The Romans first came to Britain with an army in 55 BC and again in 54 BC, led by Julius Caesar, but they returned to Europe to occupy Gaul. Almost a hundred years later, in 43 AD, during the reign of Claudius, they came to Britain again and this time they secured the south-east of England in four years. Vespasian then led a campaign to the south-west in which he is said to have fought 30 battles and captured over 20 hillforts on the way to Exeter, which he besieged for eight days before it fell in 49 AD.
After this, there was no further resistance from the local Dumnonii and it has been suggested that they may have had a treaty with the Romans. The Romans gave Exeter its name, Isca Dumnoniorum, which means Exeter, Capital city of the Dumnonii. It has long been thought that Exeter was a frontier town and the Romans didn’t often venture further north or west, but this view is increasingly being challenged (1).
Only two Roman settlements are known in north Devon, both small coastal forts, at The Beacon, Martinhoe and Old Burrow near County Gate (2). They were excavated in the 1960’s and it is thought that they were signal stations built to watch the Silures in South Wales (led by Caratacus who was famously defeated and captured, taken to Rome and then freed for his bravery). They are thought to have been serviced from the sea. No Roman roads are yet known in north Devon (below left); but it has been suggested that they may have been made of brushwood on clay, rather than stone, which would leave almost no trace (3).
By local tradition Watermouth Castle was built on top of a Roman fort; there was a Roman encampment on the southern slope of Hillsborough and there was a Roman cottage, now submerged, in Samson’s Bay (4). None of these claims are at all likely, but a fragment of Roman sculpture has been found in Ilfracombe, and Roman coins are said to have been found at Watermouth Cove (5).
Recent excavations at Brayford and Sherracombe have found considerable evidence of Roman-British iron smelting in what may be one of the biggest Roman industrial sites in Britain. Apart from what probably represents hundreds of tons of slag waste, a coin from the 3rd century was found and a large number of Roman pottery shards, indicating that north Devon was an important part of the Roman economy. Some 4th century pottery has also been recently found in Combe Martin and some tracks to the east of the main road, previously thought to be drovers tracks, are thought to have been deep strip mines that may have been in use in the Roman period (6).
The population of England is thought to have been greater in the Roman period than at the time of Doomsday, over 600 years later. North Devon must have been relatively densely populated, despite the lack of obvious Roman remains (7). Presumably local people lived much as they had at the end of the Iron Age. The defensive hillforts were probably abandoned but the hill-slope enclosures may have continued to be occupied and even new ones built. There are many rectilinear enclosures in Devon (for example at Brinscott near Berrynarbor) which may have a Roman influence. But unlike in Cornwall, where many present-day settlements seem to originate in a prehistoric round, most modern settlements in north Devon appear to be discontinuous with hill-slope enclosures, and it is not known whether they were first founded during the Roman, Romano-British or early Saxon periods (8).
< Hillsborough hillfort Romano-British >
(1) Roman invasion
"The Romans did not occupy land to the west of Exeter - this was their most western frontier town. This suggests that the Dumnonii were not hostile to Rome; it has even been surmised that the Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia had an alliance with Rome" (Hoskins 1954 p 36 from Radford 1947 The Dumnonii TDA 79 p 21)
"By AD 47 the Romans had established a frontier diagonally across Britain. This was roughly marked by the great cross-country road we call the Fosse Way...thus the kingdom of the Dumnonii still lay in the unconquered west. There is an ancient tradition that the Roman General Vespasian, who commanded the 2nd legion, besieged the fortress at Exeter for 8 days in 49 AD. It is also said that a British King marched rapidly from the east of the country and fought with Vespasian just outside Exeter. Each army suffered severely and neither gained a victory, but in the morning peace was made and the Dumnonii seemed to have given the Romans no further trouble. It is quite likely that this ancient tradition is true. We know for certain that the 2nd legion was stationed for a time at the Seaton end of Fosse way. We also know that Vespasian did carry out a western campaign in which he fought 30 battles, conquered two powerful tribes, and captured over 20 native fortresses. It is possible that one of these two tribes was that of the Dumnonii. We also know from recent excavations in Exeter that the Roman occupation of the site dates from around 50 AD, which fits perfectly with the tradition about the siege by Vespasian" (Hoskins 1959 p 19-20)
"The Romans took over the small native town they found at Exeter and gave it the name of Isca Dumnoniorum. In modern language this simply means Exeter, capital city of the Dumnonii" (Hoskins 1959 p 20)
(2) Coastal forts Old Burrow & Martinhoe
