The Roman period in western Cheshire (AD c 60-400)



The Roman invasion of Britain began in AD 43, but it is unlikely that Cheshire was incorporated into the new province much before AD 60. The conquest effected a number of major changes, including the establishment of forts and fortresses, the foundation of towns following a Mediterranean model and the importation of continental tastes in material culture and architecture. Nevertheless, it is easy to overemphasise Roman impact on indigenous cultures, particularly in the north and west. Although the evidence is very fragmentary, considerable continuity of tradition can be seen in the countryside and even in urban centres, such as the civilian settlement at Chester.

Military sites

The military establishment of Deva at Chester and the civilian settlement that was associated with it have long been the focus of archaeological interest in the region. The fortress was established AD c 74 and was immediately provided with harbour facilities. Its initial garrison, Legio II Adiutrix, left in the 80s. By the mid-90s Legio XX Valeria Victrix was in occupation; it remained at Chester, on and off, for more than 150 years. The last evidence we have for the Legion at Chester is in the early 250s, although it was still in existence as a unit in the 290s.

The remains of the major buildings of the fortress have long been known, most spectacularly the curtain wall itself, reconstructed in stone around AD 100. Parts of the north and east walls of the fortress survive, in places to walkway height. Remains of the headquarters building (principia) and the legionary bathhouse (thermae) are still visible in the city, while the partially excavated amphitheatre outside the southeast corner of the fortress is a major tourist attraction. The broad sequence of construction within the fortress is understood in considerable detail, although the last century of the Roman period remains puzzling. The last coins to arrive in Chester in any quantity date from around 380; occasional finds show activity continuing into the fifth century, but their significance is not clear.

Other military sites known in the District include earthworks and aerial photographic sites on the higher ground between Waverton and Picton, which are probably practice camps. A site near Stanlow, just outside the District, may be an early Roman fortlet. An antiquarian report of a Roman fort at Aldford is probably a mistaken observation of the medieval motte-and-bailey castle.

Major towns

The fortress at Chester also attracted civilian settlement-some by immigrants, some by locals-primarily to the east of the fortress, although to the west lay the port and some substantial houses. Recent work suggests that there may also have been suburban growth in Handbridge, on the south side of the River Dee, possibly developing from a pre-Roman settlement. There are controversial claims that the civilian town received a charter in the second century, but there is little evidence for the public buildings that ought to be found in one. It is possible that the fortress became demilitarised at some point and that buildings inside the walls were put to civil use.

A further substantial settlement lay south of Chester at Heronbridge in Claverton; stray finds suggest that west of the road settlement became increasingly dispersed, although traces of activity have been found as far west as the Lache estate. How far it is legitimate to regard Heronbridge as urban in character is difficult to say. Although the known site resembles a number of roadside settlements that are best classed as 'small towns', the evidence for further occupation to the west suggests that it may be rather larger than has previously been supposed. Moreover, there is a dense concentration of Roman finds on the opposite side of the River Dee, in Huntington. It is possible that the river does not mark the eastern limit of settlement but instead ran through its centre.

‘Small towns’ and villages

There is little settlement evidence away from Chester and its immediate environs. A nucleated settlement has been partially investigated at Grafton, and is probably the site named as Bovio in a Roman road-book. No other villages or towns have been conclusively located in the District. A concentration of finds from Ashton suggests that the modern village core is close to a Romano-British village, as do small quantities of material from Stamford Bridge and Great Barrow. Recent survey work to the south of Barrow church has located a number of enclosures arranged around an irregular grid of streets. Too small to be classed as a 'small town', this is probably an agricultural settlement of village type.


The road system is partly military in origin, and its influence on the later communications network of the District was considerable. The main arterial road is that known locally as Watling Street. The road runs northwest from Whitchurch (the Romano-British town of Mediolano) through Malpas towards Farndon and the river crossing to Holt. This is suggested to have been the primary destination. However, after the foundation of Chester in the 70s, the road was diverted to a more northerly bearing just after leaving Grafton (the Romano-British Bovio). It crosses the River Dee at Aldford and runs into Chester by way of Handbridge, recrossing the Dee on roughly the same line as the medieval bridge. The central part, where the alignment changes, has not been traced on the ground.

