Roman Yorkshire

Roman Yorkshire

In Roman times—which for Yorkshire began about A.D. 70 and ended in the early fifth century—the geography of northern England was different from that of today. Much of the Vale of York was marshy and impassable. Travel across it was only possible by using the ridges of higher ground, the moraines left by the glaciers of the last Ice Age. The Vale of Pickering was still unreclaimed from the lingering traces of the great lake which had occupied it in glacial times, and there were great stretches of swamp in the Humber Fens. In places there were thick forests, of which little to­day remains, except for place names on the map; for example, the Forest of Galtres, near York; the Forest of Elmet, near Leeds, and Knaresborough Forest. Even the configuration of the coastline was different (see Chapter 21).

The Romans came to this wild and inhospitable area in order to provide a defensive bulwark with which to protect the settlements in the lowlands of eastern and southern England. They found it necessary to subdue the Celtic-speaking Brigantes in Yorkshire, and to hold at bay the warlike Picts and Scots further north. The Roman occupation of England began in earnest in A.D. 43, but it was almost thirty years later before they crossed the Humber and advanced into Yorkshire. One of the main routes along which they advanced was from Lindum (Lincoln), along the chalk Wolds to the Humber, to the west of the site of the present Humber Bridge.

There may have been a ford—and there was certainly a ferry—across the Humber, which enabled them to cross to their landing place at Petuaria (Brough),: where many early Roman coins and pottery fragments have been found, as well: as a few traces of their settlement. From Brough the Roman route ran under the scalp of the Yorkshire Wolds, eventually crossing the Derwent valley and the Vale of York to reach the present site of York. A branch road passed through Delgovicia (near Millington) and over the Wolds to Derventio (Malton), which became an important route centre on the road between York and the coast at Scarborough and Filey, where Roman signal beacons were erected to guide coastal shipping. The main trunk road up the Vale of York, linking the settlements of Danum (Doncaster), Calcaria (Tadcaster), Isurium Brigantium (Aldborough) and Cataractonium (Catterick) is followed in part by the modem Al. For much of the way it runs along a line of low magnesian limestone, which not only afforded a dry and relatively open route, but was also a source of excellent building stone. The map of Roman roads (illustration. 16) shows that in the main they followed upland areas: the chalk Wolds, the Pennines and the North York Moors. Apart from the fact that these lines of communication were easier to build on, because there was no need to clear forests or to drain marshes in order to make the roads, they were also easier to defend, as. the open vistas of the hills gave warning of the approach of enemy forces.

Once they had penetrated into the Pennines, the Romans soon discovered the valuable deposits of lead ore and, within a few years of the defeat of the Brigantes at Stanwick in A.D. 74, they were smelting lead at GreenbOw, above Nidderdale. Tacitus, Agricola’s son-in-law, records that Brigantian prisoners taken at Stanwick were set to work mining lead and building roads to the lead mining areas. Two pigs of lead, weighing over 155 lbs. each, have been found near Greenhow and are stamped with the inscription IMP. CAES. DOMITIANO AVG, COS. VII (Imperatore Caesare Domitiane Auguste Consule Septimum) which indicates that they were cast in the seventh term of office as consul of the Emperor Domitian—i.e. in A.D. 81. One of these pigs can be seen in the British Museum and another in Ripley Castle. A third pig, now lost, was inscribed with the name of the Emperor Trajan, who ruled between A.D. 91 and A.D. 117. The Romans used lead for water pipes and as an alloy with tin in the manufacture of pewter ware. They are also known to have worked the iron ore deposits in the coal measures in the Bradford and Sheffield areas.

Although there were economic benefits which could be derived from the occupation of Yorkshire and the exploitation of its timber and mineral resources, the primary reason for the Roman presence was military. By A.D. 77, when the Emperor Vespasian appointed Agricola as governor of Britain, Eboracum (York) had become the headquarters of the famous IX Legion, and most of the Roman settlements were military stations, like Olicana (Ilkley), Castleshaw, Slack, Cataractonium (Catterick) and many temporary Roman camps, like those at Cawthorn and Goathland on the North York moors. During the second century, however, with the completion of Hadrian’s Wall, the military threat lessened; and some civil settlements grew up. The largest of these was at Isurium Brigantium (Aldborough). There was also a large civil settlement at York (see Chapter 12), and another near Boroughbridge and there were a number of villas (country houses) in East Yorkshire. The best known of these was at Rudston, near Bridlington, and there are some outstanding Roman mosaics from villas in the Humberside area to be seen in the Hull Museum. The relations between the Romans and the Parisii, who lived in Holderness and on the Wolds, were better than those with the Brigantes and a merging of the Roman and Celtic cultures occurred. This may help to explain the greater frequency of non-military Roman settlements in East Yorkshire.

There is little to be seen, except their magnificent sites, of the line of signal stations which were built along the North Yorkshire coast. Typical of these is the one at Goldsborough, which stands on the highest point above Lythe Bank, and guards the approach to Whitby. It commands a view over the North Sea which would give watchers there ample warning of the approach of shipping, and a beacon lit at this point could be seen for many miles out to sea. Another signal station was located on Castle Hill, Scarborough.


The Romans have not left us many place-names—Catterick, derived from Cataractonium is an obvious one—but their most abiding legacy in Yorkshire is the road system which the invaders left behind. Although they occasionally sited their roads along the lines of older British tracks, many of them struck out along new routes. It may be an exaggeration to say, as the Duke of Edinburgh once did, that until the motorway building of the post-war period, no new roadways had been planned in Britain since the Romans left; it is undoubtedly true that, until recently, much of our national road system followed the lines established by the Romans. Mention has already been made of the relationship between the Al and the Roman road along the Vale of York. Other modern main roads which follow the routes of Roman roads are the A166, from Stamford Bridge to Driffield; the A1079, between York and Market Weighton; the A59, between Blubberhouses and Harrogate and between Green Hammerton and York; and the A1034, between South Cave and Market Weighton. There are also some stretches of the original Roman routes which can be seen, as on the moors above Goathland, and on Blubberhouses Moor. The road across Blackstone Edge may also be a Roman road, although this is not certain. It is not always possible to tell which parts of these surviving roads have been improved and repaired during the later centuries.


In A.D. 402 the Roman garrison was recalled from York by Stillicho, the regent of Emperor Honorius, who was himself of Vandal origin, because of the desperate situation in Rome and, although some vestige of Roman influence remained for a few more years, Yorkshire passed along with much of the rest of Europe into the Dark Ages.