History of Corbridge Roman Town

    The remains at Corbridge are largely those of a Roman town, 2½ miles south of Hadrian’s Wall, which developed after AD 160 around a base for legionary soldiers. This replaced a succession of forts on the site, built from about AD 85 where one of the main routes northwards crossed the River Tyne. Corbridge became one of only two substantial towns in the Hadrian’s Wall zone and remained a vibrant urban community until the last days of Roman Britain.

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    The Fort at Red House

    1st-century tombstone, now in Hexham Abbey, of Flavinus, a standard-bearer in the ala Petriana cavalry regiment

    The 1st-century tombstone, now in Hexham Abbey, of Flavinus, a standard-bearer in the ala Petriana cavalry regiment. It probably once stood in the military cemetery nearby, and shows Flavinus mounted and armed, triumphing over an abject Briton

    The first Roman occupation of the area was over half a mile west of Corbridge, at Red House Farm. Roman baths and a few buildings associated with a fort were found there between 1955 and 1974. Little is known of this early site other than it was a large and important military base, probably built as part of the emperor Julius Agricola’s planned conquest of Scotland between AD 77 and 83.

    This early fort was abandoned in about AD 86. Its short life may have been due to river flooding. The present, eastern site may also have offered a better spot to build a permanent river bridge.

    A tombstone of the 1st century AD, found in nearby Hexham Abbey, strongly suggests that the élite cavalry regiment ala Petriana was based at Red House or the earliest Corbridge fort (or both).[1]

    Remains of the square shrine of the headquarters building or ‘principia’ of the Corbridge fort

    The remains of the square shrine of the headquarters building or ‘principia’ at Corbridge, built some time before AD 160 when the last major modifications were made to the fort

    The Forts, AD 85–160

    The succession of forts built at Corbridge during the 1st and 2nd centuries are deeply buried and largely invisible beneath the remains of the later legionary base and town, but were explored in excavations from the 1940s to the 1970s.

    Fort I, built to control the river crossing, was founded in about AD 86. This early fort was burnt down in about AD 105, possibly by enemy action. A new fort, Fort II, was built at Corbridge as part of a new frontier line (known as the ‘Stanegate frontier’). It was further modified in about AD 122 to provide support for Hadrian’s Wall, the building of which began in that year.

    Corbridge was the scene of concentrated activity in AD 139–40, when Hadrian’s Wall was temporarily abandoned and replaced by the Antonine Wall in Scotland under the emperor Antoninus Pius (reigned AD 138–61). Inscriptions show that major buildings, probably granaries, were under construction at this time.[2] Traces of the fort granaries have been found beneath the remains of the much later, visible granaries on the site. This surge of activity is connected with the fort’s role as a supply centre and strategic base on Dere Street, the main road into Scotland.

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    The Legionary Base from AD 160

    A relief of a boar, found at Corbridge

    A relief of a boar, found at Corbridge. The boar was the emblem of the Twentieth Legion, who were present at Corbridge in the AD 160s

    The occupaton of Scotland was short-lived: by AD 160 the Antonine Wall had been given up and Hadrian’s Wall had been recommissioned. Corbridge now lay a short distance to the rear of the restored frontier Wall. It was most likely at this time that the first bridge built by the Romans across the Tyne here, which was probably of timber, was rebuilt as a magnificent stone structure.[3] 

    In the early AD 160s the function of Corbridge suddenly changed to that of a base for legionaries. Detachments from the Twentieth Legion (Legio XX Valeria Victrix, whose main base lay at Chester) and the Sixth Legion (Legio VI Victrix, from York) were present at Corbridge in the 160s, building temples and other major structures. We know this from inscriptions,[4] although the layout of the legionary base of this period is not clearly understood.

    These legionaries had two main roles. One was to support and help garrison Hadrian’s Wall and in particular a chain of outpost forts that extended up Dere Street as far as Newstead-on-Tweed (at least until AD 180). The other was to supervise and administer Corbridge as a stores base and market for the northern frontier.

