Devon & Cornwall and the Roman Conquest

Calleva has fallen.

The Atrebatic nation humiliated: driven towards the coast.

Verica sends envoys to Rome. An excuse to sound the drums of war

Four legions cross the Channel.

To force back the Catuvellaunian confederacy

Fighting across the Thames…..but

The final assault on Camaladunum (Colchester)…paused… for Emperor Claudius

Who, arriving with elephants, takes the capital and the surrender of 11 British kings…..

The Roman historians, Tacitus, Dio and Josephus, provide us with these details of the conquest of south-east England ..but say nothing much about the south west.

We must be glad that Suetonius gives an idea… while writing of the future emperor Vespasian.

In AD 43, he was commander of II Augusta legion: sent west to mop up the lesser tribes.

It was a joint operation by land and sea. A campaign probably launched from friendly territory near Noviomagus (Chichester).

Suetonius tells us that Vespasian’s army took Vectis (Isle of Wight)….the last locational clue….Suetonious drops a few more crumbs of history….mentioning 30 battles, 20 oppida captured and 2 warlike tribes..defeated.

A great deal of grief in an economy of words.

So, the Roman killing machine marches into historical darkness…. through Dorset, Somerset and into Devon and Cornwall.

Hod Hill Roman fort reconstruction within the hillfort cleared of native round houses. (Nick Skelton)

Only archaeology is able to find the clues to plot its route through the landscape. We find the occasional stray protectile blade and pebbles as sling shot that indicate conflict…(like those from Badbury Rings and Hod Hill) ..but the course of the Roman campaign is mostly traced by locating signal stations forts and marching camps.

In Dorset there is Poole Harbour’s Hamworthy supply base, Lake Gates legionary fortress on the edge of the Kingston Lacy Estate, the National Trust’s Hod Hill fort in central Dorset and Waddon Hill near the Devon border. Just those few that are known and occupied c. AD 44-65.

I’ve been writing up the geophysical survey we did at Killerton near Exeter (blog: Killerton’s Roman Fort Sept 2019) which revealed evidence for three military ditches and timber framed barrack blocks hidden beneath the ploughsoil.

I needed to write a conclusion to the report and so it was time to update my knowledge of Devon Roman forts.

The ‘playing card’ outline of Killerton Roman fort with other archaeological features visible as crop marks bottom left and to the right….perhaps the remains of associated settlement. (FM Griffith English Heritage)

I went through the list on Heritage Gateway and circled each site on an old road map.

I soon proved to myself that I had no idea of the scale of the military investment in Devon and Cornwall. There may be four sites in Dorset but there are upwards of thirty forts known in Devon.,, including the Legio II Augusta legionary fortress at Exeter.

A distribution map of some of the Roman military sites known in Exmoor, Devon and Cornwall with the Killerton site added (Chris Smart Exeter Univerisity)

Across Devon, forts are spaced stategically 5-8 miles apart. One lies just on the edge of the National Trust’s Knightshayes Estate near Tiverton.

When Knightshayes Lodge was built in the 1870s, a 1st century cremation burial was found in the garden (perhaps part of a military burial ground like that found outside the Lake Gates Fortress near Wimborne). It is likely that any vicus settlement associated with the fort would continue into Knightshayes Park and it would be good to check that out with geophysics some time soon.

I got very excited last year by an excellent crop mark which showed road alignments and rows of rectangles of various sizes indicating regimented occupation.

Raef, who looks after the Park… broke it to me gently. I was seeing the site of the Mid Devon showground….the tents had only been taken down the week before.

Jim phoned me up from Cornwall. Good to hear his voice again now that we are back at work after furlough. Chris from Exeter University had spotted something on LiDAR which crosses onto National Trust land.

Chris had made out the classic rounded ‘playing card shape corners of a 10 hectare enclosure. It had lain hidden beneath the trees, abandoned by its Roman unit when they marched away.. almost 2000 years ago, now pitted by Victorian quarry workings.

That makes 4 forts found in Cornwall now. Who knows how many others are out there. LiDAR is a great tool for locating new sites.

So why were there so many forts? It feels a little like the Hadrian’s Wall military zone…

Many of them were rebuilt on the same site to a different plan and scale. Either they were abandoned and then needed to be occupied again or there was a permanent military presence that needed to be adapted, enlarged or contracted depending on the shifting pattern of the military campaign in the south west.

They are occupied for longer too. Many seem to be used into the AD 80s. Seems like the Roman army swept through the south-east, sorted out Dorset …by AD47 had set up the Fosse Way military zone between Lincoln and Axminster ….but it seems that beyond that temporary frontier. they encountered fierce resistance in Devon….a sort of Afghanistan which bogged down the military for decades.

