History of Lullingstone Roman Villa

The Roman villa at Lullingstone represents a remarkable survival, both in terms of the preservation of some structural elements of the main villa-house, but also, and more significantly, with respect to the evidence for Romano-British Christianity that it produced. Built perhaps as early as the AD 80s, Lullingstone Villa reached the peak of luxury in the mid-4th century when its spectacular mosaics were laid. It is also important for its possible imperial associations, as well as the enigmatic nature of the wider site and the challenges that presents to our interpretation and understanding.

Reconstruction painting bird's eye view of the first villa at Lullingstone, dating from about AD 100

The first villa at Lullingstone, dating from about AD 100, had a block of four rooms fronted by a corridor, with wings at either end, and a deep cellar under the north wing (on the right-hand side)
© Historic England (illustration by Peter Urmston)

The First Villa

The first building for which we have evidence was certainly constructed by AD 100 and perhaps as early as AD 80–90. However, finds and soil horizons, not associated with any structures, suggest that there may have been earlier occupation on the site. 

The first known structure is a so-called winged-corridor house, a type of villa-house commonly found in Britain.

The house faced the river to the east and on that side a corridor or verandah linked wings on either side of a central accommodation block, which contained at least four main rooms. A second corridor ran along the back of the building.

The northern wing room was built over a cellar, or ‘deep room’, which may have been used simply for storage but, judging from the number of access routes from within the house and outside, may have been from its inception a cult room, as it is known to be from the later 2nd century.

Little is known about this phase of the structure as it is obscured by later modifications and reconstructions. 

Early in the 2nd century a circular building 5.4 metres in diameter, possibly a shrine, was built to the north of the house and there may also have been a bath-house, although no certain evidence of it has been found. However, an early wall containing opus signinum (pink waterproof concrete) – on the southern side of the first phase villa-house, and underlying the known bath suite built in the 2nd century – may have been part of it.

Cutaway reconstruction view of the bath suite as it may have appeared in the late 3rd century

The bath suite as it may have appeared in the late 3rd century
© Historic England (illustration by Peter Dunn/Richard Lea)

A Governor’s Palace?

In the second half of the 2nd century, possibly about AD 150 but perhaps as late as AD 180, the simple winged-corridor house was substantially enlarged. Such development normally suggests increasing prosperity on the part of the owners.

To the south, a bath suite was built onto the villa-house, separated from it by a corridor with an external doorway at its western end, suggesting perhaps that the bath suite was used by people other than the immediate family of the owner.

The position of the bath suite may have been determined by the site of an earlier bath house or bath suite if there was one, and also by the presence of a water supply represented by a well to the south. Additional rooms were built on the northern side of the villa-house. 

 

The Cult Room

 By this date the cellar was certainly being used as a cult room, probably relating to a water deity or the veneration of water nymphs, with a small well or cistern located in the middle of the floor.

The room had wall-paintings, including a picture of three water nymphs in a niche, which was protected from damage when the niche was later filled with stone and mortar.

The two entrances into the cellar from within the house and the east verandah were blocked, and access was now only by steps at the north-west corner of the cellar, which were in turn reached by three sets of steps. Two of these gave access from outside the building on the western and eastern sides, while the third originated within the new northern range.

The external access suggests that people from outside the immediate family were involved in the cult practised here.

             

Who Owned the Villa?

 At some point during the 3rd century the entrance steps were blocked, and two high-quality marble busts appear to have been placed on or near the lowest steps that protruded into the room.

Access to the cult room was now only from above, presumably through a trap door, and the busts may suggest the emphasis changed to the veneration of ancestors, or the Imperial cult.

A more intriguing idea is that the busts may provide us with evidence relating to the ownership and function of the villa-house, as it has been suggested[1] that one can be identified as Publius Helvius Pertinax, the son of a freedman who rose to become a Senator and Governor of Britannia in AD 185–6. Though he was soon forced to leave Britain, he went on to become Emperor, reigning for 87 days in AD 193, before being murdered by soldiers of the Praetorian Guard. 

The second bust has been identified as his father, Publius Helvius Successus, and it is possible that Lullingstone represented the country retreat of the provincial governor.

Further support for the association of the site with Pertinax is provided by Martin Henig who identified a cornelian intaglio from the excavations as the personal seal of the then governor.[2]

If Lullingstone were the country retreat of the governor, rather than a fully working villa-farm, it might explain the lack of known agricultural buildings, although clearly other structures may remain to be found.