Another major route runs northwest from Chester into the Wirral peninsula through Capenhurst and Ledsham. Although its general direction is known - it left the North Gate &ndas; it has not been identified south of Capenhurst and its ultimate destination is unknown. Meols, a native entrepôt on the tip of the peninsula, seems too far west to be the point for which it was aiming. In the Middle Ages this road was known as Blake Street (from the Old English Blæc Stræt, 'Black or dark street').

Another primary route, the road to Manchester and ultimately York, also known locally as Watling Street, runs from the fortress along Foregate Street and Boughton, across Stamford Heath to cross the River Gowy at Stamford Bridge. The modern road now turns south to pass through Tarvin, while the Roman road carries straight on. At Kelsall a similar situation occurs, where alternative routes up the hill have led to the development of a number of modern roads, none of which follows the Roman course.

Although routes from Chester to the west must have existed and have been traced in Wales, their course through Cheshire west of the Dee has not been ascertained. It is very unlikely that any of them issued from the west gate of the fortress, as this led down to the tidal pool where the harbour was located (now the Roodee). They presumably branched off the roads lading south.

Two routes are known, one leading south-west by way of Ffrith and another running north-west through Fflint. It has been suggested that the route through Lache and Dodleston generally follows a Roman line, with the Fflint road branching off at Balderton. Although this is possible, the line crosses low-lying marshy ground, and the route followed by the later Wrexham Turnpike through Pulford is likely have been Roman in origin and follows a topographically easier route. A possible agger (road embankment) has been identified to the north of Pulford, which may confirm the line.

Other routes out of Chester include a road towards Wilderspool on the south bank of the Mersey, opposite Warrington. Leaving Chester by way of Newton Hollows, it is known as Manning's Lane through Newton, Hoole and Mickle Trafford. It crosses the former Gowy estuary at Bridge Trafford, where there may have been a ferry or a causeway. However, much of the road&rsquo's course is uncertain and unproven by excavation, except for a few short stretches in Mickle Trafford and Dunham-on-the-Hill.

A road branches off the Chester-Manchester road, probably at Stamford Bridge, roughly on the line of the Duddon road, aiming at Tarporley and, perhaps, Nantwich. Another route has been suggested running from Chester more directly towards Nantwich through the Beeston gap, but there is no confirmatory evidence. A further route between Nantwich and Farndon by way of Clutton has also been suggested, but again it has not been traced on the ground; the present road is a late eighteenth-century creation. Nevertheless, its existence is likely given the stretch of road running west from Holt on the Welsh side of the River Dee.

Another possible route along the eastern side of the Dee runs from Boughton through Aldford towards Farndon. Cropmarks from Huntington, through Saighton towards Hatton probably show the line of a minor Roman road branching off the Dee valley route. Near Portersheath Farm another routes branches off this latter road and follows the present township boundary of Saighton to Hatton Lodge. Like the Wirral road, this was also known as Blake Street during the Middle Ages.

There must have been many purely local roads, tracks and lanes linking farmsteads and villages with the major road network. In some instances, they may be the direct ancestors of medieval and later lanes, but in others (south of Barrow church, for example), these lanes have disappeared completely. Identifying modern roads and tracks with minor Roman roads is very difficult, and it is unlikely that anything approaching their complete pattern will ever be established in the District.

Rural settlement

Knowledge of the fortress and associated military remains at Chester may be contrasted with an almost total lack of knowledge about the countryside. A few rural settlements and Romanised country houses (or villas) have been identified, but there must have been many more farms and industrial communities supplying the garrisons and urban populations than have so far been identified. The land around Chester, which must have formed the prata legionis ('meadows of the legion'), an area exploited by the military for its agricultural and natural resources, is of particular significance.

Stray finds of Romano-British material may derive from small settlements, villas or farmsteads. Broken tiles and pottery at Kelsall suggest a substantial building, probably a villa, while masonry foundations associated with Romano-British pottery and painted wall plaster at Tattenhall probably also indicate a villa site. A hypocaust was found at Crewe Hill in the seventeenth century. Its site remains visible as a spread of Roman material in flowerbeds; this is certainly a villa site. Other potential villa sites may be suggested by the survival of building materials, concentrations of coins and other high-status finds. On this basis, there may have been villa-like farms at Barrow, Burton, Christleton, Duckington, Hattonheath Farm and Poulton; that at Duckington appears to be confirmed by a crop-mark. The finds from Duckington and Poulton suggest that some of these potential villa sites also had attached rural shrines.

