Roman Roads in Lancashire - Historical Background



Lancs Roman Roads

Historical Background

In the late Iron Age the area which was to become Lancashire was included in the territory of the Brigantes, which seems to have been a federation of smaller tribes (including the Setantii who may have occupied the Fylde of Lancashire and the Carvetii from the Carlisle area). The centres from which the Brigantian rulers held sway are uncertain but the hill forts at Warton Crag in North Lancashire, Skelmore Heads in Cumbria and Ingleborough and Stanwick in Yorkshire are possible seats of power. Most of the population lived in farms and small hamlets, comprising small groups of round houses with conical thatched roofs surrounded by small fields and paddocks. In Lancashire, one such lowland settlement (the only one known from the County to date) has been investigated by archaeologists, at Lathom, where at least two houses dating to 200-0 B.C. have been excavated. The farms and fields would have been linked by tracks probably with longer drove routes linking lowland farms with seasonal grazing in the uplands and in the lowland mosses and even the tribal centres are likely to have used the tracks and droveways as communication routes to outlying areas.

The first Roman military incursions into S.E. Britain, under Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 B.C. had no direct impact on Brigantia although there is evidence of increased trade between the Roman Empire and the south of Britain following Caesar’s expeditions and it is possible that the effects spread more widely than is attested by the archaeological record (for example slave trading leaves little trace in the archaeological record, although slaves are recorded by Strabo as one of Britain’s exports). The incorporation of Britain into the Roman Empire began in A.D. 43 when four legions, supported by auxiliary troops landed on the south coast and began a hard fought campaign to overcome native opposition.

Within five years the Roman army had occupied the south as far as a line running from the Severn to the Trent, with the frontier marked approximately by the line of the Fosse Way, a long distance road running from Exeter to Lincoln. The occupation was aided by the fact that at least two tribes (the Atrebates of Hampshire and the Iceni of East Anglia) seem to have been friendly towards Rome. Beyond the frontier, the Roman administration also seems to have made a treaty with the Brigantes, who were ruled by a queen, Cartimandua. The presence of a friendly (or at least neutral) tribe in the north of England allowed the Romans to expand the province of Britannia into Wales without having to guard their northern flank and when the leader of the British resistance, Caratacus, fled to Brigantia after his defeat, Cartimandua handed him over to the Roman army.

While Cartimandua and part of the ruling class in Brigantia were friendly, Cartimandua’s husband, Venutius and another ruling faction seems to have been less sympathetic and the Roman army may have intervened in the mid-50’s to support the queen. When the queen divorced her husband and married his armour bearer trouble erupted again, exacerbated by the Roman administration being in some disarray during a period of civil war within the Empire in A.D. 69. The Roman Army eventually had to send troops to rescue, Cartimandua and probably suppress the ascendant forces of Venutius.

Following the success of Vespasian in the civil war a new governor was appointed to Britain. Under Petillius Cerealis the Roman army penetrated north across Brigantia and established a permanent presence with the construction of the first forts in the northwest. Dendrochronology has indicated that the first forts at Ribchester and Carlisle were probably built in A.D. 72. Under the Governorship of Julius Agricola (who had been a legionary commander under Cerealis, commanding the XX Valeria Victrix, which probably operated as a semi-independent command up the western side of the country By the early 80’s the forts at Kirkham and Lancaster, and further up the Lune Valley had been established. The chronology of the north west fort network is still not fully understood, nor is the date of construction of the roads. From the fort’s foundation dates, the road from Ribchester to Carlisle, over the Forest of Bowland and up the Lune Valley should perhaps be the earliest. On the other hand, the coastal route, offering a route for land forces operating in conjunction with naval transports landing troop detachments along the coast and up the estuaries, ties in with descriptions of ‘combined operations’ by Tacitus and perhaps both roads were constructed more or less at the same time. There appear to have been marching camps or temporary camps at Warrington and Wigan on the coast road and it is possible that the later base at Walton le Dale, at the junction of the Darwen and the Ribble, originated as a temporary fort, no trace of which has survived to be found by archaeologists. A link from Ribchester to the western route at Galgate would have allowed more direct communication between the forts at ‘Bremetannacum’ and Lancaster and was presumably put in place after the construction of the main north- south routes and the forts they served

The main road network connecting the forts would have been completed fairly rapidly after the Roman conquest. There do not appear to have been any major Romanised settlements other than the forts and their accompanying vici (civilian settlements established just outside the fort gates) so the network does not appear to have developed further, with the possible exception of a link from Lancaster to the pottery production site at Quernmore. It is possible, in fact probable, that there are other minor roads and tracks to be discovered linking farming hamlets and villages to the main roads, and the trackways between the farms and hamlets also remain largely unmapped. There are also gaps in our knowledge of where the main routes run, particularly where they run across urban areas. The main western road north, for example, can be traced south of and north of Garstang but there is a gap of several kilometres where the alignment is uncertain (and where recent archaeological watching briefs on or close to the supposed line have failed to find it). Only more, detailed, research and diligent searching will produce a final Road Map of Roman Lancashire

Antonine Itineraries

Medieval copies survive of a List of Roman Routes known as the Antonine Itineraries, which is believed to date from the early 3rd Century. It consists of a series of place names and the distance between them. The route of interest for Lancashire is the so called Xth Iter which follows a contentious route, North to South, through Ribchester and Manchester. A Roman mile (approximately 1500 metres) is coincidentally close to the British statute mile and it is, therefore, possible to make a direct comparison between the distances given in the Iter and the mileage by known routes between Roman sites.

