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Cheshire Roman History

This is a starting attempt at the Roman history of the area. The content will be added to and adjusted as time goes by. Eventually, new releases will appear at intervals.

This page gives some information, hopefully interesting and entertaining, about Roman times in Cheshire and the Wirral peninsula.

A good place to start finding out about Cheshire Roman History is with a trip around the ancient city of Chester with an official guide , and a look at this document , issued by Cheshire County Council, now called Cheshire West and Chester to distinguish it from the other lot. I can summarise this information here and try to add a few extras. Just as I am not a trained geologist, neither am I an expert on Roman or any other history, so I would urge people to treat any information given here with caution.

800BC to 410AD

British Tribes

British Tribes in Roman Times

800BC to 1BC: The Iron Age in Britain. The local people (in present-day Cheshire and Shropshire) were called the Cornovii. According to a Wikipedia article there was another tribe of the same name in the north of Scotland (and perhaps another in Cornwall, which, if true, may give a hint as to the origin of the name Cornwall). Apparently, these tribes appear to be unrelated to each other. To the West, among others, were the Ordovices in North Wales and the Silures in South Wales. These two tribes gave their names to the Ordovicean and Silurian geological periods, since the defining rock sequences of these two periods were first recognised in these tribes' territories. To the North of the Cornovii (across the River Mersey) were the Brigantes. The Cornovii capital, according to the above article was a hill-fort on the Wrekin, a hill near Shrewsbury which stands alone and is a landmark from far off in all directions. The Wrekin, by the way, looks like a volcano, but isn't one, although it was formed by volcanic activity in pre-cambrian times, and the rock is, among other things, lava. The name Wrekin, it seems, derives from the Virocon part of the name Viroconium Cornoviorum, the township (Wroxeter) that the Cornovii moved to under the Romans. Not many people know that.

55 to 54BC: Julius Caesar invaded southern Britain after taking Gaul (basically, Western Europe) from 58BC on. He did not, however, consolidate the British conquests, though his successors made treaties with the rulers of the southern kingdoms and trade increased between southern Britain and the Roman Empire. These facts, by the way, are taken from the Ordnance Survey Map & Guide to Roman Britain, an excellent and fascinating publication, and apologies for quoting the previous sentence virtually word for word from it. The same applies to some of what follows.

Roman Invasion

The Roman Invasion of Britain.
Occupation Dates and Generals/Governors

43 to 47AD: After a century of military inaction against Britain by Octavian (Julius Caesar's successor), Augustus (the first emperor), Tiberius and Gaius (Caligula), emperor Claudius conquered south-east Britain with 40,000 men, and then began the conquest of Wales.

71 to 73AD: The conquest of Northern England. After the famous campaign in 60-61AD by Boudicca and her East Anglian tribe the Iceni (during which Colchester (Camulodunum), St Albans (Verulamium) and London (Londinium) were destroyed) and the suicide of Claudius' successor Nero (I don't suppose the two events were related), Vespasian became emperor. He was in command from 69 to 79AD. The Romans were finally in control of Wales (the Borderlands up to Prestatyn, Central Wales and the South at least) by the early 70s. There were forts at Prestatyn and Ruthin. I suppose that, now relatively safe from attack from the west, the time had come to attempt a conquest of Cheshire and the north-west of the country and move north from there.

79 to 105AD: So the Romans arrived in Cheshire in the early 70s AD and by 79AD had built a permanent fortress in Chester. This was one of three permanent fortresses in Britain at the time. The other two were at York (headquarters of the 9th Legion Hispana and later the 6th Legion Victrix) and Caerleon (on the outskirts of Newport, South Wales), home of the Legio II Augusta. Chester originally housed the 2nd Legion Adiutrix (meaning Auxiliary). A Roman legion consisted of some 5,000 to 6,000 troops. The Romans did not seem to have things all their own way by any means. In Britain they had had one very early false start with Julius Caesar, a hundred years of umming and ahhing, not knowing whether to try another invasion, obliteration in the east of the country by Bouddica and now in 86 to 87AD an embarrassing retreat by Agricola (who was in charge of the invasion of Scotland) from all regions north of the River Forth. Things got worse by 105AD when they were forced out of Scotland altogether. Emperor Hadrian came along in 122AD and ordered the building of a wall which closely followed the present-day Scottish/English border. Much of it is still there, in fact. You can walk the route (or take the bus).

