why Watling Street matters

As part of my journey I’d wanted to literally set foot on Watling Street. If I look it up it’s usually referred to as a track which the Romans later paved. A track, to my mind, indicates a narrow pathway yet this ‘track’ was one of four major roads criss-crossing Britain well before the Romans arrived and it makes no sense at all to call them ‘tracks.’

Of what use is a track which runs across a country? It has to be wide enough for carts to use, to be of value as a trade route, yet such is the hold that the Roman period in Britain has on historians and such is the subtlety of language that track rather than road continues to be used to describe Watling Street prior to the Romans. It diminishes the achievements of the society which was already in existence.

The A5 now uses much of that road but not all of it. I found the village of Wall which has its Roman ruins to look at and so I bought a postcard and found the village postbox, turned around and much to my delight saw a sign saying 1, 3 and 5 Watling Street. Over a hedge behind these few houses ran the busy A5.

Again, I’ll take pause, make a coffee before coming back to my one fingered typing and quote from ‘the book.’

“… contrary to suggestions that prior to the arrival of the vagabond armies of the Caesars the country was a nearly empty wilderness populated by painted savages, Britain was already densely populated with possibly as many as eight million inhabitants. The majority of forest clearance having been achieved centuries earlier, the countryside of Southern England probably looked not that much different to today: a patchwork quilt of fields interspersed with small woods, forest and moorland. It was certainly a land of trading opportunities. However, the uprising of Boudicca taught the Romans a sharp lesson: that if they wanted the chance to make money, they needed peace, for which they required the cooperation of the British nobility. They also needed a fairly large standing army with which to police the borders of the areas they controlled and to intimidate any tribes that might be thinking of rebelling.”

“To administer the territories over which they had nominal control, and for their own safety and security, the Romans built five cities of their own with the status of either colonia or municipia: Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St Albans), Lindum (Lincoln), Glevum (Gloucester) and Eburacum (York). Most, if not all, of these cities existed in some form before the invasion but were now redeveloped on the Roman model. In a situation similar to that of Hong Kong following the Opium Wars, the cities were islands of alien culture grudgingly accepted by the indigenous population until such time as the outsiders could be expelled completely. In the meantime they provided role models for the British to redevelop their own towns and cities as well as providing outlets for trade.”

“To maintain their position and to protect the borders of the areas under their control, the Romans kept three legions on permanent standby: the sixth legion, stationed at York; the twentieth legion, stationed at Deva (Chester); and the second legion, stationed at Isca Silurum (Caerleon). Though at first these legions were composed entirely of non-Britons, drawn from around the Empire, in time, through native recruitment, their composition changed so that they became, in effect, British armies that could and often did intervene in the affairs of Rome itself.”

“As well as these Roman foundations there were in Britain at that time a large number of essentially British cities that were neither Roman coloniae nor municipiae. The most important of these were already, prior to the Claudian invasion, the capitol cities of the British tribes. They include Isurium Brigantia (Aldborough), chief city of the Brigantes; Ratae (Leicester) chief city of the Coritani; Viroconium (Wroxeter) chief city of the Cornovii; Corinium (Cirencester) chief city of the Dobuni; Venta Belgarum (Winchester) chief city of the local Belgae; Caleva Atrebatum (Silchester near Reading) chief city of the Atrabates; Venta Icenorum (Caistor by Norwich), chief city of the Iceni; Durovernum Cantiacorum (Canterbury) chief city of the Cantii; and Durnovaria (Dorchester) chief city of the Durotriges. Londinium (London) was, of course, the capitol of the Trinovantes as well as being one of the largest cities in the entire Western Empire.”

“Linking the regions was a complex network of roads. Historians regularly refer to these as ‘Roman’ but some at least may have predated the Roman invasion. The notable feature of the system is that the roads nearly always travel in straight lines, linking the cities of Britain with a spider’s web that in its day was the equivalent of our modern motorway network. The idea that the British never built proper roads before the invasion is contrary to the evidence of the written British histories, which state categorically that they did. According to the Brut Tysylio and other traditional histories, the road system, as well as the common law, in Britain owed its origins not to the Romans but to the actions of a king called Dyfnwal Moelmud  (Moelmutius or ‘Donald the Bald’). Tysylio writes:

‘He (Dyfnwal Moelmud) also restored the old form of government and established the laws known by the name of the laws of Dyfnwal Moelmyd [sic] (which the Saxons still observe); and gave privileges of refuge to the temples and cities and to the roads leading to the courts of justice …. He also made many other regulations, which Gildas has written of, but too numerous to treat of here; such as the guardianship of the security of the roads leading to the principal towns, and the granting of great roads to the temples and cities to the commonality, so that in his time theft and violence were suppressed.’

According to Tysylio, several very important roads were also built by Beli Mawr, father of King Lud.

‘At that time there was a contention as to roads, the limits whereof were not ascertained; and he [Beli] therefore assembled all the masons of Britain and commanded them to make roads of stone and mortar, according to law. One of these, passing through the chief cities which lay immediately in the line, went from Penryn in Cornwall to Penryn Bladon in the North, which is the extent of the Isle of Britain.

The other crossed the island, that is to say, Mynyw [St David’s] proceeding along the coast, and to Port-Hamon, that is Northampton. He also commanded two other roads to be made intersecting these, passing as the others did through several cities, and terminating at each end in the angular extremities of the island.

When the roads were completed, he ordered them to be made sacred and conferring on them a privilege of refuge so that whoever could escape to any of them was to be free of impediments, whatever wrong he might have done.’

These acts by early British kings seem to be the origin of the concept that the ‘King’s Highway’ offers special protection to the traveller. The most important roads in Roman times were Ermine Street, running due north from London to York, and Watling Street, which ran north-west from Canterbury and the Kent coast through London to Wroxeter via St Albans. This road also passed near Lichfield, through the ancient town of Letocetum (Wall).”

…. There is more about the Fosse Way and another road, the name of which I haven’t found, before the authors continue ….

“Thus it was that Britain entered the Roman Empire already in possession of much of the infrastructure one would associate with a modern civilised state. Indeed, ruled over by a dynasty of kings, it was not a country of savages but an organised state with cities, religious centres and universities all linked by a functional road network. As trade with the Roman Empire brought increased wealth to the country, so during the second and third centuries all these things were improved and developed; yet regardless of surface changes in the political and economic spheres, the fundamentals of the country remained the same.”