"Before 50 AD they built a small fort, now known as Old Burrow [ss788493], near County Gate, whose garrison could keep an eye on activities in the Bristol Channel and on the local Dumnonii, ensuring that there should be no collaboration with the Silures across the water. The garrison consisted of only about 80 legionaries under a centurion, and they could have not done very much had the countryside risen against them. Old Burrow consists of a circular outer enclosure nearly 100 yds in diameter protected by a roughly made rampart and single ditch. In its centre is a square enclosure with rounded corners, 90’ across and protected by a more carefully-made rampart and two ditches. The entrance to the outer enclosure is at the south, while that to the inner enclosure is by a causeway across the ditches and through the rampart on the north side. Attackers carrying the outer gate would thus have to run under fire halfway round the inner fortification before reaching its gateway. Over this gateway was a platform supported on 4 massive posts; it may have doubled the functions of defending the gate and acting as a signal station. The only building found inside the fort was a crude cookhouse against the south rampart of the inner enclosure. It is evident that the soldiers lived in leather campaign tents, showing that Old Burrow was never more than a temporary affair. It was abandoned after a couple of years or so, being replaced by another fortlet of very similar design at Martinhoe [ss663494], where the site is 200’ lower than Old Burrow, is less exposed and has a better field of view. Here the troops quarters were in semi-permanent wooden buildings, and various finds indicate that the fortlet was occupied for about 20 years. Old Burrow was incompletely excavated by the late H St George Gray in 1911, when techniques were very different from those of today. He mistakenly attributed the fortlet to the late C4th...the earlier dating was proved between 1960-63 (Fox & Ravenhill 1966).
"The finds from both fortlets are on view in the North Devon Athenaeum in Barnstaple" (Whybrow 1970 p 34-35)
"The first fortlet to be established was Old Burrow...at a height of 1,100’ and therefore shrouded in mist or fog at frequent intervals. Trial excavations by Gray and WM Tapp in 1911 showed that it was Roman; fuller excavation by Lady Aileen Fox and Dr WLD Ravenhill in 1963 demonstrated the sequence of construction. First of all the outer enclosure was built rather hurriedly; then the inner enclosure was constructed with greater care. Its entrance was paved and the gateway was partly timbered. Within the inner enclosure were remains of a field oven large enough to have catered for up to 100. However, a situation so bleak for much of the year could have been occupied comfortably only at intervals, and the excavation revealed no evidence of permanent occupation. It was built about 48 and abandoned around 52 probably after the defeat of Caratacus. Within a few years, probably during the reign of Nero about 58-60, further trouble from the Silures led to the construction of the fortlet at Martinhoe....somewhat less bleak and more habitable than Old Burrow. Excavation by Fox & Ravenhill 1960-1 revealed two blocks of barrack buildings in the inner enclosure, as well as several ovens and a small furnace. The barracks could accommodate an estimated 65-80 troops, technically a century, under a centurion. Between the inner and outer enclosure is a fire-signal cairn which may be among the earliest known in Britain. This was occupied more intensively, and abandoned around 75, when the legionary fortress was founded at Caerleon" (Grinsell 1970 p 95-6)
"The main Welsh leader during this time was Cataractus (Caradog in Welsh) who originally belonged to the Catuvellauni, but later fled to the Silures when the Catuvellauni were defeated. A fort was erected in 49 AD near what is now Gloucester. Along with this fort and a network of others brought pressure to bear upon the Silures, which forced Cataractus to flee to the Ordovices. The Romans pursued and he was defeated in 51 AD, where his wife and children were also captured. Cataractus fled to the Brigantes, but their queen turned him over to the Romans, who took him to Rome and where he supposedly made the following speech: (From Tacitus, "Annals"): "Had my moderation in prosperity been equal to my noble birth and fortune, I should have entered this city as your friend rather than as your captive; and you would not have disdained to receive, under a treaty of peace, a king descended from illustrious ancestors and ruling many nations. My present lot is as glorious to you as it is degrading to myself. I had men and horses, arms and wealth. What wonder if I parted with them reluctantly? If you Romans choose to lord it over the world, does it follow that the world is to accept slavery? Were I to have been at once delivered up as a prisoner, neither my fall nor your triumph would have become famous. My punishment would be followed by oblivion, whereas, if you save my life, I shall be an everlasting memorial of your clemency." Tacitus tells us that Agrippina granted clemency to Cataractus and his family after this speech." http://freepages.history.rootsweb.com/~bowen/welchist1.html A Welsh History Synopsis in 20 parts by David Walter Fortin.