 

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT COUNTRY ESTATES IN ROMAN BRITAIN

Aerial view reconstruction painting of the villa in its landscape in the later 4th century

The villa in its landscape in the later 4th century
© Historic England (illustration by Peter Urmston)

The 3rd-century Villa

In the later 3rd century, the northern range was demolished and replaced with a narrower range of five rooms, three of which incorporated an underfloor heating system. Other than the bath suite, these were the only rooms with underfloor heating in the villa-house. The other rooms must have been heated using movable braziers. 

At this time the existing veranda was widened and converted into an audience chamber, and a new verandah constructed to the east, with steps that probably led to a riverside garden.

The bath suite was modified, the main change being the provision of a larger cold plunge bath beside the original one; the latter may now have been used as a cistern, to store water for the villa. This change may, in part, reflect wider modifications to the villa’s water supply.

          

Granary and Temple

Two external buildings – the granary and the temple-mausoleum – also date to this period.

At 24.4 metres (80 feet) by 10.06 metres (33 feet), the granary is one of the largest known from a civilian site in Roman Britain. Unusually for a civilian granary, it was provided with underfloor vents, to help prevent the grain from spoiling.

The temple-mausoleum took the form of a typical square Romano-Celtic temple. This had an outer wall that was 12.2 metres (40 feet) square, enclosing an ambulatory, or walkway, surrounding the central room (or cella), measuring 6.4 metres (21 feet) by 5.18 metres (17 feet).

Although probably built originally as a religious shrine or place or worship, the cella was later used for the burial of two people – one a young man and the other probably a young woman. The lead coffin of the male had survived intact and was decorated with scallop shells and a cable pattern.

Despite the actions of grave robbers, an impressive range of grave goods was found with the burials. These included flagons made of pottery and of bronze, glass bottles and bowls, two silver spoons, and 30 glass gaming counters, standing on the remains of a gaming board. A bone roundel decorated with the head of Medusa, together with a group of small pieces of bone, may have belonged to a box that contained the game.

          

From Paganism to Christianity

Around the middle of the 4th century some remarkable changes took place that distinguish Lullingstone from many of the other villas known in Roman Britain.

First, the central core of the house was radically altered when an apsidal dining room or triclinium was built across the line of the western corridor, splitting it in two. This dining room, with its attached audience chamber, and the mosaics within the rooms, demonstrates the increasing prosperity of the villa.

Within the triclinium, the mosaic tells the mythical story of the Rape of Europa, who was abducted by the god Jupiter disguised as a bull.

The main mosaic panel in the audience chamber tells the story of Bellerophon, Prince of Corinth, on the winged-horse Pegasus, killing the Chimæra, a fire-breathing she-monster.[3] The scene is surrounded by four roundels containing representations of the seasons.

A Latin couplet above the Europa image reads:

INVIDA SI TA[URI] VIDISSET IUNO NATATUS
IUSTIUS AEOLIAS ISSET AD USQUE DOMOS

which translates as ‘If jealous Juno [Jupiter’s wife] had seen the swimming of the bull she would with greater justice have gone to the halls of Aeolus.’

The passage alludes to an episode in the first book of Virgil’s Aeneid, in which Jupiter’s wife, Juno, demands that Aeolus, the god of the winds, drowns Aeneas and his fleet at sea; but here it is transferred ironically to Jupiter’s abduction of the princess Europa, famously described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

            

A House-church

Perhaps even more remarkable, however, were the changes above the deep room involving the creation of a house-church. The wall-paintings from this room set the villa apart, as they are the only known paintings in Roman Britain that contain clear Christian symbolism.

The material from the house-church was found collapsed into the cult room below it. The excavators found many thousands of fragments of painted wall plaster which, when painstakingly pieced together, revealed the images that once adorned the walls.

Although the surviving elements of the scenes depicted are fragmentary, enough remains to suggest that a large Chi-Rho – an early Christian symbol formed by the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek, chi ( χ)and rho (ρ) – was painted on the south wall.

Six near-life size standing figures with their hands raised in the attitude of early Christian prayer – the orantes position, still used by priests when saying mass and by modern evangelical Christians – were represented on the west wall. A further Chi-Rho appeared on the east wall, and on the north wall there were more figures, as well as pictures of buildings.

