The Huntingdonshire of the early Roman period would be unrecognisable to our modern eyes. The vast majority would have been thickly wooded, with the trees thinning out only on the high ridges of clay and the edges of the fens. The fens were a vast flooded plain stretching a far as the eye could see dotted with small islands, utterly unsurpassable and rife with marsh ague, or as we would call it; malaria.
The roads which criss-cross Huntingdonshire today did not exist. As in the Somerset Levels, there is some scant evidence of woven wood roadways to cross the fens, and a surviving prehistoric trackway skirting the edge of the flooded fens still in use after many generations. This still survives as the “Bullock Road”, a millennia old road and footpath traversing the high ground past Alconbury.
The major population centres of today would not have existed as much more than roundhouses in clearings or on river banks. Indeed, throughout the Roman period there were no major settlements at Huntingdon, St. Neots, St. Ives or Ramsey, all of these being founded or formed in the post-Roman period, the majority around religious houses.
Such was Iron-Age Huntingdonshire, part of the land of the Catuvellauni tribe, a wooded, contained, landscape of a people scattered between forest and fen.
After centuries of this unchanging existence, the Romans arrived in 43 AD. The reason for the invasion has been the cause of long debate – was it an inevitability with the Roman thirst for expansion, a necessary propaganda victory to secure the throne of Claudius (a most unwarlike man of middle years with a stammer), or as a direct result of the invitation of a Roman ally to resolve tribal conflict?
Whatever the reason, the Romans landed in Kent and rapidly pushed out into the British hinterland, winning victory after victory against their lightly armed and armoured opponents. Despite the popularisation of the idea, the Celtic warriors did not fight naked but rather without the all-encompassing armour of a Roman legionary which would have been far too expensive for all but tribal elites.
The first Roman legionaries arrived in Huntingdonshire in the late 40’s, building a military road running east of the Ouse until they reached the edge of the fens at what is now Godmanchester. Here a military outpost was constructed, the road then continued north to skirt around the fens where another fort was built at what is now Water Newton, and a third and larger fort was built at Longthorpe sometime between 50-60 AD.
These forts would have been basic outposts intended to provide a safe place for soldiers to rest, a supply depot for food and weapons and perhaps most importantly a psychological sign for locals that the Romans were here to stay. Roman permanence, however, seemed a rather moot point in 60AD when the Iceni who bordered Huntingdonshire in the fens to the north rose up in arms.
Boudicca hardly needs describing, and whilst her rebellion is famous for the burning of Colchester, London, St. Albans and countless other Roman forts and fledgling settlements, the initial targets of the Iceni would have been in Huntingdonshire. The fort at Water Newton was left unmolested (as it was not the line of march south), whilst the Godmanchester fort was not so lucky.
The small fort at Godmanchester had evidently flourished and now sported a small civilian settlement outside the walls. This would have been home to traders, soldier’s (unofficial) wives, and anyone else who could stand to profit from the military presence. Such settlements were very commonplace and often these settlements took on a life of their own, becoming some of the towns and cities we still know today (Caerleon, Chester, Gloucester, Lincoln and York to name but a few).
Evidently the garrison was either too small, absent on other duties, or (as was the case at Colchester) ‘tactically’ withdrawn by superior officers. The Iceni tore through the nascent town and, if accounts of their actions elsewhere are anything to go by, killed every inhabitant before burning it to the ground. Much like in London, this moment is fossilised in the archaeological record; there is still a layer of burnt building debris laying below Godmanchester today.
Further north in Huntingdonshire, it has been suggested that the unfortunate ninth legion (immortalised in Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel “Eagle of the Ninth”) may have been based at the fortress at Longthorpe. If so, they would have marched past the obliterated still smoking settlement to the south, en route for their own fateful encounter with the Iceni. They were to be trounced by the rebels, with the survivors forced to retreat back to the safety of their fort, leaving huge numbers of the legion dead.
The defeat of Boudicca in 61AD at the Battle of Watling Street (somewhere in the west-midlands) marked the end of serious organised resistance to Roman rule in Britannia, and in a short time the Romans began to expand back into East Anglia and then further north all the way to Scotland. Hereafter, the history of the Romans in Huntingdonshire is the history of the two towns whose territory encompassed the entirety of the county: Durovigutum and Durobrivae.
Look out for our next blogpost next week on the first of these settlements; Durovigitum, or as we now know it, Godmanchester.
A complete Bibliography for all three Roman Huntingdonshire blogs will be published with our third and final blogpost later this month.
Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.