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    Aerial view of Site XI, looking south-west

    Aerial view of Site XI, looking south-west

    Rebuilding at Corbridge

    Corbridge's new role as a legionary supply base was accompanied by substantial rebuilding of the site on a truly imperial scale. Site XI (a name bestowed during the Edwardian excavations), a great square building with ranges of rooms opening onto a central court, is most convincingly interpreted as a combined warehouse and macellum (market).[5] The granaries of the last fort, west of Site XI, were retained and rebuilt at around the same time that Site XI was constructed.

    The exact date when these buildings were begun is unknown, but reassessment of the dating evidence from all the 20th-century excavations suggests that it was at some point between about AD 160 and AD 185.[6] These buildings may at first have been fitted into the defensive circuit of the old fort but, if so, this was soon levelled and overlain by further buildings.

    At some point after the removal of the defences the site was ravaged by a destructive fire, attested by the ‘Corbridge destruction deposit’.[7] Site XI was unfinished at the time of the fire and building was never resumed, so the great storehouse-market is essentially an incomplete structure. Some have been tempted to associate this fire with an attested barbarian invasion and crossing of Hadrian’s Wall in the early AD 180s.[8]

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    The massive base of the east compound enclosure wall

    The massive base of the east compound enclosure wall, looking across to the remains of the compounds

    The Military Compounds

    In the early 3rd century, after the emperor Septimius Severus (reigned AD 193–211) had restored stability to the province and its northern frontier, Corbridge remained a base for detachments from legions whose fortresses lay further south in Britain. The evidence of inscriptions suggests that in the 3rd century the detachments were drawn from Legio II Augusta (based at Caerleon, south Wales) and from either Legio VI Victrix or more probably Legio XX Valeria Victrix.[9] 

    A pair of purpose-built, stone-walled compounds housed these legionary detachments, as inscriptions and sculpture relating to Legio II Augusta from the headquarters building of the western compound show. The compounds overlie the fire deposit and are thus later in date than Site XI; they may quite possibly date from the early 3rd century.

    The granaries were probably rebuilt under Severus in their visible and enormous form. Corbridge was one of the two main supply bases during Severus’s expedition in Caledonia in AD 208–11.

    Reconstruction of the fountain at Corbridge

    Reconstruction of the fountain at Corbridge, built in the late 2nd or early 3rd century. The fountain would have provided a constant supply of fresh water for drinking, cooking and other uses

    © Historic England (illustration by Richard Lea)

    The Civilian Town

    By the early 3rd century, if not before, an extensive civilian town had grown up around the core of the military garrison and supply centre. The walls surrounding the legionary compounds are meandering and their gates ornate rather than defensive, suggesting that their main function was to segregate the military personnel from a surrounding community of a burgeoning urban character.

    Probably by the 3rd century Corbridge was the capital of a self-governing administrative division or civitas (as was Carlisle in the west), although there is no record of its name. In the 4th century the town prospered as a civil centre, probably defended (although our knowledge of the defences is slight) by a walled circuit. There may well still have been a military presence in the compounds at the centre of the town, but the identity of the late Roman garrison is unknown.

    Major, centrally organised repair works took place on the main road through Corbridge as late as AD 370, but the town seems to have been rapidly abandoned when Roman administration in Britain collapsed in the early years of the 5th century.

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    After the Romans

    A 2nd- or 3rd-century relief of Jupiter from Corbridge, now in Hexham Abbey

    A 2nd- or 3rd-century relief of Jupiter from Corbridge, used in the building of the Saxon church at Hexham

    The Saxon settlement at Corbridge was established (probably in the 7th century) half a mile east of the ruins of the Roman town, at a good fording place. By this time the Roman bridge must have been unusable, but striking enough as a ruin to lend its name to the successor settlement.

    As early as the 670s remains from Corbridge were quarried by the Saxon builders of St Wilfrid’s church at Hexham, and stone-robbing went on for centuries – there is much Roman stone in the later Saxon fabric of the church of St Andrew at Corbridge. King John (r.1199–1216) dug in the ruins for treasure in 1201, finding nothing but stones ‘marked with brass, iron and lead’ – a reference to blocks in Roman structures, such as the fountain or the bridge, that were bonded with metal cramps.

