Tag Archives: Romans


An April Tuesday, the weather was rather wintry; it was sunny in the morning but with hail showers in p.m. My sister had a letter from the A.A. – she hasn’t joined this year. I got up early, as did sister Tiggie, which made her tired later. For breakfast we had fried egg and sausage. We took the dog out to Spur Lane on the way up to the city. Tig drove me to Norwich railway station and then went to work where she had (by her account) a dull day. She did have a phone call from the Estate Agent to say he was sending someone else to view the offices that we were trying to let.4 At lunchtime she walked Fido along the riverside at Whitlingham.

Meanwhile I was on the train to Colchester. I had bought my reading matter at W. H. Smith’s to keep me occupied on the journey. I bought the Eastern Daily Press, which I had finished by the time the train rolled into Colchester, so I left it in case anyone was interested in reading it. It takes just over a hour for the train to get from Norwich to Colchester. I had already begun my lunch on the train, although it was only 10.45, so I had to take the rest with me to finish it later.

My first call was at the Castle. Construction of the keep began in 1076, probably under the supervision of Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, who had built the White Tower in London. William the Conqueror ordered a castle to be built at Colchester on the strategic route between East Anglia and London. The building makes extensive use of Roman materials, especially brick, so it is quite different from another Norrman Castle, that at Norwich, which is made of imported freestone.


The collection at the Castle museum has a fine assortment of Roman artefacts. Colchester was the first capital of Britain before Londinium. Colchester was destroyed by Queen Boudicca in her Rebellion and in its rebuilt state it ceded its place to London.

Then it was to the Castle Bookshop, where I spent a couple of hours browsing. I found two 17th century pamphlets which I bought for £6.50. Right at the end of my stay I came across a little volume of songs of 1820 The Music Cabinet which cost me £24. I called at the George for a drink of Fosters. In the afternoon I found another two bookshops, the Trinity Street one was particularly good with lots of lovely books. I got a First Edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music. I walked past the Goat and Boot to the Book Exchange where I bought a biography of John Barbirolli for 75p.

On the way back to the station I got caught in a hail storm and got wet. I had to wait about 50 minutes for the train but at least I had plenty of books to read in the waiting room! Luckily the train was made up of old coaching stock, so I had a nice comfy compartment to snuggle down in. Just as I had left an EDP on the way down, someone had left a Telegraph at Colchester, so I had that to read as we sped homewards. The purchaser of the paper had begun (but not finished) the crossword.

This was before the line from Ipswich was electrified, so my train was diesel hauled.

My sister met the train and took me home; someone had hit a cock pheasant on the road, so we stopped and picked it up. This will make us a pleasant meal for us later. We had game soup for supper and in the evening I lit the fire. We watched Hinge and Brackett on the TV.






Boadicea (as she was known in the 19th century), London, the Embankment.

The Iceni tribe lived in the area that is now called East Anglia – Norfolk, Suffolk and part of Cambridgeshire. Before the Romans came to conquer the island of Britain (they never completed the task and left Scotland largely alone) the Iceni had a distinctive coinage with a very unRoman decoration of animals and human faces. Nonetheless, from about 25 AD, the coins had Latin alphabetic inscriptions on them from around 25 AD.  Coins were not used for most type of exchange, which still relied on barter, but the development of a coinage proves the Iceni had an advanced economy, long before Roman rule. The coinage lasted from the middle of the 1st century BC until the Boudican Rebellion. It is instructive to compare this early adoption of a coinage with that in Scotland, where the first coin wasn’t minted until the 12th century, over a thousand years later. 

Our main literary source for revolt of queen Boudicca comes from the Roman historian Tacitus who lived from c 56 AD until about the year 117. (Tacitus also gives us an early account of the death of Christ.) Another historian Cassius Dio (c 155-c 235) writes of Boudicca too; he got some of the story from Tacitus but tells us some independent fact, such as that the queen was very tall and always wore a tunic of many colours and a gold necklace. She was a striking and clever leader; the Romans were thoroughly ashamed that a woman nearly brought them to their knees.

The famous queen of the Iceni tribe lived before East Anglia even existed – this name came about when the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the area some four hundred years later. As far as the Romans were concerned Boudicca was not a queen. Her husband Prasutagus had  been a powerful ruler of the Iceni people who had allied his tribe with the Roman conquerors. All was fine while the king of the Iceni still lived, but upon his death in 60 AD he had no male heir. Prasutagus had intended his daughters to inherit his wealth while leaving the political control of his kingdom to the Roman Emperor. The Romans took advantage of this fact to take over total control of the province. Instead of enjoying their inheritance, the daughters were raped by the Romans’ slaves and Boudicca herself was savagely beaten. Senior members of the Iceni court were themselves enslaved. Quite why the Iceni were treated in such a disgraceful manner is unclear from the account of Tacitus, although he expresses some sympathy with the plight of the Iceni. Certainly he says the treatment of the Iceni came initially not so much from those around the Governor from the common Roman soldiers and veterans; “these men treated the Britons with cruelty and oppression” [Tacitus]. Dio gives us a piece of information that does implicate the Government more closely, involving the recalling of loans to the Iceni, but why this followed the death of Prasutagus is obscure.

