North Leigh Roman Villa

History of North Leigh Roman Villa

The remains of this Roman villa are located in a peaceful rural landscape, within a loop of the river Evenlode, which flows gently past the site to the north and west. 

The ruins of the Roman villa at North Leigh with woodland beyond
The remains of the north-west range of North Leigh Roman Villa, looking south

As visitors approach along a bridleway, the Roman villa site is visible below to the right, and two sides of its rectangular plan become apparent. At its greatest extent, the core of the site was occupied by a huge ‘courtyard villa’, with a range of buildings on each of three sides of a rectangle, and a corridor and gatehouse closing the courtyard on the fourth side.

However, significant finds of pre-Roman Iron Age pottery and other features beneath the former south-west range are evidence of earlier occupation. The development of the site was lengthy and complex.

The Iron Age settlement was superseded by the first Roman structures in the 1st or early 2nd century AD. These comprised three buildings, one of which was a bathhouse, along the line of what was to become the north-west range. Another structure served as a linking corridor.

Early in the 3rd century the south-west and north-east wings were added, partially enclosing the courtyard. These wings were later extended, and the original north-west range was entirely rebuilt, probably in the early 4th century. At this stage the villa incorporated three bath suites, 16 mosaic floors and 11 rooms with underfloor heating.

Aerial photographs and geophysical survey have revealed that there were further, extensive buildings beyond the south-west range – perhaps including an aisled barn or hall – which may have formed a home farm for the villa. A system of ditched fields surrounded the villa and there were numerous small gravel quarries, dug for building material in Roman times.

The villa probably declined and was abandoned in the 5th century AD, following the withdrawal of Roman troops from Britain and the consequential breakdown of central administration in the province.

A large fragment of the mosaic floor, with a wide variety of geometric designs, displayed under cover on site
A section of the early 4th-century mosaic floor at the villa

North Leigh is one of the larger villas of Roman Britain. While a few of these great buildings may have been the residences of Roman officials who came and went, most are thought to have been a legacy of the adoption of Roman ways by leading members of the indigenous population – which resulted in these lavish buildings and a very comfortable way of life.

North Leigh Roman Villa is noted for an early 4th-century mosaic floor, lifted and relaid in 1929, and displayed under a cover building on the site. The building protecting the floor is one of two built by the landowner, the Duke of Marlborough, following excavations between 1813 and 1817, and after two other mosaics had been destroyed by souvenir hunters.

It is not known when the small cottage, formerly used by a custodian, was erected. It is shown on an Ordnance Survey map surveyed between 1877 and 1880, and may also date from 1813–17.

Further Reading

Henig, M, and Booth, P, Roman Oxfordshire (Stroud, 2000)

Percival, J, The Roman Villa: a Historical Introduction (London, 1988)

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