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Chapter 3: A Roman Louth?

By Richard Gurnham

Roman coins and other Roman finds.

When the Revd. Robert Bayley, a local Nonconformist minister, published Notitiae Ludae, or Notices of Louth, in 1834, he noted that a great many Roman coins had been found in the town in recent years, spanning almost the entire period of the Roman occupation, from the first to the fourth century. Bayley reported that the coins included those of the reigns of Julius Caesar and Augustus, plus ‘a considerable number’ of coins of the first and second century emperors Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Domitian, Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian, together with ‘plenty’ of coins of the fourth century emperor, Constantine the Great. Until very recently, however, local historians have tended to be rather dismissive of the Revd. Bayley’s evidence for the Romans in Louth. After all, he was not the most reliable of historians and until recently there has been little archaeological evidence to support the idea of any sort of Roman settlement on the site of the present town. This, however, is beginning to change and one historian, Dr Caitlin Green, has suggested that, in the light of recent discoveries, Louth was perhaps a locally significant Romano-British settlement, and Arthur Owen has suggested that Louth might have been the site of a Roman fort. [1]

The evidence is still slight, but there would seem to have been at least one, and possibly two or three Romano British farmsteads in existence in this period, either in the area of modern Louth or at least close to it. As far back as 1946-7, when a large fifth-sixth century Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery was discovered on Acthorpe Top, just a mile from the town, the archaeologists working at the site reported also finding ‘fourteen fragments of Romano-British pottery… scattered all over the site’. The pottery included fragments of both samian ware and coarse ware and dated from the second to the early fourth century. It was thought that the pottery had probably been brought to the site by marling or some other agricultural operation, but it was also recognized that it could be evidence of a native Romano-British settlement on the Wold top or nearby. Moreover, in one of the cremation pots found on the site the archaeologists also found a pair of ‘well-made bronze tweezers of Roman provincial type’. [2]

More recently, and this time on the south side of the town, just to the west of the Kenwick Road, a Roman ditch containing charcoal, burnt sandstone and Roman pottery has been found and it has been suggested that this might indicate an enclosed Roman farmstead. Then, in 2004, during work undertaken as part of a flood prevention scheme in the yard of the Greyhound Inn, behind Gospelgate, archaeologists discovered fragments of Roman brick and tile. The fragments are too few to suggest confidently that this is evidence for a Roman building of some sort being located here or nearby, and it could again be simply a consequence of earth having been moved as a result of farming operations, but it does raise the possibility of a third farmstead in the Louth area dating from the Roman era. [3]

These finds may not seem much, but they all point towards activity at Louth in the Roman era, and hopefully there are more discoveries yet to come. Indeed, three more Roman coins have been found in the town in the last few years: a coin of the Emperor Domitian, who reigned (briefly) in AD 86, has been found during work on the corner of Charles Street and Newbridge Hill, and metal detectorists have found a coin of Faustina the Younger (died AD 175) and of Tetricius, who reigned from AD 271 to 274, ‘somewhere in Louth’. [4]

As Green has pointed out, the large number of Roman coins which Bayley tells us had been found in and around the town nearly two hundred years ago is quite unusual in this part of the county and it is possible that it indicates a more substantial settlement than that which has been so far discovered, especially as the finds appear to have occurred over quite a large area. Bayley tells us that the coins were found ‘chiefly’ in ‘the centre of the town,’ on the ‘south side’, and on the site of the former church and graveyard of St Mary. Another intriguing possibility, however, is that the Louth area was only very thinly populated – just the few scattered farmsteads – but was also an important meeting and trading place, and the coins that Bayley recorded are evidence of this. In their very important article on the Anglo-Saxon market cross discovered in 2015, Professor David Stocker and the landscape historian Paul Everson argue that Louth was probably already the site of a communal meeting and trading place long before this facility was taken over by the manorial lord in the tenth century, who then made it his market place, with a new town laid out around it. Could such a meeting place have existed at Louth in the Roman era, or perhaps even earlier? [5]

A Roman fort at Louth?

