After Britannia

Nothing happened. At least, nothing much. Hadrian’s Wall was not suddenly deserted, the gates of the forts left swinging in the wind. The money, the pay chests full of coins, stopped coming, and orders from any central Roman authority in Europe dried up. But after the troops were removed by Stilicho and Constantine III, no one else went anywhere. Along the Wall the garrisons, even the old units with fancy names from Syria and Spain, had long since been local, recruited on a hereditary basis, many of the soldiers following their fathers into what had become a family army. Others had been conscripted from the farms and villages round about. If the rank and file was hereditary and local, it is very likely that command was too. Over the last decades of the fourth century, as Roman control slackened all over the western Empire, the individual units probably more resembled the warbands from the north, their loyalty to their leaders outweighing any other. And if that loyalty was reinforced by a long Roman military tradition, perhaps with a set of standards preserved, old weapons and armour still in existence, then it would have been very strong.

In addition to cash and orders, what also came to an end was the wider role of the Wall. If Britannia had seceded from the Empire, then the meaning of the Wall was much diminished. No longer an international frontier, it retained only a regional significance. In essence the Wall garrison had lost its job.

It may well have gained another role. Written Roman records for the beginning of the fifth century in Britain are virtually non-existent. Historians have been forced to turn, often unwillingly, to the genealogies and traditions of the Old Welsh-speaking kingdoms of the North, Yr Hen Ogledd. Their stories survived because they were slowly transmitted to Wales and absorbed, especially in the kingdom of Gwynedd. Shadowy figures can sometimes be glimpsed flitting through the poems and the kinglists, men who may have had their origins in the lands between the two Walls.

Coelius, known as Coel Hen, or Old Cole, by the bards may have been the last Roman-appointed Duke of the Britains, based at the legionary fortress at York. In a bizarre historical memory, he is probably the figure behind the nursery rhyme, Old King Cole. At least eight dynasties list him either as a founder or an early king. The Welsh genealogies are heavily corrupted in places and Coel’s wife is named as Stradwawl, which translates as ‘Wall Road’, and his daughter was Gwawl, or ‘The Wall’. These sound like a confusion of areas of command with members of a family. The genealogies were transcribed by Welshmen distant in both time and space from the events after the end of Roman Britain. Coel’s name lent credibility, his association with the power and legitimacy of the Empire added to the prestige of those dynasties who claimed him as an ancestor.

If he was indeed the last Duke of the Britains, then the commanders of Wall forts may have owed him allegiance. But, for that to be possible, evidence of continuity after the end of the province is needed. At Birdoswald just such evidence has been uncovered. After 395 a large timber building was erected on the foundations of the granaries near the west gate of the fort. It was then replaced by an even larger version. Archaeologists have been able to visualise a tall timber hall with a steep-pitched thatch roof and a porch-style door along one of the long sides. There was a hearth at one end, and finds have suggested that people of substance sat around it as the fire blazed, perhaps the commander of the fort of Banna and his captains. A good literary/historical analogy is the sort of hall immortalised in the great epic poem Beowulf. The seat of a king or a chieftain’s power, it was where he and his warriors ate, talked, drank, celebrated, planned and governed the land around. Beowulf gives a pungent impression of what these halls were like, King Hrothgar’s in particular, and here is part of Seamus Heaney’s recent translation:

. . . So his mind turned

to hall-building: he handed down orders

for men to work on a great mead-hall

meant to be a wonder of the world for ever;

it would be his throne-room and there he would dispense

his God-given goods to young and old –

but not the common land or peoples’ lives.

Far and wide through the world, I have heard,

orders for work to adorn that wallstead

were sent to many peoples. And soon it stood there,

finished and ready, in full view,

the hall of halls. Heorot was the name

he had settled on it, whose utterance was law.

Nor did he renege, but doled out rings

and torques at the table. The hall towered,

its gables wide and high.

The Roman masonry of the west gate lay immediately beside the great hall and, despite the stark differences in building styles, the continued passage of people, horses and carts under its arches underlined the legitimacy of whoever’s utterance was law. There is more than a metaphor in this juxtaposition. A native structure built inside the rectilinear streets and walls of a Roman fort by men who probably spoke Old Welsh but regarded themselves as part of the armies of the Empire. Clearly life on the Wall had been changing long before the end of the province and the break with Rome.


