Roman Lancashire

A History of Roman Lancashire

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Roman military units were largely homogeneous and highly regulated

Nothing is known of the territorial or political organisation until just before the Roman Conquest. Then, most of the region north of the Mersey and the Yorkshire Don was controlled by the Brigantes Celtic people whose name appears to mean ‘the hill dwellers’.
In origin probably just one of many groups living in northern England, the Brigantes eventually achieved dominance by conquest and political strategy and ruled a confederation of semi-autonomous smaller tribes. Some of these other peoples are known by name, they included the Setantii, whose territory perhaps lay on the Lancashire plain and adjacent foothills but Brigantia’s tribal centre was in the Aldborough area north of York, and it is doubtful whether close central control was exercised over its more remote western fringes.

The Romans invaded southern England in A.D. 43, but it was another quarter of a century before they engaged in serious military activity in the north west. Initially they entered into an alliance with the Brigantian queen, Cartimandua, which gave them a reasonably secure northern frontier and allowed the subjugation of most of Wales to proceed unhindered. The discovery in Lancashire of small numbers of coins dating from the 50s and 60s imply a limited Roman presence here, perhaps associated with brief interventions on behalf of Cartimandua during Brigantian political struggles. However, in the late 60s a more serious, though intermittent, civil war broke out between the queen and her anti-Roman former husband, Venutius. This posed a major security threat to the Romans and in 69 they invaded Brigantia, following this in 71-84 by concerted military action to conquer all of northern England. Brigantia was destroyed as a separate entity and Lancashire, with the lands further north and east, formally became part of the empire.

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The Settlements of Roman Lancashire

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A Typical Roman Solider

The precise geography of these campaigns is unclear, although future archaeological investigations may clarify some of the events. It is known that the armies advanced northwards on both sides of the Pennines, probably moving up river valleys into the interior to split the Brigantes into smaller groups which could more easily be neutralised. The Ribble and Lune estuaries and Morecambe Bay were probably used for seaborne landings, and there is growing evidence that Roman sites such as Kirkham and Lancaster may have been founded as bases in the first stages of the invasion before land penetration was possible. The next phase was probably an overland advance from the south: the high-level Roman road north-wards from Manchester to Ribchester and the Lune valley was the route of one such thrust, but recent discoveries of marching camps at Middlewich and possibly Warrington suggest that there was also a low-level advance along the line of the modern A49 and A6.

By the end of the 70s forts had been established at Manchester, Ribchester, Lancaster, Burrow in Lonsdale, Kirkham and Castleshaw (near Oldham). In the early 80s the subjugation of the Brigantes was complete and peace had been imposed, but much of the hill territory was not fully garrisoned until a second campaign, between 90 and 130, when the conquest was carried to its logical conclusion. The Lake District was occupied and control of Lancashire south of the sands was consolidated. During this period the difficult road was built across the central fells from Ambleside via Little Langdale and the Wrynose to Hardknott and Ravenglass. Existing forts in Lancashire were constructed and improved, with earth-and-turf ramparts rebuilt in stone as at Lancaster or reinforced and realigned as at Manchester. The upgrading of defences continued until the mid-second century: at Manchester stone ramparts were eventually constructed in about 165.

