Thetford, chapter 2: Of the city under the Romans

An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2. Originally published by W Miller, London, 1805.

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Francis Blomefield, 'Thetford, chapter 2: Of the city under the Romans', in An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2, (London, 1805) pp. 7-14. British History Online [accessed 29 May 2024].

Francis Blomefield. "Thetford, chapter 2: Of the city under the Romans", in An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2, (London, 1805) 7-14. British History Online, accessed May 29, 2024,

Blomefield, Francis. "Thetford, chapter 2: Of the city under the Romans", An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2, (London, 1805). 7-14. British History Online. Web. 29 May 2024,


Of the City Under the Romans.

In the next place, then, let us see where the Romans, at their coming, found this city of Sitomagus placed, and in what condition it is likely to be, before, and during the time they possessed it. As to the first, without doubt that ancient city was wholly on the Suffolk side of the river, and was not then fortified; but after the Romans once settled here, they, according to their wise custom, made it a place of some strength, by enclosing it with an intrenchment, and making two fortresses, one at each end of the city; the first, close by that ford, or most frequented passage over the river, from whence the city had its name, and the other, at the western extremity of the city, to guard another ford that was the passage for that end of it, both which fortresses, and great part of the intrenchment or city ditch, are very visible at this time, and plainly discover to us its extent and situation during the Romans possession of it. The ford from whence it derives its name, is the place now called the Nuns Bridges, where the great Roman way crossed directly through the Market-street end, up to Kilverstone, it being not only, before that part of the town was built, but long before the present Castle-Hill (through the ramparts of which the present road passes) was thrown up; directly upon this ford, (as Mr. Salmon rightly observed,) is the first of the afore-mentioned fortresses, or military agger, (as he properly calls it,) (fn. 1) which comes very near the river, and hath the site of St. George's nunnery on its east side: much of this agger is now lately lost, great quantities of it being carried away to improve the adjacent low meadows. From this fortress the intrenchment, in all probability, went up to that field in which a windmill lately stood, but is now removed, and enclosing that field, crossed the London road, and so met that large intrenchment or ditch which runs directly down to the second castle, aforementioned, now called Red-Castle, or more probably, as sometimes spelled RedeCastle. Here is a plain fortress, its rampart and ditch being still perfect. This entirely guarded the other ford, which to this day is called Dichenford, that is, the ford at the dic, ditch, or intrenchment; and it being plain that the road on the other side of the river was never a very large one, there being no appearance of its ever being so, shew me clearly that this was not the ford that gave the city its name, but only a convenient passage for the inhabitants of that part of it. The castle, for so I may venture to call it, in strict speaking, was certainly built in the middle of the present intrenchment, and whether it received its name from the red colour of the bricks it might be adorned with, or whether it is more properly Rede Castle, from its being situated by a low place, that abounded with reeds, (to which the situation corresponds,) I cannot determine; but certain I am, that it was standing long since, either the time of the Romans or Danes, as I am convinced, by what Mr. Thomas Martin, the curious searcher of the antiquities of this place found, when he dug here, viz. the foundations of buildings and a large stone coffin, with a perfect skeleton in it, the form of which resembling that of the common stone coffins that we find, is a plain indication that it was buried since those times, the Romans never using any, but direct chests, without any other shape, to bury in, if they buried any bodies in coffins at all, which I much doubt; the sarcophagus (as I think) was not a coffin to bury the body in, (as some would have it,) but, as Dr. Holyoke, in his Dictionary rightly explains it, it was, "Loculus, in quo caro defuncti consumitur;" the loculus or coffin that the body was consumed or burned in; and indeed I believe that such stone chests as are sometimes, but rarely, found, were not used by the Romans, as many imagine, but rather by the Danes, after they had got footing in this