained. At the time when the work appeared, the idiom of mediæval Latin writers had been little studied, and there were in England few, if any, persons capable of perceiving that the Latinity of the pseudo-Richard was not that of a fourteenth-century monk. Bertram's antiquarian information, moreover, was, on the whole, quite on a level with the best knowledge of his time. The spurious treatise, therefore, was eagerly accepted by most of the English antiquaries as an invaluable source of information on the Roman geography of Britain ; and the injury which the forgery has inflicted on this study can scarcely be overestimated. Amongst the eminent writers whose speculations are seriously vitiated by the admission of this fictitious authority may be mentioned Whitaker (the historian of Manchester), General Roy, Dr. Lingard, Lappenberg, and Stuart (the author of 'Caledonia Romana'). The map of Britain contained in Dr. William Smith's 'Classical Atlas' abounds with errors derived from this source, and many of Bertram's imaginary names of Roman stations have found their way into the ordnance maps. In fact, nearly all the current works on Roman Britain show important traces of the same misleading influence. Although one or two earlier scholars (as Reynolds in his 'Commentary on Antoninus') had ventured to suggest that the monk of Westminster had drawn somewhat freely on his imagination, it was not till near the middle of this century that the work was seriously suspected to be a modern forgery. This suspicion gained strength from the fact that a diligent search at Copenhagen failed to discover any trace of the original manuscript. The question, however, was not conclusively settled until the publication in the 'Gentleman's Magazine' for 1866 and 1867 of a series of papers by the late B. B. Woodward, librarian of Windsor Castle. Mr. Woodward showed that the handwriting of Bertram's alleged facsimile specimen was a mixture of styles of several different periods, the forms of some of the letters being quite modern, or indeed entirely imaginary. He also pointed out that Bertram's Latin is, for the most part., a literal rendering of the English idiom of the eighteenth century, containing many words (as statio for a Roman 'station,' and supplementum for a 'supplement' or appendix) used in modern senses, which are as foreign to the usage of mediieval writers as to that of the ancient Romans, and gave instances in which the forger had copied the mistakes of Camden and the false readings of modern editions of the classics. In spite of this masterly exposure, a translation of the work, with no expression of doubt as to its genuineness, was published in 1872 by Br. Giles, as one of the 'Six English Chronicles' in Bohn's 'Antiquarian Library;' and Bertram's forgery, though now repudiated by all competent scholars, still continues to mislead ill-informed students of British antiquities. Bertram died (according to Nyerup's Literaturlexicon) in 1765. Besides the work already referred to, he published at Copenhagen : 1. 'An Essay on the Excellency of the English Tongue' (1749). 2. 'Rudimenta Grammaticæ Anglicanæ' (1750). 8. 'Ethics from various Authors' (1751). 4. 'The Royal English-Danish Grammar' (1753). 5. 'A corrected edition (in German) of Dauw's Wohlunterrichteter Schilderer und Mahler' (1755). 6. An edition of Nennius (1758). 7. A Danish translation of an English work 'On the great Advantages of a Godly Life' (1760). 8. 'A Statistical Account of the Danish Army' (in German, 1761 ; in Danish, 1762).

[Stukeley's Family Memoirs, ed. Lukis; Stukeley's Itinerarium Curiosum ; Nyerup og Kraft, Almindeligt Literaturlexicon ; Gent. Mag. March 1866, May 1866, October 1866, October 1867.]

H. B.