Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Royal Roads of Early England - Part I: The Icknield Way

by Patricia Bracewell

Long before King Harold Godwinson had to force-march his army some 250 miles from York to that fateful meeting with Duke William at Hastings in 1066, there were four major roadways covering the length and breadth of much of England: Watling Street, Ermine Street, the Fosse Way, and the Icknield Way. From the 10th century forward, these royal highways were maintained by order of the king whose protection was extended to travelers making use of them. Bridges, too, were part of this network of roads, and the Anglo-Saxon-built bridges at London and Rochester have been described as two of the greatest engineering feats of that period.

But these major arteries across Britain did not originate with the Anglo-Saxons. Their beginnings go back much further. This is the first of a series of four posts that will explore England’s royal roads and their origins.

From 'An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England' by David Hill

The oldest of the ancient highways is the Icknield Way. The name first appears in written form in the early 10th century as Icenhylte, and it may refer to the Celtic Iceni (Boudicca’s people) that inhabited Norfolk and Suffolk in the Iron Age. The origin of the name remains obscure, though, and although some scholars think the name is very old indeed, far older even than Boudicca’s ancient tribe, others disagree.

Starting at what is today the town of Brancaster on the northern coast of East Anglia, the Icknield Way ran south for several miles; at Thetford it veered southwest to continue along the northern edge of the Chilterns into the Thames Valley; after passing Stonehenge it ran along a chalk ridge into Dorset to the island’s southern coast. 

Ivinghoe Beacon, Icknield Way, Chiltern Hills. Photo: Pointillist.

 It was once widely believed that the path may even have dated to a time before the English Channel existed, extending to the Continent and points further south. Recent research has questioned that theory, although there seems to be no question that, somehow, people, animals and crops traveled to Britain from the Continent. Did they follow the Icknield Way? The jury, as far as I am able to tell, is still out.

Near the segment of the track that ran north of the Thames in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire there were numerous springs of fresh water, and this led to the growth of ancient villages along the route. 

The Icknield Way

 In the Romano-British period there were villas beside the Icknield way – complete with mosaic pavements and hypocausts. Some of the villas were large and luxurious Roman structures, others were squalid, and still others lay between these two extremes. The dwellings in this last group likely belonged to native landowners of moderate substance who followed the building practices of the Romans and so provided their homes with a good degree of comfort.

There is a bit of a mystery concerning the Icknield Way, because in East Anglia there are dikes built across it dating from post-Roman times. These defensive ditches were clearly built to bar free passage along the path. What’s odd, though, is that although the dikes were built during a time when England was under siege by Saxons who landed on the eastern coastline, they were facing the wrong direction to protect the natives Britons from the invaders. So who built them and why?

Devil's Dike, Cambridgeshire

 Archaeologists theorize that the dikes were perhaps built by the Saxons to protect themselves from the Britons. The invaders had suffered a setback in their movement westward – they lost a major battle at Mons Badonicus in the early 6th century – and so they may have retreated into East Anglia, settling there for a time and building these defenses while they re-grouped. Eventually they began their inexorable movement further south and west, leaving the dikes behind. If you’ve been in Cambridgeshire and walked along the Devil’s Dike, you’ve been striding atop one of these defensive embankments built roughly 1400 years ago. But looking down, you would have seen the ancient Icknield Way—at least a thousand years older still.

Devil's Dike, Cambridgeshire

Tomorrow - Part II: Watling Street

Blair, Peter Hunter. Roman Britain and Early England. New York: The Norton Library, 1963.
Hill, David. An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981.
Lapidge, Michael, ed. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Mills, A.D. Dictionary of British Place Names. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Wood, Michael. In Search of the Dark Ages. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001 The Ridgeway Companion, compiled by Adrian Windisch.


Patricia Bracewell's debut novel Shadow on the Crown, the first book in a trilogy about the 11th century queen of England, Emma of Normandy, is available in Britain and the U.S. The sequel to Queen Emma's story, The Price of Blood, will be released in 2015. For more information, please visit her website,, look for her on Facebook at PatriciaBracewell/Author and on Twitter she's @PatBracewell.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting to speculate about the dikes facing the wrong way. Fascinating post, Patricia.


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