On top of Castle Hill once stood Lancaster’s Roman Fort, or as we shall see, a succession of forts built over the years. Today on the site is the massive fortress of Lancaster Castle and the Medieval Priory Church. The top of the hill is 125 feet above sea level and affords good views of the surrounding countryside- hence it being a great location for over 2000 years.
At the beginning of Roman Britain, this area was under the rule of the Brigantes (meaning ‘hill people’). The Brigantes were a loose confederation of British tribes whose domain stretched through much of what is now Lancashire and Yorkshire. Their queen was Cartimandua and she and her husband Venutius had at first a pro-Roman stance. When Cartimandua later divorced Venutius he launched two attempts to topple her. On the second he was successful, and she had to be rescued by the Romans. From that point on, the Brigantes under his command were at war with Rome. The Roman Conquest of the North of Britain became inevitable.
FIRST FORT (a simple turf and timber fort)
A first Roman turf and timber fort was established on the hill top around 71-73 AD. Its external ramparts would be of battered clay, with the internal part strengthened by timber. Further defense came from deep ‘V’ shaped ditches surrounding it. The fort would have the classic four gate entrances, one on each side. The position meant that it could protect the River Lune crossing point to just to the north. The fort’s garrison was the auxiliary cavalry unit Ala Augusta Gallorum Proculeiana. A small civilian settlement (a Vicus) would have soon sprung up, just to the east of the fort along the line of modern day Church Street.
SECOND FORT (a large turf and timber fort, later remade in stone)
The second fort was much bigger. It was built over the top of the first one, and was to begin with another turf and timber construction. The east and west walls would follow the same line of the old fort, but the northern wall was placed 123 feet north of the old one, and presumably the same happened on the south side. There was later a short period of abandonment as the Romans pushed their frontier further north, but when they returned they rebuilt in stone.
The second fort was garrisoned by two separate groups- the Ala Gallorum Sebosiana (another cavalry contingent) and the naval unit of Numerus Barcariorum. The latter are often referred to as ‘bargemen’, but from a military view they were marines offering tough coastal and river defense for the region, as well as the ability to move heavy goods considerable distances.
Outside the fort to the north and west was a militarized zone. The area was defended by ditches and inside it were probably craftsmen engaged in creating equipment for the garrison. Just to the north of the east gate was the bathhouse, the remains of which we can still see today (see the Lancashire Past page here). A large building to the north of the bathhouse has been excavated and was probably a Mansio (inn) or the residence of an important official, even having its own baths. Lying a little further to the north would be the military port, near to St George’s Quay. Today’s Millennium Bridge lies very close to where the Roman bridge over the Lune would have been.
During the period the second fort was occupied the Vicus would have grown substantially. It would contain shops, inns, temples and houses. Most of the buildings would be made of wood and sit on small stone foundation walls. The main street extended in a line from the east gate of the fort and followed present day Church Street. Branching off from Church Street was a second street which is today Penny Street and Cheapside. From these areas many finds have surfaced over the years and are on show in the excellent Lancaster City Museum.
A walk around the where the second fort would have been
Start at the Judges Lodgings and Cross, near Church Street. Looking up the hill you’d be seeing the eastern entrance to the Second Roman fort. Follow the line of Church Street up until you reach the big set of steps. Now you stand in the centre of the fort, close to the Headquarters building. Head north down Vicarage Lane, past the church and this will take you out to Vicarage Fields. If you turn left and head out to the grassland you’d be amongst the barrack blocks and stables. It looks like the earthworks in the field still follow part of what would have been the western wall of the fort.
Head back to Vicarage Lane. There are sign posts showing you the way to the quay heading north to where the Roman harbour and stone bridge over the Lune would have been. There’s also a signpost for the Roman Baths, which sat just outside the north east side of the fort and can still be seen today. But let’s retrace our steps back up to the church and head along the western wall of the fort. Keep the castle on your left and head to the edge of the wall with the big drop below- this probably runs along the course of the western wall of the fort and is in line with the earthworks we saw in Vicarage Fields. Great views show what a superb vantage point this was.
Keep going until you reach the road and turn ninety degrees left onto Castle Park. If you walk along here with the castle on your left, you would have been looking up at the southern side of the fort. When you reach the end of Castle Park where it joins the Castle Hill road this would have been the south eastern corner of the fort.
THIRD FORT (a ‘Saxon Shore’ fort)
The third fort was a coastal defense fortification that was also used as a supply base for the Romans. Built around 330 AD it would continue to be used into the early 400s. By this stage in history, the threat was no longer coming from the indigenous British people, but from overseas. In the east it was the Saxons, but in the west it would be raiders from Ireland. A defensive line along the west of Britain included not only Lancaster but also Holyhead (Roman Caer Gybi) and Cardiff ( Roman Waliau- a fort thought to be very like the one at Lancaster). Numerus Barcariorum were now the only garrison.
The ‘Saxon Shore’ fort was constructed on a different alignment from the last one and reused stone from it. The site extended further down the northern and eastern slopes of Castle Hill than previous forts, reaching down to give greater protection to a now expanded port and military zone. New features included large protruding bastions on which to mount defensive artillery
The Wery Wall is a remnant of one of the bastions and parts of the wall existed for hundreds of years after the Romans left. The term ‘Wery’ comes from old English (i.e. Saxon) and means ‘defensive’. The Norman castle may well have used part of the remaining Roman wall as protection.
It’s not possible to walk around the edge of the third fort as we have done with the second one. Only one line of its wall lines are known for sure, cutting right through the old fort at a 45 degree angle. There is a single remaining block left – the core of a bastion and the last remnant of the Wery Wall. It sits by the Bath House of the second fort, just off Vicarage Lane. As well as this large block, you can see the third fort’s defensive ditch running into the older bath house. Follow the signposts for the Roman Baths to view these remaining ruins.
Many of the finds from the forts and vicus are on display in Lancaster City Museum, just a short walk from the top of Castle Hill. Entry to the museum is free and it is well worth a visit as it displays much of the archaeological and historical treasures of the Lancaster area.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2017
The site around Vicarage Fields, the priory church and castle is open access.
To see the superb finds visit Lancaster City Museum. It’s open every day (except Mondays). Website here
On the same site
Nearby, just a short walk away
A drive away
Note: David Shotter in his work counts four forts, but the more recent work by the archaeologists in Beyond the Castle project count three. The second large turf and timber fort that was later remade in stone is counted as just one fort by them, whereas Shotter counts the two separately.
The Roman Fort and Town of Lancaster, David Shotter and Andrew White (1990) Centre for North-West Regional Studies, University of Lancaster
The Romans in Lunesdale, David Shotter and Andrew White (1995) Centre for North-West Regional Studies, University of Lancaster
Beyond the Castle project. Current Website (beyondthecastle.org see here ) and temporary display at Lancaster Castle 2016
Lancaster’s Roman Cemeteries, Peter Iles and David Shotter (Eds) (2009), Centre for North-West Regional Studies, University of Lancaster
A Guided Walk of Roman Lancaster leaflet , Dr A J White (2001), Lancaster City Museums (still in print and available from the Lancaster Museum)
Roman Lancashire, W. Thompson Watkin (1883/2007) republished by Azorabooks