Before returning to the meeting/trading place idea, however, mention must be made of Arthur Owen’s argument that it is highly likely that a Roman fort was constructed at Louth in the fourth century, as part of the strengthening of the coastal defences against Germanic and Pictish sea raiders. As we saw in the previous chapter, Louth stands on the ancient, pre-Roman trackway known as the Barton Street at the point where it bridges the river Lud, and this track, as Owen notes, would have been a most useful link in the late Roman ‘Saxon Shore’ defences. Naomi Field describes the track as ‘providing good communications with the Humber and possibly the Wash’ running as it did from Barton on Humber, close to the Roman ferry crossing, southwards through the Wolds to the Roman settlement at Ulceby Cross and perhaps on to a possible Roman fort at Burgh le Marsh. The northern part of the trackway, in particular, also afforded a good view of the Late Roman coastline, and therefore of any sea raiders. [6]

It is known that both Caistor and Horncastle were important inland fortified towns, whose defences were probably strengthened in the fourth century, but Owen believes that their main responsibilities would have been the defence of the Ancholme and Witham valleys, respectively, and that the task of defending the coast would have fallen principally to forts at Louth and Burgh le Marsh. If necessary, however, reinforcements could be rushed from Caistor or Horncastle to Louth. Place name evidence suggests, he has argued, that a Roman road existed between Louth and Caistor, running through Binbrook and Thoresway, and another road linked Louth to Horncastle by way of Farforth and Tetford. [7]

There is as yet no archaeological evidence to support Owen’s theory but Owen believes that the fort’s location can be detected in the surviving street pattern of the town. He locates the fort on the south side of the river, on the higher land whose boundaries are now marked by Northgate, Eastgate and Nichol Hill. The fortress would have been about two hundred metres long and fifty metres wide, and of very similar size to the Roman fortresses at Ancaster and Brough on Humber. From this vantage point Roman soldiers could keep a close watch on the river crossing, immediately to the north. It would presumably have been a timber fort built on earthen ramparts, surrounded by a ditch. No Roman stonework has been found in the town and a timber fortress would anyway have been much quicker and cheaper to build. During the later development of the town we can assume that any surviving earthen ramparts were removed and the earth used to fill in the ditch. Eastgate, Nichol Hill and Northgate were perhaps laid out along the line of the ditch, when it was filled in, or perhaps follow an earlier track which once ran round the ditch. [8]

This is an attractive theory and it does seem highly likely that the Roman army would have used the Barton Street as part of the ‘Saxon Shore’ defences of the coast. Other historians have also favoured the idea that the Roman defences against sea raiders along the east coast are very likely to have included forts in Lincolnshire which are now lost. J. B. Whitwell, for instance, has suggested that there might have been one or two ‘Saxon Shore’ coastal stations built in the third century, as a continuation of forts built in Norfolk, which were later lost owing to post-Roman coastal erosion. Alternatively, he also raises the possibility of other forts being built in the second half of the fourth century, when coastal raids are believed to have intensified and it is known that small forts with signal towers were built at this time on the Yorkshire coast. In AD 367, the Emperor Valentinian sent four regiments to Britain under the command of Count Theodosius to strengthen the country’s defences, following a serious incursion in the north of Britain from Picts, Scots and another tribe described as the Attacotti, and it seems quite possible that a small fort was built at this time at or near Louth. Whitwell does not make a case for a Louth fort but he does point out the good sense of fort-building in this part of the county in either the third or fourth centuries:
‘At whatever date the hypothetical Lincolnshire coastal forts may have been built, it is extremely likely that a Roman town of such importance as Lincoln would have had the coastal strip nearest to it adequately protected. Besides, if the coast of Lincolnshire had not been protected, it would have left such an obvious gap in the coastal defences that it would surely have immediately attracted raiding parties. Whilst Roman imperial authority operated, such an omission is extremely unlikely to have occurred.’ [9]