The full Xth Iter is as follows:-

Roman Name
Distance in Iter X
Tradional
Shotter's
IG Smith's
in Iter X
Roman Miles
Location
Location*
Location**
 
GLANOVENTA
Ravenglass
Ambleside
Ambleside
 
20
GALAVA
Ambleside
Low Borrow Br
lost
 
13
ALAVNA
Kendal
Over Burrow
Lancaster
 
12
GALACVM
Over Burrow
Lancaster
Over Burrow
 
29
BREMETENNACVM
Ribchester
Ribchester
Ribchester
 
20
COCCIVM
Wigan
Wigan
Wigan
 
17
MANCVNIVM
Manchester
Manchester
Manchester
 
20
CONDATE
Northwich
Northwich
Northwich
 
24
MEDIOLANVM
Whitchurch
Whitchurch
Whitchurch

* D. Shotter, Romans and Britons in North West England, 1997

** I.G. Smith, Britannia 1997

With Ribchester only known for certain it is difficult to interpret and therefore prove routes or names. Ravenglass is no longer believed to be Glanoventa and the OS Roman Britain Map 5th Edition places Glanibanta (=Glanoventa) at Ambleside. Coccio/Coccium is now almost certainly confirmed as Wigan and its distance from Ribchester is given as 20 miles. The only known route between them is west to Fulwood and then south via Walton-le-Dale. This totals 24 miles. If there were a route via the south bank of the Ribble to Walton-le-Dale this would reduce the distance to 22 miles. A direct route however (via the Street at Rivington?) would be a better match at 20.5 miles. Ribchester to Over Burrow is 29 miles and is a reasonable match to the 27 miles to Galacum, Ribchester to Lancaster being only 20.5 miles. Wigan to Manchester is 17 miles, a good agreement.

Construction

In proving a Roman road, one must appreciate that the general construction consisted of a built-up causeway with side ditches. The contruction comprised of a foundation layer of a large stones and then layers of smaller stones building up a cambered ridge, some two feet or more above general ground level. This pronounced ridge, known as an or 'agger', and the straight alignments with changes of direction, often on high points, are the common visual features. In areas where suitable stone was readily available, excavation or borrow pits can sometimes be found alongside the roads. The Croasdale crossing appears to have several. Where stone was not available then the foundation course could be made up of clay. The appears to have been the case on the Fylde. They were probably the first contructed roads in the country and the term "highway" derives from their built-up nature.

How the Romans designed or set out their roads is the subject of much debate. The more you study their roads the more it becomes obvious they were expert surveyors - routes were not selected by chance. Donald Haigh is Sarrleworth 712 describes it well "More accurately, Roman roads were made up of a number of straight lengths or alignments, with a change of direction taking place usually at a precise alignment angle, often upon high ground. Such roads were planned by competent surveyors, well briefed about the landscape with its advantages and obstacles. These obstacles were met by short straight lengths of road, terraces or zigzags, and the original line returned to as soon as possible". That last point is true in Lancashire. The road north from Ribchester didn't head straight for Jeffry Hill but returned to the setting out alignment first and then headed for Jeffry Hill. The same methodology seems to have been used north from Wigan. It would appear that the road engineers were following standard practice or probably an instruction manual.

Perhaps one area where Donald Haigh was not totally correct is that in Lancashire we have several examples of the change of alignment being curved. The most most famous being at 1400 feet on the Croasdale fells but this is not unique. The debate on how they set out their roads will rumble on but you cannot but be impressed with the skills they employed in selecting their routes.

The Roads today

At the time of the early Ordnance Survey archaeologist surveyors and up to Watkin's time, (i.e. mid 19th Century), visible remains would appear to have been plentiful but most have now disappeared either under urban sprawl or by intensive cultivation and deep ploughing. Routes can still be detected on aerial photographs and now Lidar but skilled archaeological excavation is usually required for definite proof.

Generally, Roman roads left such a permanent mark on the landscape that they were incorporated in later features, the most obvious being where they coincide with existing roads. It is true that in Lancashire there are no long lengths of road exactly on a Roman alignment but there are many intermittent examples. Other features such as lesser paths, farm tracks, hedgerows and old parish boundaries, are known to coincide with Roman alignments. Place names can also give clues to Roman Roads, particularly 'Street', i.e. Stretford (Street-Ford). Several Roman milestones have also been discovered and are very useful indicators of alignments.

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Last update 2015

© David Ratledge