A date of AD71 is usually given for the foundation of a Roman legionary fortress at York and, therefore, for the foundation of the City of York itself. Although there is some archaeological evidence of a short-lived Roman base predating the fortress which may have been established under Vettius Bolanus (69-71), Governor of Britain. The year 71 is attributed as the beginning of the Roman conquest of Britain north of the Humber, an initiative of the newly acclaimed emperor Vespasian (69-79). A legionary fortress at York was at the heart of the consolidation of the conquest and the military base would remain until the end of the Roman period.
The principal reason for the choice of York was strategic due to its position on the River Ouse in the Vale of York. In addition, the Ouse was navigable from the North Sea more than 50 miles distant which facilitated the transport of people and the delivery of supplies and equipment. There were two groups of people in the region: the Brigantes and, to the east of York, the Parisi who occupied a territory similar in extent to the former East Riding of Yorkshire. Based in York, the new fortress was ideally positioned to monitor these two tribes and to quell any uprising.
Although the place name Eboracum occurs in surviving written reference sources, such as two wooden writing tablets from the fort of Vindolanda on the northern frontier (datable to around 100), most of our knowledge of the development of the layout and character of York is based on archaeological evidence. This includes standing remains of the walls of the legionary fortress and, more importantly, up to five metres of deposits and structural remains surviving below ground over much of the city’s historic core. The archaeology has been the subject of recording and research since the seventeenth century which has resulted in one of the largest collections both of Roman artefacts and of data from observations and excavations to be found anywhere in Britain.
Plan of the fortress
The fortress of York provided accommodation for around 5,200 men of a Roman legion, initially the Ninth until sometime before the year 120 and subsequently the Sixth Victrix until the end of the Roman period. Two of York’s main thoroughfares, Stonegate and Petergate, run close to a line of the two principal streets in the fortress, the via praetoria and the via principalis respectively, so the alignment of the fortress laid the foundation of the layout of the city today. The via praetoria led to the great south-west gate (porta praetorian) where St Helen’s Square is now located, showing us that the fortress faced south west towards the River Ouse. The fortress plan as originally laid out in the first century can be determined in outline although a good deal of the detail remains uncertain.
The headquarters building (principia) stood in the centre of a range of buildings around a courtyard including, on the north-east side, a great aisled hall or basilica. Supporting the nave walls there were probably 16 freestanding columns, eight on each side. An almost complete column around 7.6m high was found in excavations under York Minster in the place where it had fallen probably in the ninth century. It has been re-erected outside the Minster south door. The stone used was Magnesian Limestone and Millstone Grit, the former quarried at Tadcaster and the latter perhaps as close as Bramham Park near Wetherby. Other major buildings in the fortress would have included barracks, granaries, workshops and a hospital but the only one known about is a bath-house. Recorded remains included a heated room on a site in Church Street and part of a caldarium (hot, steam room with plunge bath) which can still be seen in the Roman Bath public house in St Sampson’s Square.
The earliest fortress defences consisted of ditch, rampart and timber structures. Replacement of the timber structures seems to have begun in the late first or early second century under the Emperor Trajan (98-117) with timber piles recovered from excavations at the Multangular Tower (west corner tower) in 2003-5. Preservation of the Multangular Tower and associated walls adjacent to it is very good and fine stretches near their full height can still be seen in the Museum Gardens. The wall has no distinct plinth at the base and the rear face has been roughly finished as it would have been largely obscured by the earthen rampart. At a height of about 2.3m, the facing stones are interrupted by a band of five tile courses and at the top of the wall there was a cornice of tiles.
Capital of Lower Britain
The Sixth Legion arrived in York about the year 120 accompanied by the emperor Hadrian who was to construct the northern frontier now known as Hadrian’s Wall. Emperor Septimus Severus made York his base for campaigning in the north in the years 208-11. The emperor was accompanied by the empress, his sons and a considerable retinue so, for a short time, York found itself at the centre of the Roman world since government of the empire was directed from wherever the emperor happened to be. By the years 211-5 in the reign of the emperor Caracalla, York’s status was that of capital of Lower Britain (Britannia inferior) when Britain was divided into two provinces.
