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.
The Fort at Red House
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).
The Legionary Base from AD 160
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
After the Romans
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.