Until the early 1970s those who wished to matriculate at one of the four ancient Scottish universities required an Attestation of Fitness. Nothing to do with corporeal health, it was a document issued from Kinburn House in St Andrews which certified that applicants possessed O-Grade passes in Mathematics and Latin. Without it, not even the most brilliant could pass through the portals of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow or St Andrews. When the certificate was abandoned, the teaching of Latin in schools suffered a steep decline. But in 2007 the rot appears to have stopped. Under the aegis of Project Iris, a revival programme run by Lorna Robinson, Latin is making a comeback. Twenty primary schools in London, and more in Oxfordshire, are introducing lessons in Latin. A Latin grammar was a recent bestseller. The revival will help with an understanding not only of Rome and its inheritors but also of language in general. And the latter can be profound precisely because Latin is a dead language. Its structure can be explored because none of that tedious business of learning how to ask where the bus station is or ordering lunch is involved. Perhaps once again intellectual fitness will be attested by a knowledge of Latin.

The gifts given by kings like Hrothgar became even more important after the decade from 420 to 430. Around that time coinage ceased to circulate, and mass-produced pottery, whose production depended on a cash economy, also disappeared from the archaeological record. Along the central sector of the Wall, where the garrison could only be maintained by Rome or some other central authority with an interest in defending such a long frontier, the bustle and business of soldiering melted away quickly. At Housesteads the already diminished units were replaced by perhaps twenty or at most thirty people farming the field system beyond the walls, or tending their beasts inside the precinct. Nature began to reclaim the Wall, and wind-bent trees grew once more along the Whin Sill. Where the military zone had been cleared, scrub took root in the sheltered places, the ditches and in the Vallum, and grass crept over the metalled roads and streets. As each summer passed and leaves blew around the deserted milecastles and turrets, it looked less and less likely that Rome would return. Despite the victories of the consul, Aetius, and Syagrius in Gaul, barbarian kings ruled where once the Emperor’s writ had run. Rome was fading. From his vantage point in Constantinople, the sixth-century writer Procopius observed:

the Romans were never able to recover Britain, but from that time it remained on its own, under tyrants.

By tyrants he meant local kings, or usurpers of the imperial power.

By Procopius’ time, the Celtic kingdoms of southern Scotland and northern England had formed and begun to flex their ancient power. In the west Rheged expanded around the shores of the Solway. Galloway, Dumfriesshire, Cumbria and perhaps the lands around Morecambe Bay were all ruled by its most famous king, Urien. Urien’s name probably derives from Urbgen, which meant ‘born in the city’, probably the old civitas of Carlisle, what became the hinge of his kingdom. To the north the Damnonii developed into Strathclyde, with its capital place at the old fortress of Altclut, the Rock of the Clyde, at Dumbarton, which means the Fort of the British. And in the east the Votadini had become the Gododdin.


Fragments of a lost North British Chronicle, parts of it compiled by a monk called Nennius in the eighth century, spoke of a post-Roman Dux Bellorum, a War Leader. His name was Arthur, and the Nennius text recounts campaigns fought between the Christian British and pagan enemies. These may have been both Germanic and Pictish. Thirteen battles are listed, and toponymic research shows that nine were fought at places which lie between the Roman walls. Did Arthur lead the warbands of the vigorous British kingdoms of southern Scotland, the men of the Old North charged by Theodosius with the protection of the province of Britannia? Geography encourages this thought. History as well as tradition counts Arthur as a cavalry warrior, and his base of operations may have been at what is now known as Roxburgh Castle. The Old Welsh name was Marchidun, the Cavalry Fort.

By a traditional date of 547, a band of Germanic pirates had established themselves at the stronghold of Bamburgh on the Northumbrian coast. Led by a series of ambitious and dynamic kings, they carved out Bernicia, the territory at the eastern end of the Wall. There is a persistent tradition that the royal family and its warband occupied Arbeia, the fort at South Shields. Archaeologists confirmed the gist of this when they came upon traces of work done on the ditches and a gateway long after the Romans had gone. Sometime around 600, King Oswin of Bernicia was said to have been born within the walls of the fort.

