Early History (Before 1066AD)

Jet Pendant from Roman England

When Rome invaded Britain between 40 and 50 AD, the conquerors found an interesting new rock deemed by one Roman writer as the “best stone in Britain”[1] because of its ability to be carved into beautiful jewelry. In the years of Roman occupation, Britain developed a reputation for its exports of the new mineral called gagate. The term “gagate” would eventually evolve into the modern term for the jewelry grade carbon mineral “jet” but referred to any sample of coal for the Romans.  On the island itself, the Romans did burn a bit of coal. Evidence shows that coal was used in Roman forts, by some blacksmiths, and as fuel for an eternal flame at the shrine to Minerva, goddess of wisdom, in the city of Bath.[2]

Before the Romans arrived in Britain, the only evidence for the burning of coal came from Wales, where Bronze Age man used the rock to cremate the dead.[3] This evidence suggests that the British have burned coal on a small scale for at least the last few thousand years. With forests so prevalent on the island and wood so accessible, there was little need for ancient man to burn coal. The foul stench the burning resource emitted likely did not help much either. The fuel’s use was mostly isolated to ceremonial activities such as cremation by the Welsh and the burning at the shrine of Minerva by the Romans, due to the mystical powers undoubtedly associated with the curiosity of a flammable rock.

When the Western Roman Empire fell in the year 476 AD, Britain entered the dark ages. Though few historical documents exist from this time, St. Bede the Venerable wrote one such work in the year 731 AD called Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum(The Ecclesiastical History of the English People). The text later gained Bede the title of “The Father of English History”.[4] In his extensive history of the English people, no reference is made to the burning of coal for fuel. In fact, the term “jet” is only written once when Bede writes that his nation “produces a great deal of excellent jet, which is black and sparkling, and burns when put to fire, and when set on fire, drives away serpents; being warmed with rubbing, it attracts whatever is applied to it, like amber”.[5] St. Bede wrote this at his monastery in Monkwearmouth in the most coal-rich region in all of Britain, just 10 miles from Newcastle, a city that in 1000 years’ time would become defined by the coal whose use was limited to snake deterrence.[6]


[1] Galloway, Robert. Annals of Coal Mining and the Coal Trade. Vol. 1. 1898. Reprint, Newton Abbot, Devon: David and Charles, 1971

[2] Freese, Barbara. “The Best Stone in Britain.” Coal: A Human History. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub, 2003.

[3] Stracher, Glenn B., Anupma Prakash, and Ellina V. Sokol. “Coal and Ancient Man. “Coal and Peat Fires: A Global Perspective. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2011.

[4] “Bede.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Jan. 2012. Web. 01 Dec. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bede&gt;.

[5] Sellar, A. M., and Bede. “Chapter 1: Of the Situation of Britain and Ireland, and of their ancient inhabitants.” Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England. London: George Bell and Sons, 1907. 6.

[6] Freese, Barbara. “The Best Stone in Britain.” Coal: A Human History. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub, 2003.

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