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Castle Hill in the First Millennium

Castle Hill in the First Millennium - a video from the Futurelearn course Lancaster Castle and Northern English History - the view from the stronghold
This is Castle Hill, which rises prominently above the city of Lancaster in Northwest England. This hill has been of enormous strategic importance for many centuries. It offers wide views out to the Irish Sea and along major route ways heading north and south. In this video, we uncover the history of the hill prior to the medieval castle. We begin with a series of Roman forts and then move into the Anglo-Saxon period, when there was an important church here. We end on the eve of the Norman conquest in 1066. What emerges is the significance of Castle Hill in the distinctive history of what we now know as Northern England.
In the Roman period, Lancaster played a role in the military zone, an area dominated by roads and forts. In the post-Roman period, Lancaster became part of the most northerly Anglo-Saxon kingdom, which was known as Northumbria. The final Roman invasion of Britain took place in the first century AD, when Northern England was dominated by a people called the Brigantes. There were tensions between two leaders, the warlord Venutius and Queen Cartimandua. Venutius triumphed, prompting the Romans to seize control of Brigantian territory. Excavations in the 20th century and more recently in 2015 to ‘16, have improved knowledge of the sequence of forts on this hill. The earliest fort was made of turf and timber and became one of the largest of its type.
The earthworks in this field are part of the western rampart. The fort was briefly abandoned when the Antonine Wall was built in Central Scotland. However, the frontier moved south again. The permanent garrison housed auxiliary forces, those who were not Roman citizens, especially cavalry. Outside the forts lay a civilian settlement, which housed crafts people, religious shrines, and entertainment. I’m now standing by the bathhouse, which lay just outside the early fort. In the fourth century, the fort was rebuilt. The evocatively named Wery Wall, of which we see the surviving portion here, has been interpreted as a bastion on one of its walls. More remains to be discovered about the fourth century layout, however.
The new fort was built for protection against raiders who sailed across the Irish Sea. It was a stronghold against attack, the forerunner to the castle.
I’ve come to Lancaster City Museum to view the rich range of artefacts associated with Roman Lancaster. I’m joined by an expert in Roman history and archaeology, Professor David Shotter. Here we have an altar from the Lancaster area. What light does this shed on religion and culture in the Roman period? Well, this altar here is actually a dedication made by a retired Roman soldier called Julius Januarius to what we believe to be a local god, Ialonus. And Ialonus may well be a god name that conceals the Roman name for the River Lune. And next to it we have a really remarkable memorial stone, which I believe was found on a building site.
What does this reveal about the soldiers based at Lancaster? Well, quite a lot, actually, because not only does it give us the name of a Roman soldier, Insus, to whom this was particularly dedicated, but it also gives us a bit of information about him, what part rank he held within his unit. And it also shows us, with the very typical Roman cavalry tombstone setup, doing up nasty things to somebody local– in this case, cutting the head off his captive, which is rolling on the ground in front of him.
The end of the Roman period in Britain is traditionally dated AD 410. However, there is increasing evidence that some northern frontier forts survived. The post-Roman leaders eventually became kings, whose exploits are celebrated in medieval Welsh poetry. By the 7th century, English-speaking Anglo-Saxons were forming the kingdom of Northumbria. They expanded westwards and gave Lancaster its name, the chester, or fort by the River Lune. An important Northumbrian church was established inside the Roman fort on the site of Lancaster Priory. This is a cast of a cross featuring Northumbrian art and an inscription in Old English. The church weathered the turbulence of the Viking Age.
The Silverdale Hoard, found nearby in 2011, belonged to a Viking band who had connections as far afield as Dublin, York, and the Arabic world. Shortly before the Norman conquest, Lancaster and its church belonged to the Northumbrian Earl Tostig as part of his estate based at Halton-on-Lune. This is revealed by the Domesday Survey prepared for William the Conqueror. But the castle later built at Halton would be overshadowed by the hugely important stronghold established here on Castle Hill.

This week we’ll be exploring the early history of Castle Hill in the first millennium. Along the way, we’ll encounter the varied categories of source material that can be used to shed light on earlier periods of history.

First, we’ll consider the Roman forts that preceded the castle, and investigate how their history related to wider developments in Roman Britain. Then, we’ll encounter the challenge of understanding the fascinating but mysterious early medieval period, with particular reference to Castle Hill and the surrounding region.

Castle Hill in the First Millennium

Watch this short video, which ranges from the first Roman fort on the site to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. It is presented by Dr Fiona Edmonds, a specialist in early medieval history, and also features Professor David Shotter, an expert in Roman history and archaeology.

As you watch, you may find it useful to consider these questions:

  • Why was Castle Hill such a strategically important location?
  • What was the relationship between the Roman fort on Castle Hill and other Roman sites in the northern frontier zone?
  • What did the end of Roman Britain mean for the inhabitants of Lancaster and the surrounding area?

When you have watched the video, you may wish to share your thoughts with others by starting or joining a conversation.

This article is from the free online

Lancaster Castle and Northern English History: The View from the Stronghold

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