Having treated the queen so badly it was remarkable that she was then allowed to organise her response. We may imagine her plotting in the regional centre of the Iceni tribe at Caistor St Edmunds. This was before the Romans had established at the camp known as Venta Icenorum. The Celtic tribe the Trinobantes were also incensed at the treatment meted out to the Iceni and joined them in rebelling against the Romans.

Boudicca led a revolt against the Roman overlords who had conquered Britain almost twenty years earlier. While the Roman commander was away in Wales she sacked Camulodunum (Colchester); at the time this was the capital of Britain ‘(i.e. before Londinium). It was already a flourishing city of a kind unknown to the Celtic tribes. The defenceless city had no fortifications and even the centurions were absent. The falling upon the hated Romans seemed so simple says Tacitus; residents of Colchester were slaughtered by the Britons. There was a temple to Emperor Claudius who had ordered the conquest of Britain. ” In the eye of the Britons it seemed the citadel of eternal slavery.” The temple was defended but not the town as a whole. It held out against the Celts for two days but then fell to Boudicca’s vengeful horde. Nobody was left alive, and all were subjected to the most appalling tortures. A similar fate befell Verulamium (later to be known as St Albans after the first Christian saint in Britain). The Britons then continued to ravage the east of the country.

Paulinus, the Roman General, returned from Wales were he had been engaged on extending Roman rule. In spite of facing overwhelming odds the better discipline and equipment of the Roman soldiers won the day. Boudicca died during of just after the battle, either by her own hand or as a casualty of war. Any remaining independence that the Iceni might have enjoyed was snuffed out.







The River Nar Navigation was completed in 1759; however, nearly seven hundred years before that the river must have been used to drag barges up stream, to convey the stone needed to build the Castle and the Priory at Castle Acre on the river. This was mostly Barnack Rag stone from the quarry in Lincolnshire. This would have been brought down the river Nene, across the Wash and up the Great Ouse to the confluence with the river Nar. Downstream this rivers has changed its channel greatly over the years, but above Narborough its course has been fairly stable. The nearby Blackborough Priory might have used the river too, but it is constructed of carstone which is available locally; this could have been brought there by ox cart and would not have required transport by water. The upper reaches of the Navigation fell by the wayside in the 19th century; the journey up to West Acre was abandoned in the early part of the century, and the locks were progressively taken out of use. This left Narborough as the centre of trade on the Nar. The wharf there was closed in 1884 when the ‘Old’ Nar tidal sluice was built. This ended all but short length of river which remained tidal, and was used to moor fishing boats which went out into the Wash.

Castle Acre Priory east end of the chancel. A lot of non-native stone was needed for the building of the Priory.

The Roman Road from Caister going west towards Denver crossed Peddars Way at Castle Acre, so it was an important stop from Roman times, and perhaps since long before that. When the river basin at West Acre was excavated the Nar would transport lighters of ten tons burden up and down stream from there. The upper five miles of the Navigation had stanches (primitive structures that held the water back) approximately every half mile, to produce sufficient draught. It is doubtful if these lighters ever penetrated above West Acre, although the smaller craft of 500 years before must have been used to carry the stone to the building projects at Castle Acre. Narborough was always the principal place the river Nar Navigation served; there was a wharf there that carried goods from the surrounding area to Kings Lynn. The Nar flows into the Great Ouse just south of Kings Lynn.

The opening of the Lynn and Dereham Railway (which had a station at Narborough) in 1846 end the importance of the River Nar Navigation almost at a stroke. Although at first the railway only ran from Lynn to Narborough – the extension to Swaffham came a year later – it could carry all the goods that formerly had to use the waterway. Not only was this much simpler than using horses to haul lighters against the flow of the river, it was much quicker too. It may even have been cheaper. It is strange (in retrospect) that the Navigation survived for another forty years. It must have been centuries of tradition that kept these lighters going up the river Nar!