isle; and what induces me to think so is, because what few have been found of that make, are in such places where it is well known they had settled themselves; now this being of the common shape, we must infer that it was buried in the chapel within the castle walls, (which was a very small one, as the foundations shew us,) since the time, not only of the Romans, but the Danes also. Though I am apt to conclude, that in this very place, before the light of the Gospel shone here, there had been some religious rites paid to the heathen gods by way of sacrifice, as the many bones of beasts which were found three feet deeper than the coffin, discover to us. I am very sensible it must seem strange to most people, that there should be no remains of the walls of this castle above ground, or that there should be no memorial left of the time when it was thus levelled. All this may be; but if I may give a guess at the reason of it, it will not only shew us why there are no walls left, but also when they were thus destroyed; and then, considering the time, I believe, most people will wonder that the hills themselves should not have been as much decayed and ploughed down, as those of the other castle are, considering there was nothing to hinder it. Indeed, I am apt to think, the other fortress had a castle in it as well as this, especially considering it was the capital one, but it lying more exposed by the great passage, might for that reason be sooner taken away and levelled by degrees than this; but I do not take that to have been the reason why they were entirely demolished, nor why there are so little remains of any ruins, upon the part where this ancient city stood, but rather the following one; Red-Castle belonged to, and stood in, the fee of the Earl Warren, who, in King Stephen's time, founded the canons of the order of the Holy Sepulchre, (fn. 2) a little distance north-east of this castle, and, I imagine, entirely demolished it with whatever else he found in decay, (as most of that end of the town must then be,) to build the great church, mansion, and other convenient buildings, for the canons that he placed there; and in like manner, I suppose the other castle was entirely levelled by the Abbot of Bury, to build the church, mansion, and other houses, for the religious of his foundation, which he placed close by the east side of that fortress, where the Place now stands. I may add also, that it is not unlikely, when this part decayed, by the town's passing the river, but that the bishop's mansion, and the cathedral church of the Holy Trinity, with other parish churches, chapels, and religious places, might be built out of them, this being the only way that I can account for there being no ruins to be seen of any buildings at all, that exceed the Conquest. And I must own I am at some loss to conceive how the churches that were in this part, such as St. Etheldred, St. Margaret, &c. that we know the sites of, should be so far gone in such a time as 200 years and less, as not to have a stone remaining visible above the ground, and the very place they stood on but little higher than the rest of the earth, which could happen no other way, I should think, but by removing their ruins to make way for the plough, which, by constant use, hath reduced them almost to an entire level with the rest of the ground; though, if we dig lower than the plough goes, we can easily trace their foundations. And now, in the next place, let us consider at what time the Romans seem to have come and settled here. Indeed it appears to me that it was very early, because the coins found here are chiefly those of the largest size, and of the oldest emperors. Sixty years before Christ, (fn. 3) Caius Julius Cœsar landed in Britain, and lost good part of his army in the first encounter he met with, upon which, leaving some of the remaining part, he crossed over again into Gaul, and having got together 600 vessels, returned to Britain, where he was warmly received by the Britons, one of his tribunes being slain in the first engagement, and his army much vexed, (as they passed the Thames at a fordable place,) by the Britons having struck sharp stakes into the ground, which did not appear above the water, but were very troublesome to the Romans, who came upon them unawares: after this, they fled into the woods, and though Cœsar did take several of their chief towns, having first subdued their inhabitants, before he returned into Gaul, yet I am of Tacitus's opinion, that he was so far from conquering Britain, that he may properly be said to have only shewn it to the Romans, for so far was he from twice passing through Britain, as Velleius Paterculus asserts, that Lucan tells us directly, that he fled from those Britons whom his arms had sought:

Territa quœsitis ostendit terga Britannis.

If it be objected that this poet is looked upon as too hard upon Cœsar, Horace will tell us that the Britons, instead of being conquered, were not meddled withall:

Intactus aut Britannus ut descenderet Sacra catenatus via.

Or Britons yet untouch'd in chains should come To grace thy triumph through the streets of Rome.

And though afterwards the land was more known to the Romans, yet they had no settled habitations here, and no one had attempted to invade Britain, since Julius Cœsar, till that runagate Briton, the ambitious Bericus, persuaded Claudius to invade it, so that without doubt till this time the Romans were not in the least acquainted or concerned at Sitomagus, or Thetford; but in the 46th year after Christ, according to the Saxon Chronicle, and in the 4th year of his reign, Claudius Cœsar entered this land, and subdued it to the Roman empire; in the beginning of his expedition, it seems to me he had possession of this city, for Tacitus tells us, that the potent nation of the Iceni at first sought alliance with the Romans.

Claudius did not stay long in Britain, and soon after his return, Ostorius, his proprætor or lieutenant, soon found his affairs in disorder, and therefore prepared to disarm all the allies that he was suspicious of; but the Iceni, a potent nation, not yet diminished by wars, having been hitherto in alliance with the Romans, could not brook this, as the same historian assures us, and by their example, the neighbouring nations rose likewise, and incamped in a proper place, fencing themselves in with a rampier of earth thrown up for that purpose, and so became accessible by a narrow passage only, in order to prevent the entrance of the Roman horse; but the Roman general forced the rampier and disordered the enemy, pent up and hindered by their own intrenchments; however, the Romans acknowledge, to the honour of our countrymen, that they bravely defended themselves, though they were sensible their escape was impossible. By this defeat of the Iceni, other states, then wavering, were settled: and immediately after this battle it was, as I apprehend, that the Romans planted themselves all over Norfolk, Suffolk, &c. the country of the Iceni, (for by that name the people of Norfolk, Suffolk, and part of of Cambridgeshire were then known,) and settled colonies, camps, stations, &c. in order to keep their new-conquered country in subjection; and at this time it was, in all likelihood, that they settled at Sitomagus, and then raised the fortresses, or castles, and the intrenchment or rampart round the city, as a guard, in case of any more such risings. And from this time, I look upon it, all our Roman camps, intrenchments, and fortifications whatsoever in these counties, took their beginning, as the Venta Icenorum, the old Gariononum, the two Castors, and the many other camps and stations for divers companies, that were placed as defences of the country, both by sea and land, though without doubt some of them were afterwards raised, according as they found it proper, in order to have them within due distance one of another, and in such camps as these it is, that we find such number of the small coins of the lower emperors, and few or none of the higher at all, as I observe in the coins found here, and those at Icklingham in Suffolk, which I take to have been one of those later camps, there being few or none of the old emperors coins found there, and not many but of the small size, even of the late ones, whereas, there are few of the small size found here, and scarce any but of the older emperors, and those of the largest size, so that this city seems to have flourished most under Claudius, Nero, (fn. 4) Vespasian, Domitian, Trajan, and Antoninus Pius, of all which pretty many are found here, but especially of the latter, in whose time it seems to have been at the greatest height it ever was, during the time of the Romans being its masters, though it continued a Roman city as long, I believe, as they continued in the land, yet, for what reason I know not, the neighbouring camp at Icklingham seems to have increased, and this to have decreased, coins of all the emperors from Antoninus Pius to the later emperors being found there in such abundant numbers, and but very few here. And thus this city continued under the Roman empire till the year 435 after our Saviour's birth, when that fully expired in Britain, it being the 476th year from Cœsar's coming in, when, under the government of Valentinian the Third, the Roman forces were exported by Gallio, for the service of France, and having buried their treasures, and bereft Britain of her youth, by frequent musters, they left her incapable of defence, and a prey to the ravage and barbarity of the Picts and Scots. (fn. 5) And thus having given you the best account I am capable of concerning this city during the time of the Romans, I shall only add to this head, an account of some few coins I have now before me, that were found here.

The first was given me, it being one only of a great number that were sold to a brazier for old brass, of whom I had it. The word Caesar being so very plain, made him take it from the rest, which were not so plain as this; it is of the largest size, and very fair, the circumscription this,


