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The Romano-British Period

Roman Herefordshire: An Overview

In AD 43 the Roman Emperor Claudius sent a fleet to invade Britain. This was not the first Roman attempt at an invasion of Britain, as in 55 and 54 BC the Emperor Julius Caesar had made two unsuccessful expeditions. The AD 43 invasion landed at Kent with four legions and 50 auxiliary units commanded by Aulus Plautius. They quickly defeated the British tribal co-kings of the Catuvellauni, Caratacus and his brother Togodumnus. Togodumnus was killed and Caratacus fled into Wales. Claudius was also successful at Colchester, and from this point the legions proceeded in a four-year attempt to conquer the rest of southern Britain.

By AD 47 the Roman frontier of Britain was marked by the Fosse Way, which ran from Isca (Exeter) to Lindum (Lincoln), via Corinium (Cirencester) and Ratae (Leicester). This frontier was secured by a series of Roman forts. The Welsh Marches remained unconquered, and the threat from these unconquered peoples unnerved the Romans. This fear - as well as the incentives of the area's gold, silver, lead and copper resources - drew the Romans towards the west and Herefordshire.

For a few decades during the middle of the 1st century AD the Welsh Marches formed the western frontier in Britain. Herefordshire, in the centre of the Marches, does have evidence of settlements created by the Romans in the border area. Leintwardine, in the north-west of the county, shows signs today of its roots as a Roman fort. The high street, which runs straight through the centre of the village, still represents the via principalis or main street of a Roman settlement. The fort was built some time after the 1st century AD, and probably after the nearby fort at Buckton had been demolished. The purpose of the fort appears to have been that of supply depot for the central Marches. It would have aided further forays into unconquered territory by the Romans and may have been held by a single unit of 500 men. Closer to Hereford is the Roman town of Magna at Kenchester, which lies just a few miles to the west of the city. Nothing survives of the town above ground but its perimeter can still be traced in field boundaries, which enclose an area of 22 acres. Clear outlines of buildings and roads can also be seen on aerial photographs. Within the perimeter of the town were many substantial stone buildings; some even had mosaic floors, one example of which can be seen on the stairs of Hereford Library.

Within Herefordshire there are a further four small towns (Blackwardine, Stonechesters, Stretton Sugwas and Ariconium), and a few villas, for example at Wellington Quarry (HER reference no. 5522) and Putley. Very little is known about any of these sites. Contemporary with these "Roman" types of settlements are another type - native houses within large ditched enclosures. We know of at least two of these thanks to recent excavations (HER nos. 3216 and 6007), and there may be many more still awaiting discovery. Finds from these native sites included a wide range of 2nd and 3rd century AD Roman pottery and iron implements that had been imported into Herefordshire from the Manchester, Hampshire and Severn Valley areas, but there was no evidence for stone houses. It may be that the stone had been robbed out or that the houses were made of wood, thatch and mud that left no traces. At the moment we can only guess at how the people there lived, what they grew or where they worked.

Other evidence of Roman activity in Herefordshire takes the form of miscellaneous finds across the county and a legacy of Roman roads. The Romans are famous for their very straight roads, which formalised the quickest route from A to B. Roman roads exist in Herefordshire at Eardisley, from Craven Arms in Shropshire to Leintwardine - which still goes by the name of "Watling Street" - and one running across the north of Hereford city, which today is still called the "Roman Road". These roads were primarily designed to aid military communication rather than communication between native settlements. It is difficult to identify the tribe to which the people of Herefordshire belonged. An inscription on a milestone found at Kenchester contains the letters "RPCD", which usually stands for Res Publica Civitatis Dobunnorum. This suggests that Herefordshire may have belonged to the tribe of the Dobunni. However, many archaeologists do not agree with this suggestion. Before the Roman conquest the Dobunni tribe were known to have their own coinage and wheel-turned pottery: Herefordshire had neither, and so it is difficult to accept that two areas with such a vast cultural gap could have belonged to the same tribe. It has also been suggested that Herefordshire may have formed part of the tribe of the Silures, but this too is problematic. The Silures had numerous hillforts, as well as pottery, which again does not match the situation in Herefordshire.

The solution appears to be to put Herefordshire in the tribe of the Decangi, with whom the Roman Governor of Britain, Ostorius Scapula, waged war. This proposal cannot be agreed as definitely correct, as many of the pre-Roman settlements - such as Credenhill, Croft Ambrey and Midsummer Hill - have been burnt and abandoned. However, this fact in itself adds more weight to the argument that Herefordshire belonged to the Decangi, as when Ostorius Scapula waged war with this tribe and attempted to push them further into Wales, he destroyed and burnt the huts and settlements that stood before him.

The Romanisation of Britain brought about many changes in agriculture. One such change was the introduction of the payment of Tribute Tax, which meant that conquered communities had to provide corn for the Roman soldiers. This would have meant an increase in the working of arable land in the county. As a result, rotary querns were more extensively used and corn-drying ovens, like the one discovered at Sutton Walls in Marden (HER no. 912), were introduced.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2004]