The Tas at Markshall

This a little river, but I know it well; the river begins at Tasburgh where a number of tributaries come together. It flows north through Newton Flotman where it crosses under the A 140 to Ipswich. Here it used to power Saxlingham mill, a large feed producer for the animal farming industry. A mile or two further downstream it fords the road where Shotesham mill used to be. At Stoke Holy Cross it flows under another mill, now a restaurant. At Markshall it is crossed by another road bridge before it flows under the Norwich Southern Bypass. By the Lakenham Cock it flows parallel to (and only a few feet away from) the river Yare, before diverging again and going under what was once the main Norwich to Lowestoft road in Trowse. Finally in joins the Yare a few hundred yards before that river joins the river Wensum.

Tasburgh gives the river its name and from here it flows to Saxlingham Thorpe, where the large mill was once a powered by water from the river Tas. You may know it better as Newton Flotman mill. Saxlingham Thorpe is the smallest of two adjoining Saxlingham villages – the other one is Saxlingham Nethergate; it has a tiny population although besides a mill it does include a pub, also adjacent to the river. It is called the Mill Inn, before 2001 known as the West End. Saxlingham Thorpe lost its church in the 17th century, by which time it was already almost a deserted village.

The most notable place on the river Tas is undoubtedly Caistor St Edmund. As Venta Icenorum this was the Roman local capital. Not having been developed in the ensuing centuries it retains its impressive walls, and has been (and remains) a great source of archaeological finds. The church of St Edmund actually stands within the Roman walls.

Caistor Camp, north wall, 2009.

The river continues under the Southern Bypass. Today it is a minor waterway, but centuries ago, when its confluence with the river Yare was much nearer to Caistor St Edmund, it was a considerably broader river, at least as far as the Roman town. The depression of the land that was caused by the last ice age has slowly been reversed over time; although this been only by a few centimeters a century, nevertheless this has had its effect of making the river less important. A major centre of communication like Venta Icenorum need access to a navigable river.

In the Saxon period the river gave access to the Danish invaders, who were on their way to murder King Edmund. Not many people realize this, but the town was referred to by the monk who wrote down the story of St Edmund’s martyrdom; not by name as Castre (the contemporary spelling of Caistor), but as the civitas or regional capital of the area. Ever since the sack of the town and the subsequent death of the king it has been known as Caistor St Edmund, to honour the important part it played.

As the river was getting smaller the size of ships was getting larger; the town was transferred to another settlement, to be known as Norwich. Caistor withered away and became just a little village on the river Tas; its great days lie in the past.

Joseph Mason





GENDER has been a concept for as long as civilisation itself. It may have changed its application in recent years, but that does not mean it is a new idea. There is nothing recent about it, as those who speak French are well aware. In French there may be only two genders, masculine and feminine, but there are three in Latin, which adds neuter to the other two. In some languages you can add common gender, although this obviously includes masculine and feminine as a single gender. Other gender categories are animate and inanimate, countable and uncountable, and human versus everything else. Some languages treat singular and plural as separate genders, but this distinctions is in a different grammatical category in the Indo-European languages.  Certain African languages have up to twenty genders, but these are completely arbitrary in application and have no relation to any physical characteristics the words may represent.

Here I am speaking only of gender as it relates to grammar, and even in this respect the maximum number is about a score, and only in one or two African languages. The point is that there are certainly more than two genders, so when people rail against the modern proliferation of genders and say ‘there are only two genders’ they are simply wrong. But to have up to seventy-two genders in respect of just humanity is plainly ridiculous. I cannot believe I am even having to say this, but I will repeat it; no sane person would try to justify the claim that there are more than a handful of genders.

Let me get one thing straight before I continue; gender is not the same thing as sex. Sex and gender are obviously related, but these terms are more or less universally confused. People are either male or female –  this is do to with chromosomes. Females have two X chromosomes in their cells, while males have one X and one Y chromosome. Inheriting too many or not enough copies of sex chromosomes can lead to serious health problems but they still produce either males or females. For example, females who have extra copies of the X chromosome are usually taller than average and some are mentally retarded. Males with more than one X chromosome are also characterized by taller stature than normal and, often, impaired fertility. Another syndrome is caused by this imbalance in the number of sex chromosomes; women who have only one X chromosome are very short, usually do not undergo puberty, and some may have kidney or heart problems.

Earlier I stated that there were more than two genders among people; masculine and feminine we all accept, but what about the others? There are a few asexual individuals who correspond to the grammatical gender of neuter. I accept the theoretical possibility of ‘gender fluid’ people though I would be surprised actually to meet any. The concept of non binary gender seems to be same thing as gender fluid. The point is that there are more than two genders, but only five at the most. Also masculine and feminine represent the overwhelming majority of people, and these genders are similarly distributed among males and females as you would expect.

