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09 August 2009

Solihull Local History - Roman Sites

Introduction


The immediate area around Birmingham and especially Solihull does not contain the most famous sites from Roman Britain, but there are many places within 50 miles or so of Solihull that are at least worth a morning or afternoon outing, especially if more than one site is visited in a day. Birmingham was a village until the Industrial Revolution and the town of Solihull was not founded until the 12th or 13th century, so there are no great Roman remains such as town walls to be seen in either, but there are some substantial remains in the neighbouring countryside and an even greater choice if you are able to travel to Wales, the Home Counties and London, or further. Undoubtedly there are more remains to be found in Solihull and Birmingham and sites are sometimes found during redevelopment, but both conurbations have been unsympathetically built-up over the centuries.

Invasion


There is much evidence for Iron Age trade in Britain with mainland Roman Europe before the first Roman invasion. The first real Roman invasion was in 55 BC when Julius Caesar landed a sizeable force in 80 ships on the south coast of what we now call England, possibly at Richborough in Kent. Richborough was fortified as a supply base and later a triumphal stone arch was built there. The site was eventually converted into one of the Saxon shore forts, still visible today, but only the foundations and a few fragments of the arch in the museum remain. This was an abortive invasion as the ships suffered from a high tide, unknown in the normally calm Mediterranean, and severe storms. Caesar tried again in 54 BC, this time with 800 ships, but had to return to Gaul, roughly equivalent to modern France, to attend to more pressing problems. Various British tribal kings sued for peace before and during the campaigns, but life in Britain returned to normal until the invasion of emperor Claudius (41 – 54 AD) in 43 AD which involved the Second 'Augusta' Legion, the Fourteenth 'Gemina', and possibly the Ninth 'Hispana' and Twentieth 'Valeria Victrix' legions.

After the capture of Colchester in AD 43, the Twentieth Legion became based there, but the Second Legion went to the West Country, the Ninth Legion headed for Lincoln and the 14th headed towards Shropshire. Part of the 14th may have headed towards Leicester (Ratae Corieltavorum) and another along the course of what would become Watling Street (now the A5), leaving four known vexillation fortresses (temporary Roman army camps, of which 19 are known in Britain), including Wall (Letocetum) along that route and a fifth at Metchley to the south of what is now Birmingham, which is the only one with any visible remains. Around AD 58, the 14th was gathered at a fortress at Wroxeter, near Shrewsbury. The Romans named the local tribes they found the Corieltauvi (to the east and north of Birmingham), the Cornovii (to the west and north of Birmingham) and the Dobunni to the far south of Birmingham.

The army pushed through what we now call Wales all the way to Anglesey, perhaps in an effort to destroy the final refuge of the druids. Roman writers reported that the druids were responsible for human sacrifices, which Romans found distasteful. The Romans never quite took over the whole of what is now called Scotland. The largest and probably most famous Roman structure in Britain, also the most heavily fortified Roman frontier in Europe, is Hadrian's Wall, built between the River Tyne and the Solway Firth. It was built largely from stone with forts, milecastles and accompanying ditches between about 122 and 128 AD during the reign of emperor Hadrian (117 to 138 AD). A turf wall was later built further north across Scotland from the Firth of Forth to the west coast, called the Antonine Wall, during the reign of emperor Antoninus Pius (138 to 161 AD), but this was later abandoned in favour of Hadrian's Wall.

The Roman Army


The Roman army was famously highly organised, trained and well supplied. In the time of Claudius a legion was said to consist of ten cohorts, each of six centuries with eighty men per century, although the first cohort was normally larger, probably five double-strength centuries. This gave 5,120 men per legion, although this would vary from time to time depending on losses and reinforcements. There were similar numbers of auxilliary men to the legions. The auxilliaries often had specialized skills or weapons compared to the legions and were originally drawn from the peoples of captured parts of the empire, posted away from their homelands for security, but later the legions also included non Romans.

As the army progressed across conquered territory they built supply bases and forts of standardised designs, usually in a playing card shape with roughly central north-south and east-west internal main roads each leading to four main outer gates, although the road layout and number of gates did vary, and various other smaller roads and paths. Sometimes the army took advantage of existing features in the landscape such as hills or Iron Age hill forts and these often caused an adaptation to the standard designs to fit the existing landscape. There were different types and sizes of fort. A short term 'marching camp' or 'vexillation fort' could be built very quickly and as a minimum was comprised of a bank and ditch around the perimeter, possibly with a wooden palisade fence. Temporary accommodation for the soldiers would be in tents. More permanent forts could have wooden or stone buildings and perhaps a stone perimeter wall and were sometimes built on top of temporary forts. Forts were often re-used and were sometimes rebuilt larger or smaller as needs required, often re-using parts of the previous fort, such as some of the banks and ditches. The main gates into the forts were placed in gaps in the banks with a small, curving (claviculum) or straight (titulum) section of bank in front of them as protection. Despite being made of earth, the traces of these gateways are sometimes very clear on the ground today.

