Greenwich

THE ROMANS

Just like with prehistory, if you have read the Blackheath page on the Romans then you can skip this section and click down to the Romans and Greenwich section.

 

The Romans first landed in Britain in 55 BC. They failed to conquer our ancestors and tried again in 54 BC, where they failed for a second time. It’s quite possible that the first landing by Julius Caesar was a scoping exercise rather than an attempt to overthrow the Britons. 

Roman Invasion Briton

Our successes didn’t last, though. In AD 43, the Roman Emperor, Claudius, ordered four legions to conquer Britain, which they did, far too successfully.

It’s believed, from Julius Caesar’s own account and from archaeological digs, that the Roman’s first landed at Richborough (Rutupiae)[1] near Sandwich. Why they chose to land in Kent is a mystery, but historians have suggested the coast could have been the closest, most expansive and open landing site for such a large army (each legion would have had around 4,000-6,000 men and four arrived in AD 43).[2]

There is also a suggestion that the Romans knew before they tried to conquer us that land around Kent was rich in ragstone, which they used to create their incredible buildings and structures.[3]

Battle after battle was fought, and Britons tried to use the Thames, our great river, to their advantage. What they didn’t account for was that the Romans not only swam across the river in full armour, but they had shipped with them – across the Channel – big imposing war elephants. The locals, who had seen nothing larger than a cow before, must have been pretty freaked out by the sight.[4]

Roman War Elephant

THE ROMAN ROAD TO VICTORY

Around AD 85, a 25-metre-high marble-clad arch was erected overlooking the harbour of Richborough – a declaration of conquest and an imposing sight for new arrivals. The road now known as Watling Street began its journey under the arch, passing through Canterbury (Durovernum) and Rochester (Durobrivae) on its way to London (Londinium).[5]

Romans Roads England

Watling Street’s name comes from the Anglo‐Saxon Wæcelinga Stræt, meaning ‘the street of the people of Wæcel.’[6] However, the original name given by the Romans and Britons is unknown. 

 

The trackway that the Romans used, wide and grassy, had been in use by the Britons for centuries, so the Romans can’t claim ownership of it. During Sir Christopher Wren’s rebuilding of St Mary-le-Bow in 1671–73, following the Great Fire, the London portion of Watling Street was rediscovered. However, there is still debate about how close the original road came to Blackheath and whether it really did come down over Shooter’s Hill.

Watling Street Route Through Blackheath

GREENWICH AND THE ROMANS

'The Roman occupation of Greenwich Park, judging from the numerous coins and other remains which have been found, must have taken place shortly after their first visit to Britain, and extended over a period of fully four hundred years.'[7]

There have been quite a few archaeological finds over the years in Greenwich, or close by. In 1803, in Dartmouth House, burial urns were dug up, and Roman coins, a stone coffin and a 'gold piece' from the first century have all been found near the Admiral's lawn at the Old Royal Naval College.[8]

In 1902, under the supervision of Greenwich Park's superintendent, an excavation was started. Those involved weren't looking for Roman remains, they were doing routine park work. The location of the remains can be found on the Maze Hill side of Greenwich Park.

 
Roman Remains Greenwich Park

During the excavation, 'Three floor surfaces were revealed. One of these was part of a tessellated pavement (small squares of tile set in mortar).'[9]  Also found were:

  • Fragments of stone inscriptions

  • Painted wall plaster

  • The right arm of a near life-size limestone statue

  • Pottery including decorated Samian ware (mostly 2nd century from central Gaul)

  • More than 300 coins dating from the 1st to 5th centuries

During 1978 and 1979, another excavation took place after the removal of some diseased elm trees. It's believed that more parts of the building discovered were a Roman-Celtic temple.[10]

In 1999, Channel Four's Time Team, along with Burbeck University and the Museum of London, undertook another dig that lasted three days. During the dig, the following was found:

  • 101 coins from the 3rd and 4th centuries

  • A marble tablet inscribed with three lines of text

  • Stamped tile

  • Painted plaster

  • Animal bone

  • Pottery

  • Evidence of buildings east of the mound

According to Historic England, the Romano-Celtic temple was built and in use by AD 100. It retains its main temple building and was in use until about AD 400.

Roman Temple Greenwich Park

While Greenwich may not have been one of the greatest or largest Roman settlements, we know they were definitely settled in our area – and settled enough to build a sacred temple. We also know that Watling Street, the Roman road from Dover to London, came past or through Greenwich, so perhaps there is more to find, and more archaeological digs will take place in the future. 

Citations

[1] https://webapps.kent.gov.uk/KCC.ExploringKentsPast.Web.Sites.Public/SingleResult.aspx?uid=Tke1062

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/topics/zwmpfg8/articles/zqbnfg8

[3] Elliott, Simon. Ragstone to Riches: Imperial Estates, Metalla and the Roman Military in the South East of Britain during the Occupation. Oxford, 2018. Print. BAR British Ser; 638.

[4] Crane, Nicholson. The Making of the British Landscape: From Ice Age to the Present. p.193

[5] https://bitaboutbritain.com/roman-place-names-and-sites/

[6]  A Dictionary of British History (3 ed.) John Cannon and Robert Crowcroft Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2015

[7] Duncan. A. The History of Greenwich Park and its Associations. Greenwich.  H Richardson, 1902

[8] Platt, Beryl, A History of Greenwich. London. Procter Press. 1973

[9] https://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/greenwich-park/things-to-see-and-do/ancient-greenwich/roman-remains

[10] ibid.

General Reading

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1021439

https://www.friendsofgreenwichpark.org.uk/The-Park/Geology-and-Prehistory/index.asp