I must return to the confusion between sex and gender; you can be a sexual man but an effeminate one, in which case you could plausibly claim to be feminine. Similarly a butch woman might claim masculinity in gender while remaining a biological female. People seem to have trouble getting their heads around this fairly simple distinction between sex and gender. When we discuss the ‘gender pay gap’ there should be four or five categories to consider, and even if you are dubious about a couple of those there are at least three; but of course there are only two genders in the gender pay gap. What these ignorant people really mean to say is the ‘sexual pay gap’, but that sounds too rude sowe say gender pay gap instead.




Britannia; a coin of Antononius Pius (138-161) 

You think that we first joined Europe in 1973? Think again. You are out by about two thousand years. Britain was invaded by the troops of the Roman Emperor Claudius in AD 43. Until then we really had been separated from Europe, although the Continent already exerted a strong influence on the offshore island. For example, the advanced technical development of the coinage of the Iceni tribe must have had European assistance in its production. The country was soon incorporated into the Empire of Rome, which stretched across all of Southern Europe and into North Africa and the Middle East. The Pax Romana (the Roman Peace) lasted for hundreds of years, putting the most recent attempt to develop a European Union into the shade. (It has taken us less than fifty years to decide we do not like the experiment.) Latin was the common language of the Western Empire; these were years that saw the creation of a road network that remains the basis of our communications even today.  The towns that still dominate the landscape –  places like Colchester, York, Chester and (above all) Londinium – were first established by the Romans; before that Britain had been almost entirely a rural country. The settlement that formed the centre of the Iceni tribe at Caistor near Norwich is one of the very rare exceptions to this rule. This was later developed into the Roman regional capital Venta Icenorum, and remains as a uniquely preserved reminder of governance in this distant period in history. Eventually the Roman Empire in Europe unravelled, and invaders from Northern Europe took over the island.

A thousand years after the rebellion of Boudicca (the last indigenous attempt to thwart the Romans) another European power took the southern part of Britain again into the European orbit. This part of Britain was by then known as England after one of the races that had invaded this corner of the Roman Empire. This time it was not Rome but Normandy that imposed its will on the land. With the Normans it was not towns and villas that the invaders left behind, but castles and abbeys. The architecture of the Romans has vanished, but many of the Normans’ heavy stone buildings survive. Although not so widespread or unitary in structure as the Roman Empire, the Norman influence extended to Seville in Spain, Malta, Sicily, the Canaries and North Africa.

After this second attempt to set up a united European entity splintered into many competing lands, Britain remained largely detached from most subsequent attempts to re-establish the organisation of a European empire. The time it was known as the Holy Roman Empire, and although it had long before lost any real power, this was only formally abolished by Napoleon.

One way of uniting England and the Continent that might have succeeded was through marriage rather than conquest. Had the union of Philip II of Spain and Mary Tudor produced a male heir the whole future course of Europe would have been very different. Historians don’t work in what might have been, but it is worth considering how England would have been drawn into the orbit of Spain, which was then in a far stronger position than England. The European Catholic Church would have returned to this country; the Puritan settlements in North America would not have happened. The Spanish king was already dominant in the Netherlands and much of Italy, and also had a worldwide empire of colonies to exploit. With the addition of England the creation of a Spanish ruled Europe would have been unstoppable; but as you are well aware, following his English wife’s death, Philip II’s attempted conquest of England by sending an Armada ended in disaster for him, and a new beginning for this country.

During the first half of the 17th century the continent of Europe was torn apart on religious grounds by the Thirty Years War. The religious conflict extended to England too, as we were racked by Civil War. First Oliver Cromwell and then James II tried to pull the country in opposite directions, while any thought of uniting the continent seemed utterly futile. The marriage of the Dutch King William to the English Princess (later Queen Mary II) was another childless attempt to produce an heir, so the union of the two Protestant crowns was only temporary. By the 18th century the strength of Britain made the union with the Electors of Hanover a one-sided affair and, in spite of this connection, the British turned their backs on Europe and looked to overseas conquest instead.

Following the French Revolution Napoleon made another attempt at creating a European Empire, with himself at its head. It was only the opposition of Great Britain (with some help from Russia) that prevented this empire from becoming permanent. Invasion from across the Channel became a real possibility. The loss of most of our North American colonies (finally acknowledged in 1783) and the major distraction of the Napoleonic War brought our attention back to Europe, but this was only temporary. Another British Empire, this time including India, Africa and Australia, again concentrated our gaze across the world and away from our own backdoor.

The creation of a united Germany in 1871 brought a major new player into the Balance of Power in Europe.  Even before its formal creation, Germany’s initial bid to push back the power of France ended in success in the treaty that ended the Franco-Prussian War. The German Army’s mobilisation in 1914 seemed set to establish that country’s hegemony in Europe. A united opposition defeated this German effort to rule Europe, but within a generation the country had  re-emerged to try again. The whole of Europe would have fallen under Hitler’s spell had it not been for the resolute opposition of Britain, which stood alone against the power of the Nazis in 1940. Had we given in after the Dunkirk fiasco the whole might of Germany  would then have been directed against the Soviet Union, and they too would have fallen to the Nazi onslaught.