Once a fort became established, a civilian settlement called a vicus would often build up around it for protection and to trade with the army. The forts and settlements often gradually became established as towns and sometimes the grid-like Roman street pattern is still visible today, often with the former forts' roads named with the word 'Gate' at the end. London is an example of a fort-turned-town and there are still fragments of the Roman fort walls in what is now the City at the centre of London. The Romans also built fortlets and watchtowers. Roman Britain had its own navy, the Classis Britannia, which was possibly based at what is now Dover Castle in Kent, where there are substantial Roman remains. Roman towns and settlements in Britain can be easily identified as their names tend to have a derivative of 'cester', 'chester' or 'cetter' in them.

Roads


As soon as the Romans had sufficient security and resources in place, they began to build their famous straight roads. Roman roads were not always completely straight and would often kink to avoid or pass through certain sites, but normally they were designed to be the most direct and therefore fastest route between two strategically important places. In the Birmingham area one of the principal Roman roads was Watling Street, which ran from near London (Londinium) to Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum) and Chester (Deva). Ryknild Street ran from Bourton-on-the-Water through Alcester (Alauna) and Metchley north to Wall and eventually to Rotherham. Another road runs from near Bath (Aquae Sulis) through Droitwich (Salinae) to Metchley, partly followed by the route of the A38 south of Birmingham. Further to the east is the Fosse Way Roman road which runs from Seaton in Devon through Leicester to Lincoln (Lindum).

Life in Roman Britain


The Romans adopted many of the native deities and kept the social hierarchy in place where it was prepared to accept Roman rule. Life for the majority of Britons who worked on the land probably changed very little. Under Emperor Constantine The Great, christianity was eventually introduced. The Romans introduced central heating with their underfloor furnaces or hypocausts. Towns were made more possible by bringing in water with aqueducts and they built in stone, unlike the native Britons who tended to live in Iron Age wooden and wattle and daub round houses. The Romans built houses in the new towns and villas in the countryside, which were either farmhouses and centres of estate administration or retreats for country gentlemen. The highest status villas and houses had rooms arranged around an atrium with an open roof and central pool. Smarter rooms had mosaic floors of varying complexity and central heating. They might have enclosed gardens or courtyards with walkways around them and could have a simple rectangular footprint or have multiple ranges of rooms. They had shrines and sometimes bath houses with pools at varying temperatures. In the towns they built various public buildings such as forums and public baths. The Romans made industrial activity more possible with their use of machinery powered by wind, water, animals or perhaps slaves. This machinery could be used to pump mines clear of water or process ores. Traces from Roman buildings can often be seen as 'borrowed' stones in local stone buildings such as churches today.

Rebellion


There were rebellions, such as the Boudican rebellion in the first century, but they were crushed with extreme force by the Roman army. Boudicca, or Boadicea, was the Queen of the Iceni and widow of their King, Prasutagus. Her native forces sacked the towns and massacred the inhabitants of Saint Albans, Colchester and London. She was defeated in battle by the forces of the Governer of Britain, Caius Suetonius Paulinus in about 60 or 61 AD and she and her two daughters are said to have taken their own lives by swallowing poison. She is claimed to be buried under platform ten at King's Cross railway station, the probable site of this final battle, in an area formerly known as Battle Bridge, but other places claim her remains also.

There was even a British-based rebellion against the empire in Gaul, led by a Roman called Marcus in 406 AD, who declared himself emperor and led Roman forces across the Channel to attack the empire on the mainland, but they were soon defeated.

The threat of raids from continental Europe, especially the Angles (from whom England was named) and Saxons from the region now called Germany, caused the Romans to build the Saxon shore forts around the south coast of Britain from north Norfolk to Hampshire, many still impressive today. Pressure on other parts of the empire and on Rome itself from European 'barbarian' tribes caused the legions to be gradually withdrawn from Britain, with the last soldiers leaving in the early fifth century, despite pleas to Rome from the ruling classes. King Vortigern of the Britons is said to have been so desperate to repel the invaders that he hired Saxon mercenaries, but they rebelled and he fled to Wales. The legendary King Arthur is said to have had success against the invaders, but he too eventually succumbed and Britain fell into what is commonly known as the 'Dark Ages', described as such mainly because there was little literacy except in religious communities and because the invaders were not christian, although many modern historians do not like the 'Dark Ages' description.

