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Narrative History of the County of Somerset
by David Nash Ford


Roman Times

The region, we now know as Somerset, was inhabited by people from three different tribes at the time of the Roman conquest of Britain (AD 43). The Durotriges, with their administrative civitas capital at Dorchester (in Dorset), lived in the south of the county and were probably, in origin, the people of a client kingdom under Roman rule. The Dobunni, in the north, were apparently somewhat anti-Roman and, having resisted their enforced influence, were placed under an artificially created civitas centred on far-away Winchester (Hampshire). West of the River Parrett, the Dumnonii took still longer to subdue and, during the early period of Roman occupation therefore, Somerset became a militarized zone. The great Fosse Way was built across the region, as early as AD 49, and military contingents marched along it between forts possibly established at Bath, Camerton and Shepton Mallet, and certainly at Ilchester, Ham Hill, South Cadbury, Wiveliscombe and Charterhouse. The latter was, no doubt, built to protect the lead and silver mining industries which were very quickly established in the Mendip Hills. The stamp of the 2nd Legion has been found on lead pigs from this area. Perhaps the soldiers trained in the little investigated amphitheatre just to the west of Charterhouse. Other local industries included salt extraction, coal & iron mining, iron smelting and the production of pewter & glass.

By the end of the first century, military influence had declined in the area. It is generally postulated that Somerset was taken under direct Imperial control, from Ham Hill and Coombe Down, and both its agricultural and mineral resources exploited for the good of the public purse. However, around AD 200, the Imperial lands began to be sold off to private individuals in an attempt to bolster a crumbling Imperial economy. Rich Gallic landlords supposedly moved in and built the luxurious winged corridor villas - like Lufton, Keynsham, Pitney and Low Ham - which have been discovered across the county's landscape. Although there is still some merit in this theory, it has recently been challenged and it seems that many of the villa complexes, in fact, originated, in one form or another, in 1st and 2nd centuries. Such vast villas are thought to have been the country estates of urban-dwelling merchants, not unlike the stately homes of later centuries. However, many villas were simple two or three roomed rectangular farm buildings. Sometimes these were grouped together to form small settlements in banked enclosures, such as at Gatcombe, Catsgrove or Bradley Hill. Architecturally related buildings may indicate the presence of extended families in the latter two and thus a continuity of the Celtic social order. The basis of their economies could vary. Bradley Hill, like its Iron Age predecessor, was a sheep farm. Catsgrove farmed 80% cattle but also grew arable produce: mostly spelt wheat, but also emmer and barley; and there is evidence of malting to make beer.

The agricultural importance of the area soon turned the old military forts into busy trading centres at the confluence of communications routes, many of which survive in the rural lanes of today. Towns such as Ilchester, Camerton and Westland began to emerge with planned street grids, town-houses and organised drainage. No official administrative buildings have yet been discovered, though Ilchester - Lindinis -became its own civitas capital by the 3rd century. The Durotrigian region had been sub-divided, probably due to a polarization of population when the South Somerset hillforts were abandoned (circa AD 60) and the people forced to urbanize the area. A regional market, a political centre and a port, the Ilchester also appears to have been a focus of manufacturing. At least two mosaic officinae with distinctive styles, identifiable in the surrounding villas, have been postulated for this flourishing town. By the late 3rd century, its earthern defences were rebuilt in stone and bastions were added not long afterward.

The most notable of Somerset town at this time was, of course, Bath. It was known to the Romans as Aquae Sulis or the Waters of Sulis, a Celtic goddess identified with wise Minerva. A huge classical temple dedicated to this lady started life here in the late 1st century, probably taking the place of a previous Iron Age establishment. It adjoined a vast baths complex, powered by the miraculous hot spring which still gushes forth today at a constant temperature of 46C. It was one of the major religious curative centres in the whole of the Western Empire and pilgrims flocked there from across the known World. Despite the place's importance and the large scale excavations of the religious complex, relatively little is known of the town as a whole. It is thought that the later medieval city walls sit upon a Roman base, but these encompass only 25 acres: much smaller than most Romano-British towns. It has been suggested that these were temenos walls around the religious precinct and associated hostelries, rather than town-walls as such. Certainly there was further extensive urban areas around Walcot to the north of these walls.

Religion played an important role in the life of an ordinary Romano-Briton and this is evident elsewhere in the county too. Rural hill-top temples appear to have been particularly popular during the pagan revival of the early 4th century. Pagans Hill has revealed a large pilgrimage centre including guest houses and priest's house as well as the octagonal temple and holy well. More common Celtic twin-cell temples are known from Brean Down (c. AD 340) and Lamyatt Beacon (c. AD 300). The latter was almost certainly dedicated to Mars.

However by the late 4th century, Christianity appears to have become a strong force in Britain and Somerset was no exception. Christians took over a number of pagan cemeteries, like Bradley Hill, where east-west orientated burials become evident at this time. The temples at Brean Down and Lamyatt Beacon even had little rectangular buildings erected on the same axis around AD 390. Presumably they were churches or small oratories like those known from early Christian sites in Ireland. Tales of St. Joseph of Arimathea establishing the first British monastery at Glastonbury as early as AD 63 are highly unlikely; though the county is one of several possible sites of St. Patrick's birth at Bana Venta Burniae. His father was a deacon in the British Church, indicating a well established hierarchy in the area - though Cumberland is a more generally accepted claimant.

Next: Dark Age Times

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