It is nasty picture, and it is no wonder that following WW2 the principal countries of Western Europe made the attempt to create a different kind of union, one based on consent rather than conquest. In spite of our technical victory in the Second World War, our overseas empire and influence was completely destroyed by the cost of Total War in Europe. It took only three years for India to be granted Independence, followed by the disaster of Suez and our divestment of our colonies in Africa.  With no Empire to look to, it was inevitable that our thoughts should turn again to Europe. However, the inclusion of Great Britain in this growing superpower of the Common Market was problematic from the start. Unlike the rest of Europe, which was just emerging from years of German domination, the UK had not been occupied for nearly a millennium. To put ourselves voluntarily under the yoke of Brussels was irksome to say the least; even those politicians who were basically in favour of the EU were reluctant to follow most of Europe into the common currency; nor did we join the open borders policy of Schengen.

While Europe was divided between the European Community to the West and the Communist Bloc to the East, the economies of the EC could co-exist without any becoming overly dominant. The reunification of Germany, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, raised the spectre of the German nation finally establishing that overwhelming power that it had been moving towards for 150 years.  In the popular mind it is the immigration from Eastern Europe that has driven Brexit, but we and the rest of Europe have never been threatened by Poland. How far has it been the growth of Germany that has pushed us out of Europe? From a feeling of European unity that was evident in this country in 1975, we have lost confidence in the direction in which Europe is taking us. Whether we have the unity of purpose to re-establish ourselves as an independent nation is a matter of debate. If history tells us anything, it is to expect the unexpected; nobody expected the result of the Referendum for one thing. These are exciting, if rather disconcerting times; I for one anticipate great changes in the future. Whether they will be for the better or worse remains to be seen, but whatever happens, our complicated relationship with Europe will continue.





St Alban is Britain’s protomartyr, that is the first Christian in Britain to be killed because of his faith. The period was around 270 AD, and at the time the whole of the Roman Empire worshipped pagan gods. Although Christian missionaries were operating throughout the Empire, they were routinely persecuted. Several of the early popes were martyred. This persecution was ended in 313 by the order of the Emperor Constantine, and thereafter he progressively introduced the Christian religion into the Roman Empire. He was himself baptised shortly before his death in 337.

What made this Roman Emperor so well disposed towards the new faith? It was the influence of his mother Helena. Helena must have been very attractive as a young woman, because, in spite of her lowly birth (by later report she was a stable-maid), she became enamoured of a senior Roman officer, who became Emperor in 293. It is doubtful that they were formally married, but that so humble a woman should have achieved the position of being mother to his successor is remarkable enough. That she was also a member of that persecuted minority, a Christian, was hugely significant. The fact that his consort was a Christian had little or no effect on her husband, who allowed the persecution of her coreligionists to continue, but with her son things were different. When his father died in 306 he was serving in Britain, together with son Constantine, who was acclaimed Emperor in succession to his father by the legions in York. It is immensely satisfying that such an epoch-making occurrence should have happened in this country.

In his early years his hands were tied by having to share power with two other emperors, but once he had defeated his rival in 312 he became sole Emperor. He was able to introduce his toleration of Christianity.

Roman glassware (found in Colchester).

Having given you some of the historical context of the death of St Alban, let me fill you in on some of the less contentious details of the story. (I will omit the more miraculous parts which inevitably crept into the story.) A Christian priest was being hunted down in Britain, and on his travels he came across Alban, who was living in Verulamium (now St Albans), to the north-west of London. Although not at that time a believer, Alban was well disposed to fugitives from persecution, and took the priest into his house. Being impressed by the sanctity of the man Alban became a convert. On hearing that a Christian priest was in hiding with Alban, the local magistrate sent a party of soldiers to arrest the priest. Alban dressed himself in the priest’s cloak and presented himself in his place. On discovering that Alban had enabled the priest to escape, the court imposed the same penalty on Alban that had been intended for the priest. He was whipped, but on refusing to indulge in a pagan sacrifice he was taken outside to be beheaded.