The reverse is a womau standing upright, holding her gown with one hand, and her other arm is held straight out; but it is so imperfect just in that place, that I cannot presume to say whether it is a crown or no that she holds; the circumscription is,
and under her feet, S. C. This coin, as I take it, was struck by decree of the Senate, at the Empress's request, when he had conquered the Iceni, in the aforementioned battle, in hope of a continuance of the good fortune he had already met with. The circumscription is this, Tiberius Claudius Caesar, Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, Tribunitia Potestate - - Imperator. That is, Tiberius Claudius Caesar, Augustus, High Priest and Emperor, having the Tribunitian power. The reverse is, Spes Augustae, or Augusta's Hope, and S. C. at the bottom denotes Senatus Consulto, that is, that the coin was struck by decree of the Roman Senate. But as I shall have occasion very often to mention the inscriptions on Roman coins, it will not be amiss once for all to explain these several titles of the emperors that we meet with, upon most of them, and this I cannot do so well as I find it already done to my hand by the learned Cambden, and his judicious translator, whose words I beg leave to make use of: "After Julius Cœsar, who laid the foundation of the Roman monarchy, all his successours in honour of him, assumed the titles of Cœsar or Augustus; as if they were above the pitch of human nature, (for things that are sacred we call august,) that also, of Pontifices Maximi, or high priests, because they were consecrated in all the kinds of priesthood, and had the oversight of all religious ceremonies: they usurped likewise the Tribunitian power, (but would not by any means be called Tribunes,) that they might be inviolable. For by virtue of this authority, if any one gave them ill language, or offered them any violence, he was to be put to death without a hearing, as a sacrilegious person. They mostly renewed this Tribunitian power every year, and some of them by it computed the years of their reign; at last, they were called Emperors, because their empire was most large and ample, and under that name was couched both the power of Kings and Dictators. And they were styled Emperors as often as they did any thing very honourable either in person or by their generals." (fn. 6)

The next is a Trajan of the largest size, round the Emperor's head is this;

The reverse is a Roman, holding a spear in one hand, and raising his other in a dictating posture, with an angel or good genius at his back, and this round it,
S. P. Q. R. O - - - - O. - - INCIPI.
which I read thus, Senatus Populusque Romanus Optimo Principi. And under the effigies, S. C. for Senatus Consulto. This, I suppose, was struck after the revolt of the Britons from this Emperor, when he had brought them to their former obedience, the reverse seeming to intimate, if I mistake not, that by his good fortune that there attends him, he was still to dictate and give laws to the subdued people. This is n the collection of Mr. Thomas Martin.

I have seen several imperfect ones of Vespatian, Domitian, and Trajan, but the name only being legible, I omit taking any further notice of them. But the most common of all are the largest size, of Antoninus Pius, of which I have now five before me, the most perfect is this,

Reverse T. R. P. - - - III. S. C. (fn. 7) having nothing more than a Roman in his proper habit, holding a spear, to intimate, perhaps, the absolute authority that people then had over the Britons. This is in my own collection; but the next is in Mr. Thomas Martin's, the word Antoninvs only being legible, though the face is very perfect, as is the reverse, which seems to be a woman, in the Roman dress, holding a spear in one hand, and making a libation upon an altar, but the circumscription is imperfect; it might be struck about the year of Christ 141, and the reverse may be, the Genius of the Romans offering to their gods, for their good fortune in subduing the Brigantes, who had then risen against them, as Speed informs us. The other three, though I think they were found here, yet not being positively certain, I shall take no notice of. And here it will not be amiss to add my thoughts, how these coins came here, and what use they were of, during the Roman government.