Not quite the Romanised place that Dorset became. If you search the database for Roman forts, Devon definitely wins 30 to 4. Switch the search to Roman villas and Dorset becomes the place to be with 32 compared to Devon’s 6 ….and those all in the south east against the Dorset border.

So the Dumnonian peoples of Devon and Cornwall seem to have been rather hostile and not agreeable to the civilising influence of Rome. Perhaps it was for this reason that the commander of the Second Legion stayed in Exeter and did not send troops to support the provincial governor Suetonius Paulinus when, in AD 60, Boudicca rebelled in the east and burned Camaladunum, Verulamium and Londinium ….

The Mid Devon landscape looking out from Dolbury Hillfort on the National Trust’s Killerton Estate

Hard times in the land of cream teas.

7 thoughts on “Devon & Cornwall and the Roman Conquest

  1. I think you can read the disparity of site numbers between Cornwall (plus west Devon) and further east in different ways. For one thing, the interaction bewteen the mining regions and the wider Roman empire would have meant a different power and control dynamic from much of the rest of Britannia. While the Mendips provided lead to the northwest empire, tin, maybe also silver and copper, was being exported southwards into the wider empire. It is possible perhaps that these metal producing regions were effectively allied to Rome, so not the subject of mliitary conquest but also not sufficiently part of the empire (or widely enough settled) to attract civilian sites either? A token network of forts for administration (taxation, mercantile activities, etc) may have been all that was necessary?

    I think then that “So the Dumnonian peoples of Devon and Cornwall seem to have been rather hostile and not agreeable to the civilising influence of Rome” might not be the answer – the reality may have been a different synergy than we see elsewhere in Britannia.

    • Dear Martin I think the presence or rarer minerals in Cornwall as in the Mendips may have made them special imperial reserves but the number of forts in mid and east Devon is not easily explained unless there was a need to contain hostile elements in the population up to the 80s. Wales and the north of England maintained a military presence for a long time and the quantity of forts is similar to Devon and more will be found in Cornwall I expect.

      It is the great thing about archaeology that different ideas can be drawn from the evidence. I couldn’t find much evidence of the use of forts in Devon past the 1st century so things seemed to be resolved in a military sense by then but Romanisation is much reduced in Devon compared with Somerset and Dorset, no large villas spaced surrounding Exeter compared with the clusters around Dorchester and Ilchester.

      What are your thoughts? I noticed that a small villa has been found in North Wales recently and therefore there is bound to be further evidence in Devon for wealthier Romanised residences. There was a similar thought on occupation in the Isle of Purbeck where there is a density of pottery, shale, Purbeck marble and salt production industrial settlements, with very little Roman wealth on display. It has been suggested that the profits were taken by the Emperor or entrepreneurs and not spent in the locality… but there are still three Roman villas surrounding the central Purbeck small town of Norden.

      Who knows, it is good to try to work out the puzzle based on whatever evidence we have to hand at this time. I guess that the Dumnonian peoples were made up of lots of different sub groups with different traditions and names. The Durotriges were the same.

      With best wishes


      • I think that this is a big subject about which not a lot is known! What did strike me as possibly relevant is that West Devon and Cornwall are mineralogically in the same zone, whereas East Devon is not, and there are more forts in East Devon that further west. Would it be odd that the military presence seems inverted relative to the wealth in metals? That was why I postulated whether there was already some sort of Roman influence / control of the region prior to the westwards military movement.

        I think we need to take a proper look at the coastal regions; at least two, maybe three, of the coastal islands off Cornwall have amphora sherds, whereas inland there are hardly any. What does this mean? We also have the different IA / RB architecture of West Cornwall, specifially the courtyard houses. Is the IA itself different in the Western parts than further East up the peninsula? If so, why and to what extent was there already a mixing of ideas and overseas contact prior to the Roman conquest?

    • Dear Tim

      Yes there was. The minerals of Cornwall have been important back to the Bronze Age with exotic finds demonstrating trading connections. I don’t know enough about the subject unfortunately.

      With best wishes


  2. Dear NT, I am a NT volunteer in in the archaeology section on Purbeck. Though not a trained archaeologist, I love British history and have been collecting and sorting all that has come up in the veg garden at Currendon for several years, also keeping notes. Nancy has been marvellous with her help and support. I do love reading about what is happening in the Southwest. I hope all is well with you Nancy. Thank you. Gillian Devries

    On Thu, 31 Dec 2020, 10:27 am Archaeology National Trust SW, wrote:

    > martinpapworth posted: ” Calleva has fallen. The Atrebatic nation > humiliated: driven towards the coast. Verica sends envoys to Rome. An > excuse to sound the drums of war Four legions cross the Channel. To force > back the Catuvellaunian confederacy Fighting across t” >

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s