Within a few years the whole environment of the Empire changed, and a shrine to St Alban was established at Verulamium once Christianity emerged from the shadows. This first period of St Alban’s veneration was interrupted by the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons who destroyed the shrine in 586. Once the newcomers were themselves converted, a church was built near the place of his martyrdom. This is referred to in the History by Bede, from which book I take the story of St Alban. Bede died in 735 and King Offa II of Mercia founded an abbey in St Albans in 793. Less than a hundred years later the shrine was again destroyed by the pagan Danish invaders. It re-emerged when the Danes were pushed back from the London area. The Abbey’s high point came with the Norman Conquest, but hundreds of years of decay and destruction began even before dissolution of the monasteries, and continued up until the 19th century. Major repairs were then carried out to the Abbey, and the Bishopric of St Albans were created in 1877. Its constituent parts, Essex and Hertfordshire, were previously in the Diocese of Rochester south of the Thames; Essex was split off when the Diocese of Chelmsford was created in 1914.

So there you have the story in short of who St Alban was.  Considering the importance of Alban in the story of the Church in Britain, the long history of the settlement on the river Ver has been a chequered one. [Don’t forget to learn more about another local martyr, St Edmund. My book on this King of East Anglia will be published on April 19th at Jarrold’s shop in Norwich. Arrive at the Book Department from 6 p.m. for the presentation at 6.30: attendance and refreshments will be free. Enquire may be made at Jarrolds on 01603 660661.]






 Forts of the Saxon Shore



These are better known as the Forts of the Saxon Shore. This term we derive from the Notitia Digitatum, a late 4th century document, which give us the Latin version. It lists them, but some Roman forts existed along the coast of East Anglia that do not appear in this document although they obviously made up the Roman defensive system. The forts omitted from this list include Caister-on-Sea and Walton Castle, the latter was near Felixstowe but now lost to the sea.

Although some Roman shore forts existed to the north of East Anglia (at Scarborough for instance), the most northerly of those listed in the Notitia was at Brancaster in North West Norfolk. Although the foundations of the fort there have recently been excavated, nothing now remains to be seen above ground level. This was not true three hundred years ago when the fort stood tall, but the landowner in the eighteenth century thought these old ruins spoilt the view, and he demolished them. The structure was on the usual square Roman plan, and was built of the local carstone.

It is interesting to see why these forts were built where they were. Obviously Brancaster was intended to protect the entrance to the Wash. The necessary adjunct to the shore based fort was  a fleet of warships to venture out, to deter raiders from Northern Europe. Brancaster harbour made a safe anchorage for these vessels. Also the cavalry from the fort would  have been able to ride out along the coast road to Holme and beyond to discourage these raiders from landing. South of that the marshy nature of the Wash coastline did not make ideal territory for possible invasion. The river Great Ouse certainly gave access deep into the heart of the country, and by defending the Wash it was hoped to prevent foreign ships from entering. Brancaster fort would have been directly connected to the Roman road network both around the coast and inland. Peddars Way was a major route which terminated at Holme-next-the-Sea .

Going south round the coast the next fort was at Caister, that lay on the opposite bank of the river Yare to Burgh Castle. Incidentally the name  Yare (or Gare) was used for the river by the Romans, as we can tell from the Latin word for Burgh Castle, Gariannonum. Caister would have been a fortified town, but Gariannonum on the south bank of the river was the main fort; there was no town associated with this southern fortThe accompanying fleet would have been moored along the estuary that now forms Breydon Water.

Brancaster was the first fort to be built in East Anglia, about the year 230. Bradwell-on-Sea was another early fort, probably to defend Camulodum (Colchester), the early capital of Roman Britain, although by then this had moved to Londinium. The first garrison at Brancaster may have been from Aquitane, but during the latter decades of Roman occupation it was held by the Dalmatian Cavalry.  Burgh Castle may also have been held by Dalmatians. This use of troops from across the Empire gave a sense of unity; certainly once they were withdrawn the local militia were quite inadequate for the task of defending the country.

Only very minor waterways like the rivers Stiffkey and Glaven ran out to sea between the Great Ouse and the Yare and did not merit a naval present or fort; nor apparently did the river Alde in Suffolk. The Deben, Orwell and Stour all flow into the North Sea within a few miles of each other; any of these could have held a Roman fleet. The estuary of the Deben was the nearest to the Roman garrison at Walton Castle, and therefore probably was where it was based.

Further south in Essex the fort at Bradwell-on-Sea defended the rivers Colne and Blackwater, and that at Reculver defended the Thames. There were other forts in Kent and two to guard Southampton Water, one on the Isle of Wight. There was a similar series of forts down the coast of Gaul from Calais to Nantes on the river Loire. In Britain these placers were settled by the invading Anglo-Saxons once the Roman legions had been withdrawn. The dire results of invasion may be seen in a recent DNA survey which shows that East Anglian bloodlines are still predominantly Anglo-Saxon; Romano-British Celtic blood is absent. Historians at one time used to suggest that the take-over was relatively peaceful, but modern genetic research suggests this was not so. Hundreds of  years later the Viking raiders sailed with impunity along the Saxon shore, mirroring the invasion of the of their Germanic predecessors four centuries earlier. In spite of leaving great changes in the history a geographical divisions of the country, and even changes to its language, the numbers of the Vikings were too small to affect the overwhelming Anglo-Saxon nature of the population.





