Category Archives: Roman London

Ambresbury Banks and Loughton Camp, Epping Forest (Iron Age enclosures)

In the timeless wilds of Epping Forest lie the remains of two partially-preserved prehistoric earthworks:

Ambresbury Banks, a little over a mile north-west of Theydon  Bois;

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and Loughton Camp, a mile north-north-west of Loughton – at the end of a muddy slalom!

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Both are banked and ditched enclosures with areas of around 4 hectares.  When they were built, the banks would have been 3m high and the ditches 3m deep.  They are believed to have been built by Ancient Britons during  the Iron Age, circa 500BC.  They are further believed to have built to mark the boundary between the tribal areas of the Catuvellauni to the west and Trinovantes to the east, or as lookout posts, or defensive positions, or livestock pens, or some combination of any or all of the aforementioned.

They remained in use at least until the Roman period.  According to local legend, Ambresbury Banks was where the Iceni  Queen Boudicca made her final stand against the Romans in 61AD.

The notorious highwayman Dick Turpin is rumoured to have had a hideout in Loughton Camp in the eighteenth century.

Buried Treasures of Greenwich Park

Greenwich was first recorded in 964 as Grenewic, from the Old English grene, meaning green, in context grassy or vegetated, and wic, meaning trading settlement or harbour.

Bronze Age and or Saxon burial mounds

Among the many features of historical or archaeological note in Greenwich Park – a World Heritage Site – are approximately fifty  rather eroded burial mounds or barrows on Croom’s Hill, a little to the west of the line of the Prime Meridian.  Archaeological excavations on the burial mounds have unearthed swords, shields and other pagan grave goods dating to  the seventh century, i.e., the Saxon period.  It is possible, though,  that the barrows themselves were originally of Bronze Age construction, a number of instances of such re-use having been recorded elsewhere in England (as in Howard William’s “Death and Memory in early Medieval Britain”).   Note in this context that there is a demonstrably Bronze Age barrow known as the “Shrewsbury Tumulus”  on nearby Shooters Hill.

Romano-Celtic temple

Also in Greenwich Park, near the junction between  Bower Avenue and Great Cross Avenue, are the remains of a second- to third- (or fourth-) century Romano-Celtic pagan temple.  A dig on the site by Channel 4’s “Time Team”, in collaboration with Birkbeck College, in 1999, turned up a number of interesting finds, including part of a statue, and a stone bearing an inscription to the god Jupiter and to the spirits of the Emperors.

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Temple reconstruction

The dig also revealed enough of the foundation of the temple, in the form of a central principal building or cella and surrounding covered walkway or ambulatory, and  outer  walled precinct or temenos,   to enable it to be reconstructed.  The cella clearly had a tessellated floor and painted plaster walls.

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The temple would have stood at a strategically important high point adjacent to the principal Roman road from Kent into London, Watling Street, possible stretches  of which have also been recorded nearby.

 

 

The Roman London Mithraeum (Temple of Mithras)

The Roman London Mithraeum (Temple of Mithras) was originally built in the early third century, circa 220-40, and abandoned in the fourth, when Christianity came to replace paganism throughout the Roman Empire, the remains only coming to light again during rebuilding after the Blitz.

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The temple was reconstructed on Queen Victoria Street in 1962.

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It has recently been reconstructed again – inside a specially designed  space in the Bloomberg Building – on Walbrook.

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Some of the finds from the recent archaeological dig on and around the temple site may be viewed in the Bloomberg Space.

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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.

Mithras and Mithraism

Mithras, sometimes referred to as the “pagan Christ”,  was originally a Persian god, from the Zoroastrian pantheon, believed to be an assistant of the powers of good in their struggle against those of evil, who served to slay a bull created by evil, from the blood of which all life sprang  (*).  He   eventually came to be identified with the Unconquered Sun, or Sol Invictus, and to epitomise purity, honesty, and moral and physical courage (whence, presumably, his supposed popularity with Roman soldiers).

Mithraism, the practice and mystery cult of Mithras  worship, as by then distinct from Zoroastrianism,  came to Rome in around the first century BCE, and spread throughout much of the Roman Empire by the first century AD, becoming most widespread in the third. It was practised in specially dedicated temples or “Mithraea” (sing., “Mithraeum”), many of which were underground (because Mithras slew the  bull underground, in a cave).

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(*) Carved reliefs of the bull-slaying – or “tauroctony” – are  characteristic  features of Mithraean iconography

The London Mithraeum (Temple of Mithras)

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According to the temporary outdoor exhibition entitled “The Lost City of London” (yes, really), the recently-reconstructed  London Mithraeum in the basement of the Bloomberg building on Walbrook will be opening to the public later this autumn.

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Finds from recent archaeological excavations on and around the site will also be available for viewing.

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Finds from earlier excavations – undertaken in the immediate post-war period – may be viewed in the Roman gallery in the Museum of London.

