• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

The Fall of Verulamium & Ascent of St Alban

“[Abbot Ulsinus] loved the district and people of St Albans and looked after their interests. He brought the people from the surrounding area together and made them live in the town itself, providing and enlarging a market place. He helped them construct buildings by providing money and materials. He built the churches of St Peter to the north, St Stephen to the south and St Michael to the West.”[1]

Roman wall and cathedral

This brief reference to the foundation of a “new town” on the site of modern St Albans on the north side of the river Ver, close to the Abbey of St Alban, was recorded over three centuries later by the historian-monk Matthew Paris. It marks the final depopulation of Roman Verulamium, once one of the largest and most prosperous towns of Roman Britain. With the loss of nearly all its inhabitants, the abbey was not slow to realise the value of the abandoned town as a convenient source of building material. Paris, for instance, noted an underground water system, anchors, boats, ruined temples, as well as overturned altars and statues.

No doubt an important reason for this monastic interest in the town’s Roman past was related to an entry in the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum written by Bede in the early eighth century. The Anglo-Saxon clearly stated that the Christian martyr Alban was not only an inhabitant of Verulamium but that he was put to death just outside the town and buried there too. Seventy years after Bede’s death Offa extended his kingdom to include St Albans. Bones were swiftly discovered, triumphantly identified as those of the martyr and a monastery was established on the site of the martyrdom.

Map of the city

The monastery and its cult of St Alban flourished throughout the Middle Ages. Indeed, the election in 1249 of a local man – Nicholas Breakspear – as Pope Hadrian IV led to St Albans acquiring the status of the premier abbey in England. Evidence of its importance is recorded in the Gesta Abbatum Sancti Albani, an account of the abbey from the date of its foundation in AD 793.

Thanks to the fact medieval (and modern) St Albans grew up on the site of the saint’s martyrdom (roughly half a mile to the NE of Verulamium), the Roman town has been left relatively exposed compared to other post-Roman settlements buried beneath later buildings. This allowed countless antiquaries such as John Leland, William Camden, John Shrimpton and William Stukeley to observe the remainders of mosaics, walls and “palaces.” Sadly, many met awful ends at the hands of locals. One such occasion was recorded by Joshua Webster in 1746 who sketched a mosaic only to find it immediately smashed by the “… concourse of people who had gathered… in hopes of finding hidden treasure underneath it.”

Mosaic floor insula XXI showing lion carrying stag's head

Fortunately, there’s enough material to reconstruct most of the Roman town’s details. Not least that it was established close to a river crossing. In the later first century a metalled surface replaced the brushwood causeway and this continued to carry the road out of Verulamium and across the marsh until the mid-second century. The biggest surprise is that it was a much smaller settlement (covering not more than 28 acres) than is traditionally thought to have existed at the time of Boudiccan revolt (thanks in large part to Tacitus’ account that claimed 70,000 rebels perished in the town).[2]

Crucial to the development of post-Boudiccan Verulamium was the rise of London. In the pre-Roman period the main route for imports from the continent had been between the mouth of the Rhine and the Thames estuary and Essex coast. This must have accounted for the importance of Camulodunum (Colchester) at the end of the Iron Age. All this changed, however, in the middle years of the first century AD when the future capital developed at speed. The city lies only 20 miles south-east of Verulamium; a day’s march for the army and a day’s journey for pack-horse and wagons. Furthermore, in the Roman period two major routes from London to the north and west diverged at Verulamium. Akeman Street led to Cirencester, Gloucester and south Wales. Watling Street ran directly from London (beyond that from Dover and Richborough) and continued to Chester.

Statuette of Mercury with cockerel, ram & tortoise

In the centre of town was the Forum/Basilica complex. Today it lies buried beneath St Michael’s church and vicarage. It is clear from an inscription – beautifully cut on large slabs of Purbeck marble – that it was completed during Agricola’s governorship (78-85) and covered a double insula, giving it a total area of over 2,000 sq metres. Consisting of a large colonnaded courtyard with a temple opening off its SW side and a smaller curia at its south corner; a second temple was built at the west corner (in the late-second century) and basilica stood on the north-east side of the court.

A flint and mortar conduit brought water from the Ver to the north of insula XVII and probably supplied fountains along Watling Street (as parts of two large Purbeck marble basins have been recorded in insulae XVII and VIII). Timber water pipes from insulae II, XVIII and XVIII suggest that the lower lying insulae had piped water too. Other features included bath-houses and a large macellum (market hall) which was located in insula XVII and covered an area of 400 sq metres, as well as temples and a theatre.[3] The latter was typical of the provincial Romano-Gallic type. Instead of a semi-circular auditorium/cavea facing a large stage with a small central area (the orchestra), the stage was small and the wings of the cavea extended in a horseshoe manner.

Roman walls

In their day both the London and Chester gates were imposing structures designed to impress. Entering the London Gate, travellers would have been confronted by an enormous gatehouse with flint and mortar walls that were faced with sandstone and a monumental inscription. Once in the town, the road led to Cybele’s temple whose role, among others, was the protection of towns.[4] Indeed, the temple had an external altar facing the fork where the diagonal line of Watling street joined the main street grid of the city.

Beyond it were the massive walls of the domed public baths. North-west of the baths stood the Forum/Basilica complex. One building included a frieze painted with alternating pheasants and panther/leopard faces enclosed by an acanthus scroll. Travellers and locals would have relieved themselves at one of the public latrines. A large (7m long) one with timber seats has been excavated (which was clearly commercially successful as a second building was later added). Visitors finally left Verulamium through the Chester Gate, the twin of its London counterpart.

