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Author: Duncan Brown, National Monuments Record, English Heritage (2004)

Leintwardine lies at an important river crossing at the confluence of the Rivers Clun and Teme. The strategic importance of this location is indicated by the Iron Age hillfort, Brandon Camp, which overlooks the site, and the succession of Roman military establishments of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD that cluster around. These include:

  • A military supply base on Brandon Camp itself (AD 55-60),
  • Two temporary "marching" camps at Walford and Brampton Bryan to the south-west (both probably AD 50s or 60s),
  • The cavalry fort at Jay Lane (AD 60s-70s) to the north-east,
  • At least two successive cavalry forts at Buckton (AD 90-120 and AD 120-130), upriver to the west,
  • And last but by no means least, the Roman military road known as Watling Street West, probably built in the AD 50s or 60s, with a bridgehead lying immediately to the west of the present-day bridge at Leintwardine.

From the AD 70s, a civilian settlement grew up alongside the road on the auspicious south-facing slope above the river. We can guess from documentary evidence that this included a mansio, or staging post for the Roman Imperial postal service, which will have provided food, beds and fresh horses for the couriers. In addition to this, several workshops, shops and houses sprang up, serving the needs of locals, passers by and the garrisons of the forts. We also know that a bath-house was built by the river, which will have provided the comfort and facilities that soldiers and officials from some of the warmer parts of the Empire will have appreciated!

Later, by the mid-2nd century, most of the military presence in this part of the country had been withdrawn to wars and frontiers elsewhere. The settlement at Leintwardine continued, although its character may have changed to that of a rural settlement rather than a trading centre. Some of the buildings discovered by excavations resemble the romanised houses found in rural settlements elsewhere in the country.

In the late 2nd century (certainly after AD 160 and probably after 170), a massive rampart with a series of outlying ditches was constructed around much of this settlement from the river crossing northwards. This was a massive undertaking, involving the preparation of large numbers of timbers and excavation of a huge amount of clay and earth to create the elaborate timber-laced ramparts. They would also have been topped by a palisade of timber. These ramparts are still visible today to a height of around six feet (2m) in places. There are two conflicting explanations for why they were built.

The first explanation is that the Romans evicted the local populace and built a substantial fort on the site, twice the size of the cavalry forts at Jay Lane or Buckton, but retaining the mansio and bath-house. There is no known historical event to link this to, but it would not be uncommon for a local uprising to have been put down with such force by the Romans.

My personal view is that the defences of Leintwardine were constructed to protect the settlement - and particularly the Imperial postal service - in a period of unrest and uncertainty between AD 193 and AD 208. At this time, the governor of Britain, Clodius Albinus, made an unsuccessful bid for the Imperial throne. His rebellion was finally crushed following the arrival in Britain of the Emperor Septimius Severus and his armies in AD 208. During this time many of the soldiers stationed in Britain were called away to campaigns on the continent. Defences were constructed around many towns and smaller strategic settlements on the road network at some time between AD 180 and 220. Future excavations of the defences might give us further clues to the truth of the matter.

There are indications that the ramparts were repaired and perhaps enlarged at least twice in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, perhaps associated with other periods of uncertainty in the later Roman period (of which there are lots of examples). There is plenty of evidence of continuing occupation within the ramparts: several post-holes and pits containing finds of this period have been excavated, but so far we have very little evidence of the range of types of buildings present.

Of the archaeological finds, lots of decorated pottery, coins and even an altar inscription testify to the romanised lifestyle. More mundane artefacts perhaps tell us a lot more about the everyday lives of people in Roman Britain. Analysis of the finds has revealed a range of interesting stories, but I will leave this for someone else to tell.

In the historical documents, we think we can identify Leintwardine as a place called Branogenio. This is taken from Roman geographical texts, which used a source known as the Antonine Itinerary. This was a list of the Imperial postal stations across the Roman Empire. These texts were copied repeatedly from the Roman period throughout the Middle Ages (which is why they have survived to the present day). Consequently this name has been variously transcribed (e.g. Bravinium).

Interestingly, one of these geographers (Ptolemy) described Branogenio as a town of the Ordovices (the tribe who inhabited north-west Wales). He may have been just plain wrong, have misunderstood another tribal (or geographical) name, or the people of Leintwardine may indeed have had tribal links with the Ordovices.

Tribal affiliation represents an important part of the historical geography of Roman Britain because it had an impact on the political and economic lives of the inhabitants. For administrative reasons, Roman authority may have fossilised a rather more fluid state of affairs than had existed in the Iron Age. We think that there are three other tribal territories that come very close to Leintwardine. These are the Silures (South Wales, centred on Caerwent), the Dobunni (spreading from Gloucestershire northwards, probably including Kenchester, centred on Cirencester), and the Cornovii (Shropshire, centred on Wroxeter). The tribal affiliation of Leintwardine may have changed over time, but whether it can be assigned is an interesting question that we will probably never answer.

We do not know what happened in Leintwardine at the end of the Roman period. We can make some suppositions from the presence of both the church and the manor within the ramparts that occupation continued to some extent or other, or at least that the site was respected because of the ramparts, the road and the river crossing.

The Roman road itself runs along the line of High Street. However, most of the older buildings in the village are on Watling Street. We know that a previous bridge once lined up with Watling Street and was replaced by today's bridge. It seems likely that after the Roman river crossing failed, a new bridge was built which took most of the traffic around the ramparts to the east. This resulted in the renaming of the foremost street through the village as Watling Street.

The present day village spreads further and is a little larger than its Roman antecedent, but it has roots that go back a very long way.

© Duncan Brown, 2004