"St George Gray carried out a small-scale investigation at Old Burrow in 1911. Aileen Fox and William Ravenhill excavated both sites on a larger scale between 1960 and 1963 (Gray & Tapp 1912; Fox & Ravenhill 1966)" (Riley & Wilson-North 2001 p 8)
(3) Roman Roads
"It used to be thought that the Romans made Exeter their frontier city and did not bother to penetrate into the wild country further west, since the natives could be relied upon to cause no further trouble" but traces of Roman roads have been found running to Teignbridge and North Tawton. "There is a great deal more to be found out about Roman roads in Devon, and about other traces of the Roman occupation" (Hoskins 1959 p 21)
"There are not known to have been any Roman roads on or near Exmoor. Old Burrow and Martinhoe might have been supplied by sea, but Nunnington Park [ST090271] must have had land communications, presumably along a spur from the Fosse way. And the whole area must have been crossed by well-trodden track ways which had been in existence for many centuries." (Whybrow 1970 p 36)
A typed article on Roman Roads in North Devon, in Ilfracombe Museum (Roman Roads folder), probably by Michael Lambert c1960 "It can be seen that there is beginning to emerge a well planned network of Roman roads. However, from the paucity of their remains, it is clear that these roads were rarely constructed of stone. It has been suggested that wood was used either in the form of logs or of brushwood. It may be that the Roman engineers thought that in North Devon with its steep gradients and on occasion torrential rainfall a stone road, not bonded with a water-repellent such as tar, would regularly have been swept away. I should have thought a road made of logs would have also been unsatisfactory. On clay, where the ground was level, they would have tended to sink; where the ground sloped, to become uneven and dislodged. A brushwood road seems more feasible. It would only be necessary to expose the clay and put a good layer of brushwood on it. The brushwood should consolidate with the clay and there would not be the need for side drains."
(4) Roman Oral Tradition
"A vague tradition says that at the lowest tides the remains of a 'Roman house' may be seen at the western end of Sampson's Cove. I have never seen this remarkable ruin myself, nor can I hear of anyone who has. Indeed, it is puzzling to account for the presence of masonry - Roman or otherwise - in such a position." (Page 1895 p 81)
"There is also a vague tradition that there are remains of a Roman cottage near this beach [Samson’s Bay] which can only be seen at very low tide" (Wilson 1976 p 51)
"Traces of a Roman encampment were found on the Southern slope of
Hillsborough." (ICTG 1985-6 p 1)
"There are some doubtful remains of British earthworks on the land side of Hillsborough, but no evidence exists of any Roman military or domestic occupation." (Slade-King 1879 p 162)
"The Bassets lived at Heanton Court by the river Taw, between Barnstaple and Braunton. When they found that they could not stop the railway lines from being built in front of the Court House they sold it and moved to Watermouth, where they had a villa, which was said to have been built on top of a Roman villa. They built onto it, made the Castle, and landscaped the garden" (Wilson 1976 p 71-72)
Watermouth castle is not old, dating back about 130 years. It is built on the site of an old Roman villa (Wilson 1976 p 86)
(5) Coins and sculptures
Roman coins have been found at Pilton SS557340 (Constantius Chlorus 293-306 in Barnstaple Museum), also Claudius (41-54), and at Instow SS490304 a gold coin of Theodosius (379-95) was found in 1630 (Grinsell 1970 p 205-9)
"The Romans probably knew Combe Martin. They had a considerable port at Abonae, now Seamills, near Bristol and settlements along the South Wales coast notably at Caerleon....in the early days of their occupation they established two well-defended forts at Martinhoe and Countisbury...traces of signal fire on the cliff edge show how signals were passed to the Roman fleet. They were abandoned by about 75 AD, but during their occupation Roman ships would have found Combe Martin the nearest and best harbour to land stores and men....two Roman coins were found at Berrynarbor" (CMLHG 1989 p 15)
A small bronze coin dating to the early Roman occupation was found at Woolacombe Sands in the 1950’s, and another on Saunton sands. Roman coins have also been found in Pilton and Bideford. At Instow, a gold coin of Theodosius was found in 1630 (Reed 1997 p 5)
A small statue fragment, a male torso, is displayed in Ilfracombe Museum with the caption "The British Museum have pronounced to be a copy by the Romans of a still more ancient Greek original. It is a fragment of a male torso sculptured in hard rock akin to granite. It was found just below the surface of a garden in Ilfracombe. How it got there can only be conjectured. It may have been ballast from a ship and then picked up out of curiosity."
