They Came, They Saw, They Conquered or Did They? The Romans in Leeds by Chris Nickson

Mosaic depicting the She-wolf with Romulus and Remus, from Aldborough, about 300-400 AD ©Leeds Museums & Galleries

Mosaic depicting the She-wolf with Romulus and Remus, from Aldborough, about 300-400 AD ©Leeds Museums & Galleries

The Romans in Leeds? Chris Nickson tells us more.

Several months ago Leeds City Museum hosted a superb exhibition of Roman artefacts, quite a few of them from the collection of the British Museum. But there were also items that had been uncovered locally, a timely reminder that Leeds has been around for a while.

Very little evidence of the Romans in Leeds remains. Yes, there was a fort and villa at Adel, or Burgodunum as it was then called. Historian Ralph Thoresby knew it at the start of the 18th century and more recent excavations have proved him right. The fort was on the road from York to Ilkley and beyond. And there was a big Roman villa near Wetherby.

Beyond that, the facts are there, but scanty. Two Roman roads might have run through Leeds. There was some evidence, now long gone, of a ford across the Aire, by the present Leeds Bridge, that dated from Roman times. And there could have been a Roman fort on Quarry Hill, where the Playhouse and the Kremlin now stand. Thoresby knew of Roman relics from there, but any evidence has disappeared, of course. And if there was a fort, it might well have been the place called Cambodunum, which would be the first name ever given to the settlement of Leeds. With a fort there would inevitably have been houses close by, a bar, most likely, possibly a baker, and maybe a brothel.

A few things from Roman times have been discovered around Leeds, in places as diverse as the Headrow, Headingley, Burmantofts, and Hunslet, which was also the site of a Roman burial. An altar and a stone sarcophagus were dug up in Chapel Allerton when building houses at the beginning of the 20th century. The intriguing take is that the sarcophagus only contained two bones; if true, there’s a fascinating tale behind that.

Leeds was a very minor place back in Roman days. There might have been a tiny settlement of some kind down near the river when the troops arrived, but it would have been a hamlet at best. And the military presence would have been small. A few villas were scattered around the countryside. But really, the only town of any importance was Eboracum – York.

What happened to Leeds when the Romans left at the beginning of the fifth century? The influx of Saxons and Vikings had their headquarters elsewhere. There were still some people around, and in Viking times there was a church that had become a preaching centre, standing on the edge of two kingdoms, although it was situated in Elmet. The place had a new name, too, mentioned by the Venerable Bede in his history of England – Loidis. It was the site for a Wapentake, where freemen would gather to hold their court, leaving their weapons outside, hence the name. North of the river it was held at the Shire Oak – Skyrac as it would have been called – in Headingley. South of the river, the Wapentake was in Morley.

By then, of course, most traces of the Romans in Leeds would have disappeared, reused where possible or covered over with soil. Roman Leeds had been forgotten and moved to the stuff of legend.

The West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service has more information about the Romans in West Yorkshire here.

skin like silver 2Chris Nickson’s new book, Skin Like Silver, is published at the end of November. It’s the third in his Tom Harper series, set in Leeds in the 1890s, and is set against the backdrop of the early Suffragist movement.

The book launch will be held on 3 December, 6.30 pm, at the Leeds Library on Commercial St. This is a free event and all are welcome but please contact the library first to reserve a seat as places are limited.

You can watch a trailer for Skin Like Silver here.

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend and the Northern Short Story Festival. She continues to be its Director.

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