Sunday, November 05, 2006

Medieval Road = Roman Roads ?

It can be seen from evidence found today that the majority of the roadways used during the medieval period were based on the legacy of a road network designed and constructed during the period of Roman occupation. The Romans invested time, money and materials in providing a major road network which both strategically divided up the British Isles, and allowed the armies easy access to garrison towns and the administrative centres throughout the country if required.

During the early part of the Saxon period many Roman roads were still in a good enough state of repair for daily use. In fact the major routes throughout the country were still suitable to allow the movement of massive armies and their accompanying baggage trains to cover 200 miles in a week and arrive at the battlefield in good condition. To be able to achieve this type of movement suggests that a major route was available.

It has been estimated that when the Domesday survey was taking place a minimum of 10,000 miles of usable Roman roads were still in existence in one form or another. However, due to a lack of maintenance many bridges and river crossings had become too dangerous to use, eventually causing the roads to deviate from their original routes and for travellers to find other crossing points. New roadways would also have been needed to allow travel to and from the new major medieval towns such as Oxford, Coventry and Plymouth. These new routes would have developed naturally as and when required, they would not have been metalled and would no longer be straight, and direct like the Roman roads but winding to suit the landscape demanded. A multitude of villages also appeared throughout the country which did not lie on the existing road infrastructure. To cater for their requirements new routes would be needed, these would have developed naturally between the villages.

In 1923 C. T. Flower wrote

“Any new roads (in the medieval period) which grew from habitual lines of travel made and ‘maintained’ themselves”

Unlike the metalled Roman roads, these new tracks were not ‘constructed’. The more frequently that these tracks were used the greater impression on the physical landscape they left due to erosion. Hollow way’s and wheelruts would form and become deeper over a period of time. If they became blocked by, say, a large tree falling across their line or they became impassable in wet weather, the travellers had the right to divert from the route and create a new one, even if that meant thay had to trample crops in adjacent fields. Multiple routes also developed where they had to climb a hill or a steep bank, these changing periodically depending on the seasons and weather conditions.

Due to their ‘organic’ nature, little now remains of these medieval routes. The main physical evidence available to us today is from the metalled sections of Roman roads. Today, air photography can be used to illustrate the existence of classic alignment of the straightness of Roman roads still in the landscape and cropmarks can be used in providing more detailed information. A negative cropmark occurs where the hard surface of the metalled roadway remains below the surface and positive cropmarks show the line of the ditches that ran parallel to each side of the road. This information can later be confirmed by map work and field walking.

The lack of physical evidence, means that documents must be used to compare known locations of major town from the Roman era with those from the medieval period and so to find any common routes. This evidence can be found in such documents as maps, place names and travellers records or itineraries
Due to the fragility of maps produced during this period it is not surprising that few examples have survived. Of the one’s that have, the most noted include the following.

• A map found in Robert of Gloucester chronicles (1200–1259) that shows a rough drawing of the outline of Britain divided by the 4 main Roman routes of Watling street, Fosse Way, Icknield street and Ermine Street.

• A map of Britain produced in 1250 by Matthew Paris which was based on an itinerary from Dover to Newcastle passing through various towns. This roughly followed the old Roman Watling Street and shows the towns that would have been encountered on the route.

• The most famous map from the mediaeval period is the Gough map. This map of Britain was produced in C1360 and is thought to have been an official map for government use, possibly by a Royal courier, royal officer or judiciary. The distances shown are thought to be the distances following former Roman roads between the towns that where still in use during the mediaeval period. The total of the distances shown approximate to 3,000 miles, and 40% of which lie along the routes of known Roman roads.

The definitive gazetteer of the whole Roman road system in Britain was published by I. D. Margary in a 2-volume work ‘Roman Roads in Britain’ between 1955 to 1957. He surveyed and devised a system of road numbering, single numbers for important roads, double figures for secondary roads and triple figures for minor roads. By superimposing his findings onto the surviving medieval maps, a fair indication of which Roman roads were still in use during the medieval period can be made.

During the medieval period, the strategic advantage of the principle Roman routes of Watling street, Fosse Way, Icknield street and Ermine Street was soon recognised by the ruling kings. These roads were regarded as being under the king’s special protection and became known as the Kings Highways. Numerous Royal statutes were passed during the next two hundred years which specified their upkeep.

• In 1140 king Stephen ordered that the lord of each manor had to ensure that all the highways passing through their estates had to be kept open at all times.

• In 1278 Roger Mortimer was charged by Edward I to widen all the roads and passes entering Wales to assist with the king’s campaign against the Welsh.

• In 1285 King Edward I ‘Trench Act’ was passed to ensure that any road passing through a wooded area should be kept clear of undergrowth for a distance of at least a 60 foot on each side.

• King Edward I also passed laws ensuring that the principal Roman routes were to be kept clear from sea to sea.

• In 1293 Statute of Winchester ensured that all highways passing from one market town to another had to be cleared of dykes and undergrowth to a minimum of 200 feet on either side of the road (the distance that a crossbow bolt could cover).

The routes taken by the Royal and noble households of the medieval period can be pieced together from clues found in letters and charters that they granted and details found in household accounts at which they stopped. Many of these journeys covered long distances and were mostly connected with administration or judicial work. It has been shown that the majority of these journeys took place in the southern end of Britain, and only ventured to the northern parts as and when required. This split followed roughly the Roman division of ‘Britain Superior’ and ‘Britain Inferior’ were the greater concentration of roads could be found to the south of a line drawn from the Severn to the Wash.

Place name evidence can also give clues to the routes of older roads still in use in the medieval period. Unlike the Roman roads on the continent, there is no evidence that the Romans named their roads in Britain. The first recorded evidence is from Anglo Saxon times were they referred to the primary routes as stræts e.g. Watling street, and Ermine Street. This came from the Latin strata – paved/Roman road. Villages and towns developing adjacent to these roads would have the prefix of stræts in their name such as Streatham, Streatley, Stratton and other variation of stræts. Other common place names include Cold Harbour and Coldecot. These place names are thought to describe shelters placed at the side of the roads similar to present day bus shelters where travellers could shelter from bad weather.

It can be seen from the above that even though there is little physical evidence still surviving in the British landscape to show that Roman roads formed the basic infrastructure for the medieval road pattern. However documentary evidence such as maps, place names and travellers records or itineraries would seem to support the statement that ‘Roman roads formed the basis of the major medieval road system’.


· Belsey, V. – The Green Lanes of England – (Dartington, 1998)

· Cameron, K. – English Place Names – (London, 1996)

· Collingwood, R. G. – The Archaeology Of Roman Britain – (London, 1996)

· Hindle, P.– Medieval Roads and Tracks – (Risborough, 1998)

· Hinde, T.– The Domesday Book England Heritage Then And Now. – (Godalming, 1997)

· Margary, I. D. – Roman Roads in Britain – (London, 1957)

· Mills, A. D. – Oxford Dictionary Of English Place names – (Oxford, 1991)

· Patterson, E. J. – The Map Of Great Britain AD 1360 Also Known As The Gough Map – (Oxford, 1996 edition)

· Riley, D. N. – Aerial Archaeology – (Risborough, 1996)


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