Roman Hoole

From Hoole History and Heritage Society

Romans in Cheshire

Britain during the reign of Julius Caesar had an "Iron Age" culture, with an estimated population of between one and four million. The extent to which iron itself had penetrated into the north is still somewhat uncertain. It may have been only used by certain "elites" with the majority of agriculture still using bronze tools. Since Julius Caesar's expeditions in 55 and 54 BC, Roman economic and cultural influence was a significant part of the British late pre-Roman Iron Age, especially in the south. Ruling hegemonies could exploit the local populace and use the proceeds to import what they may well have percieved as high-status Roman goods.

Roman marching camps have been found in one cluster to the north of Chester and another to the east. These are probably "practice" camps. This map only shows those which are Scheduled Monuments and there are other camps which are known which do not enjoy this status.

Between 55 BC and the 40s AD, the status quo of tribute, hostages, and client states without direct military occupation, begun by Caesar's invasions of Britain, largely remained intact. Augustus prepared invasions in 34 BC, 27 BC and 25 BC. The first and third were called off due to revolts elsewhere in the empire, the second because the Britons seemed ready to come to terms. According to Augustus's Res Gestae, two British kings, Dubnovellaunus and Tincomarus, fled to Rome as supplicants during his reign, and Strabo's Geography, written during this period, says Britain paid more in customs and duties than could be raised by taxation if the island were conquered and entered the Roman version of the "European Union".

The Roman invasion of Britain began in AD 43, but it is unlikely that Cheshire was incorporated into the new province much before AD 60. The Romans may well have wanted to establish a permanent border along the Fosse Way (from Exeter to Lincoln) and exploit the peaceful and productive south of Britain. The Cornovii are believed to have lived to the north of this border, principally in the modern English counties of Cheshire, Shropshire, north Staffordshire, north Herefordshire and eastern parts of the Welsh counties of Flintshire, Powys and Wrexham. Their territory was bordered by the Brigantes to the North, the Corieltauvi to the East, the Dobunni to the South, and the Deceangli, and Ordovices to the West. The Dobunni were not a warlike people and, located in the Severn valley between the more warlike Silures and the Catuvellauni, submitted to the Romans even before they reached their lands. Afterwards they readily adopted the Romano-British lifestyle.

There was still British resistance to Rome from Wales and the North. One tribal center of the Cornovii appears to have been at or near what was to become Viroconium Cornoviorum at Wroxeter in Shropshire, with possibly a major military center at the Wrekin hillfort. Archaeological evidence from the site at Poulton has shown extensive evidence of metal working and ceramics. In particular, a fine example of the ritual deposition of an iron adze in the ditch of a round house, suggests a significant disposable wealth. These aforesaid lowland areas seem by this time to have been populated by rural peasants who were obliged to pay tribute in cattle and grain to the local chieftains. One possible interpretation of the situation prior to the Roman invasion of Cheshire is that teritory of the Cornovii had become a border area between powerful groups and was controlled by a faction who re-used the previously abandonned hill-forts to dominate the local population. It is possible that the inhabitants of the Cheshire plain might even see the Romans as liberators. It is likely that the occupiers of the Wrekin would have traded across the border with the Romans to the south to obtain high-status goods, as the Brigantes in the Pennines are known to have been a Roman "client" tribe.

Campaigns in the Roman conquest of North Wales meant that they were in the region of Chester before the Legionary Fortress was constructed.

