The Romans

III The Romans

Of the tribes which surrounded the territory of Lincolnshire when the Romans landed in south east Britain, the Catuvellauni to the south were amongst the first to submit to the invaders at Colchester in A.D. 43. The Iceni of East Anglia resisted fiercely, as did the Brigantes to the north. The Coritani offered little resistance and their lands were occupied early, their rulers retained as ‘client’ kings by the Romans. The area of Lincolnshire soon saw the Ninth Legion moving northwards from Colchester to a major fortification at Newton on Trent; the invading army seems to have entered the county roughly along the lines of the Jurassic ridgeway and Mareham Lane. Camps were established at Great Casterton, perhaps at Colsterworth or Easton and at Ancaster; a first camp may also have been built at Lincoln, either to the south or north of the Gap.

The first frontier

The troops halted behind the rivers Trent and Severn to consolidate their gains, and for a time the region formed part of the frontier of the Empire. Forts were built at regular intervals along Ermine Street – Saltersford and Navenby in addition to those established during the invasion. In A.D. 47 the great Fosse Way was laid out with a legionary fortress at Lincoln and a series of forts on or close to the line of the road; the most important of these forts, Margidunum and Thorpe, lie just over the present county boundary. The line was continued from Lincoln northwards, with roadside settlements at regular intervals at Owmby and Hibaldstow, to Old Winteringham on the Humber. It was a frontier which could be supplied by both road and water via the Trent, Humber and Witham.

The revolt of the Iceni under Boudicca in A.D. 61 was suppressed harshly, but by A.D. 71 when the invaders faced fresh threats north of the Humber it was possible for them to move the army from Lincoln to York. The Lincolnshire area ceased to be part of a military zone; instead it was administered from Romanised Leicester. Lincoln’s brief life as a legionary fortress came to an end.

The Roman achievement

Roman Britain was occupied but not colonised: new technology (especially communications systems) and new administrative machinery and personnel were introduced, but native settlement patterns and customs were largely left unaltered. Indeed pockets of Iron Age culture seem to have persisted in the Wolds and the Welland valley. But few people can have been left completely untouched by the way of life which the Romans brought.

As elsewhere earlier tracks were converted into metalled roads. The Jurassic ridgeway became for much of its length a main through-route (Ermine Street), although in places abandoning the winding earlier corridor for a straight path across the heathiands somewhat to the east. Settlements grew up along its route to the Humber where a ferry was established at Winteringham-Brough. An offshoot from this road was built north westwards into Yorkshire (Tillbridge Lane), crossing the Trent at Littleborough. Mareham Lane south of Bourne became the Roman King Street with a link across the heath to Ermine Street at Ancaster; it continued north of Bourne to Old Sleaford and perhaps as far as Lincoln. A native track on the Wolds northwards from Burgh le Marsh was similarly metalled and an extension to the coast seems to have connected with a ferry across the Wash to the Norfolk coast. Other earlier tracks like Sewstern Lane were metalled in whole or in part.

Waterways formed part of the new and more efficient network through­out the region. Engineers constructed the Car Dyke, 56 miles/90km long, linking the Nene near Peterborough to the Witham near Lincoln; it served as both a catchwater drain and a canal. The route to York was completed by joining the Witham to the Trent by means of the Fosse Dyke.

Roman Lincolnshire

5. Roman Lincolnshire.
5. Roman Lincolnshire.

Romano-British sites of all periods are known in the county. The villa at Norton Disney dates from the first century while that at Great Casterton would not seem to be earlier than the fourth century. These sites are thickly located on the southern Wolds and along the edges of the limestone uplands, as at Denton in the west where there are also signs of Iron Age occupation and in the Bourne area in the east. The best known are Winterton and Horkstow with their fine mosaic pavements and bath-houses, but others are at Stoke Rochford, Haceby, Scampton and Roxby. Centres of settlement emerged, too small to be towns but larger than villas, like Stainfield and Sapperton on the road across the Heath or Ludford and Ulceby on the Wolds. Several of these lay over Iron Age sites and show signs of having progressed from one culture to the other as at Dragonby and Kirmington in the north or Foston near Grantham. Other sites have recently been excavated in south Lincolnshire (Whaplode, Holbeach and in the Welland valley). Roman coins at Iron Age hill forts (Yarborough and Honington) again suggest a process of assimilation.

The strength of Roman culture varied from settlement to settlement. Some seem to have been fully Romanised with buildings of an advanced style and imported luxury goods such as fine pottery and glass, while others were only lightly Romanised. The various religions of the Empire are represented by a few shrines and temple sites to Apollo, Mercury, Mars and other deities as well as to the Emperor. Some Celtic gods were ‘Romanised’ as can be seen from inscriptions at Nettleham and Ancaster, and a ritual gold ‘crown’ from Deeping St James may indicate a temple in that area. Christianity was introduced no later than the early third century; Lincoln seems to have had a bishop by A.D. 314 and an apparently Christian cemetery was in use at Ancaster by the fourth century.

Roman towns

More characteristic of the process of Romanisation was the emergence of towns. At Great Casterton, the early fort was abandoned and the civilian settlement which had grown up along the road to the west of it became the nucleus of a defended and wealthy town, while at Ancaster a town was built over the fort. On the Wolds Caistor which may have originated as a military outpost developed into a small walled town, while Horncastle also became a town, later walled. Sleaford situated where King Street crossed the Slea probably continued from the Iron Age as a larger settlement. Posting stations on the arterial roads (Great Casterton, Colsterworth, Ancaster, Hibaldstow) assisted the flow of traffic throughout the region.