Note: letters and numbers in brackets following the sub-headings are Ordnance Survey map references. Distances are approximate and by road from Solihull.

Metchley Roman Fort, Edgbaston, Birmingham, West Midlands

(SP043836, 11 miles / 18km)

Metchley's remains, on the course of Ryknild Street are visible behind the Medical Faculty building on the campus of the University of Birmingham a few miles south of the city centre. The visible remains are the 1956 reconstruction of the north west corner of a vexillation fortress in use from about AD 45 to 65 and are a low, overgrown mound. The site went through several phases and changes of use and may have been used almost continuously for around 150 years. Excavations were undertaken in the 1930s, 1950s, 1960s and between 1996 and 1999 before construction work at the University. Timber and post holes from timber framed buildings were found and also, unusually, drainage gulleys that were between rows of tents, implying an extended period under canvas, and possibly that it was a base for the final destruction of the Boudican revolt in winter.

The Lunt, Baginton, near Coventry, Warwickshire

(SP344752, 23 miles / 37 km)

At the Lunt, in the village of Baginton, two miles south of Coventry, on the site of a timber first century fort is a full sized reconstruction of that fort. It was originally occupied between about AD 60 and AD 79 to 80 and was constructed in the aftermath of the Boudican native rebellion. There is a site museum, a reconstruction of one of the fort's granaries (horrea) and, unparalleled in Britain, a circular structure thought to be a gyrus for training horses and cavalry. The site is normally open on Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays only, but is open daily from the last week of July to mid September except Wednesdays and always only between 10am and 5pm. At the junction of the A45 with the A46 and A423, follow the signs to Baginton along the minor road to Coventry Airport.

Wall Roman Town, near Shenstone, Staffordshire

(SK099067, 35 miles / 56 km)

Wall village and Roman town, originally named Letocetum or 'grey wood', is on Watling Street, now by-passed by the A5 just to the north east of Birmingham on the junction with Ryknild Street. There was a vexillation fort (a short term camp and store base for legionaries and auxilliaries during the conquest in the first century), presumably for part of the 14th legion from about AD 50 to 58 before it moved to Wroxeter, although occupation continued after that. There are the remains of the baths and mansio, or inn, visible today and there is a museum. It is open from April to September from 10am to 5pm.

The City of Leicester, Leicestershire

(SK583044, 40 miles / 65 km)

Leicester is to the north east of Birmingham and was called Ratae Corieltauvorum, or the 'fortification (Celtic) of the Corieltauvi'. The modern street plan represents that of the second century. The remains of one building are visible in the city centre at the Jewry Wall Museum. They are part of the palaestra, or covered exercise hall of the baths, similar to Wroxeter (see below). The site is open daily from April to October, Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm, Sundays 2pm to 5pm and from November to March from 10am to 4pm or from 1pm to 4pm on Sundays.

Wroxeter Roman Town, near Shrewsbury, Shropshire

(SJ568088, 46 miles / 74 km)

Wroxeter was the 'civitas' or tribal capital of the Cornovii and was called Viroconium Cornoviorum. There was a legionary fortress occupied by the 14th legion from about AD 55 or 60, until its withdrawal from Britain in AD 66 or 67 for service in the east of the empire, and by the 20th until AD 87. Earth defences added to the town that grew up around the fort enclosed 170 acres, making Wroxeter the fourth largest Roman town in Britain, with a possible population of 5,000. There are very impressive remains of the palaestra for the baths, similar to those at Leicester (see above), which was 245 feet long by 66 feet wide, the remains of the baths themselves and a site museum. Construction of the baths complex began in the 120s, but paused for around thirty years before final completion. There are also the remains of a piscina, or open air swimming pool and a macellum or market. Wroxeter was finally abandoned in the seventh century. The site is open daily from April to September from 10am to 6pm, from 10am to 5pm in October and from November to March on Wednesdays to Sundays from 10am to 1pm and 2pm to 4pm.

 

The City of Gloucester, Gloucestershire

(SO830180, 59 miles / 95 km)

Gloucester was a colonia, a settlement of retired legionaries and their families, and was known as Glevum, or 'bright place'. There are various Roman remains around the city, but most are in basements. One way to see some of these is to join an organised tour from the City Museum between May and September.

 

Great Witcombe Roman Villa, near Brockworth, Gloucestershire

(SO899142, 59 miles / 95 km)

This site is near the village of Brockworth. There are the remains of a three-winged villa and a bath house.