Coins and other metal objects have been reported from all over the District; unlike domestic material, their interpretation is very uncertain. High-value coins were used primarily for paying tax and amassing savings and were unlikely to have had a wide circulation in everyday life. Hoards (such as one from Wervin) are likely to be the savings of local farmers. There is a curiously large number of lead weights from the area, a reflection, perhaps, of the economic importance of lead from Halkyn Mountain.

There are no excavated examples of a Romano-British farmstead from the District, although they must have been numerically the most common settlement type. Material excavated at Beeston showed the presence of a nearby farmstead, although its character could not be ascertained. Cropmarks of subrectangular enclosures, similar to those at Stannage Farm (Churton-by-Aldford) and Eggbridge (Waverton), have been excavated in other areas and shown to be broadly Romano-British in date; a major research priority will be the location and excavation of these features in the District.

Reassessment of this existing data is beginning to locate areas of possible Romano-British rural settlement, and a general pattern can be suggested. The most common form of settlement was probably the farmstead, situated in oval or sub-rectangular enclosures, often on land today considered unsuitable for arable; examples are known at Eggbridge (in Waverton) and at Beeston. Some of the wealthier landowners (among them, but not exclusively, retired legionary soldiers) lived in more pretentious villa-type dwellings, of which there are probable examples at Crewe Hill, Chorlton-cum-Malpas, Poulton and Tattenhall. Nucleated settlements also developed in a few places, particularly on better-drained sandy soils as well as around road junctions and river crossings; one such site exists between Stamford Bridge and Great Barrow.

The landscape

Much of western Cheshire may well have lain inside the prata legionis, territory administered directly by the army as a source of food and raw materials. Rural settlement patterns may reflect this difference in land ownership, and it is notable that those sites that are potential villages are a fair distance from Chester (Grafton, Stamford Bridge and Ashton). The possible villas at Barrow, Burton, Crewe Hill, Duckington, Hattonheath Farm, Kelsall, Poulton and Tattenhall are also a considerable distance from the fortress, with only a potential site at Christleton disrupting the pattern. The River Gowy (formerly the Tarvin, deriving from Latin terminus, 'boundary') may have formed the boundary of the military land holdings.

The Wirral peninsula seems strangely devoid of finds, particularly in the area close to Chester. It is notable that despite intensive development of eastern Wirral during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, little Romano-British material has been recovered. This may be a reflection of historic settlement patterns, a result of Roman military control in the area restricting civilian settlement.


Cemeteries are known to have existed in three main locations outside the fortress and town at Chester: west of the fortress at the former Royal Infirmary, south of the River Dee in Handbridge, and east of the civilian settlement at Great Boughton. At the latter site, the burials appear to have been associated with a spring and a temple. No other Roman period burials have been reported in the District.


Little is known about religious sites, either in Chester or the rural areas. Altars from the fortress and canabae legionis attest private worship in the home rather than public buildings such as temples. There is, however, a probable Mithraic figure from Chester, which almost certainly derives from a Mithraeum.

Christianity certainly arrived in the Roman period. Although we have no evidence for it from the fortress during the occupation, it became the official state religion during the fourth century. A lead salt-pan recently discovered at Shavington bore the inscription Viventi [Epis]copi, 'of Viventius the overseer (or Bishop)' or 'of Viventius, under the supervisor (or Bishop).' Viventius is a rare Roman name, and is particularly associated with Christianity, so the interpretation which sees Viventius as a Bishop rather than a simple overseer is more likely. Pans discovered in the nineteenth century with an inscription Cuniti Cler… can now be read as 'of Cunitus, the priest', while others with a DEVE inscription presumably refer to Deva, Chester, or should even be expanded DEV[ensis] E[piscopi]. Putting all this circumstantial evidence together, we can surmise that Chester was a fourth-century bishopric, which derived part of its income from the salt industry. So far, though, no church buildings have been discovered.