    Antiquarian Interest and Excavations

    The 16th-century antiquaries John Leland and William Camden (visiting in about 1539 and 1599 respectively) were struck by the upstanding ruins of Roman Corbridge.[10] Although John Horsley recorded the site as largely levelled by the plough by the early 18th century,[11] in the same period Alexander Gordon described ‘the circuit of the walls’ as still being conspicuous.[12] The site was finally completely levelled by agricultural improvements in about 1810.

    In 1861–2 excavation by William Coulson uncovered the northern end of the Roman bridge and other structures inside the town. Systematic excavation began in 1906. The central part of the site was given to the nation in 1933 and is now in the care of English Heritage. This area has been the focus of research carried out since 1914.

    Excavations at Corbridge have yielded one of the largest collections of everyday objects in the Hadrian’s Wall area. In 1964 archaeologists discovered the remains of a wooden chest beneath Site XI, buried about AD 105–20, containing a hoard of military equipment, tools and other items. The chest included the remains of two suits of segmented plate armour, the best preserved ever found. Film footage of the excavations shows the moment when the Corbridge Hoard was discovered (with kind permission of Mrs A Luscombe).

         

    About the Author

    Nick Hodgson is Archaeological Projects Manager for Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. He has published a study of the archaeological evidence for the history of the Roman military site at Corbridge, and a catalogue and study of the many Roman architectural fragments found there.

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    The west granary from the north

    The west granary from the north, built between AD 198 and 209

    Footnotes

      The tombstone is in Hexham Abbey, and is published in RG Collingwood and RP Wright, The Roman Inscriptions of Britain, vol 1: Inscriptions on Stone (Oxford, 1965), RIB no. 1172 (accessed 6 July 2016). A replica is on display in the Corbridge Museum.
      In Corbridge Museum, and published in Collingwood and Wright, op cit, nos. 1147, 1148 (accessed 6 July 2016).
      Partly excavated in 2004; see P Bidwell, ‘The Roman bridge at Corbridge’, in Hadrian’s Wall 1999–2009: A Summary of Recent Excavation and Research, ed N Hodgson (Kendal, 2009), 101–5.
      In Corbridge Museum, and published in Collingwood and Wright, op cit, nos. 1137, 1149 (accessed 6 July 2016).
      The original excavation reports on Site XI are in WH Knowles and RH Forster, ‘Corstopitum: report on the excavations in 1908’, Archaeologia Aeliana, 3rd series, 5 (1909), 302–424, and RH Forster and WH Knowles, ‘Corstopitum: report on the excavations in 1910’, Archaeologia Aeliana, 3rd series, 7 (1911), 143–267. For the interpretation as a storehouse/market, see N Hodgson, ‘The development of the Roman site at Corbridge from the first to third centuries AD’, Archaeologia Aeliana, 5th series, 37 (2008), 47–92, esp. 63–5.
      Evidence reviewed in N Hodgson, ‘The development of the Roman site at Corbridge from the first to third centuries AD’, Archaeologia Aeliana, 5th series, 37 (2008), 47–92.
      Ibid, esp. 63–5.
      See for example DJ Breeze and B Dobson, Hadrian’s Wall (3rd edn, London, 2000), 134.
      Inscriptions of Legio II Augusta: Collingwood and Wright, op cit, nos. 1127, 1154; VI Victrix: no. 1163: XX Valeria Victrix: no. 1164 (accessed 6 July 2016). Detachments of the Second and Twentieth legions were also garrisoned together at Carlisle in the 3rd century.
      John Leland, Itinerary (ed T Hearne, 1711), vol 5, 93: ‘a place called Colecester, where hath been a fortress or castle’; William Camden, Britain, or, a Chorographicall Description of the Most Flourishing Kingdomes, England, Scotland, and Ireland (London, 1610), Northumberland, Section 12: ‘But who so shal see the heape of rubbish that lieth thereby, and is called Colecester, will soone say it was some hold of a Roman garrison.’
      John Horsley, Britannia Romana (London, 1732), 397 (accessed 6 July 2016).
      Alexander Gordon, Itinerarium Septentrionale (London, 1726), 176.
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