Things were equally bad in mainland Europe. In 9AD, the Roman army had been annihilated in Germany, in 68AD there had been civil war in the empire and now, about 87AD, the 2nd Legion Adiutrix were forced to leave their base at Chester (known as Deva to the Romans - the name Castra and later, Chester, was used only well after the Romans had left) to help out in mainland Europe. Deva was, from that time on, home to the 20th Legion Valeria Victrix. Valeria Victor. Valeria seems to refer to Marcus Valerius Messalla Messallinus, who led the legion for a while, and made a good curry.

Much of the detail on Chester in this and the other history pages is taken from old versions of the Official City Guide and also from a collection of Notes of Historical Interest on Chester, 1961, by Francis Goodacre, who was a Voluntary Guide for the city. This was issued to City Guides at the time: I have a copy because my father was one. Francis suggests that Friends desirous of having knowledge of Chester are advised to put themselves in possession of the Official Guide, and more particularly to visit the Grosvenor Museum in Grosvenor Street, as a preliminary to seeing the various objects of interest in the City. The link came later. I don't think computers had been invented in 1961.

Heronbridge Map

Map taken from here

105AD to 410AD. The 20th legion was garrisoned in Chester for about 300 years, Chester being a fortress, rather than a city. The local people lived outside the walls, which, by 105AD, had been rebuilt in stone, replacing the earlier timber and turf fortifications. There were settlements at Saltney and Heronbridge, both on the west side of the River Dee, Saltney a mile to the south-west of the fortress, Heronbridge a mile south. The local tribe of Cheshire and Shropshire were the Cornovii. Their base when the Romans arrived was a fort on the Wrekin in Shropshire, but they then moved their capital to Wroxeter, near Shrewsbury, named by the Romans Viroconium Cornoviorum, incorporating the name of the local tribe in the Roman place-name, as happened repeatedly throughout the country. The local people of each tribe, or civitates, lived in communities (the largest of which are called civitas capitals) close to the military strongholds. For their retired soldiers, who had completed 25 years' service, the romans built towns called Coloniae, close to the large fortresses, where the veterans were provided housing and some land. The first of these was built at Colchester in 49AD. Other capitals followed at Gloucester, Lincoln and York, etc., but not at Chester. In fact, a glance at the map shows no large civilian settlements in Cheshire or to the north of it. Wroxeter is the nearest civitas capital to Chester and there was a smallish fortified settlement at Whitchurch, half way between. The small local Chester settlements at Heronbridge and Saltney are not marked on the Ordnance Survey Roman Britain map. It would appear that there may have been mutual benefits from this arrangement, that cooperation between the locals and the military meant that the locals were protected against encroachment by other tribes and the Roman masters had a labour force. It seems from contemporary accounts that the Cornovii, anyway, were not war-painted savages, but sophisticated people who could farm, produce fine jewellery and pottery, trade with the outside world and run a salt-production industry around Middlewich (Salinae). [These are personal thoughts, by the way, without a lot of in-depth research]. However, it does seem that relations between Romans and locals could have been a lot worse, though in places there may have been a fine line between order and anarchy. The East Anglian uprising 60 years earlier, for instance, was caused by an act of gross stupidity, as Simon Shama describes it, by the local Roman governor, who didn't seem to like the idea of women rulers. He had Boudicca flogged and her daughters were raped. This caused wide-spread resentment of the Roman rule and the resulting uprising in the area produced some major victories over the Romans. They must have been shocked that their invincibility was not set in stone after all, but they took control again in the end. Boudicca took her own life, in preference to being captured by these barbaric Roman savages.

