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“A thousand roads lead men forever to Rome”; Alain de Lille, 1175

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Over the centuries that followed the end of the Roman period in Britain in or around AD410, many of the Roman roads between important centres remained in use, however by the 14th century, their Roman origins appear to have been forgotten, at least by some. The monk Ranulf Higden, the earliest known writer to refer to a Roman road in Yorkshire (Ricknild Street),  thought that the roads he described as Britain’s four great ways must have been built by the Britons (Higden 1344)! Indeed, in more remote areas during the medieval period, the engineered straightness of Roman roads was viewed as almost supernatural; hence the road from Bainbridge to Ingleton became known as the Devil’s Causeway (Warburton, 1720), one of many to be given satanic attribution. Despite this, it is unlikely that the Roman road builders were completely forgotten thanks to the survival of various manuscript copies of the Antonine Itineraries (the British section often referred to as the Iter Brittaniarum), essentially lists of places and distances along some of the more important Roman roads (and occasionally waterways) dating from either the second or third century A.D.. Certainly, by the 16th century the antiquarians John Leland (Hearne 1754) and William Camden (Camden 1586) both recognised the route of the Roman road from Doncaster to York via Castleford (known to them as Erminge Street) as being one featuring in the Itineraries although we don’t know if the name “Roman Rigg” (or Ridge) which is still used for parts of that road today dates back further than that time.  

Leland and Camden certainly don’t appear to have been aware of more than a tiny part of the Roman road network in Yorkshire, and it wasn’t until 1720 that the first serious attempt was made to map all the “known” Roman Roads of the county, a task conducted by the cartographer John Warburton as part of his Map of Yorkshire (Warburton 1720). In Warburton’s day, some Roman roads were still in a remarkable state of preservation, so his task may have been much easier than it is today, when so much has been lost to the plough, robbed out for construction materials, or disappeared under urban sprawl. In the same decade as Warburton, Daniel Defoe wrote “From Wakefield we went to see the ancient town of Pontefract; but rode five or six miles out of our way over Barnsdale in order to see the great Roman causeway which runs across the moor from Doncaster to Castleford.” (Defoe, Daniel 1724-27)  [Note 1.] The well known antiquarians of the period Roger Gale, John Cade, William Stukeley and Ralph Thoresby all contributed to the study of the subject, and then Francis Drake followed with a map of Roman Yorkshire in his book “Eboracum” (Drake 1736). Whilst it seems likely that he borrowed heavily from Warburton, the two maps are sufficiently different to each other (and each to our current understanding of the Roman road network) to be more than a little intriguing.

A good deal of antiquarian investigation and speculation followed during the 18th and 19th centuries, usually focussing on roads local to the individuals concerned, rather than a broader approach. The exception perhaps, were the Ordnance Survey, who started marking known and supposed Roman roads on their maps right from their first editions in the 1840s. When Thomas Codrington published his Roman Roads in Britain, effectively a gazetteer of those roads recognised as Roman at the time, it represented the first synthesis of  knowledge on Britain’s Roman roads, and the first in Yorkshire for 165 years (Codrington 1903).  The twentieth century in Yorkshire saw continued contributions from a handful of researchers, again, as has become almost a tradition in the study of Roman roads, almost always working individually. In the early to mid 20th century the important names to mention are Francis Villy, who conducted copious research on roads in the West Riding (much of it, sadly, of dubious quality), Dorothy Greene in the south of the county (with particular relevance to our proposed pilot project), and to a lesser extent Frank Elgee in the north near the R.Tees. There were minor contributions too from archaeologists of national renown, such as Sir Ian Richmond and Osbert Crawford. In 1955 Ivan Margary published Volume II (covering the North and West of Britain) of his Roman Roads in Britain, a synthesis of all information known to that date about the Roman road network (Margary 1955). Margary’s work quickly became the standard reference work on the subject, and remains so to this day.

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s the Ordnance Survey’s own team of researchers produced so-called linear files for each known road, with strip maps showing suggested and alternative routes, along with record cards, and occasional photographs surveys and other notes. This data formed the basis of the lines of Roman roads which appear on the OS’s maps to this day, the files now being held in the English heritage archive in Swindon. Whilst some limited field work was carried out by the OS, it was, however, far from rigorous, and so the accuracy of the maps and their anotations can often be called into question. An unfortunate consequence of Margary’s magnum opus, particularly the second edition of 1973, was the assumption made by many archaeologists that our understanding of the Roman road network was now pretty much complete, and Yorkshire has been no exception. Until very recently, any research since Margary has been in the west of the county, largely by Donald Haigh much of whose work remains unpublished, and the Huddersfield and District Archaeological Society who over thirty years have re-written the map of the Manchester to York road from Saddleworth as far as Ainley Top near Huddersfield (Lunn et al. 2010).