The Northumbrian kings were anxious to buttress their authority by making clear connections with the Roman past. Its legacy lay all around, and it spoke of power and an ancient authority. Bede of Jarrow reckoned that Hadrian’s Wall still stood close to its full height (and therefore presented an everyday barrier for farmers and travellers), and the forts along it would still have been impressive. Latin and the city of Rome and its papacy still lived in the work of the church. But Roman terminology was also attractive in the temporal world. During royal progresses the retinue of Northumbrian kings imitated Roman practices. Leading the procession into the king’s estates, the villa regia, there was a standard-bearer carrying a Roman insignia called a tufa, a winged orb intended to add dignity to what followed. The royal warband became the comitatus, the royal chaplain the pontifex, and so on. Royal officials were known as praefecti and strongholds like Bamburgh were the urbs regis. All of this was intended to underpin the sense of the Northumbrian kings as inheritors of Rome. The memory of the Empire was still strong and still useful.

In a much more minor key, the parish structure began to develop as Christian conversion covered the land, and along the Wall it was adapted in a particular way. In the central sector the shape of each parish is oblong so that the lower-lying land near the Tyne formed the southern part and in the north it included a portion of the slopes reaching up to the Whin Sill. It was vital to include upland summer grazing, and the place-names along the Wall show where shepherds and herd-laddies built their temporary shelters.Shieldor shiel is what these summer huts were called and, at Sewingshields, High Shield, Winshields and elsewhere they are remembered. The shepherds often used the angled walls of a milecastle or a turret as part of their shelter, and some were substantial as a result.

As the local economy developed, the plentiful dressed stone of the Wall became very attractive. Already quarried, its purpose long gone and forgotten, and free, all that it needed to become useful again was transport. In the early Middle Ages churches and monasteries were founded close to the Wall and, as they accumulated gifts and land, they began to build. At Tynemouth, Hexham and Carlisle courses of Roman stone can be seen in all of the early masonry. The northern boundary of Lanercost Priory, near Brampton, ran close to the line of the Wall. And after detailed examination of the remaining fabric, scholars have concluded that the magnificent church and its conventual buildings are constructed entirely from Roman stone. In two places Latin inscriptions can still be made out. One of them is upside down.

The western section of Hadrian’s Wall, from around Birdoswald to the Solway coast at Bowness, has been heavily robbed out and much of it has entirely disappeared. In places even the Vallum is hard to make out. The central sector is much better preserved because of its relative remoteness, and also because of the presence of Border Reivers. An overwhelmingly pastoral and stock-rearing society, they had less interest in building and cultivation.


Britain’s westernmost Roman province lasted longest. As Anglo-Saxon kings and chieftains slowly extended their reach from the east, Britannia Prima appears to have maintained some sort of continuity. The towns at Wroxeter and Chester were not abandoned and may have been inhabited into the seventh century. Comprising Wales, the neighbouring part of the West Midlands, Gloucestershire, Devon and Cornwall, the old province may have sustained itself with the help of Germanic mercenaries. Pressure came not only from the east but also from across the Irish Sea. There was also a fleeting sense of the Empire and its citizens in the derivation of the Welsh word for Wales. Cymru comes from Combrogi (as does Cumbria and Cumberland) and it means ‘Fellow Countrymen’, literally, those who share a common border. And Wales and Cornwall survived long enough to preserve their versions of the P-Celtic language spoken in Britain before the Romans came. Only Breton and Basque outlasted the Empire and the all-pervasive influence of Latin in western Europe. When the old province at last fell to an invader in the 1280s, Edward I of England did two surprising things, both of which seemed to hark back to the days of Britannia Prima. Caernarfon Castle was built in imitation of the late Roman land-walls of Constantinople. And, more mysteriously, Edward had a body thought to be that of an emperor, Constantine II, brought to Wales for burial. Was he at last laying Rome in the west to rest?

The Wall survived well in the east, for the most part – until a substantial raid was mounted from Scotland, from the old territory of the Caledonii and the lands to the north. In 1745 what was known to his Gaelic-speaking soldiers as Am Bliadhna Thearlaigh, the Year of Charles, began. Invading England by the western route through Carlisle, the Jacobite generals wrongfooted the government armies marching against them. It proved impossible to get men and especially artillery from Newcastle to the west quickly, and, like the Romans, the Hanoverians decided that a road was needed. Commissioned by General Wade, it ran along the line of the Wall in the east for its first 48 kilometres. As a handy source of roadstone, much of the fabric was pulled down, pulverised and levelled. For long stretches the new road follows the course of the Wall exactly and the northern ditch lies immediately adjacent. Appropriately the B6318 is also known as the Military Road. Under the modern tarmac must lie a great deal of archaeology, not only the foundations of the Wall itself but also artefacts, coins, pottery and inscriptions associated with it.