"In conclusion, the evidence of Roman material from find spots and excavations and coin hoards indicates extensive use of the [Devon] countryside in the Roman period and thus the existence of a sizeable population in the South-West at this time. Both these facts have gone largely unrecognised until recently because of the concentration of attention on Roman type structures" (Griffith, F & Quinnell, H 1999 Iron Age to Roman buildings, structures, and coin and other findspots, in Kain & Ravenhill 1999 p 76)
(6) industrial sites
"It is sometimes said that the Romans mined iron and other metals in Exmoor and the Brendan Hills, and the discovery of Roman coins in ‘breccia’ (wall rubble) near Dulverton is cited as proof. Certainly the local Dumnonii continued to exploit deposits of iron as they had done before the roman invasion, and they may possibly have mined copper in a small way. The finding of Roman coins does not prove the presence of Romans; any passing Briton of the period might have dropped the odd denarius. Alleged Roman iron workings on Exmoor and the Brendan's are of much later date - the so-called Roman lode above Cornham Ford [ss749386] was probably first opened by James Boevey in the C17th, and reopened in the middle of the C19th, when Sir Frederick Knight was hoping to make a fortune out of Exmoor iron." (Wybrow 1970 p 35-36)
"There is circumstantial evidence that the Romans mined the Brendan hills and eastern Exmoor, a coin of Domitian (81-96) was found before 1868 in iron workings on Kenisham Hill on the Brendan hills. Four roman coins, late 3rd and 4th century, found embedded in industrial slag which also contained oyster shells in a roman context ‘near Dulverton’. (Grinsell 1970 p 97)
"Some of the most compelling evidence for Roman iron-working on Exmoor is to be found in the Bristol Museum. At some time before 1906 two lumps of iron slag containing fragments of oyster shell and four Roman coins were found near Dulverton. Only two of the coins were available for examination in 1958, when they were identified as from the reign of Constantine (AD 308-337). The 19th century miners found a coin of the reign of Domitian (AD 81-96) in old workings on Kennisham Hill, and Roman coins have alleged to have come from iron mines in the parish of Luxborough" (Riley & Wilson-North 2001 p 80-81)
"(The following is a précis of the report of Martin Gillard and Gill Juleff appearing in the Exmoor Historic Environment Review) The highlight of 2002 was the summer excavation season at Sherracombe Ford. Sherracombe Ford lies near the head of the Sherracombe/Brayford valley in a context of open moorland, wooded combes and ancient trackways. The site comprises double and single platforms cut into a steep valley-side. Below are mounds of iron-slag, finds from which had already suggested late Iron Age/Romano-British industrial activity. The aim of the 2002 dig was to investigate one of the larger platforms and it’s adjacent slag-heap.......On the platform we found the remains of three furnaces all severely truncated. The strongest geophysical anomaly on the platform turned out to correspond to a smithing floor.....The impression was of intensive industrial activity over a long period of time. Pottery from the excavation confirmed a Romano-British date (After MG & GJ, February 2003) It seems possible that evidence of Romano-British iron-working will be found all the way down the valley from Sherracombe to Brayford. Both excavation and geochemical survey at Brayford in 2001 had already revealed a large smelting area associated with pottery of Romano-British date.....In 2002 further excavation was carried out ....here the digging of a platform for the construction of a patio had initially revealed a substantial collection of Romano-British pottery in heavily charcoal-stained soil. Two spells of controlled excavation and one of rapid salvage excavation during the year produced a large (for North Devon) quantity of Romano-British pottery, a total of 1342 shards together with the now ubiquitous slag and fragments of furnace-lining. The pottery has been examined by Paul Bidwell and Associates at South Shields who indicate a date range in the late second to early third century.....It has been suggested that the iron-working sites in the Brayford area represent one of the largest industrial sites from the Roman period.....It does not mean that there were Romans in North Devon, but now we know that the North Devon area was at least involved in the economy of Roman Britain and was probably supplying iron to a large market." (T Green, ‘Roman’ North Devon in 2002, North Devon Archaeological Society Issue 5 Spring 2003 p 10-11)
Trevor Dunkerley has been awarded a £4K Millennium Award to explore his theory that the hillside lanes on the north side of the Combe Martin valley were originally Romano-British mining trenches. "Mr Dunkerley said ‘There is a tradition in the village which says the trenches are pack horse lanes, but a pack horse can’t make a trench through 40’ of solid rock’. Mr Dunkerley is convinced they are evidence of Roman mining, as the Romans are now known to have been mining and smelting iron at and around Brayford." (Andrea Charters, North Devon Journal Aug 15th 2002 p 6)