A penny showing Britannia

A 1912 penny 

Pounds shillings and pence, or £.s.d. as it was written, must be a foreign language to many of those alive today, but it was the medium of exchange I grew up with. Until I was an adult – and by that I mean a 21-year-old, not an 18-year-old teenager – it was the only money I knew.  Why was a penny abbreviated to the letter ‘d’?  It all goes back to Roman times; the Latin word for penny was denarius. Similarly the ‘L’ in £.s.d. came from the word libra for a pound and the ‘s’ stands not for the word shilling as you might think, but for the Latin solidus. I said it was a foreign language, and this was literally true. The earliest reference to L.s.d. dates back to 1387 in England, according to the Oxford Dictionary, although the ‘£’ symbol with its horizontal line first appears in the early 17th century. At least the ‘£’ symbol still remains in use (if the s.d. went nearly 50 years ago) and has not been replaced by the Euro. At one time  in the 1990s the pound appeared to be doomed.

The groat (worth four pence) was a coin that had last been minted in 1856, and had not been extensively circulated after 1800. The crown (worth five shillings) only appeared in special issues to commemorate national events in the 20th century, although half-a-crown (two shillings and sixpence or 2/6) was still a common coin until 1971. The farthing remained legal tender until 1961, by which time it must have cost much more to produce than the coins were worth. By the end so few were minted that they seldom turned up in your change; yet I remember them well enough, with the symbolic Jenny wren on the tail side. There were nearly a thousand of these little coins to a pound. You couldn’t actually buy anything for a farthing in my lifetime, but eleven pence three farthings was a popular price for a loaf of bread. I have heard of a few pins being offered as change by haberdashers because farthings were so scarce, but normally you just ignored the farthing change and gave a shilling instead. Ha’penny chews on the other hand could still be purchased at the sweetshop until the ha’penny itself disappeared in 1969. A guinea was not a coin, it was a sum of money, and in theory it still exists as £.1.05p – one pound and one shilling. It was, by the 1960s, only used for selling racehorses. The 5% difference was the auctioneer’s commission – a very reasonable amount by modern standards.

It was a fundamentally different and indeed difficult system, centred on 12 pennies making a shilling. That was what we call ‘base 12’ in maths, divisible by four, three and two; ‘base 10’ is only divisible by two and five. Once you moved up to shillings it did change to a ‘base 10’ (or was it a base 20?) system, with 20 shillings making a pound. To be logical 12 shillings should have made a pound, but logic had little to do with it; it just evolved over the centuries. As I have intimated, it was a complex system. There were three columns to your money calculations, and the pence column could include the fractions of a quarter, a half, and three-quarters. What was really complicated was the decimalisation of £.s.d. money. Why was it a part of everyone’s maths syllabus until the introduction of decimal currency made it redundant? I can only state that it was used to price shares on the London stock exchange, although this hardly seems a good reason to have inflicted this diabolical system on every Tom Dick and Harriet in the classroom.

The pre-decimal coinage had been around for such a long time that nick-names existed which were universally understood by the public. A nicker or quid was a pound and the term ten bob referred to the ten shilling note after it was introduced in 1928. A bob was a shilling and a tanner was sixpence. The way a sum of money was expressed was complicated; take the amount of ‘one shilling and sixpence’. This was hardly ever said in full, and it was never ‘a bob and a tanner’ either, although phrase ‘one and a tanner’ was occasionally used. No sum over eleven pence was ever expressed in pence except for eighteen pence; but when written it was as 1/6d, not 18d. Why it was all so involved is a mystery, like so many other oddities of ‘old money’.

The first steps towards the introduction of a British decimal coinage were taken in 1847 with the introduction by Parliament of the florin or two-shilling piece, which later evolved into the 10p coin. To begin with this was of the same weight as the two-shilling piece, although now its size has been reduced. It took over 100 years for the process to be completed; we finally went decimal on 15 February 1971. I remember clearly getting on the bus that morning; everybody was very aware of their change as they paid the driver. It was our first opportunity to use the new coins which we had been careful to obtain in the preceding weeks. Although the government claimed that decimalisation would do nothing to increase inflation it clearly did. All small value items more than doubled in price overnight. A box of matches for example went from 1d to 1p, nearly 2½ times as much. It is true that there were half new penny coins when decimalisation was first introduced, and the price could in theory have been increased by a smaller amount to ½p, but this didn’t happen.