Such places became centres for a way of life different from that pursued in the villages and farmsteads. The style and quality of the pottery and Ornaments; the road systems inside the walls (irregular at Great Casterton, regular at Ancaster) and the extra-mural suburbs at Ancaster, Saltersford and Great Casterton; the temple sites and shrines at Ancaster, Dragonby, Kirmington and perhaps Caistor with its lead casket – all these reveal something of the Roman social and cultural way of life. Stone-buildings as at Great Casterton with its bath-house, apparently a resting station for travelling officials, Ancaster and Saltersford, reflect wealth and influence. Cemeteries associated with towns have been found outside Great Casterton, Ancaster and Horncastle. Great Casterton, Sleaford and one or both of the Wold towns may have served as administrative centres for the area around, but there is no certain evidence for this.


Lincoln was of course the main Roman town of the region. There are few signs of pre-Roman occupation on the site although it must have been an important crossing point on the Jurassic Way and it may have served as a regional centre for the Coritani. But the first major settlement was the Ninth Legion’s fortress of some 41 acres/16ha on the hilltop to the north of the gap. Its strategic value, with steep slopes on three sides, enabled it to dominate a wide territory, overlooking the Wolds and controlling the land routes of Ermine Street and the Fosse Way; and it lay at the heart of the waterway network of the Car Dyke, Witham and Fosse Dyke. After the troops left, the town served as York’s ‘back-up’ city.

6. Map of Roman Britain
6. Roman Britain

From A.D. 77 Lincoln became one of four colonial centres in the province of Britain, a home for paid-off soldiers and officials with many of the amenities of a town nearer the centre of Roman civilisation. Stone walls and gates. surrounded the civil town and by the early third century a further 56 acres/22.6ha down the steep slope to the south had been walled in. Fragments of the walls and gates survive in the castle walls, Newport Arch, Eastgate and elsewhere. Across the bottom of the gap a causeway was built, a flood relief system installed (the Sincil Dyke), and a suburb grew up on this newly drained land.

Although small (Verulamium had 200 acres/81ha and London 330/133.5ha) Lincoln had all the luxuries of a Roman city such as piped water, public cisterns and large buildings with central heating. There are relatively few signs of industry in Roman Lincoln although some pottery and brick kilns have been unearthed. This was no mere native capital upgraded; rather it was a new foundation, a planned city built to foreign standards. It directly administered its own territory, a large but as yet undetermined area to the north and east which became responsible for meeting the city’s needs.


The Romans exploited the natural resources of the region. Iron was quarried and smelted in the Scunthorpe area and in the forests of the south west (Colsterworth, South Witham, Saltersford, Corby Glen, Pickworth etc). Stone was extracted at Barnack, Greetham near Lincoln, Ancaster and elsewhere. The county had its share of the pottery industry from the first to the fourth centuries; some of it was sold in market centres locally and some exported out of the region.

Above all, Lincolnshire’s greatest asset, the land, was extensively used. Corn-drying kilns as at Great Casterton, Winterton and Sleaford are a sign of intensive farming. The coastal areas came under the heavy hand of the exploiter. After the inundations of the Bronze Age, the fens had been drying out. This may have been due to the development of a series of protective banks and shoals just off-shore, but the land was apparently some 15 feet/4.5m higher than today with the coastline lying in parts further to the east. The area consisted of a number of islands in a sea of mud, and during the Iron Age settlement had been possible in these coastal lands and there had been salt-making near the shore. But it would seem that the region was first systematically developed by the Romans, perhaps under the direction of an Imperial department of state; indeed, the area may have been ceded to the Empire by the Iceni during the early years of the occupation. The cutting of the Car Dyke and the channelling of parts of the lower Witham (said to have been worshipped by the natives) may have been as much to drain the land as to make transport easier.

The coastal saltings continued to function until the end of the second century, and a number of pottery kilns have been found. But most of the evidence for the chief use of the land, arable and pastoral farming of an advanced type, has probably been obliterated by later flooding and intensive cultivation, though signs of roads and field systems are begin­ning to emerge as a result of detailed surveys. It is clear that this region, once thought to have been largely empty until the later drainage era, was heavily settled especially from about A.D. 120 to the late third century when flooding occurred once more. There was a short-lived revival of large-scale occupation in the fourth century but during this later phase some of the land seems to have been worked from estates situated on the edge of the fens and the limestone belt in the Bourne area.

The withdrawal of the Romans

The collapse of Roman rule in this region as elsewhere in Britain was gradual. In the late fourth century, in response to a series of concerted attacks on the frontiers of the Empire, a re-organisation of the province’s administration took place. There is no clear evidence in Lincolnshire of the late Roman coastal defences known as the Saxon Shore, but one fort may have existed in the area of Burgh le Marsh. Horncastle and Castor had walls built late in the Roman period, and there are signs of refortification at Great Casterton, Ancaster and even at Lincoln itself. In A.D. 407 the armies were withdrawn from Britain,and about 430 new mercenary troops came in; within 15 years, these Saxon foederati had revolted and other invaders made raids along the coast.

There is no evidence in Lincolnshire of any great disaster; perhaps the changeover was relatively peaceful. Although little is known of Lincoln between the fourth and seventh centuries, there are few signs of violent destruction and it is possible that the city was never completely deserted. Indeed there is some evidence that civic life continued or was soon resumed. At Great Casterton villa, signs of fire can be seen but it was not extensive, and the close association of Anglo-Saxon burials with Roman sites at Great Casterton, Ancaster, Sleaford and Caistor suggests peaceful infiltration rather than conquest.