 

Wadfield Roman Villa, near Winchcombe, Gloucestershire

(SP023260, 63 miles / 102 km)

This is two miles south of Andoversford. The overgrown walls are partly visible. A partial mosaic floor is housed in a wooden hut.

 

Chedworth Roman Villa, near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

(SO053134, 64 miles / 103 km)

Chedworth is the best preserved Roman villa in the Cotswolds. It was occupied and gradually changed from the first half of the second century to the end of the fourth, or possibly into the early fifth. The substantial remains include baths, mosaics, hypocausts and a shrine. There is a museum on site. It is open from May to September from Tuesday to Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays from 11am to 5pm and from March to April and October to late November Wednesdays to Sundays from 11am to 4pm. It is closed from late November to the end of February.

 

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

(SP020020, 75 miles / 121 km)

 

Cirencester was formerly known as Corinium Dobunnorum and became the civitas capital of the native Dobunni after the Roman army moved out in the late 70s AD. It was the second largest Roman town in Britain after London with 237 acres enclosed by the walls and had a large stone forum and basilica second in size only to London's. There are the remains of an amphitheatre, a short section of restored city wall, some defensive bank and a museum.

 

North Leigh Roman Villa, near Charlbury, Oxfordshire

(SP397154, 80 miles / 129 km)

This is three miles north east of Witney, Oxfordshire and was occupied from the early second century to at least the mid fourth. Remains of baths, hypocausts and mosaics are present. It is open at any time, except for the cover building which is rarely open, call 01483-304869 for details.

 

Site List

This is a list of local Roman sites, some of which have no visible remains. Inclusion in the list does not necessarily mean the sites are open to the public.

Alcester (Alauna), Warwickshire First century fort and defended Roman settlement. Museum with some finds, but no visible remains.
Chedworth Roman Villa, near Cirencester Substantial villa remains, about the best in the Cotswolds.
Chesterton, Warwickshire Defended Roman settlement. No visible remains.
Cirencester (Corinium Dobunnorum) Civitas capital of the Dobunni. Some visible remains and a museum.
Coleshill, Warwickshire Roman temple or shrine. No visible remains.
Gloucester (Glevum), Gloucestershire Colonia (settlement for retired Roman soldiers). Various remains in basements, not normally visible except on guided tours from the City Museum.
Great Witcombe Roman Villa, near Brockworth Some remains visible.
King's Norton, Birmingham - farm No visible remains.
Kinvaston and Pennocrucium, near Penkridge larger fort, two smaller forts and defended settlement. No visible remains.
Leicester (Ratae Corieltavorum), Leicestershire Civitas capital of the Corieltauvi. Impressive Roman remains and a museum in the city centre.
The Lunt, Baginton, south of Coventry Reconstructed wooden Roman fort with possible 'gyrus' for horse training, unique in the British Isles.
Mancetter (Manduessedum) Larger Roman fort and defended settlement.
Meriden, Solihull Smaller Roman fort - destroyed by sand and gravel extraction.
Metchley, Edgbaston Roman fort - few remains visible.
North Leigh Roman Villa, near Witney, Oxfordshire Some remains visible.
Perry Barr, Birmingham Pottery / tile manufacturing site. No visible remains.
Wadfield Roman Villa, near Andoversford some visible remains.
Wall (Letocetum), near Lichfield, Staffordshire defended Roman settlement and fort.
Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum) Roman civitas capital of the Cornovii, legionary fortress and other larger forts.

 

Bibliography

Alcester Heritage Trail (leaflet) - Advantage Alcester (2006)

Alcester Visitor Guide (leaflet) - Advantage Alcester (2006)

England's Heritage by Derry Brabbs - Weidenfeld and Nicolson (2001)

A History of Roman Britain by Peter Salway - Oxford University Press (2001)

A Guide to the Roman Remains in Britain by Roger J. A. Wilson - Constable (2002)

Ordnance Survey Historical Map and Guide - Roman Britain - Ordnance Survey (1997)

The Roman Empire from the Etruscans to the Decline of the Roman Empire

by Henri Stierlin - Taschen GmbH (2002)

Roman Forts in Britain by David J. Breeze - Shire Publications Limited (2002)

What the Romans Did for Us by Philip Wilkinson - Boxtree (2001)

Who's Buried Where in England

by Douglas Greenwood - Constable and Company (1982)

 

Websites

www.alcester.co.uk

www.birmingham.gov.uk

www.romanalcester.org

www.roman-britain.org/places/metchley.htm

JT



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