If you admire Honest Abe, you may be interested to know where his surname came from.
When I was about eight I was sent to a small school whose boss had the absurdly apt name of Mr. Boyland, and he had on his wall a pewter plate showing Lincoln cathedral. He came from Lincoln, loved it, and went back to it every time he could. I had never seen it, till I was taken to it for my birthday treat this July 4, and it was a treat indeed. The city is as pleasing as many have become in the age of pedestrianization.
The cathedral soars.
Here you see it from the castle that faces it. Once there were absurdly high wooden spires on top of all three of the cathedral’s towers, making it taller than the Great Pyramid and thus (from 1531 until those dizzy spires fell in 1549) the tallest building in the world. Those spires might have pierced that cloud that is moving over.
The cathedral is still a place of many superlatives.
I took a tour of the cathedral’s roofs, and could have told you how-many-more-than-a-hundred spiral steps we climbed, but lost my count among twists. The view from a gallery in the west end, down along the nave eastward, was vertiginous, because we were standing with only a rail in front; yet this was only half way up. This is from twice as high: looking down into the crossing and back along the nave.
Yet here there was no vertigo. There was no ledge, just a door that opened directly in the side of the tower, onto this immense drop. You had to get on your knees on the second of three steps that led up to the opened door, then lie forward on your belly and look through. So there wasn’t that ghost of a possibility – “Am I sure I’m not going to go crazy and stumble forward?” – that is what vertigo consists of.
The cathedral is built of yellow-brown limestone from a local quarry, varied in places with sub-columns of “Purbeck marble,” really a blackish and once shiny limestone. The local limestone is not the best building material.
Across England diagonally runs a geological band called the Jurassic, from Dorset in the southwest to Yorkshire in the northeast. It’s mostly limestone, laid down in the seas of between 200 and 150 million years ago. Later there was up-tilting and erosion, so that what is left is a layer that slopes gently upward from the east and is cut off at a scarp, or steep slope, along the west. Among parts of this Jurassic outcrop are the Cotswold hills west of London, and the North York Moors.
In this very crude map, the yellow is the Jurassic; Lincoln Edge is the west side of the north-south part near the middle, with the narrow Lincoln gap through it. The green is the next layer upward, the Cretaceous (mostly chalk), and I’ve omitted all other formations.
But in one stretch the Jurassic is reduced to a straight ridge, running due north for more than fifty miles. It’s called Lincoln Edge, or, with some exaggeration, Lincoln Cliff. On either side of it lies wide flat land, stretching to far-off hills on the west, and to the sea on the east.
About half way along, a river called the Witham makes a gap through the ridge. But, just before it gets through, it spreads in a small, deep lake (now called Brayford Pool).
The pre-Roman people of Iron Age Britain spoke Celtic languages; those of England and Wales spoke dialects of the Brythonic branch, now surviving in Welsh and Cornish; and the tribe that lived in this region was the Catuvellauni. They had a settlement at this spot, and their name for it, recorded later by the Romans, was Lindon. This must have meant “pool”: the root lind- for “lake” appears in Welsh as llyn. In another Celtic language, Irish, the name of Dublin is from dubh linn, “dark pool.” And one of the several unproved theories about the origin of the name of London (the Romans’ Londinium) is that it also contained the lind, “pool,” element.
The Romans invaded in 43 A.D., and reached Lindon in 48. The situation was strategic, so they built a fortress on the summit commanding the gap, on the north side. It was even a port: the Witham was navigable from the sea at Boston up to this gap, and from there they dug a canal (the Foss Dyke) eleven miles inland to connect the Witham to a larger river, the Trent. And at this spot met two of the great Roman roads: Ermine Street, from London to York, following Lincoln Edge for much of the route; and Fosse Way, from Lincoln southwest roughly along the line of the Jurassic scarp to the coast of Dorset and to Exeter.
When the Romans founded outpost cities, coloniae, to hold down conquered territories, they populated them with retired soldiers. (This habit dated back at least to Alexander the Great, with his founding of Alexandrias across Egypt and Asia.) The veterans were supposed to be happy to settle, so far from their homes. Four of these “colonies” were founded in Britain, one of them here. The ground from the hilltop fortress down to the river became Lindum Colonia, a major city. And Lindum Colonia, in the Anglo-Saxon language of the post-Roman invaders, became Lincoln.
There is also the name Lindsey. Until the traditional counties of England were messed up in the 1970s, Lincolnshire, the second largest county after Yorkshire, offered one of the interesting curiosities of the system. It was divided into the Parts of Lindsey, the Parts of Kesteven, and the Parts of Holland. Lindsey, the largest, was from Lincoln northward; its name was worn down from an expression meaning “Lincoln’s isle,” and it had been an early small Anglian kingdom which later merged into others.
Lincoln Castle, on the site of the Roman fort, has a mostly bitter history – battles and public hangings – it was a prison longer than it was a fortress. Lincoln cathedral’s story is pleasanter, from the good St. Hugh who built most of it, to the peregrine falcons now bringing up their shrieking chicks in its far upper storeys. When you walk up there above the vaults of the nave, you are impressed, almost more than by the stones, by the vast cat’s-cradle of beams that hold the walls apart and the roof up. These huge dust-browned timbers were hoisted up there and fixed at all angles on each other by men who had no mathematical engineering, no drawings. These beams are now so old and hard that they cannot burn.