The house-church had a narthex, or ante-chamber, which was possibly used by those who had not yet been formally admitted to the Church through baptism and who could not take part in the Mass. The painted wall plaster from the ante-chamber provided clear links to the church.[4]

Mosaic depicting the abduction of Europa by Jupiter in the guise of a bull

The dining room of the villa was decorated in the 4th century with a mosaic depicting the abduction of Europa by Jupiter in the guise of a bull

The Villa’s End

At some point in the 5th century there was a fire at Lullingstone, and the villa-house seems to have been abandoned. Given the lack of datable material the exact date is uncertain.

As the roofs fell in, or perhaps as the tiles and possibly some walling were removed for use elsewhere, the gradual decay and collapse of the structure was inevitable. The position of the villa at the foot of a slope would have aided its burial.

        

Medieval Lullingstone

Our knowledge of the site after AD 400 is sparse. It produced some Anglo-Saxon potsherds and a magnificent ‘hanging bowl’, perhaps dating from the 7th century, which may represent evidence of early post-Roman Christianity and high-status Anglo-Saxon burial in the area.[5]

The temple-mausoleum seems to have survived, at least as a ruin, to be incorporated into the chapel of St John the Baptist, probably in the 11th century when the area of the site was occupied by the hamlet of Lullingstane. The chapel is first recorded in 1115 though probably has earlier origins.

A description accompanying a drawing of the chapel made in 1769 refers to it being ‘built with flints and Roman bricks, the west end being chiefly of the latter’.[6]

        

Lullingstone Castle

Lullingstone House, as it was then, was built in the late 15th century, its fine brick gatehouse surviving from 1497.

In 1550 the Lullingstane estate was sold to Percyval Hart, who owned Lullingstone, and from then on there was no differentiation between the two. Lullingstone deer park was established in the time of Elizabeth I. The house was renamed Lullingstone Castle in about 1740.

At some point cottages were built in the area of what is now the villa car park. These were demolished around 1914. 

             

READ MORE ABOUT LULLINGSTONE ROMAN VILLA

             

DOWNLOAD A PLAN OF LULLINGSTONE ROMAN VILLA

 

FIND MORE PROPERTY HISTORIES

        

About the Author

Pete Wilson is Head of Research Policy (Roman Archaeology) for English Heritage with extensive experience in the Romano-British period.  He is the author of the English Heritage Red Guide to Lullingstone Roman Villa.

              

Footnotes

1. R de Kind, ‘The Roman portraits from the villa of Lullingstone: Pertinax and his father P Helvius Successus’, in Otium. Festschrift für Volker Michael Strocka, ed T Ganschow, M Steinhard, D Berges and T Frölich (Remshalden, 2005), 47–52.
2. M Henig, ‘The victory gem from Lullingstone Roman villa’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 160 (2007), 1–7.
3. The latest consideration of the mosaics is ‘Lullingstone Mosaics 361.1 and 361.2’, in DS Neal and SR Cosh, Roman Mosaics of Britain, Volume III, South-East Britain Part 2 (London, 2009), 379–86. For the inscription see also SS Frere and RSO Tomlin (eds), The Roman Inscriptions of Britain, Volume II: Instrumentum Domesticum. Wooden Barrels, etc, 86, no. 2448.6 (Oxford, 1992). P Witts, Mosaics in Roman Britain: Stories in Stone (Stroud, 2005), 29–31 and 163–4, also discusses the iconography of the mosaics.
4. KS Painter, ‘The Lullingstone wall-plaster: an aspect of Christianity in Roman Britain’, British Museum Quarterly, 33 (1968–9), 131–50; N Davey and R Ling, Wall-Paintings in Roman Britain, Britannia Monograph 3 (London, 1981), 136–45; GW Meates, The Lullingstone Roman Villa, Volume II: The Wall Paintings and Finds, Monograph Series of the Kent Archaeological Society, 1 (Maidstone, 1987), 11–46.
5. Although TD Kendrick, in ‘British hanging bowls’, Antiquity, 6:22 (1932), 161–84, saw it as dating from before the 7th century – ‘not … later than AD 500’ (173).
6. J Thorpe, Custumale Roffense (1788), 126–8 pl xxiv, fig 3.

'step into englands story