Late in 47 the new governor of Britain, Publius Ostorius Scapula, began a campaign against the tribes of modern-day Wales, and nothwards towards the Cheshire Gap. It is unlikely that he was advancing into unknown teritory, given that there would have been local knowledge available for a price or a promise of reward. In AD 47 Roman invaders stormed the fort at the Wrekin and set fire to it, moving the administrative center of the defeated tribe on to Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum). The fortress was established AD c 74 and was immediately provided with harbour facilities. Its initial garrison, Legio II Adiutrix, left in the 80s. By the mid-90s Legio XX Valeria Victrix was in occupation; it remained at Chester, on and off, for more than 150 years. When Nero became emperor in AD 54, he seems to have decided to continue the invasion and appointed Quintus Veranius as governor, a man experienced in dealing with the troublesome hill tribes of Asia Minor. He was dead within a year, and according to Tacitus: Veranius and his successor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus mounted a successful campaign across Wales, famously destroying the druidical centre at Mona or Anglesey in AD 60. Final occupation of Wales was postponed however when the rebellion of Boudica forced the Romans to return to the south east. Suetonius defeated Boudica, reinforced his army with legionaries and auxiliaries from Germania and conducted punitive operations against any remaining pockets of resistance, but this proved counterproductive. The new procurator, Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus, expressed concern to the Emperor Nero that Suetonius's activities would only lead to continued hostilities. An inquiry was set up under Nero's freedman, Polyclitus, and an excuse, that Suetonius had lost some ships, was found to relieve him of his command (and governorship of Britain). He was replaced by the more conciliatory Publius Petronius Turpilianus. Following the suppression of Boudicca, a number of new Roman governors continued the conquest by edging north. Quintus Petillius Cerialis took his legions from Lincoln as far as York and defeated Venutius near Stanwick around 69 AD. This resulted in the already Romanised Brigantes and Parisii tribes being further assimilated into the empire proper.

Two further Roman marching camps in the area around Guilden Sutton which are not Scheduled Monuments.

Oman (History of England, Methuen, 1910) gives the year c.57AD as the date that either Aulus Didius Gallus or Suetonius moved the headquarters of one or both of his legions from Wroxeter to Deva, and built a flotilla of flat-bottomed boats on the Dee so that in 60 A.D. he could invade North Wales. As Gallus died in 57 it was probably the latter who started and completed the invasion. However, most writers have Chester's permanent Roman foundation a little later, around 74 AD. As there Romans had been campaigning in North Wales for some time, they may well have visited the locale well before this and even established a semi-permanent "marching camp" at Chester. It could therfore be that the camps at Upton and Hoole actually predate Deva.

It is not known what the attitude of the Cornovii to the arrival of the Roman was. The Cornovii rulers are known to have traded with the Romans but this could have been an elite ruling class, and the Romans may have been seen as like-for-like replacement, or even liberators by the "working classes". There is one unique feature of the relations between the Cornonovii and the Romans although this appears to date from much later: the Cohors Primae Cornoviorum way have been the only recorded native British unit known to have served in Britannia. The I Cohort of Cornovii would then have been recruited from the tribe itself, thus bearing the name "Cornoviorum", i.e. "of the Cornovii". A minority opinion suggests that it is also possible this unit was raised elsewhere and changed its name when moved to Britain. The strength of this military unit is unknown. The cohort was an infantry unit and is likely to have numbered only 500. The units formed the late-4th-century garrison of Pons Aelius (Newcastle upon Tyne) at the eastern terminus of Hadrian's Wall. The Roman Legionary troops stationed at Chester would not have been British.

Roman Camps

One corner of a Roman marching fort can be seen in this ploughed field north of Chester's outer ring road (Long Lane).

Roman camps are rectangular or sub-rectangular enclosures which were constructed and used by Roman soldiers either when out on campaign (as "marching camps" or as practice camps; most campaign camps were only temporary overnight bases and few were used for longer periods. They were bounded by a single earthen rampart and outer ditch and in plan are always straight-sided with rounded corners. Normally they have between one and four entrances. Some camps would be large enough to contain up to a whole legion or even several, but there are smaller ones. Carefully detailed and prearranged in their location and manner of construction, these bivouac marching camps were made to accommodate the headquarters, personnel, animals, baggage, and camp followers of whatever military-sized formation was to be housed within. A Roman marching camp was, in effect, a small fortified town with its own shops and tradesmen. About 140 of these have been idenified in England.