Buildings and Roads

Chester Wall Map

Chester Walls

The original walls of the fortress at Chester were rectangular and less extensive than the ones you see today, enclosing an area of 60 acres compared to the later 100 acres. It was Ethelflaed (AKA Ethelfleda, Ethelfreda, Aethelfraed etc.), daughter of King Alfred, who began the process of restoring and extending the walls in 907AD, although this was done in stages and the work was not finally complete until about 1230 to 1250. The extended walls enclose about 100 acres. Ethelflaed had built a castle overlooking the river and wanted the new walls to surround and protect it. This was replaced on the same site later by the Normans. Chester castle doesn't really look like an old castle is supposed to look - it was replaced at the end of the 18th century and is now used as Crown Courts and a military museum. The central Norman tower, however, is still in place. It is possible to visit the castle. Click here for a fine article on the history of the walls in Chester during the first millenium AD.

Roman Pipe

Roman Pipes in the Grosvenor Museum
(image borrowed from

The Romans knew how to build villas, fortresses, plumbing systems, baths and roads. There are lengths of Roman piping on display in the Grosvenor Museum in Chester which bear the name of the emperor at the time. The trouble is, the piping looks very much like sewage piping and you wonder if someone was trying to tell him something. A lot of Roman-style villas were built in Britain during the Roman occupation of the country, with their hypocausts to provide their warm bathing and their often magnificent mosiac floors. I, for one, always thought these villas were lived in by the higher Roman echelons, but it seems that many were owned by the local British chieftains. The Roman system of governance was to encourage the local tribespeople to carry on as normal and work with them for mutual benefit, so the Romans got their food, their salt, iron, silver, lead and other minerals and building materials, and the Britons got to live in a safer and more civilised manner, close to, and protected by, the Roman garrisons, rather than in an earth-and-wood fort on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere, and under threat all the time from other tribes. The local chiefs were encouraged by a taste of the Roman good life. Simon Shauma, in his TV series The History of Britain says that some of the younger men in particular were invited to Rome for an especially good time. The thought of coming back home and enjoying the same sort of life-style in luxurious mansions, just for toeing the line, must have been impossible to resist. Although there are plenty of villas of this age around the country, there is only one that has been found, so far, in the North-West of England. This is at Eaton near Tarporley in Cheshire. The placename Eaton seems to crop up a lot in connection with Roman activity; the meaning of the name is invariably given as 'settlement on an island', as in ton meaning settlement, which has come down to us as town, and ea (often eye) meaning island. There are a number of eyes in my part of the world: Little Eye, Middle Eye and Hildeburgh's Eye in the Dee estuary, and the Roodee in Chester. Hildeburgh's Eye is better known nowadays as Hilbre. The Roodee in Chester is where the racecourse is now, the name coming from 'Rood Eye', which meant Island of the Cross since an ancient cross stood there (and what's left of it still does). In Roman times, the course of the river Dee was along the line of the current west wall of the city; what is now the Roodee was the Roman port. The mooring rings for the boats are still there by the side of the racecourse. The river's course moved out westwards over time, leaving an island (the Rood Eye), and eventually the original river course silted up, leaving this flat piece of land as it is today.

Roman Road Construction

Roman Road Construction

The Romans laid down the fundamentals of road construction that we still use today. We have the benefits of tarmac for a nice smooth top layer but the layers beneath are pretty much laid out as they were two thousand years ago, with stones of increasing size as you go down. Drainage has always been the key to a successful road. The first thing was a cambered top surface to throw water off to the sides of the road, where it would be caught and led away by a ditch. Water penetrating the top flagstones would mostly run off sideways over the cambered layer of compacted, or cemented, sand or clay. Any water passing through that would drain to the side of the layers of stone. This diagram may be missing curbstones between the road and the ditch to hold the whole structure together.

Eaton Villa

Roman Villa at Eaton, near Tarporley

The villa at Eaton, near Tarporley, is a rare, possibly unique, sighting in the North-West of England. Much of the rest of the country seems to be well endowed. One thing that seems to strike home from a glance at the Ordnance Survey map of Roman Britain is that the majority of these villas (including Eaton) appear to be distant from the known roads and fortresses at the time, which suggests that the wealthy people who lived in them must have felt safe. Or maybe our knowledge of the road system at the time is incomplete. In Cheshire, we know that two roads, at least, left Chester, one to the south (across the river) and one to the east (through the Eastgate). It seems likely that a third road went north through the Northgate. Nothing went west to Wales from the fortress because this was the port and the river was essentially part of the sea.