Streatham

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Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …

Streatham was first founded in the Saxon period, possibly on the site of an earlier, Roman settlement.  It was first recorded in 675 as (Totinge cum) Stretham, and later recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Estreham, from the Old English straet, in this context probably the Roman road that ran from London to Portslade (near Brighton), and ham, meaning homestead or village.  In  the Saxon period it, together with nearby Tooting, was owned by the Abbey of Chertsey.  In the Norman period, both estates were  given by William I to his cousin Richard of Tonbridge, who when he died bequeathed them  to the Abbey of Saint Mary  of Bec in Normandy (whence Tooting Bec).  In the later Medieval to post-Medieval/early modern period, the area came to be owned in turn by Eton College, Edward VI, the Howland family,  the Russell family (the Dukes of Bedford), and the Du Cane family, and  remained sparsely populated.  Many wealthy City families evidently established country retreats here after the Great Fire of London in 1666.  The area remained at least semi-rural, and fashionable among the bourgeois elite, into Georgian and Regency times.  It began to become much more built-up and densely populated from  the latter half of the nineteenth century onwards, after the arrival of the railway.  The number of inhabitants increased over ten-fold during the period of Victoria’s reign, to around 100000.  A significant amount of new or replacement housing had to be built in the area after the  bombing of the Second World War.

Church of St Leonard

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The church of St Leonard was probably originally built in the Saxon period; rebuilt in the fourteenth century, in c. 1350; rebuilt again in the nineteenth century, in 1830-1; and restored in the twentieth, after sustaining serious damage in a fire, in 1975.  The  tower survives from the Medieval church.  A number of seventeenth- to eighteenth- century memorials also survive, in the interior, including one to John Howland (d. 1686), and one to  the sometime brewery business proprietor, Alderman and Sheriff of the City of London, and Member of Parliament Henry Thrale of Streatham Place (d. 1781), featuring an epitaph by his close friend Dr Samuel Johnson.

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Later stained-glass windows commemorate Sir John Ward, a knight who fought alongside the Black Prince at the Battle of Crecy in 1346, and who commissioned the rebuilding of the church in c. 1350; Edmund Tilney or Tylney, the Master of the Revels under Elizabeth I and James I, who lived locally  and died in 1610; and the aforementioned  Henry Thrale and his wife Hester (shown with Johnson and Boswell).

 

Mitcham

Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …

Mitcham was first recorded in 727 as Micham, and in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Michelham, from the Old English micel, meaning large, and ham, meaning homestead or village.   It was evidently originally settled even earlier, though, there being here not only a large Anglo-Saxon pagan cemetery dating to the late fifth to sixth century, but also the remains of Roman and even Prehistoric farmsteads.

In the early post-Medieval period, Mitcham became popular among the wealthy as a place in which to build rural retreats, and Elizabeth I is known to have been entertained here a number of times in the late sixteenth century.   Industrialisation may be  said to have begun  in the seventeenth century, with the establishment of calico bleaching and printing works here, although until as late as the eighteenth to early nineteenth, the cultivation of herbs was also to remain an important activity.  Urbanisation did not really begin until after the arrival of the tramway in the late nineteenth century, and the last of the market gardens remained until the mid-twentieth.  Mitcham is now part of the London Borough of Merton.

Church of St Peter and St Paul (Mitcham Parish Church)

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The church of St Peter and St Paul was originally built at least as long ago as the thirteenth century, circa 1250, and possibly as long ago as the Saxon period.  It was subsequently substantially rebuilt in the early nineteenth century, between 1819-22,  by the local master-craftsman John Chart, to the design of George Smith.  Essentially only the base of the tower still survives from the Medieval church.

Shadwell

Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …

Shadwell was first recorded in 1222 as Schadewelle, from the Old English sceald, meaning shallow, and wella, meaning spring or stream (*).  In 1228, the Canons of St Paul’s were granted land here.  There was little or no habitation here in the Medieval period.  However,  by the early post-Medieval, sixteenth century, there was a  tidal mill.  And by the late post-Medieval, seventeenth century, there was a thriving maritime industrial town, with wharves, roperies, smithies, tanneries, breweries and taverns.  Records indicate that there were some  8000 people living here by  the end of the seventeenth century,  many of them mariners, watermen or lightermen.  There were 8000 houses here by the end of the eighteenth century, and a wretched poor slum by the nineteenth, which was cleared in the twentieth.  Shadwell is now part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

Church of St Paul

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The church of St Paul, “the Church of Sea Captains”, was originally built as a chapel-of-ease in 1656, and subsequently rebuilt as a parish church in 1669, and again, as one of the “Waterloo” churches, in 1820 (by the architect John Walters).

The American President Thomas Jefferson’s mother Jane Randolph was baptised here in 1720; Captain Cook’s son James, in 1763.

(*) Some significant Roman archaeological finds have also been found here, including the remains of a port and a signal tower.  Roman burials were unearthed  here during the development of the seventeenth century.