Strategically, Roman marching camps proved to be an aggressive military instrument. They were specifically designed for operations deep in enemy territory. Their standard pattern, which varied according to the size and type of force it accommodated, was highly intimidating to an opponent. Regimented in appearance and construction, each freshly made camp marked the progress of the army and emphasized the relentlessness of its advance. The army’s action in building them eroded the enemy’s morale even before any fighting had taken place. In short, marching camps were a pre-arranged display of massive military power. Further, these camps, left in the wake of a military advance, could have served as a series of stepping-stones that acted as bases for the army and sustained its movements.

Polybius described the drills by which the camps were erected:

  • "One of the Tribunes and those of the Centurions … go ahead to survey the whole area where the camp is to be placed. They begin by determining the spot where the consul’s tent should be pitched … and on which side of this space to quarter the legions. Having decided this, they first measure out the area of the praetorium, next they draw the straight line along which the tents of the tribunes are set-up and then the line parallel to this, which marks the starting point of the encampment area of the troops.… All this is done with little loss of time and the marking out is an easy task, since all the distances are regulated and are familiar. They then proceeded to plant flags … [marking out the camp]."

The outline of the camp was usually marked by a ditch, with the resulting spoil used to make a rampart thrown up on the camp’s inner edge. This was then reinforced with earthen sod and strengthened by palisades. The latter items were fashioned from local timber or stakes carried by the troops. Vegetius notes that the average camp ditch was five feet wide and three feet deep. Josephus, the historian of the Jewish War (ad 66-73), mentions that the soldiers who created the camps used saws, axes, sickles, chains, ropes, and baskets in their construction and that each worker carried one of each of these tools. The average day’s march of a legionary army is frequently quoted at 18 miles, a rate as good as any foot-propelled military force in ancient or modern history. However troops moving into unknown or hostile teritory would travel slower and those in consolidated teritory would be faster. According to ancient sources, the average time for erecting a Roman camp was between 4 and 5 hours. In favourable conditions, it could be erected even in 3 hours. The fact that camps are found in clusters does not always mean that they are practice camps as it is known that the Romans would often build a fresh marching camp rather than repair an old one.

When the Romans built a major legionary fortress as a permanent base, the layout was very similar to that of a camp - but with wood, brick and stone buildings with tile roofs replacing the tents, and of course the addition of a few luxuries like a bath-house.

The camp at Hoole is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

The Hoole Camp

The camp at Hoole was discovered from the air on 8th August 1995. Prior to this two camps were known at Upton Heath: one of these "Upton(2)" was first observed in 1964. The Upton Group consists of seven camps, the northernmost of which lies at Picton, about a third of a mile (c.600m) ENE of Upton Camp 5, while the southernmost (Camp 6) at Upton Recreation Centre lies just 660 feet (200m) north of the main Roman road between Chester and Wilderspool about two miles north-east of the fortress. The most conspicuous on maps is the Upton Grange Camp. The ditch of a small temporary camp was seemingly flooded during the Medieval period to form a moat, which now survives only on the east side of the present Grange. The entire perimeter of this square camp may still be traced on the ground, apart from the NW angle which lies beneath the Grange buildings. Most moats were constructed between 1250 and 1350. The spring fed moat at Upton Grange remains waterfilled at its N and part of its S sides but is predominantly dry at its E side and is considerably scrub choked and tree lined throughout. Ridge and furrow run E-W across the SE part of the island and there are traces of what is thought to be an internal pond with inlet/outlet channels running E-W and N-S. Oral tradition claims the moat was once bridged by a timber structure on its E side but no visible evidence to support this now exists.

The Hoole camp is known only from its obtuse eastern angle and attached lengths of the adjacent sides, 351 ft. (107m) of the NE, and 377 ft. (115m) of the SE. Each of the sides has a gateway visible, protected by external "clavicula" defensive outworks, which, if centrally placed in their respective sides, could possibly delineate a rhomboid-shaped camp measuring perhaps 525 ft. NW-SE by about 460 ft. transversely (c.160 x c.140 m). This camp is the westernmost of a group of possibly four camps to the west of Guilden Sutton (and the only one of that group which is a Scheduled Monument), and part of a larger group extending from Christleton (2 camps) to Upton/Picton (6 camps). These have been interpreted as having been constructed as practice camps by Roman troops from the garrison at Chester. Another camp has been found at Manley.

