Roman Godmanchester – Durovigitum – “the thriving fort”

Following the defeat of Boudicca in 61AD, the Roman legions returned to the remains of Godmanchester. The replacement fort was planned and built over some 20 acres, and the traders and civilians likewise came back to repair and rebuild the shattered township outside.

The military presence seems to have been been redeployed within a short time, implying a certain degree of peacefulness in the area. Despite the vacant fortifications, the civilian town mushroomed. At first, inhabitants lived in Celtic style round houses, but over time the town was largely rebuilt in stone and wood rectangular buildings. By the third century, there was a population of around three thousand (half the population today) and a prestigious basilica (town hall), meaning the town was officially self-governing.

This independence was due to its location straddling two important roadways, the Via Devena (running from Colchester to Chester) and Ermine Street (running from London to York). These roads were the motorways of the day, and excavations show that by the second century Ermine street was 43 feet (over 13m) wide and solidly built. Ermine Street was, in fact, so solidly built that in the mid-eighteenth century Montagu house at the end of Huntingdon High Street was built atop the Roman road as it provided such good foundations!

Plan of the Godmachester Mansio based on excavations. Image courtesy of the Porch Museum Godmanchester.

We know from the archaeological record that by 120AD Durovigitum had an inn specifically for those on Imperial or government business. These remains are the second largest “mansio” found in England. The 95 foot long building was built in the west of Durovigitum (now Pinfold Lane and Granary Close) and included stables, rooms and a colonnaded garden. A kitchen in the inn provided food including oysters, pike, beef and chicken – and it is believed that travellers would also take food with them for the next day. Nearby stood a bath complex and a temple dedicated to a local god called Abandinus; possibly the god of the Ouse, adopted into the Roman pantheon like Sulis was in Bath.

Plan of the Bath House at Godmanchester based on excavations. Courtesy of the Porch Museum Godmanchester.

Another reason for the settlement’s success was down to the excellent farmland surrounding Durovigitum. Despite having a market and large amounts of through traffic, the inhabitants were dependent on agriculture to survive. The modern parish of Godmanchester corresponds to the “infields” of Durovigitum which were intensively farmed to supply food for the populace, and any excess could be traded with passing merchants or military suppliers. The extended territory under the control of Durovigutum abutted the territory of Durobrivae to the north, the boundary being drawn in the vicinity of Sawtry.

The rest of Huntingdonshire seems to have likewise been primarily focussed on farming; we know the Ouse valley was densely populated with farms and villas. The remains of some of these have been unearthed at Buckden, Holywell, Little Paxton, St. Ives, Huntingdon, Houghton, Hemingford and Bluntisham. Artefacts and Roman ballast found in the Ouse near St. Ives links in with what we know about Roman waterways in the area, and implies goods were being sent down the Ouse to Earith and thence via Car Dyke (a Roman canal) to Lincoln.

Grave goods from the 2nd century AD buried with a seven year old girl in Godmanchester, now in the collection of the British Museum. Image courtesy of the Hunts Post.

By the late third century Durovigitum was going from strength to strength, despite periodic flooding. The town hall in the centre of the settlement created a large market place directly across Ermine Street, where light industrial activity was beginning with potters kilns, iron and bronze workshops. The good times were, however, coming to an end. The cessation of Caurasias (admiral of Brittania) from Rome, and then his murder and replacement by his finance office Allectus, resulted in a decade of uncertainty for Britain. Around this time, many towns and larger settlements started to build defences, and Durovigutum was among them. These walls tended to be built to a standard template, and were around 3m thick with a deep, possibly flooded, ditch to front them – a serious deterrent to raiders.

Saxon raiders were lightly armed and armoured, relying on hitting targets hard and fast. Roman commanders could not stop every raider and often relied on catching them on the way back when they were easier to catch!

Unfortunately for Durovigitum, the walls were not finished when the first Saxon raiders hit. The archaeological record gives an idea of the horror of the Saxon raid; a buried jewellery hoard, never recovered, bodies abandoned in ditches, bones gnawed by dogs and wolves and severe fire damage to municipal buildings.

After this first raid, the settlement continued to survive throughout the fourth century. A new temple was built and the first, possibly Christian, burials are performed. These have been found outside the town walls in the area which is now home to St. Marys’ church and it is possible the modern church was built atop the site of the earliest Christian worship in the town.

By the time Emperor Honorius sent his famous letter to Britain, “urging them to defend themselves”, Durovigitum was a ruin of its former self. Declining traffic caused a local recession, and municipal buildings were being torn down to patch and repair the town walls. Whether the town remained a bastion of Romano-British culture or whether it swiftly returned to the sustenance farming of pre-Roman times is not known, what we do know is that at some point a Saxon war-leader named Godmund laid claim to the ruined site, giving his name to the “ceastre”; a name we still use today.

The Walls of Godmanchester in red solid lines with conjectured or unfinished sections dotted, the purple line is the approximate route Ermine Street took through the town. The influence on the town layout of these initial Roman walls is apparent even today!

For the final instalment in our Roman history blog, be sure to check out our post next week on the lost Roman town of Durobrivae, “the bridge fort”; one of the most remarkable Roman sites ever found in England.

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.

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