In recent excavations near the church in Combe Martin "Archaeologists found several imported flints, a stone hammer head from the Bronze Age, pieces of 4th century Romano British pottery, and remains from the Saxon-Norman, Medieval and Post-Medieval periods." Mr Dunkerley said "I have been very surprised that the limited excavation carried out so far has revealed such a time breadth of human habitation." (North Devon Journal May 29th 2003 p 6)
"The second dig was carried out by students and staff from the university of Exeter, directed by Dr Gill Juleff, and assisted by local volunteers. The excavations concentrated on a massive Roman iron production site near Brayford on the southern edge of Exmoor. A large trench, some 30m long, revealed the enormous scale of iron production on the site; in places the Roman deposits were 3m deep. The dig was part of a four-year programme run by the National park Authority, the University of Exeter and the national Trust with funding from English Heritage to investigate iron exploitation on Exmoor over the last 2000 years. The complexity of the site surprised even the experts and reveals a very complex industrial operation that may have continued for 200 years" (Exmoor Visitor 2003, Exmoor National Park p 5)
"It has been suggested that the iron-working sites in the Brayford area represent one of the largest known industrial sites from the Roman period. A great deal of further study will be required before we know what to make of it all. It does not mean that there were 'Romans' in north devon, but now we know that the north Devon area was at least involved in the economy of Roman Britain and was probably supplying iron to a large market" (NDAS Issue 5 Spring 2003 p11)
(7) Roman population
"Over most of Devon it is quite likely that there were no villas or large country estates....We have never found any traces in Devon of native villages such as we get in other parts of England. It seems likely that the native farmers, who continued their way of life undisturbed right through the Roman period, lived mostly in scattered farmsteads or at the most in hamlets of 2 or 3 farmsteads grouped together" (Hoskins 1959 p 23)
Statistics point to a [UK] Roman population of 4M, certainly over 1M (Lloyd & Laing 1990 p 69)
"The settlement pattern of Dumnonia during the Roman period seems to have been much as in the later Iron Age [according to Pearce 1981] The majority of the population was living a lifestyle which was rural in character and based upon a single homestead or farmstead intended to house a family or kin group, rather than on a hillfort intended to have a tribe." (Whitehead 1992 p 19)
(8) Rectilinear rounds
"There are, however, several small sub-rectangular ramparted enclosures in the Exmoor area and elsewhere in South-West Britain which, until a few years ago, were thought to have been constructed in the pre-Roman Iron Age." None of the North Devon sites have been excavated, but some have in South Devon & Cornwall and were found to be 1st & 2nd century AD "These little enclosures, whose ramparts seem massive for such small works, contain an area of about ½ an acre. One in Bratton Flemming [ss671367?] measures about 165 feet by 125 feet between the crests of its ramparts; an area of rather less than half-an-acre. The best preserved of these fortified homesteads (if such they are) is Stock Castle in Lynton [ss719469]. Another, very much eroded, is at Brinscott [ss582438] in Berrynarbor; it measures about 120 feet by 75 feet. A fourth, clearly seen on air photographs but invisible on the ground is on Rowley Down on Parracombe [ss661434]. The path round the Cleaves from Hillsford Bridge above Watersmeet passes through another; it is only a quarter of a mile south of the pre-Roman hill-fort of Myrtlebury, and one may speculate on the possibility of it being direct successor to the latter. There is one of unusual interest at Brightly Barton in Chittlehampton [ss613229] which may have been in occupation as the predecessor of a medieval moated manor house. Sweetworthy [ss891425], on the northern slope of Dunkery Hill, may prove to be an example....Road Castle [ss863376], near Exford, may be an unusually well preserved one." (Wybrow 1970 p 36 & 41)
"In north and west Devon and Cornwall the basic Roman settlement pattern seems to have involved the settlement type known as univallate enclosures, or ‘rounds’, the native name for which was caer, a word which, with its variants, forms an element in topographical nomenclature. At present these are best recognised west of the Tamar, and details of their numbers and distribution are being amassed through the series of cumulative check-lists of archaeological material in the Cornish parishes. The area enclosed within a round is normally less than 1.5 ha and contains a variety of huts and structures........In south Devon and in the Exe valley the pattern may ultimately appear to be one of rectilinear enclosed farmsteads like that recognised near Topsham and Clanacombe. These seem to be members of the round family, which perhaps have been influenced by the shape of Roman military earthworks and building generally." (Pearce 1978 p 49)
< Hillsborough hillfort Romano-British >