The road to the south from Chester (Deva) went via Whitchurch (Mediolanum) to Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum), near Shrewsbury, where it turned east and then south-east to London (Londinium). This Chester to London road was called Watling Street and the Wroxeter to London stretch became known as the A5. The road east from Chester ran via Northwich (Condate) to Manchester (Mamucium) then on to York (Eburacum) and was also known as Watling Street. In fact this was an extention of the original Watling Street. So Watling Street eventually ran from London to Manchester and York via Shrewsbury and Chester, hardly the typical straight-line route that we associate with Roman roads.

North-West Roads

Roman Roads in Cheshire and Beyond

There is no concrete evidence for a road leading north out of Chester. However, sections of Roman road have been found running parallel to and to the west of the mid-Wirral M53 motorway, which strongly suggest a route between Chester and a point somewhere west of present-day Birkenhead.

There is a book in existence called The Streets of Liverpool by which has reached the light of day again courtesy of Liverpool Libraries and Information Services, William Brown Street, Liverpool L3 8EW. The book was reprinted during the build-up to the 800th anniversary in 2007 of Liverpool's Charter. It is a fine and entertaining book, first published in 1869 and written by James Stonehouse, who acknowledges communications with near friends and aged acquaintances, who lived "when George the Third was king," whose memories of the good old town are still green - George III was king between 1760 and 1801. The book is mentioned here because of something that is written in a chapter called The Silent Highway, by which he means the River Mersey (though the phrase was originally applied to the Thames). James Stonehouse says, "There is a great deal of mystery and speculation relative to the early history of the Mersey estuary. It has been conjectured, with considerable show of reason and probability, that in the time of the Romans, and even beyond the period of their exodus, in the reign of Valentian, this great arm of the sea did not exist. He goes on to suggest that the stream flowed between Biston and Wallasey hills, and makes the point that in the Itinerary of Antonine there is no mention of such a significant estuary and river. He also mentions the map of Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus), a Greco-Roman mathematician and astronomer amongst many other things, of Britain in about 150AD, which he says fails to recognise the Mersey, even though the map in a great many respects is remarkably accurate (if you ignore the fact the Scotland, for some reason, is sideways). In fact, a map as we know it does not exist, but his coordinates (latitude and longitude) of inland towns and coastal features (such as estuaries and promontaries) do, and are readily available online, for example here. I have my doubts as to some of the place-name assumptions and thought I might try to use known places (Chester, York, Lincoln etc. haven't moved) to correlate his grid with the modern one, and then pin-point the unknowns. It must have been done before, I know.

James Stonehouse may be overdoing it a bit when he goes on to say: It is therefore conclusive that in the dark ages of the Anglo-Saxons, of which period so little is known, this noble expanse of water must have been formed. In fact there is a tradition extant that, at a remote period, there was a bridge of some sort that connected the two counties, and that immense woods and forests were only divided by a narrow strip of stream, while the geological features of both its banks were identical. It is certainly a curious circumstance that the same dexcription of trees and underwood are discoverable on the Cheshire and Lancashire shores, both in subterranean and submarine situations. What we do know is that there was certainly a forest growing from Meols and the north Wirral coast, looking as though it was heading out towards the Formby. The tree stumps and roots were submerged in Liverpool Bay but appeared in photographs taken at very low tides at the end of the 19th century.

As an aside, the Streets of Liverpool has some nice sparks of Scouse wit (odd, maybe, since the writer came from London, but then he'd been 37 years in Liverpool when he wrote it): It will be noticed that the streets in this locality [London Road] are mostly called after some illustrious men, whose names are quite "household names" amongst us. Such as Lord Nelson, St. Vincent, Bridport, Camden, Hotham (late Duncan), Trowbridge, Stafford, Seymour, Anson and Great Newton Streets. Pellew Street, out of Copperas Hill, was proposed to be called Trollope Street, after the admiral of that name, but the ladies beginning to be residents in its vicinity objected to the title, as being too demonstrative of their calling.

Roman Roads in and out of Chester

Peckforton Cows

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