An. CCCCXVIII. Romane on (fn. 8) That is, "This year [1418] the Romans gathered together all their goldhoards (money and treasure) which were in Britain, (fn. 9) and some they hid in the earth, that no man might afterwards find it, and some they carried with them into France." From whence, I think, may be produced a plausible reason, at least, for the great quantity of Roman coins daily dug up in those parts where the Romans were settled. If they buried their treasure at their departure, where so likely, as at their camps and cities? And how, or to what purpose can pots full of their coins, which are often found, be supposed to be buried, unless this way? I know some will urge that these coins were scattered and buried to continue the Roman name, after they had left us, and that they were not current money, but struck in memory of the exploits of that great people; but give me leave to ask them, did they bury these pots, their altars, their gods, their valuable things of gold and silver, for this purpose? Or is it to be supposed, that that knowing people would have sown coins of gold and silver, (many of which we find,) when brass and copper would serve that turn as well? No, give me leave to say, I have greater notions of the policy of the Roman state, and rather believe, that when Alarick took Rome, and Honorius recalled Victorinus's army, that the Britons took up arms, and at once shook off the Roman yoke, which caused such a general consternation among them, that rather than let their treasures fall into their enemies hands, they buried them immediately, not choosing to attempt to carry them away, for fear of having them taken from them; though it seems they did carry away great part of their gold and silver coin, (which was most portable,) into France, because we find few of those metals, in comparison to the number of brass and copper ones, of which we may suppose there was originally a greater number coined than of the other. And as to those that will not allow them to be current money, I should be glad to see them produce their reasons for their assertion: I really believe they were all current, (except the medallions, and sometimes I think I need not except them,) and my reasons for it are these, because we may observe, the different sizes, and consequently the values, are all regular, and some so small, we cannot conceive them for any other use but for money only, as the as, semis, triens, quadrans, sextula, (fn. 10) and such like, it being impossible that any body would pretend to strike such small things, to perpetuate any great exploit, they being so liable to be worn out and lost, and come to nothing; and had it not been for burying of them, I believe fewer had now been to be seen than there are. Another reason is, the numbers of the latter emperors that are to be found, and the few of the old ones, the last seldom fair, and the first generally so, they having been used as money but little while, when the other were near worn out (as we see our coin do) before they were buried; this is the reason that the Constantines, Valentinians, Gratians, &c. are so very fair, and those of the first Cœsars so much imperfect; which accounts, at the same time, for there being so few of them to what there are of the others, for they did not coin so much, and what they did was worn out by length of time, and constant use, for it could be nothing else, the Romans having a very politick law against melting down their old money, to which we are much obliged, for those very ancient coins we have left us; a politick law, I may say, for by this means their money constantly increased, and with that, good part of their conquests; neither was their usual method of perpetuating the remarkable and beneficial acts of their princes on the reverse of his coin less politick than the former, for by this they raised in them an emulation of being brave, and doing good, in order to have their actions publickly recorded on their coin, by the votes either of the Senate or Army, than which there were not many greater honours. And had these laws been received by all nations to this day, there are many would have made a far better figure in history by their coins, than by any other remains that we have now left us.

It may reasonably be supposed, that the Christians enjoying much tranquillity in Britain, under this truly pious Emperor, who published an edict against their accusers, began to build places for Christian worship in his reign, and it is not to be thought but they erected them in cities, and the most frequented places; and if so, no doubt but they had some in this large city, though I confess there are no remains that I know of, nor yet any account of it, so that it amounts to nothing more than a reasonable conjecture.


  • 1. Salmon's Roman Stations, p. 10.
  • 2. Holinshed, vol. i. fo. 92.
  • 3. Chronicum Saxonicum, p. 2. Per Gibson. Gibson's Cambden, fo. 36, says 54 years before Christ. Speed, according to Dion, says, in the second year of his empire, and 45th year afterChrist.
  • 4. In this Emperor's time died Prasutagus, King of the Iceni, having for many years hoarded up great wealth for his two daughters, and in order to secure it to them, made Cæsar coheir with them, not doubting but his signal testimony of his goodwill to the Emperor, would preserve his family from oppression, and his daughters from dishonour; but it happened quite contrary; for under pretence of taking possession of the Emperor's share, his kingdom was laid waste, and robbed by the centurions, his house ransacked throughout by the ravenous collectors, who behaved themselves with all the licentiousness of conquerors, his wife Boadicia they whipt, and ravished her two daughters, &c. as if the whole kingdom, by testament, had been left to them; the chiefest of the Iceni were dispossessed of their ancient inheritances, and the royal family turned out and used as slaves; and from this time they had an absolute government over all the Iceni, who upon this usage revolted, under the command of that brave Queen, and not without difficulty did they conquer her army, which loss stuck so much upon her, that she would not survive it, and so rather than fall into her enemies hands, she dispatched herself, as Sammes, in his Britania Antiqua, tells us. See fol. 223, 227.
  • 5. See my discourse upon this subject at the end of the account of Roman coins found here.
  • 6. Gibson's Camb. fo. 98.
  • 7. Antoninus Augustus Pater Patriæ, Tribunitia Potestate. - - III. Senatus Consulto.
  • 8. Chron. Sax. p. 10.
  • 9. See Holinshed, vol. i. fo. 92, of the valuable treasures of the Romans that have been found.
  • 10. Holyoke's treatise, in his Dictionary, of the Roman money: as, 4-5 ths; semis, 2–5ths; triens, 4–15ths; quadrans, 1–4th; sextula, the 6th part of a penny.