Roman London, Pt. 2 – Building Works and Surviving Structures

Another in the series on the history of London up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666, largely taken from my book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (Amberley, 2019) …

Building Works


Map 1 – Roman London.  1 – Blackfriars; 2 – Ludgate; 3 – Central Criminal Court Building, Old Bailey (section of wall); 4 – Bank of America-Merrill Lynch Building, Giltspur Street (section of wall); 5 – Watling Street; 6 – Newgate; 7 – St Vedast-alias-Foster, Foster Lane (fragment of tessellated pavement); 8 – Remains of Cripplegate Fort, Noble Street; 9 – St Alphage Gardens/Salters’ Hall Gardens, London Wall (section of wall); 10 – Remains of Amphitheatre, Guildhall Art Gallery, Guildhall Yard; 11 – Gresham Street; 12 – Moorgate and Princes Street (line of Walbrook stream); 13 – Poultry and Walbrook (“The Pompeii of the North”); 14 – Remains of Temple of Mithras, Bloomberg Building, Walbrook; 15 – Site of “Governor’s Palace”, Cannon Street Station; 16 – Old London Bridge (and Port of London); 17 – St Magnus the Martyr, Thames Street; 18 – Ermine Street; 19 – Remains of Basilica and Forum, Gracechurch Street; 20 – Bury Street; 21 – Fort, Plantation Place, Fenchurch Street; 22 – Remains of Billingsgate Roman House, 101 Thames Street; 23 – All Hallows Barking, Byward Street; 24 – Site of Basilica or “Palaeo-Christian” church, Novotel Building, Pepys Street; 25 – Cooper’s Row and Tower Hill (sections of wall).

Restoring the mosaic of Roman London from the  isolated “tesserae” that remain is a challenging task.  The Roman London Bridge and embryonic Port of London was   originally built in c. 50 (and rebuilt in stone and timber in c. 90, and in stone many, many times in the succeeding nearly two millennia). 

A recently-discovered post-Boudiccan fort on   Mincing Lane  was built in c. 63, although it appears to have been out of use by c. 80.   The  “Governor’s Palace” was built during the Flavian period of the late first century, c. 69-96, on the then-waterfront, which was much further north in Roman times than it is today, and it remained in use throughout the  second and third, before being substantially demolished at the turn of the third  and fourth, the remains being discovered during   the nineteenth.  The first undoubted Basilica and Forum were built in c. 70 (there may have been earlier ones, destroyed during the Boudiccan Revolt of 60 or 61), and rebuilt and considerably extended in c. 100-30, before being substantially demolished in c. 300,  the remains being discovered during   excavations at 168 Fenchurch Street  in 1995-2000.   The Amphitheatre was originally built in timber in c. 75, rebuilt in stone in the second century, and renovated in the late second to early fourth, before falling into disuse, and eventually being substantially demolished, in the late fourth, possibly around 365,  the remains coming to light again during   excavations on the site of the Medieval Guildhall in 1987.  A fort was built at Cripplegate in the early second century for a garrison of 1,500 infantry and cavalry troops. The City wall, incorporating the aforementioned fort, was originally built at the turn of the second and third centuries, that is, around the time of the rival emperorships of and power-struggle between Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus (the wall cuts through, and thus  post-dates, a deposit containing a coin of Commodus dating to 183-4, and  is in part contemporary with a deposit containing a coin of Caracalla dating to 213-7).    It was subsequently extended and reinforced  in the late  third, when a river wall was added, and again in the mid fourth, when bastions were added, as defences against Saxon raids. It  was twenty feet high, six to eight feet thick, and two miles long. There being no local source of stone, the wall was  built out of Kentish Rag – an estimated 85000 tons of it – quarried near Maidstone and transported down the Medway and up the Thames to London on barges.  The remains of a frame-first carvel-built barge known as the “Blackfriars I” ship, dendrochronologically dated to 130-175, were found  at Blackfriars in 1962, with its 25-ton cargo intact.   All  Roman ships discovered to date in and around the Port of London have been carvel-built, that is to say, with non-overlapping timbers. 

The  Temple of Mithras on the Walbrook was originally built in the early third century, c. 220-40, and abandoned in the fourth, when Christianity came to replace paganism throughout the Roman Empire, the remains being revealed  during the bombing of  the Blitz of the Second World War.  The Temple of Mithras was reconstructed on Queen Victoria Street in 1962, and reconstructed again – inside a specially designed  space – in the Bloomberg Building on Walbrook in 2017.  Some of the finds from the recent archaeological dig on and around the temple site may be viewed in the Bloomberg Space (other finds, from the original post-war dig, including a marble bust  of Mithras in his distinctive Phrygian cap, may be viewed in the Roman gallery in the Museum of London).

