Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Royal Roads of England Part II: Watling Street

by Patricia Bracewell

Watling Street near Rochester, Kent
Watling Street is probably the best known of the four ancient royal roads, and like the Icknield Way, it began life as a track used by the early Britons. The track ran from southern England into Wales, although the segment that was most used was the section between Canterbury and St. Albans.

When the Romans arrived, they paved it, starting from where they landed at Richborough (Latin Rutupiae, meaning "muddy estuary") – where today you can still see the remains of a Roman fort and amphitheatre.   

Watling Street, Richborough
The Roman road went to Canterbury and Rochester, then continued to a ford on the Thames at a place that the Anglo-Saxons would name Thorney Isle (yes, there were thorns). Here, 600 years after the Romans left Britain, Edward the Confessor would build the palace and abbey of Westminster.

The road did not, originally, go through London because there was no bridge. Once a bridge was built, though, in about A.D. 80, what we know today as London’s Watling Street would have led across the bridge into the city, then out of Roman Londinium through the Newgate, along what is today Holborne Street to meet up with the western segment of Watling Street at Tyburn. From there the road went north in a straight line to St. Albans, dubbed by the Romans Verulamium (meaning: "the town above the marsh"), and named Wæclingaceaster (meaning: "Roman fort of Wacol’s people") by the Anglo-Saxons, from which the name Watling Street is derived.

Watling Street, London
Eventually the Romans extended the road further north and west. It crossed another Roman Road, the Fosse Way, at a place that the Romans called Venonis, which means "place of poison plants". (One wonders what unhappy incidents led to that name.) Historian Michael Wood refers to this crossroads as the greatest road junction in early England, and it was given the name High Cross. In the time of Alfred the Great, this segment of Watling Street between London and High Cross marked the border of the Danelaw, dividing those living under English Law from those living under Danish Law. There is not much to see there today, where the Fosse Way becomes High Cross Rd., except for an equestrienne center and a nearby pub named The Pig in Muck.

From High Cross the Roman Road continued northwest to the fort at Viriconium, modern day Wroxeter, 230 miles from its starting point at Richborough. Today you can leave the A5 at Haygate and take the Roman Road to see the remains of Roman Viriconium and a reconstructed villa. 

Roman ruins at Wroxeter

Replica Roman villa at Wroxeter

Watling Street, Leintwardine, Herefordshire
At Wroxeter, Watling Street turns south, extending for another forty-six miles through Stratford Bridge and Leintwardine (Latin name: Bravonium, meaning "Town of the Quern"), to its terminus at Kenchester (Latin name: Magnis, meaning "The Place of Rocks".) That's 276 miles along Watling Street from Richborough to Kenchester.

When in A.D. 60 Boudicca led a rebellion against the Romans, her army attacked and burned London (and the bridge), and the legions escaped by way of Watling Street, heading northwest. Boudicca’s army followed, and the two forces met near its junction with the Fosse Way. 

The 10,000 Roman legionaries were outnumbered, but their general had chosen his position with care, leaving the poorly equipped Britons with little room to maneuver against the storm of javelins that met their attack. The Britons lost the Battle of Watling Street, and traces of the burial mounds of the 80,000 Iceni who were killed there can still be seen today.

Tomorrow: Part II The Fosse Way

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

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. Loving this series. Thanks so much-

  2. I love "then and nows". Fascinating to see how the old interweaves the new.
    However, things often don't compare favourably.
    The dreadful dual carriageway running outside Hogarth's House is a case in point.
    G x

  3. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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