At the time of the second Roman invasion of Britain, Monmouthshire formed part of the territory of the Silures. In the reign of the Emperor Claudius, it was invaded by Ostorius Scapula, who, from the difficulties of the ground and the spirited and persevering resistance of the inhabitants, was unable to reduce it, and ultimately fell a victim to the fatigue and anxiety which he experienced in the expedition. Julius Frontinus, however, in the reign of Vespasian, achieved the final conquest of this part of Britain; and the district now constituting Monmouthshire became a portion of the Roman division called Britannia Secunda. From the stations and camps which the Romans here established, and from the numerous fragments of their buildings and sculptures that have been discovered, it appears that the fine climate and great natural beauty of the county rendered it a favourite resort of the Romans, in the elegant and luxurious, though declining age of Rome.
At a period not long subsequent to the Saxon conquests, Monmouthshire, together with the rest of the country west of the Severn, continued free from the Anglo-Saxon dominion; and Caerleon, at that time its capital, was one of the most flourishing cities of the Britons. Wales then included three regions, or principalities, namely, Gwynedd, Powysland, and Dehenbarth, in the last of which the whole of Monmouthshire was included. In those remote and obscure times it is difficult to trace the particular history of this county, which sometimes formed a separate territory, under the name of Gwent, and at other times was comprehended in Morgannoe, which included Glamorganshire and part of Carmarthenshire. The petty chieftains of this latter province were professedly tributary to the Prince of South Wales. The attempts of the Anglo-Saxon sovereigns to subjugate Wales were opposed by the Gwentians with extraordinary courage, insomuch that they do not appear to have been ever completely conquered during the Anglo-Saxon period. After the Norman Conquest, when various adventurers received permission to make incursions into Wales with a view to establish themselves upon the territory, several petty feudal sovereignties were erected here. The lands, being held per baroniam, with full power to administer justice to the tenants, were invested with jura regalia, so that the king's writs did not run in them. But in the event of a contest between two lords marchers (as these territorial proprietors were denominated), concerning the limits of their respective territories, they had recourse to the king as their supreme lord, and justice was administered to them in the superior courts of the realm. This system of feudal jurisprudence was continued here, as in the other Welsh marches, until Henry VIII. in 1535 abolished the government of the lords marchers, divided Wales into twelve shires, and included Monmouthshire among the counties of England. But as regards the administration of justice, it was considered a Welsh county until the reign of Charles II., when it was first included in the Oxford circuit; and even after that time it seems to have been affected in some degree by the ancient border law, as the jurisdiction of the supreme court of the lords marchers, usually held at Ludlow, in Shropshire, was not absolutely and finally abolished until the 1st of William and Mary, when the gentry and inhabitants within the principality of Wales petitioned for its suppression.
Monmouthshire was formerly partly included within the limits of the dioceses of Hereford and St. David's; but under the arrangements provided by the 6th and 7th of William IV., cap. 77, the whole has been placed under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Llandaff. It is in the province of Canterbury, and comprises the deaneries of Abergavenny, Netherwent, Newport, and Usk, with 123 parishes. For purposes of civil jurisdiction it consists of the hundreds of Abergavenny, Caldicot, Raglan, Skenfreth, Usk, and Wentlloog, each of which is subdivided into Upper and Lower. It contains the borough, market, and sea-port town of Newport; the borough and market-towns of Monmouth and Usk; the market and sea-port town of Chepstow; and the market-towns of Abergavenny, Caerleon, and Pont-y-Pool. Two knights are returned to parliament for the shire, and one representative for the boroughs of Monmouth, Newport, and Usk conjointly. The county is included in the Oxford circuit; the assizes are held at Monmouth, where is the county gaol, and the quartersessions at Usk.
