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What did the Romans do for us? A look at Roman Norfolk's rise and fall

PUBLISHED: 10:43 03 September 2019 | UPDATED: 11:40 03 September 2019

Alex Kingston played Boudica in an ITV production. The queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe, she led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire in AD 60 or 61. Image: ITV

Alex Kingston played Boudica in an ITV production. The queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe, she led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire in AD 60 or 61. Image: ITV

They came, they saw, they conquered and left an indelible mark on world history. Now Cromer Museum's Alan Tutt traces the rise and fall of Roman Norfolk, and what remains of the once mighty empire.

"We are the last people on earth, and the last to be free: our very remoteness in a land known only to rumour has protected us up till this day. Today the furthest bounds of Britain lie open—and everything unknown is given an inflated worth. But now there is no people beyond us, nothing but tides and rocks and, more deadly than these, the Romans."

These words are attributed to the Caledonian chieftain, Calgacus, by the Roman historian, Tacitus, in his book, Agricola, which recounts the life of the Roman general, Agricola and also, briefly, the geography and ethnography of ancient Britain. Ironically, Tacitus, though a Roman senator, favourably contrasts the liberty of the native Britons with the tyranny and corruption of the Empire.

This liberty was to come to a sharp and brutal end at the hands of the Roman conquerors and Norfolk would be at the centre of this dramatic socio-political change.

Just what did happen to Norfolk when the imperial invaders came?

An artist's impression of Roman pottery found at Brampton in Norfolk. As a Roman town, 'Bramtuna' was an important pottery making centre. Picture: Supplied by Alan Tutt/Cromer MuseumAn artist's impression of Roman pottery found at Brampton in Norfolk. As a Roman town, 'Bramtuna' was an important pottery making centre. Picture: Supplied by Alan Tutt/Cromer Museum

When the Romans effectively conquered most of England in AD 43, under Emperor Claudius, they let Prasutagus, King of the Iceni, continue to rule over what is roughly present-day Norfolk and parts of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.

The Icknield Way, an ancient trackway linking East Anglia to the Chilterns, may well be named after the Iceni.

But when Prasutagus died in circa AD 59, the Romans were outraged that he wanted to split his kingdom in two, leaving half to Roman emperor Nero and the other half to Boudicca.

Under Roman law a woman had no right to inherit her husband's property, so the Romans decided to impose rule on the Iceni directly and confiscate all Iceni property.

A scene from an earlier exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum depicting reprisals against the Iceni by the Romans following the defeat of Boudica. Image: Keiron TovellA scene from an earlier exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum depicting reprisals against the Iceni by the Romans following the defeat of Boudica. Image: Keiron Tovell

It is claimed they stripped and flogged Boudicca and violated her two daughters.

This led to the Iceni rising up against their oppressors under fearsome queen Boudicca, seriously endangering Roman rule in Britain.

Her (allegedly) woad-bedaubed, marauding hordes defeated the Roman Ninth Legion and razed the then capital of Roman Britain at Camulodunum (present day Colchester).

They then destroyed Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St Albans) before succumbing to the forces of Paulinus at an unknown battle site, probably close to Watling Street.

The Boudicca statue at Westminster Bridge in London. Picture: Supplied by Alan Tutt/Cromer MuseumThe Boudicca statue at Westminster Bridge in London. Picture: Supplied by Alan Tutt/Cromer Museum

Boudicca is thought to have poisoned herself rather than be captured.

That defeat ushered in a 350-year period of Roman rule of Britain.

A number of settlements classified as Romano-British towns have been identified across the Norfolk countryside. These small towns played an important role in everyday life - they served as markets, the opportunity for buying and selling local produce, and more unusual wares from itinerant traders.

They were also religious focal points, contained small industries and provided eating, drinking and bathing opportunities for travellers, - the remains of a bath house were uncovered at Brampton.

A painting of Brampton St Peter church, which has been the centre of religious life in the village for more than 900 years.. Picture: Supplied by Alan Tutt/Cromer MuseumA painting of Brampton St Peter church, which has been the centre of religious life in the village for more than 900 years.. Picture: Supplied by Alan Tutt/Cromer Museum

Brampton: Norfolk's potteries?