Aerial view taken in July 1976 of Verulamium theatre

Between 155-160 a huge fire swept through the lower part of the town. Over 30 major buildings were destroyed including the forum, basilica and baths (although almost everything was rebuilt). Interestingly, much of the grain contained in one of the granaries in insula XIII was sprouting when burned. This may simply have been due to bad storage but it is more likely that it was used to make beer, which was drunk extensively in the Roman Empire (“Celtic” beer was one of the products listed in Diocletian’s price-fixing edict).

In the early third century – when the “Crisis” afflicted most of the empire – Verulamium enjoyed unrivalled prosperity. Beautiful bronzes were cast, luxurious villas and town houses built and the Ver was canalised. A new gate, Silchester Gate, was constructed in the south-west part of the town. Today it’s the wall that provides the starkest reminder of the town’s Roman past. Originally it covered a total length of 2.2 miles and enclosed 81ha. It was 2.5m thick and over 4m high with a crenellated walk-way along the top. Faced with flint and tile levelling courses at vertical intervals of 1m, its towers and bastions were only positioned along the south corner of town. In other words, they probably served no other purpose than to impress folk approaching from London. Indeed, prestige or civic competition must have counted for something as the fortifications required approximately 66,000 tons of flint.

C2nd mosaic from insula IV showing a horned god: either a water god with lobster claws or more likely a woodland deity with animal horns

In c. 275 a new row of shops was built along the Watling Street frontage in insula XIV. Parts of the same street were resurfaced. The theatre had similar repairs c. 345. Piazzas were re-gravelled c. 378. Some of the temples received new entrances c. 388. South-west of Verulamium, villas were provided with new bath-suites. At Gadesbridge the villa was provided with an open air swimming pool. In the fifth-century a was built that contained a mosaic floor and hypocaust.

Even in Bede’s day a Romano-British church still stood at Verulamium. Indeed, it was famous enough to attract visitors. Three late Roman buildings have been interpreted as churches but the most likely contender lies just outside the town on the Verulam Hills field. The building, at least six metres long, had a semi-circular apse at its north-west end and was located to the north-west of a small third-century inhumation cemetery.

Reused roman tiles in the C11th tower of the cathedral and abbey church of St Alban. It is possible the pillars also derive from the Roman town

The main evidence for an early Christian community comes not from archaeological evidence, however, but documentary sources. The evidence for Alban comes from four early sources: the Passio Albani, the Vita sancti Germani by Constantius of Lyons, Gildas and Bede. The Passio Albani survives in three versions, one of which describes Alban’s martyrdom as taking place under a “severus imperator” which is variously translated as the emperor Severus (192-211) or the “harsh emperor.” Some scholars have argued that the who passage allows for the execution to be dated to 211 when Severus was in Britain. Others aren’t convinced.

Another early reference to Alban comes in Constantius’ Vita which he wrote in Gaul at the end of the fifth century. Constantius described the visit by St Germanus (bishop of Auxerre) to Britain in 429. The purpose of his visit was to suppress the Pelagian heresy which had attracted many supporters in Britain. After successfully confronting the bishops in an unnamed town (possibly London), Germanus proceeded to the the site of St Alban’s martyrdom and burial. The Passio contains details of the martyrdom that could easily apply to the town:

One of the earliest mosaics from Verulamium showing an urn and two dolphins from a house in insula XXVIII destroyed in Antonine fire of 155-60

“He was led like a lamb to the slaughter to a place where a fast flowing river rain between the city wall and the arena where he was to be execute… as he passed to the far bank he saw a considerable amount of people… drawn by divine purpose… so many that it was hardly possible for them to cross the bridge that evening… Meanwhile, the holy martyr with the crowd climbed a hill which rose up in a very pleasant and suitable way about five hundred paces from the bank/arena.”[5]

The earliest source that mentions Verulamium in connection with Alban is Gildas in the middle of the sixth century. Gildas tells us Alban was a citizen of Verulamium but does not say he was martyred there. It is not until Bede that we get the explicit statement that Alban was executed and buried at Verulamium. There is, however, evidence that a later Roman cemetery church may have been established on or near the site on which the medieval abbey of St Alban was established. Not least the fact it lies 500 paces outside the Roman town, on the other side of the river, and on the brow of the hill.

[1] Trans. Niblett, R. H. from an entry in the Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani, Vol 1, 20, Riley H. T. (ed.), 1867, Rolls Society.

[2] It is difficult to imagine more than 1,000 inhabitants in Boudiccan Verulamium. A century later the population may have risen to 5,000 and at certain times of the year this figure could have been doubled with the addition of seasonal residents and itinerant workers.

[3] One stood on the south-west side of the forum and was dedicated to Rome. Another in the west corner was probably dedicated to the imperial cult. These were the only classical temples in town. They stood on raised podia and would have consisted of a rectangular cella surrounded by a portico with a triangular pediment facing the forum court. Though there was also a classical shrine that stood just outside the London gate too. All the other temples were of the Romano-Celtic type with a central cella surrounded by a portico. Little bronze models found in one may indicate that others were dedicated to Minerva and Mercury.

[4] Its votive pits contained the burnt seeds and scales from pinecones of the Italian pine. Pine cones figured in the rituals associated with Cybele and her consort Attis. Given the species is not natural in Britain, the cones or the tree(s) must have been imported.

[5] Passio Albani (Turin version) trans. R. H. Niblett.

431 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All