There was probably also a  Temple of Isis on the Thames in the third century, as indicated by the finding of a re-used altar stone dedicated to the goddess in Blackfriars.  And plausibly a Temple of Diana on Ludgate Hill, as indicated by the finding of a bronze statuette of the goddess somewhat to the south-west of St Paul’s Cathedral, between the Deanery and Blackfriars.  (No Temple of Cybele has as yet been found, although the worship of that goddess was evidently practised in Roman London, as indicated by the finding in the Thames of a curious  piece of liturgical equipment, interpreted by some as a “castration clamp”, featuring figures of her and of consort Atys, and also by the findings at various locations in the city of figurines of Atys.)  Just outside Newgate, on the east bank of the Fleet adjacent to Watling Street, there was a possible octagonal Romano-Celtic temple of the late second century,  which was replaced by a suburban villa by the early fourth.    And in Greenwich Park, also adjacent to Watling Street, another possible Romano-Celtic temple, this time consisting of  a central cella and outer ambulatory, surrounded by a walled enclosure.

An  enigmatic, only partially excavated, building, variously interpreted as a late Roman Basilica or – on the basis of similarity to the Basilica di Santa Tecla in Milan – a “palaeo-Christian” church or cathedral, was built  in the south-east, between  Pepys Street and Trinity Square, sometime in the fourth century.  Note also that a Roman origin has been postulated, although not proven, both for the church of St Peter-upon-Cornhill in the City,  and for St Pancras Old Church in Camden. Perhaps significantly in this context, the present church of St Peter-upon-Cornhill lies,  and presumably the previous one(s) lay, within the footprint of the disused second – to third- century Basilica, possibly at least in part adopting its form, as was common practice in the early Christian church (note also that, according to one – possibly mythical – account, a church was established here by a  King Lucius in 179).   In the case of St Pancras Old Church, there is clearly recognisable Roman brick or tile incorporated into the surviving Norman north wall, which could indeed  have been robbed  from a Christian church that once stood on the site – or perhaps from a pagan compitum or shrine (such as was often located on such prominent  ground adjacent to a water-course).  The  local historian Charles Lee went so far – in other words possibly too far – as to suggest a date, “possibly as early as 313 or 314” (remember that 313 was the year of the issuing of the Edict of Milan, which ensured tolerance of Christianity, and 314 was the year of the Christian Council of Arles, attended by at least one representative from  London).  Coincidentally or otherwise,  the patronal Pancras was martyred on the orders of the Emperor Diocletian in 304.

The pattern of the Roman roads within and outwith the City may best be described as radiating out from the Basilica and Forum toward and beyond the various City Gates, which were, anti-clockwise from the east, Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Aldersgate, Newgate and Ludgate (Moorgate, between Bishopsgate and Cripplegate,  was a  later addition). Interestingly, the Romans do not appear to have had names for their roads. Ermine Street, which was the main south to north route of Roman Britain, linking London to Lincoln and York, takes its name from the Saxon Earninga straet, after one Earn(e).  Its route is followed in part by Fish Street Hill, Gracechurch Street and Bishopsgate. Watling Street, the main east to west route, linking  Richborough on the Kent coast to London, and London to Wroxeter, takes its name from the Saxon Waeclinga straet, after one Waecel.  Its route is followed in partby Newgate Street.

Surviving Structures

Essentially the only structures that survive from Roman London  are parts of the “Governor’s Palace”, the Basilica and Forum, the Amphitheatre, the City wall, and the Temple of Mithras.  The “Governor’s Palace” forms a  Scheduled Ancient Monument substantially buried beneath  Cannon Street Station. 

The London Stone

The so-called “London Stone”, which presently  stands outside No. 111 Cannon Street, opposite the station,  is believed by some to have been formerly associated in some way with  the “Governor’s Palace”, possibly as a milliarium, or centre-stone, from which Roman roads radiated and distances were measured (it  is carved out of Clipsham Stone from Rutland, which is known to have been used for construction in Roman times). 

Pier base, Basilica

A pier base from the Basilica can be seen in the basement of No. 90 Gracechurch Street.  

The Amphitheatre, re-imagined

The  Amphitheatre and associated artefacts can be viewed in the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery. 

City wall, St Alphage Gardens. Here, only the lowermost part – at ground level – is actually Roman.
The lower – stone – part is Medieval; the upper – brick – part post-Medieval.
City wall, Tower Hill. The statue of Trajan is a replica.