Another disturbing aspect of the new coinage was the disappearance of the word ‘penny’ from the vocabulary. ‘Penny’ in the singular, or even ‘pennies’ in the plural were not mentioned after Valentines Day 1971; everything was expressed in New Pence, with all the stress on the word new. Because even then there was little available that cost as little as a penny the word was ignored. If you did come across something that was really cheap (like a box of matches) you were told “That will be one New Pence please”. The word ‘new’ was officially dropped from words ‘New Pence’ in the early 1980s, but people would no doubt still be charging you “one pence” if anything remained on sale for less than a pound (even jumble sales seem to price things at a minimum of £1). This smallest coin may still have the word ‘Penny’ inscribed on it, but if anyone ever read the word it would probably puzzle them; whatever could the word ‘Penny” signify? I have masses of small change in the modern ‘p’ denominations, which is virtually useless today. I can only use it when I go to the amusement arcade, where I can still insert a ‘one pence’ coin in a gambling slot machine.





There are Roman towns in East Anglia whose sites are known, and in many cases their names are known as well. With Caister-on-Sea and Burgh Castle there is some discussion about which of these forts was called Gariannonum, but it was certainly one of the two; where Sitomagus is concerned however we have the name of the place without having a clue where in Suffolk it was located.

This Roman town was perhaps, after Venta Icenorum (Caistor St Edmunds), the major settlement in what was later to be known as East Anglia. Unlike Caistor, however, where the walls are still standing tall for anyone to see, nobody knows exactly where Sitomagus was. From the Antonine Itinerary we know that it was south of Caistor and north of Coddenham (Combretovium), and slightly nearer to the latter. The Antonine Itinerary was a third century document giving details of the network of major highways in the Roman Empire. The distances are given, but the careless copying of the document over the centuries makes them of dubious validity; the original Antonine Itinerary has been destroyed long ago. Another document giving the site of Sitomagus is equally unreliable, and of course the two do not agree.

A number of sites have been suggested for the location of Sitomagus. In the book Memorials of Old Norfolk (edited by H. Astley), published over a hundred years ago, Dunwich was advanced as a possible location, only to be rejected by the author in favour of Thetford. Thetford was originally proposed as Sitomagus by the antiquarian William Camden (1551-1623) in his tome Britannia. Recent researchers have dismissed Thetford as the location, but some still put Dunwich forward as a possibility. Since the major part of the town of Dunwich now lies a mile out to sea, archaeological investigation is almost impossible. Even if it were plausible to explore underwater, the waves would have reduced any artifacts to an almost meaningless jumble. However, most modern historians think Dunwich an unlikely choice. Their reasons centre on the meaning of the last syllables of the name ‘Sitomagus’, which denotes a market. A coastal position is an unlikely place for a major market, which ideally would draw in produce from all points of the compass; with sea occupying so much of the surrounding geography, the number of customers as well as suppliers would be drastically reduced. The same objection would seem to rule out the coastal town of Southwold (which has also been suggested as the site of Sitomagus). At least with Thetford no longer a candidate, we can be fairly sure it was in East Suffolk.

Of the other towns in this part of Suffolk, Saxmundham would just about fit the vague directions we have, but Stowmarket would seem to be too far west. Both these places have at one time or another been suggested as sites for Sitomagus. Although it is shared by no-one else, my own favourite location for Sitomagus was Stradbroke; this town would fit the distances as they have come down to us, but it does not seem to have had a Roman past; at least no archaeology has been uncovered from the period.

Among Suffolk archaeologists the favourite location for Sitomagus is currently the tiny spot in Suffolk known as East Green. Today this is much less than a village or even hamlet, being little more than a farmhouse and a level crossing on the East Suffolk railway. It is true there is Roman archaeology in the area, but other places in Suffolk may also lay claim to such remains. There is at present nothing there to suggest a large town.

Although about half a dozen villas have been identified in Suffolk, and there is evidence of extensive occupation round Mildenhall (including a villa), nothing of Roman date remains visible above the ground anywhere in Suffolk as far as I am aware. There is certainly nothing to compare with Burgh Castle (no longer part of Suffolk since 1974) or Caistor St Edmund, nor even with what remains at Caister-on-Sea, where the ruins of the fort have been exposed in an archaeological dig in the 1950s. Nothing now remains visible at Brancaster, but this Fort of the Saxon Shore was only demolished in the 18th century by the local landowner who wanted to ‘improve’ the view!

How a Roman dinner table might have looked.

How a Roman dinner table might have looked. (Colchester Museum)

So Sitomagus is a vanished town. If a large Roman town were to be discovered in East Suffolk, the likelihood of this having been the place would be strong, but we could never be really sure. There would always be the nagging doubt that an even larger town remained to be discovered.