In the last few years there has been a growing realisation amongst the small handful of active researchers in Yorkshire that we still have a huge amount to learn and understand. The work of John Poulter (Poulter 2010 & 2014) on the planning and surveying underlying the layout of Roman roads, particularly Dere Street, is ground breaking, even if not yet universally accepted. We cannot conclude, however, without mentioning the utilisation in recent years of LiDAR technology by our own Treasurer, Hugh Toller, who along with Bryn Gethin has re-discovered the road north from Bainbridge (Toller forthcoming), and identified the true course of Margary 81a from Stamford Bridge to Norton. By so doing they have demonstrated the reality that we have still a huge amount to learn and understand.

A brief look at the immense variation in maps of the Roman roads in Yorkshire over the last century or so as illustrated opposite, clearly reveals the many additions to, and removals from, the list of roads recognised by different writers as Roman; and that there has been no great improvement in our understanding. Indeed, we expect you will be far more confused after looking at all those maps than you were before!

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To illustrate the gradual disappearance of extant roads, it is worth quoting part of the Introduction to Thomas Codrington’s Roman Roads in Britain 1903: “Another example may be seen between Doncaster and Pontefract, where for several miles there is an embankment four, six, and eight feet high, and six yards wide….in some places the Roman road has been removed for the sake of the materials, so that instead of a ridge, a wide shallow trench remains. In other places the paved foundation is found a foot or more below the level of the ground without a trace of the road on the surface. This has arisen from the removal of the upper part in the interests of cultivation, the portion beyond the reach of the plough having been left; deeper ploughing has caused this process to be repeated in recent years.” (Codrington 1903 p.11) Sadly, this process continued unabated during the 20th century so that a hundred and twelve years later, only a few short sections of that road still survive in reasonable condition - even a mile long scheduled section at Hazlewood which theoretically should have been protected has been virtually destroyed. Return to Text

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Bogg, Edmund. 1904 Two Thousand Miles in Wharfedale. London, John Heywood.

Camden, William. 1586 Britannia

Codrington, T., 1903. Roman Roads in Britain. first ed. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Defoe, Daniel; 1724 - 1727. “A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Britain”, Letter 8

Drake, F., 1736. Eboracum; or the History and Antiquities of the City of York from its Origin to this Time.

Hearne, Thomas . 1754; The Itinerary of John Leland the Antiquary,  (2nd edition) Vol 6 p131

Higden, Ranulph., 1344. in Babington, Churchill ; “Polychronicon, Ranulphi Higden Monachii Cistrensis, together with the English Translation of John Trevisa and an unknown writer of the fifteenth century” Vol II London 1889 , p46

Lunn, Norman; Crosland, Bill; Spence, Bonwell; Clay, Granville., 2008. The Romans Came This Way. Huddersfield, HDAS.

Margary, I. 1957. Roman Roads in Britain Volume II. London, Phoenix House

Ordnance Survey, 1928. Map of Roman Britain, 2nd Edition

Ordnance Survey, 2011. Map of Roman Britain, 6th Edition

Ottaway, Patrick. 2013. Roman Yorkshire; People, Culture & Landscape. Pickering, Blackthorn Press

Poulter, J. 2010. The Planning of Roman Roads and Walls in Northern Britain, Stroud: Amberley

Poulter, J. 2014. Further discoveries about the surveying and planning of Roman roads in northern Britain, BAR 598., Oxford, Archaeopress

Toller, Hugh. , Forthcoming. The Roman Road from Bainbridge to Stang Top

Warburton, John. 1720; A New and Correct Map of the County of York in All its Divisions, London - reproduced in the column to the right, courtesy of the Ministerio de Educacion, Cultura y Deporte, Espana.

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SHEET 1. North west

Warburton’s Map

John Warburton's Map of Yorkshire, 1720, Sheet 1 John Warburton's Map of Yorkshire, 1720, Sheet 2

SHEET 2. North East

SHEET 3. South west

SHEET 4. South East

John Warburton's Map of Yorkshire, 1720, Sheet 4

Roads Warburton thought were Roman are shown as parallel thick and thin lines, dotted if he was uncertain of their course. Images link to a file courtesy of the Ministerio de Educacion, Cultura y Deporte, Espana. Their viewer has no horizontal scroll bar, so you may have to grab the image and drag it around the page as you zoom in and out. Files are quite large so download may be a little slow.

John Warburton's Map of Yorkshire, 1720, Sheet 3

A selection of Maps of Roman roads in Yorkshire over the last 300 years

Introduction & Aims Methodology Gazetteer of Yorkshire Ricknild Street Pilot