Roman Soldiers During the Roman Conquest of EnglandThe needs of the military encouraged the development of essential industries at places such as Quernmore near Lancaster, which had important potteries, and at Walton le Dale where a very extensive military supply depot was laid out in the angle between the Ribble and Darwen rivers. The true extent of the civilian settlements, or vici, outside the military sites is becoming apparent as archaeological investigations begin to focus on these features. In the vici lived the families of soldiers, the people engaged in service trades such as shopkeeping and administration, and hangers-on such as prostitutes and pedlars. The vicus at Lancaster extended over the area now occupied by the town centre, sheltering beneath the fort on the hilltop where the castle and priory church are today, and some streets in central Lancaster follow the alignment of those in the Roman town. At Manchester the vicus extended northwards from the fort along the line of the modern Deansgate, which was the main Roman road to Ribchester. Excavations here have revealed a sizeable industrial area with more than thirty smelting hearths as well as wooden sheds and metal-working sites. The first hint of possible Christian worship in the county appears in a word-square, a pottery fragment inscribed with a cryptogram based on the phrase PATER NOSTER (Our Father), which was found in the vicus at Manchester and was dated to the mid-second century A.D. It has long been known that there was a significant Roman presence, probably including a fort and civilian settlement at Wigan, although despite recent archaeological investigation its precise characteristics are still unclear. Coal from the Wigan area was certainly used as the fuel in industrial processes such as iron-smelting at Wilderspool, opposite Warrington, during the Roman period, although all traces of the mining operations themselves have been obliterated by later development. The Roman settlement at Ribchester began as an early fort but the site, a major road junction, retained its importance and underwent a long sequence of improvements and rebuildings. The Roman name, one of the few known with certainty from Lancashire, was BREMETENNACVM (or variants) VETERANORUM, the second word indicating a settlement of army veterans who may have been given land in the area.

The Road Network of Roman Lancashire

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During the Roman Conquest of England

The road network of Roman Lancashire grew around the two main south-north routes, its most important focus being Manchester where at least six roads met. One, heading ultimately for Carlisle, ran northwards in an almost direct line to Ribchester before crossing the inhospitable uplands of the Forest of Bowland and dropping down to the Lune valley and the fort at Burrow near Hornby. A parallel road, the course of which is less certain, crossed the Mersey at Warrington and then proceeded north along the margin plain to Wigan, walton le Dale and Lancaster. There it divided, the more important branch going up the south side of the Lune to Burrow (with a secondary road on the north bank), the other carrying on towards Kendal. These two main routes were tied together by an important east-west road from York to Ribchester and into the Fylde. From Kirkham this road apparently headed westwards and for two hundred years it, and its possible objective, have been the subject of sometimes wild speculation. The Roman geographer Ptolemy refers to a place called Portus Setantiorurn, which was apparently somewhere in north west England and enthusiasts claim that this is a lost site, perhaps washed away by the sea, in the vicinity of modern Fleetwood or Knott End, both places where important coin hoards have been found. The verdict at the moment must be non proven.

Roman period helmet found in Ribchester

There are comparatively few impressive visible traces of the Roman period in Lancashire. The lines of ramparts or fragments of walling can be seen at, for example, Lancaster where the Wery Wall, part of the fort on the hilltop above the Lune, is the only substantial piece of Roman masonry to remain and at Castleshaw and Ribchester. Other sites, such as Wigan, Manchester, Warrington, and Walton le Dale, have been completely lost beneath later development, although at Manchester a modern reconstruction of part of the fort is included in the Castlefield heritage area. The alignments of some major Roman roads are followed by stretches of modern highways or by the lines of hedgerows and field boundaries. For example, the A56 north from Manchester through Prestwich follows the Roman road to Ribchester and Carlisle, an alignment later picked up by the present unclassified lanes through Affetside west of Tottington and Blacksnape east of Darwen. Other main roads, though, have left little trace. That which went from Manchester to Wigan, described in detail by early antiquarians and marked on the first Ordnance Survey maps in the 1840s, is today scarcely detectable on the ground. One of the most remarkable stretches of ancient highway in England, the stone-paved road with a deep central drainage channel on Blackstone Edge near Rochdale, may be Roman but opinion on this question is still deeply divided. However, Lancashire can offer one of the finest of all views of a Roman road. From Jeffrey Hill above Longridge on a clear day the unerringly straight line of the road from Ribchester to Burrow in Lonsdale is picked out by lanes and hedgerows over into Yorkshire, and on the horizon, peeping over the ridge above Browsholme, is the summit of Pen-y-Ghent, the sighting point used by the Roman surveyors almost two thousand years ago.

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