In the absence of any supportive archaeological evidence, however, the idea of a Roman fort at Louth must remain only a theory. One could argue that Northgate, the road which Owen sees as now marking the northern wall of the fort, might more probably have developed instead many centuries later as a back lane linking the rear entrances for properties standing on Eastgate, just as Kidgate probably evolved as a back lane for the properties built on Mercer Row. Moreover, it could also be objected that a fort at Louth might be more likely to be sited on a more elevated position, still on the Louth Street or close to it, but perhaps to the north or south of the present town, with a good view of the coast. And a strong case can also be made – based on place name evidence - for a small Late Roman fort having been built at Yarburgh, a village about three miles north east of Louth. There is no sign of any fort surviving today but this could be because a village later grew up on the site. The name Yarburgh, or Yarborough, derives from the Old English eorburgh, meaning earthen fortification, and the Anglo Saxons tended to use this term only for pre-existing fortifications, not for those they built themselves. These they usually referred to as simple ‘burhs’. About twenty miles further north there is another Yarborough, the earthwork fortification known as Yarborough Camp near Elsham, which was also probably re-fortified in the late fourth century, at about the same time as the Horncastle and Caistor defences, with Roman-style bastions. [10]

The case for a Roman fort in the town is not, as yet, at all convincing, whereas its name alone makes Yarburgh a strong candidate, and a final point to make about Yarburgh is that in the Roman era it stood much closer to the coast than is the case today. As Green notes, a rise in the sea level in the Late Roman and post-Roman periods meant that Yarburgh ‘stood close to the coastline, on a low promontory overlooking a creek flowing east into the sea’ [11]

Owen has also suggested that St Mary’s burial ground might have been the location of a Roman cemetery. He argues that if a Roman settlement lay on the south side of the river, on the site of the present town centre, then St Mary’s would be a likely site for a cemetery, as the Romans buried their dead outside their towns. The St Mary’s site would have been suitably close to the settlement but also detached from it by the river. Owen also believes that if his suggestion is correct it would help to explain why a small church or chapel of ease was later built on this site. If there had been a surviving local awareness in the Middle Ages that this area had once been a Roman cemetery it would have acquired a degree of sanctity which might have influenced the later siting of the church. Owen cites Bayley’s description of coin finds at Louth, and particularly at St Mary’s, as supporting evidence, and notes that we can probably assume that most of the coins found here were discovered when St Mary’s churchyard was used again as a cemetery, after the earlier cemetery which had stood on the north and south sides of St James’s church, had become too overcrowded for further use. Owen notes that ‘if St Mary’s was indeed the site of a Roman cemetery, the discovery of Roman coins when fresh burials took place there from 1770 onwards is readily explained’.

In the absence of evidence to support the theory of a Roman fort, however, or of anything more than scattered farmsteads in the Louth area, there is no reason to suppose that St Mary’s burial ground has Roman origins. Moreover, although Bayley does specify ‘Saint Mary’s’ as one of the sites where large numbers of ancient coins had been found, he is referring to ancient coins in general, including Medieval and Anglo-Saxon coins, as well as Roman, and he does not tell us where, in particular, Roman coins were found in the town. It is possible that very few, or even none at all had been found in St Mary’s churchyard. [12]

A sacred place and a trading place?

As we saw in the last chapter, at the beginning of the Roman era, the Louth area was probably already known as an important centre for the veneration of its springs, its river and its ash trees. One of the springs, which can still be seen, rises close to the surface in a garden just to the north of the bridge on the Grimsby Road. It can be found on the map of Louth made by Thomas Espin in 1808, marked as ‘Small Wells’. There were a number of small springs coming to the surface all along the north bank of the river from this point eastwards to just beyond Broadbank bridge, and the most easterly one is also shown by Espin, although not labelled. They were no doubt given the name ‘small wells’ to differentiate them from the two larger springs which have been mentioned already - the Aswell and St Helen’s springs - which were to be found coming to the surface close together at the other side of the town, near the north-east corner of Aswell Street and Kidgate.

The Barton Street track probably forded the river very close to the ‘Small Wells’ springs, and travellers passing through would no doubt have stopped here and shown their respect and thanks for the goddess of the spring, as well as refreshing themselves with a much-needed draught of pure spring water. Although Owen has suggested that the nearby church of St Mary may have been built on the site of a Roman cemetery, the site might also have been chosen to Christianize a popular pagan Celtic spring location. Indeed, given the site’s proximity to both the springs and the river crossing, it is perhaps not too fanciful to imagine a pagan shrine standing on St Mary’s Mount in the Roman era, or earlier, dedicated to the gods and spirits of both the springs and the river.