York was by now the site of the largest and most important civilian settlement in the north, in effect an urban place, with an appreciable number of citizens with Roman citizen status. By the year 237 the civilian settlements at York had acquired the honorific title of coloniae. Adjacent to the fortress, in common with practice elsewhere in the Roman Empire, it has been suggested that the Ninth Legion took land under its direct control for sourcing supplies such as stone and timber as well as for grazing and arable agriculture. Found in excavation close to the banks of the Ouse in Coney Street were the remains of two first to early second century grain warehouses. Located slightly apart from any settlement on the approach road to the fortress were the legionary pottery and tile kilns.
The Romans usually buried their dead outside inhabited areas often lining the approach roads. Until the late second century, cremation was the preferred form. The emperor Septimius Severus himself was cremated after his death in York in 211 before his remains were returned to Rome. Cemeteries at Burton Stone Lane and Clifton Fields are half a mile from the fortress with others at Heworth and Fishergate. Wooden coffins were commonly used, but York is unusual in the large number of stone (90) and lead (25) coffins found. Females were often buried wearing their jewellery and the finest jet items – bracelets, rings, hair pins, even medallions with figures in relief – were found in York burials. Remains of burials are found all over Roman Britain but there is nothing comparable to a group of more than 50 burials, found near the Mount School, of men who had been decapitated by execution.
Eboracum returned to the written record of late Roman York history in the year 306 as the place where the emperor Constantius died following his campaigns in the north. His son, Constantine, was acclaimed as emperor by his father’s army possibly in York itself, although he was not strictly speaking the official heir. A larger than life-size marble head from York is thought to be that of Constantine perhaps from a statue commemorating his accession. Constantine’s reputation derives, in part, from his tolerance of Christian worship and York was one of the four places in Britain to have sent bishops, in York’s case named Eborius, to the Council of Arles in 314. A statue of Constantine is outside the Minster.
Although the forum, the centre of civic life for any Roman town, remains elusive at York, part of a large public bath house has been found at the north-east end of Micklegate. The walls of the structure were a massive 2.2m thick and survived up to 3.5m high although they represented only what was below the contemporary ground surface; the above ground structure was demolished in the late Roman period. A water pipe found at Wellington Row and a fountain at Bishophill are evidence of the piped water supply to bath houses and the grander private residences. Water for most of the town was from wells, a fine example having been excavated in Skeldergate.
Remains of town houses
Civilian settlements continued to flourish in the late third to early fourth century of the late Roman period in York evidenced by the remains of town houses which acquired mosaic pavements: at St Mary, Castlegate and in Aldwark, Bar Lane, Toft Green and Clementhorpe. A town house in Bishophill built in the late third century was quite extensive with at least two ranges of rooms around a courtyard. The later Roman fortress did have some rebuilding including the so-called ‘Anglian Tower’, still standing, located about 60m from the Multangular Tower. It was built into the fortress wall and is likely to be Roman.
Radiocarbon dating of a large number of animal bones – pig and sheep – found in the fortress area give them as late fourth or early fifth century and some evidence of metal working in hearths seem to suggest a radical change in use of the basilica in the last days of the garrison which was either about to withdraw from York or left to fend for itself once Britain was no longer ruled by Rome. Excavation at the Minster in 2012 suggests that the basilica may have stood until demolition in the late eight or early ninth century. But it is difficult to determine whether York ever ceased to exist as a populated place after the Roman era. The walls of the fortress and town may well have been attractive to local overlords but we have little trace of their activities.
Patrick Ottaway, ‘Eboracum: Roman York’, Chapter 2 of The British Historic Town Atlas, York, Introduction and Gazetteer, ed Peter Addyman, (Historic Towns Trust & York Archaeological Trust, 2015)
© Pat Hill
Photos for York Civic Trust by Rachel Semlyen