The Military Road was never used in anger, and it did have the effect of making much of the remote central sector accessible to visitors. Historical interest grew and, with the establishment of the Society of Antiquaries in Newcastle in 1813, a forum for its formal expression came into being. Investigations, preservation and even some excavations began.

Many showed an interest in the antiquities on their doorstep, but none were as active or as determinant in the recent history of the Wall as John Clayton. Born in 1792, he was a lawyer by profession, a businessman by instinct and a passionate antiquarian. Between 1822 and 1887 he was Town Clerk of Newcastle, overseeing the spectacular expansion of the city. Working closely with the developer, Richard Grainger, he pushed through much of what became Georgian Newcastle. Clayton had the acumen to invest personally in Grainger’s projects, something which has landed officials in Tyneside’s local government in prison in the recent past. From the profits of development and from his huge legal practice, Clayton became wealthy and invested much of his money in actively preserving Hadrian’s Wall. His house at Chesters had the fort of Cilurnum in its grounds, and by the time he was an old man four other forts and much of the central sector of the Wall were in his possession and under the protection of the Chesters Estate.

A biography of John Clayton summed up his thinking:

To talk of preserving the Wall was useless as long as well-shaped, handy-sized stones lay ready to the hand of the farmer, and the carting away of its stones went forward merrily. The great pity of it was that it was the best portions of the Wall which were removed in this fashion, for the labourers naturally preferred to take the stones that were breast high in the standing wall to stooping and lifting them up from the ground into their carts.

Appalled at the continuing stone robbing, Clayton set his men on the huge task of preservation. Having bought the land across which the Wall ran, gangs picked up the scatter of rubble and, with great care, rebuilt where they could. When the outer courses had been brought up to the same height, Clayton’s men infilled the core with rubble, clay, mortar and earth. They then topped it off with turf to allow walking and to prevent too much rainwater from leaching into the fabric. So much of this sort of work was done in the central sector that it is sometimes known as Clayton’s Wall.

Whatever modern archaeologists may think of his methods, John Clayton’s role in the preservation of Hadrian’s great project was absolutely critical. Using his financial muscle, he fended off almost all other interests. Without him there would now be a great deal less to see.

Anyone who doubts Clayton’s pivotal role or sniffs at his methods should recall that threats to the Wall were not confined to the unenlightened nineteenth century. They continued well into the twentieth. At Cawfields and at Walltown, quarrying was still removing whole sections in the 1920s. But the greatest danger presented itself at a time when economic circumstances might easily have converted it into a reality. As coal mining in the Tyne Valley contracted, 800 men lost their jobs in the pits around Haltwhistle. For such a small community, it was a devastating blow, causing real hardship. But a saviour seemed to appear very quickly. Mr J. Wake of Darlington proposed to set up a new company in the area, Roman Stone Ltd, to begin quarrying along the Whin Sill. The stone lay near the surface, could easily be blasted out and freighted to market from Melkridge – and 500 new jobs would be created. The hungry families of Haltwhistle at last had some hope for a future. But there were protests from antiquarians, academics and others. Mr Wake compromised and promised to leave the Wall remains standing where they were visible on a sliver of whinstone. More protests claimed that the Wall would be left on an unscalable knife-edge, with a 400 foot drop on either side. After the likes of John Buchan and Rudyard Kipling became involved, the quarrying development was finally dropped. The Ancient Monuments Act was strengthened and the Wall was never again threatened in the same way.

Now, Hadrian’s Wall is a World Heritage Site, one of only 800. A path has been created along its entire length, more and more people walk it each year, and facilities improve in step with them. More than a million people visited some part of the Wall in 2006. With the decline in agriculture, accelerated by outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease (which in 2002 originated at Heddon on the Wall), tourism has become the biggest industry in north Northumberland and north Cumbria, especially in the central sector. Many farms now offer accommodation, pony-trekking, mountain-biking and much else. Almost two thousand years after his mensores pegged out the line of the Wall, the Emperor Hadrian has brought people back to gaze upon his works – and rejoice.

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