Romans in Cumbria

Although Julius Caesar’s landing in this country in 54BC may have opened up the south east of England to certain Roman influence, the main event - the conquest of much of the island - did not start until AD 43, during the reign of Emperor Claudius. 

Within 30 years the Romans had reached present day Cumbria, evidence uncovered of a timber fort being built at Carlisle (Luguvalium) in AD 72-73. About 10 years later the Romans defeated the Caledonians at the Battle of Mons Graupius and although the exact site is unknown, many believe it is in north east Scotland. Caledonia, however, was never subdued and in the end the Romans marked their northern limits by the building of Hadrian’s Wall.  

For a time after the death of Hadrian the Romans did move northwards again, to the Antonine Wall, but within 25-30 years they were back at Hadrian’s Wall. This great barrier was started in AD 122 and roughly followed the line of the Stanegate, a road the Romans had built some 30-40 years earlier between Carlisle and Corbridge. 

Excavations near Carlisle Castle between 1998-2001 unearthed a series of three Roman forts - two timber and a third one of stone - and plenty of evidence of human and animal life: 20,000 pieces of pottery, coins, knives, pieces of armour, leather, bricks, tiles and 50,000 animal bones. A display in Carlisle Castle tells the story of the digs while across the road in Tullie House is the Roman Frontier Gallery. 

After the building of Hadrian’s Wall came another fort in Carlisle, to the north of the city centre where Stanwix is now. This one was called Uxellodunum and it was the largest fort along the entire length of Hadrian’s Wall, home to a 1,000 strong cavalry unit, the Ala Petriana.  

In 2017 the remains of a Roman military bath house - most certainly used by the Ala Petriana - were discovered by chance at Carlisle Cricket Club. Coins, pottery, arrowheads, pipes, painted tiles, jewellery and parts of an underfloor heating system were all unearthed. 

As well as their important base in Carlisle, the Romans also had forts on the wall at Bowness-on-Solway and Burgh by Sands to the west of the city and Birdoswald to the east. This latter fortification was linked by road to the northern outpost fort at Bewcastle. 

               

The Roman presence in Cumbria, however, was by no means concentrated around the area of the wall. To the east of Penrith below Stainmore, Brough Castle was built on the remains of a fort called Verterae. Brougham Castle, nearer Penrith, rose on the ruins of Brocavum, which was on the north-south, east-west routes. North of Penrith on the A6 is Plumpton and close to Plumpton was the Roman fort of Voreda. 

South west of Penrith the Romans built a road, some of it along the fell tops (above Ullswater for part of the way) to their fort at Ambleside. No less extraordinary than this achievement was the military route which went west over the fells from Ambleside, via Hardknott Fort, to Ravenglass, where more soldiers were garrisoned. 

These soldiers were not the only ones on the west coast. Although Hadrian’s Wall finished at Bowness-on-Solway, there were more forts at Beckfoot, Maryport, Burrow Walls near Workington and Moresby near Whitehaven, with smaller fortified places in between. Papcastle near Cockermouth and Old Carlisle near Wigton, both on the road from Carlisle to Maryport, had forts as well. And in the south of Cumbria there was Watercrook near Kendal. 

In fact wherever you travel in Cumbria you are not far from evidence of Roman settlement, whether that’s stone remains of fortifications, Roman artefacts in churches, ripples in the earth where once a Roman property stood or newer constructions that have simply recycled Roman building stone.

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