The best-preserved sections of the City wall are near the Museum of London  on London Wall to the west, and around Tower Hill to  the east. The section in St Alphage Gardens includes not only Roman but also Medieval fabrics, the latter including stonework dating to the reign of Henry III in the thirteenth century, and brickwork dating to that of Edward IV in the fifteenth.

Part of fort, Cripplegate

Parts of the incorporated fort at Cripplegate may be viewed by prior arrangement with the Museum of London. 

Location of Billingsgate Roman House

The surviving parts of the Billingsgate Roman House, including a  bath-house with tepidarium (warm bath), caldarium (hot bath) and frigidarium  (cold bath), may also be viewed by prior arrangement with the Museum of London.  

The Temple of Mithras, re-imagined

The recently-reconstructed  Temple of Mithras may be viewed inside the Bloomberg Building on Walbrook.  

It will be noted that, with the sole exception of the wall,  all of these structures, are below – and indeed 20’ or more below – modern street level.  Over the two millennia of London’s existence, street level has risen at an average rate of  1’ per 100 years – simply through the accumulation of demolition rubble.

Archaeological Finds

A series of Museum of London monographs and other publications describe in detail the findings of archaeological excavations on the Roman London Bridge and waterfront, “Governor’s Palace”,  Basilica and Forum, Amphitheatre, and Temple of Mithras (see above); from Poultry and Walbrook (see below); from Gresham Street, where a number of Romano-British round-houses have recently been found; and  from around the various gates to the Roman city, from the waterfront, and from Southwark, south of the river.  A “Kent Monograph” describes the only Roman villa in a London Borough, in Orpington in Bromley (formerly part of the county of Kent). 

Note here that recent excavations around Poultry and Walbrook have led to one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made in London, that of the “Pompeii of the North”.   Here have been uncovered entire streets of Roman houses of various status, an entire  waterfront development, and    many, many thousands of artefacts – including, importantly, many made  of organic materials that would normally have perished but that were preserved in the abnormal anaerobic conditions of the waterlogged deposits of the river Walbrook (such as  wooden writing tablets).   Note also that large numbers of  skulls have been found over the years in the deposits of the river Walbrook.  It is likely that some of the skulls originated in the Roman burial ground north of the City wall in Moorfields, and that they were subsequently naturally transported and deposited to the south by the waters of the Walbrook, in the process becoming hydrodynamically sorted from their skeletons.  Some others, though,  appear to have been deliberately placed in pits, and, moreover, exhibit evidence  of blunt- or sharp- force trauma, and these could be those of victims of gladiatorial combat, or of judicial execution, or perhaps of ritual decapitation, that is, head-hunting.  Alternatively, they could be those of victims of the “Boudiccan Revolt” of 60-1, or the “Carausian Revolt” of 296.  Or possibly of  a  native British uprising  during the Hadrianic emperorship of 117-38,  referred to by Marcus Cornelius Fronto in a letter to Marcus Aurelius, dated 162, as follows: “under the rule of your grandfather Hadrian what a number of soldiers were killed by the … Britons”.

The more important, including high-status, archaeological finds  from Roman London are on exhibition in the City’s principal museums, that is to say, the  Museum of London on London Wall, the British Museum in Bloomsbury in the West End, and the Victoria and Albert in South Kensington.   The Museum of London houses a particularly extensive collection of finds in its Roman gallery, including an excellent  display of those from the Temple of Mithras.  It also features fine scale models of the Roman London Bridge and waterfront, the Basilica and Forum,  and the Huggin Hill bath-house; and reconstructions of a kitchen from a high-status Roman house, and of two formal dining rooms, or triclinia (sing., triclinium), complete with mosaics. 

Tessellated pavement, All Hallows Barking

There are also  interesting displays of in situ Roman tessellated pavements and of associated finds in the crypts of the churches of All Hallows Barking, on Byward Street, and St Bride, off Fleet Street (and a fragment of ex situ tessellated pavement in  St Vedast-alias-Foster, Foster Lane, that was originally discovered 18’ below the floor of St Matthew Friday Street when it was demolished in 1886).  All Hallows Barking also features a fine dioramic reconstruction of Roman London (made before the Amphitheatre was discoved). 

Timber from Roman wharf, St Magnus the Martyr

Part of a  timber from one the Roman wharves stands outside St Magnus the Martyr on Lower Thames Street.  Another part of the same timber has recently been dendrochronologically dated to 62 or 63 (that is,  immediately  after the Boudiccan Revolt).  The commonest Roman  finds on the foreshore of the Thames are everyday items such as sherds of pottery, fragments of roofing or hypocaust tile, and coins, alongside beads, bone pins and gaming pieces.   More rarely, lamps  are also found, as are individual “tesserae”.

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