The Aswell and St Helen’s springs were (and are) impressively powerful and both are known to have been venerated by Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Danish settlers and also by later generations, in short by both pagans and Christians, together with the ash tree – or ash trees – that grew here, beside the springs. We have seen (in the previous chapter) that the dedication of one of the springs to St Helen represents the Christianization of a spring where Romano-British pilgrims had previously venerated the Celtic goddess Alauna, the goddess of springs, wells and watercourses. It has been suggested by Green that the dedication to St Helen may have been made by British Christians as early as the fourth or fifth centuries, possibly during the Late Roman era, before the Anglo Saxon settlement. It is also possible that it survived as a Christianized cult site after the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Briton in the fifth century and is evidence of the survival of Christian British communities in the surrounding district in the fifth and sixth centuries, before the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh century. [13]

Fig. 3.1: The St Helen’s and Aswell springs, as shown on Espin’s map of Louth, 1808

Fig. 3.1: The St Helen’s and Aswell springs, as shown on Espin’s map of Louth, 1808

If Owen is right about the road links between Louth, Horncastle and Caistor, then this would mean that Louth was at the hub of a network of roads, and therefore well suited geographically to be both a pagan cult site and a trading place. Moreover, in this respect the area’s close proximity to a possible Roman coastal salt-making industry may also be significant. Coastal salt making in the Saltfleetby area was well established by the Late Anglo-Saxon period, but it is possible that salt-making was already established on the coast near Louth in the Roman period. Although there would appear to have been no roads running directly from Louth to the coastal salt works, Louth was well connected to the coast via the Barton Street and by lanes that ran eastwards from the Barton Street to the coast, both to the north and south of Louth, and it seems probable that the river Lud was also navigable for at least the smallest and more shallow craft.

To sum up, then, archaeological evidence does suggest that there were probably at least one, two or possibly three Roman farmsteads established not far from the ancient Barton Street, and it is possible that more may yet be found. Moreover, the discoveries of Roman pottery and building materials off the Kenwick Road and behind the Greyhound Inn have at least made us think again about the finds of Roman coins in the town reported by Bayley. It does seem that there was at least some sort of very small settlement here, but also – and perhaps more importantly - a meeting place for trade and the veneration of the gods. If we accept Bayley’s evidence, then too many Roman coins have been found to believe that all could have been dropped by careless travellers on the Barton Street.


  1. R. S. Bayley, Notitiæ Ludæ, or Notices of Louth, pp. 246-7; Green, Origins, p.52; A. E. B. Owen, ‘Louth Before Domesday’, Lincolnshire History and Archaeology Vol. 32, 1997, pp. 62-3.
  2. Graham Webster, ‘An Anglo-Saxon Urnfield at South Elkington, Louth, Lincolnshire’, Archaeological Journal, 108 (1952), pp. 26-7; J. N. L. Myers, ‘The Anglo-Saxon Pottery from Elkington’ Archaeological Journal, 108 (1952) p. 61.
  3. Lincolnshire Historic Environment Record (HER) 43612 & 45626
  4. Green, Origins, pp. 140-1
  5. Paul Everson & David Stocker, ‘The Cros in the Markitt Stede; The Louth Cross, its Monastery and its Town’. Medieval Archaeology, 61:2, 2017
  6. Owen, p. 61; Naomi Field, Louth, the Hidden Town; J. B. Whitwell, Roman Lincolnshire, p. 135
  7. Whitwell, p. 135; Owen, pp. 61-2.
  8. Owen, p. 62.
  9. Whitwell, pp. 51-3, 75, 92, 136.
  10. Kevin Leahy, The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Lindsey, pp. 111-4; Barrie Cox, ‘Yarboroughs in Lindsey’, English Place-Name Society Journal, 28 (1994-5), pp. 52-3, 59; Whitwell, 69-71, 73.
  11. Green, Origins, pp. 55-6.
  12. Bayley, p. 247; Owen, pp. 62-3.
  13. Ibid., pp. 52-3; Yorke, ‘Lindsey, the lost kingdom found?’ In Vince, Pre-Viking Lindsey, p. 142.

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© Richard Gurnham 2018

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