The Upton Grange Moated Site is now thought to have Roman origins.

The camps in the Guilden Sutton group were all discovered from the air on 15th August 1995, and are spaced almost equidistantly apart, about two-thirds of a mile to the north of the Roman road between Chester and Northwich, the camp at Belle Vue Farm being about 2¼ miles (c.3.6km) east of the legionary fortress. Pipers Ash (Guilden Sutton 3) is known only from its S side together with both angles but only short lengths of the adjacent E and W defences. There is a centrally-placed entrance in the S. If the camp was aligned N-S, which appears likely, its defences would have enclosed at least 2 acres (0.8ha), possibly more. Cinders Lane (Guilden Sutton 2) is the easternmost of the Guilden Sutton group and is known only from its NW corner-angle, about 130 feet (40m) of the N defences and a longer 230ft (70m) length of the W side. No gateways are recorded. The camp covers an area of at least ¾acre (0.3ha), and was very likely bigger.

The camp at Hoole and the ones nearby fall into the two smallest classes of Roman camps those of around 1.4 hectares and those of about twice the area. Using a typical figure of 670 soliers per hectare in a Roman camp this indicates that the camps were for units much smaller than a typical legion (~4500 men). However legions were often broken into smaller units known as vexillationes which would be about the right size unit for these camps, about a thousand troops. For comparison, at the time of the Battle of Hastings - a large battle for its time - both sides raised armies of around 10,000 and the population of England was only slightly smaller during the Roman conquest, so for limited regional warfare on a "tribal" basis the were quite adequate camps.

Mannings Lane almost certainly follows the line of the Roman road between Chester and Wilderspool (route 701) and according to one theory passed from the junction of Liverpool Road and Parksgate Road in Chester, possibly along Brook Lane (more likely St Anne's Street) via Flookersbrook to Hoole Bank (Margary 1967, 304-5; Petch 1987, 221), very likely along Newton Hollows. Place-name and field name evidence point to the existence of a "paved" road, which is evidenced by Pavement Croft and Street Field in the 1839 Tithe Apportionment of Plemstall and Chester St John. A Roman coin (HER 1924 on Figure 3; Appendix 3) was also situated c. 600m to the north of the site. Frodsham poossibly preserves a hint of Roman connection as the high street is almost unique in the UK as being called "Main Street".

Flookersbrook follows the track of a Roman road towards Newton Hollows and then on to "The Street" and the Traffords ("Street Fords").

It is not known for certain whether the camps north and east of Chester were practice camps or camps which were used during military operations before the legionary base at Chester was constucted. As noted above the Romans were active in the area long before they started to build Deva, but it is also the case that practice camps would have been needed to train the troops in efficient and rapid construction at the end of each days march. If the camps were "practice" camps then they would have been made by troops from Chester, who possibly used the Roman Roads to Bridge Trafford and Stamford Bridge to reach them. If they predate the founding of a Legionary Base at Deva, then the line of their scatter may indicate that at least a part of the Roman advance into Wales may have used the Salters Way and later military route to the fords over the Dee at Shotwick. It is also interesting to note that there is another Roman camp at Waverton. Discovered from the air on 23rd June 1994, this camp lies in fields just W of Waverton, about ½mile SE of the site of the Battle of Rowton Moor, fought during the English Civil War in 1645. The entire SW side of this camp is recorded, together with a short length of the SE side and the entire NW side with traces of the N corner-angle. Apart from some changes in equipment foot-soldiers have not changed that much since the Romans and the features of landscape which influenced the placement of the Roman camps may have also figured in the lines of movement during the Civil War (they like to keep their feet dry): so it may be no co-indicence that the Roman camps are close to the battlefields of Rowton Heath and Hoole Heath.

Perhaps the most significant argument against the "marching camp" identification is that there is an insufficient water supply near the Upton cluster of camps - the Romans typically built their camps within about 150m of an adequate water supply, often with several supplies such that men could use one and mules, horses or other beasts another.

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