Brampton is the largest of these small Roman towns found in Norfolk, situated south-east of Aylsham, and south of the old course of the river Bure.

In the village one sees a village sign reflecting its Roman past: it depicts a double-headed fish copied from a Roman brooch found here some years ago and the Roman name, Bramtuna.

The valley of the Bure is rich in ancient monuments, dating back to the Neolithic period. Brampton is significant among these old sites. Although no vestige of the town remains, its outline has been traced by archaeologists using aerial photography, digs and finds of artefacts.

A plan of Roman remains in Brampton, Norfolk. Picture: Supplied by Alan Tutt/Cromer MuseumA plan of Roman remains in Brampton, Norfolk. Picture: Supplied by Alan Tutt/Cromer Museum

Thus we can get a sketchy picture of what Roman Britain was like 2,000 years ago in Norfolk.

In the 17th century Thomas Browne, Norfolk archaeologist, noted the discovery of Roman cremation urns near Brampton but that even then the site had been ploughed 'beyond the memory of Man'.

Norfolk's only Roman city was the regional capital, Venta Icenorum, at Caistor St Edmund, but over 15 other Roman settlements have been discovered.

Roman items were dug up in Brampton in the 1970s and 80s and were then bought by Norwich Castle Museum.   Picture: Sonya BrownRoman items were dug up in Brampton in the 1970s and 80s and were then bought by Norwich Castle Museum. Picture: Sonya Brown

Many, like Brampton, lie at junctions between Roman roads or where roads crossed rivers. However, what makes Brampton stand out is that it was surrounded by major defences.

In the low-lying area between Brampton and the Bure was a Roman harbour. Water transport was important in Roman Norfolk.

Before changes in sea and river levels, ships could sail from Brampton to the open sea, the North Sea This helped Brampton become an important pottery-making centre.

Is it stretching a point to call it Norfolk's Stoke; Norfolk's Potteries?

Roman items were dug up in Brampton in the 1970s and 80s and were then bought by Norwich Castle Museum.   Picture: Sonya BrownRoman items were dug up in Brampton in the 1970s and 80s and were then bought by Norwich Castle Museum. Picture: Sonya Brown

Certainly it was a hive of industry with kilns burning wood from locally cut timber - over 130 kilns have been identified and some excavations revealed decorated flagons, grinding vessels or mortaria, and ordinary table wares. There are also signs of ironworking, leatherworking and lime-burning.

All making it worthwhile to throw up defensive ditches to protect the town, its industry and inhabitants.

As Trevor Ashwin observed, 'It is remarkable that such a major Roman centre as Brampton should have been ploughed so completely flat - this tells us much about the problems facing the archaeologist in Norfolk - but is also an exciting reminder that so many fascinating sites surely await discovery'.

In the twilight of the Roman Empire, Britain was besieged by Saxons, who easily broke the resistance of the Romano-British tribes as they overtook the east with great violence.

"Boudicca is thought to have poisoned herself rather than be captured."

The isles of Britain were a very expensive colony to maintain, given their location at the edge of Empire; Rome's powers were on the wane, chaos and a new age beckoned.

Archaeological walk: Explore more of Roman Norfolk

On Saturday, September 14 at 1.45pm, landscape historian, Ian Groves will lead the last of Cromer Museum's archaeological walks; this one to Brampton, starting at St Mary's Church, Burgh-next-Aylsham. Very limited spaces left, book on 01263 513543, £4.

Cromer Museum will be running more Archaeological and Historical Walks in 2020 - watch out for news on Cromer Museum's Facebook or next year's events leaflet.

Roman items were dug up in Brampton in the 1970s and 80s and were then bought by Norwich Castle Museum.   Picture: Sonya BrownRoman items were dug up in Brampton in the 1970s and 80s and were then bought by Norwich Castle Museum. Picture: Sonya Brown

Boudicca was a queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe who led an uprising against Rome. This is an artist's impression of what she could have looked like, from a previous exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum. Image: Keiron TovellBoudicca was a queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe who led an uprising against Rome. This is an artist's impression of what she could have looked like, from a previous exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum. Image: Keiron Tovell

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