The general aspect of the county is pleasingly diversified. A considerable portion is mountainous and rocky, and those parts abutting on the mountain ridges are sterile, affording only a scanty subsistence for the flocks which feed upon them; but the rich land in the valleys and on the slopes of the hills, is finely chequered with woods and pastures, intermingled with spots of tillage: and the beautiful scenery on the banks of the Wye attracts numerous tourists, and has often furnished subjects for the pencil and the pen. In the hundreds of Wentlloog and Caldicot, sea-walls have been raised for a considerable extent, and at a vast expense, to prevent the sea from overflowing the extensive marshes in those neighbourhoods, which would otherwise be subject to continual damage from inundations. In an agricultural point of view, Monmouthshire may be divided into three districts. The first comprises the southern portion, and consists partly of large tracts of moor or marsh land: the second includes the eastern part, and possesses such natural advantages and fertility, that it has the appearance of a garden; while the third comprises the western and more elevated tract, the soil of which, upon the hills, is generally thin. The corn chiefly cultivated is wheat, barley, and oats; and a few peas, or beans, are sometimes sown. The woods and coppices are numerous, and contain a great quantity of various kinds of timber, particularly ash and oak. The most important Mineral Productions are iron, coal, limestone, and various other kinds of stone, valuable for building, and other purposes. Although the iron-mines had engaged attention in very remote times, operations in this and the adjacent county of Glamorgan were carried on with little spirit until the latter part of the eighteenth century. The present works on the Welsh border are of considerable extent and importance, producing both pig and bar iron; and attached to some are wire-works. Lead-ore is found; and the coal obtained furnishes more than sufficient fuel for the supply of the inhabitants. Limestone of the finest sort is obtained in almost every part of the county; and there are some quarries of breccia in the parishes of Trelleck and Penalth, celebrated for cider millstones. At Caerleon and Rogerstone are tinworks. The manufacture of flannel has been long established, but is of very limited extent. Some few coarse cloths, woollen stockings, and coarse caps, are made by the inhabitants in the mountainous parts, and brought to the great fairs for sale.
The principal rivers are the Severn, the Wye, the Usk, the Rumney, the Monnow, and the Ebwy. The Severn first touches the county at the angle where it receives the waters of the Wye; it is a river of great magnitude, with a strong tide, and in its progress widens rapidly, and forms the Bristol Channel. The Wye is navigable for large vessels only to Chepstow bridge, but for barges, with some difficulty, as high as Hereford. The Usk is navigable for coasting-vessels up to Newport, and for barges as high as Tredunnock bridge. The Monmouthshire canal was begun in 1792, and finished in 1798: by an act obtained in 1797, the proprietors were authorised to extend the line eastward one mile and a half; and by another, passed in 1802, various powers were obtained for making collateral tramroads. The Brecknockshire canal, which may be considered a branch of this, was formed pursuant to an act obtained in the 33rd of George III. On the banks of the Monmouthshire canal, at Pontnewydd, commences a tramroad to the Blaenavon iron-works, a distance of five miles and a quarter, in which it has a rise of 610 feet from the canal; and there are several other tramroads in connexion with the various works in this extensive mining district.
Five principal Roman stations were fixed in that part of the territory of the Silures, which is included in the present county of Monmouth; viz., Venta Silurum, placed by the general consent of antiquaries at Caerwent; Isca Silurum, at Caerleon; Gobannium, at Abergavenny; and Burrium and Blestium, which, according to the opinion of Horsley, were respectively at Usk and Monmouth. Although it is probable that most of the great roads connecting the southern part of Britannia Secunda with the Roman-British territory east of the Severn, passed through Monmouthshire, yet the only one that can be distinctly traced is that which ran south-westward from Abergavenny to Neath, or some other station in Glamorganshire, and which is called by the natives Sarn-hîr, signifying "the long paved causeway." The miscellaneous Roman antiquities discovered at different times are various, comprising aqueducts, baths, sudatories, tessellated pavements, columns, statues, bas-reliefs, hypocausts, altars, votive and sepulchral stones, sarcophagi, urns, medals, coins, fibulæ, &c. Remains of numerous encampments are still visible, the construction of which, as this part of the British territory was never permanently occupied either by the Saxons or the Danes, may be reasonably attributed almost exclusively to the Britons and the Romans. The castles, from the contiguity of the county to the Welsh border, were also very numerous, the sites of not fewer than twenty-five being still distinguishable. Most of them were of Norman erection, and considerable portions of several still remain, though for the most part ruinous: those of Caerleon, Grosmont, and Skenfreth, are probably the most ancient; that of Raglan presents the most magnificent extent of ruins. The number of religious houses, including two hospitals, was seventeen, and the most interesting remains are those of Llanthony Priory church, and of the Cistercian abbey of Tintern, both which exhibit large masses of beautiful ruins. Many of the churches have a remarkably picturesque appearance; and few of them having undergone much alteration since the Reformation, they still exhibit vestiges of the Roman Catholic worship and discipline, such as rood-lofts, niches, auricular recesses, and confessional chairs.
Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.