From the 22nd of January untill the 13th of March this year, the Discovery Centre, in Winchester, hosted a very visual, little exhibition in their gallery about the roman times in Britain, called: “The Forgotten Emperor: Battles, Betrayal and Murder in Roman Britain”. I went up the corridor and took a look. It was fascinating. The whole story was explained on comic-book format, which I think it was brilliant. But that made me realised about one thing, I did know absolutely nothing about the roman and pre-roman history of Winchester…Me! A potential historian that has done local history before! It just sounded ridiculous in my head. Therefore, I decided to do some research, and this is what I am going to talk about today: a brief summary of the pre-Roman and Roman history of King Alfred’s City.
Pre-historical Winchester: Iron Age Settlement & Before
Winchester’s wonderful geographical location, in a valley, surrounded by hills, has been attracting settlers since Neolithic times. The settlers probably established themselves at the east, (nowadays the area of Winnal), at the south, (Twyford Down) and around the west hill . Later on, in the Iron Age, the population seems to have move more towards the southerner part of the city. The archaeological evidences point us to the settlement in St. Catherine’s Hill, as well as the area of Oram’s arbour. The location seems ideal: a nice curved hill nearby the river Itchen, fertile land…What else did the people from this age could desire?
Unfortunately, we do not know much more about this period, but we can be sure of one thing. The community that got formed around Winchester was prosper, and this probably was what attracted the later Roman colonists.
The Romans in ‘Venta Belgarum’
Barbara Carpenter-Turner, famous local historian in the county of Hampshire stated in her study that “no one knows when or how the romans first came to Winchester”. On the other hand, Tom Beaumont James supports the idea, based on evidences (archaeological sources I suppose) that they might have arrived to the locality around 50 A.D, occupying first the west bank of the river and the Tufa island. Whenever this happened, the city grew and grew.B ased on what the archaeology from cemeteries tells us, the size of the city would have been of 3-4000 people in the 2nd century AD. In the end, Venta Belgarum become an important market place and administrative centre, as well as a meeting point for people of different cultures and back grounds: romans, britons, and possibly early Saxons. There should have been a forum, several shops and a basilica. It is also known that the city acquired the status of ‘civitas’, presumably after the death of Cogidubnus, who seems like to have been the ruler of the region.
There is an interesting cultural issue I would like to discuss about the roman town. It seems likely that a considerable proportion of the population remained pagan. Some burials suggest that the celtic practices were still in use: there have been found several cases of cremation . I do believe that it is likely that both cultures co-existed at the same time. It is well-known that the romans found difficulties to subjugate many provinces with celtic background, like the Gauls, or the Cantabros, in the north of Spain. So it doesn’t sound that shocking the fact that in the area of the Lower Brook Street, in Winchester, there has been found a figure of what seems to be Epona, c.100 AD . Perhaps there was a temple nearby, whether it was pagan, roman, or roman-celtic at the same time, we would never be certain. Nonetheless, the mosaics found in late 19th and mid-20th century, in St.Clements and the Brooks, respectively , demonstrate that in any case there was a Roman culture and population settled in here.
This issue of the identity of city’s population and the culture clash has made some people believe that Winchester might have been, in fact Camelot , and that Arthur was a local ruler trying to make some opposition against the romans, hence the remaining paganism. I guess that having that wonderful Round Table in our Great Hall does not help to drag them away from their imaginative believes. Although, who knows, perhaps it we own something of the Arthurian legends to our lovely, cosy city.
Either if you are suspicious of the ‘Romannitas’ status of ‘Venta Belgarum’, or a true-believer of the Roman power in this location in the south of Britain, I think we all agree that this was the moment when the importance of the settlement begins.
As we will see in future updates, the city would go through several stages, some of them better, some of them worse, but I am quite sure that this was one of the key moments in its history.
Before I finish, I would like to invite you to see the already mentioned exhibition (if you can track wherever it is now), and, also, to visit the City Museum to contemplate some of the remaining that have been recovered. And also, here there is a link to some sources that mention the place of ‘Venta Belgarum’:
This is the link to the city museum:
Bibliography & References:
- T.B. James, Winchester: English Heritage Publications (London, 1997) 23
- B. Carpenter-Turner, Winchester (Southampton, 1980) 5
- T.B. James, Winchester: English Heritage Publications (London, 1997) 30
- T.B. James, Winchester: English Heritage Publications (London, 1997) 32
- B. Carpenter-Turner, Winchester (Southampton, 1980) 4
- T.B. James, Winchester: English Heritage Publications (London, 1997) 31
- P. Salway, A History of Roman Britain (Oxford and New York, 1993) 71
- T.B. James, Winchester: English Heritage Publications (London, 1997) 33-36
- T.B. James, Winchester: English Heritage Publications (London, 1997) 35
- B. Carpenter-Turner, Winchester (Southampton, 1980) 6
- B. Carpenter-Turner, Winchester (Southampton, 1980) 8