Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Royal Roads of England Part IV: Ermine Street

by Patricia Bracewell

Ermine Street was built in the first century, probably by the Ninth Legion Hispana. The road left London through Bishopsgate and ran along the western edge of the fens of East Anglia. As the legion advanced north they continued to build the road, and as with the Fosse Way, they erected a string of forts at stopping points along the way, including Durovigutum (meaning: a thriving strong point) and Durobrivae (meaning: the bridge by the fort) which was one of the wealthiest towns in Roman Britain because of a prosperous pottery trade. Like the Fosse way, Ermine Street went to Lindum Colonia (Lincoln). The settlement there had a wall with four gates, temples dedicated to Mars and Mercury, and a number of homes with mosaic floors.

Ermine St. & alternate route
Beyond Lincoln, the road divided into two possible northern routes. The first and most direct route headed straight north out of Lincoln and stopped at the southern bank of the Humber at today’s Winteringham where there was a ferry across the river. The other, secondary route, veered in a westerly direction before turning north again, and was probably preferred when adverse weather made the more direct road across the Humber estuary impassable.

On the northern side of the Humber the Romans found a tribe called the Parisi, and the name they gave the small settlement of wooden homes at the ferry crossing opposite Winteringham was Petuaria. It’s believed that the name comes from the Latin petuar, meaning four or fourth, and perhaps indicating that there are the remains of three more Parisi settlements still undiscovered.

Statue of Mars, York
Ermine Street continued from the north bank of the Humber on to Eboracum (meaning: the place of yew trees) on the River Ouse, 193 miles from Bishopsgate in London. The settlement that the Romans built there was well defended, with a wall surrounding a fortress that housed 6,000 soldiers. The city’s imposing stone structures included a governor’s palace, a hippodrome, theaters, and temples to Fortuna and Mithras. It was the seat of regional Roman power, and it had the best sewage system in the province. The Anglo-Saxons who settled there in the 7th century called it Eoforwic and built a church (site of the present day cathedral) at what would have been the center of the fortress in Roman times. When the Vikings captured the city in the 9th century they called it Jorvik. We know it as York, and it was the final stop on Ermine Street. 

Calderium, Roman Bath Museum, York

Given that Ermine Street was a king’s road leading north out of London, and that the cloaks of royals were lined with ermine, one can be forgiven for thinking that the fur was the inspiration for the name of the street. However, one would be wrong.

The name Ermine Street is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon name, Earninga Strǽt, that first appeared in print in the mid-tenth century. It means “Roman road of the family or followers of a man called Earna”. (Yes, Anglo-Saxon names were usually a mouthful.)

All four of the royal roads are still in existence today, either as major thoroughfares such as the A5 (Watling Street) or the A15 north of Lincoln (Ermine Street); or as country lanes such as the Fosse Way in the Cotswolds; or as well-tended hiking paths like the Ridgeway (Icknield Way).

These ancient roads, trod by Britons, Celts, Romans, Saxons, Danes, and Normans, as well as the inhabitants and the visitors, like myself, who travel through today’s United Kingdom, are history beneath our feet.

 I want to thank Debra Brown and all the remarkable writers who are part of English Historical Fiction Authors for allowing me to commandeer this terrific website for four days in a row in order to tell this story.

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, www.PatriciaBracewell.com, look for her on Facebook at PatriciaBracewell/Author and on Twitter she's @PatBracewell. 


  1. "These ancient roads . . . are history beneath our feet." I love what that evokes. Centuries-old buildings have the same pull for me.

  2. Thank you so much for such an enjoyable article, as well as the other three. Really liked to read about the history.

  3. Wonderful. It has brought alive the roads I'd often taken for granted.

  4. I really enjoyed all four articles and learned a lot. I wish this kind of information was available when I was a child. My appreciation for waking me up now,

  5. And a brilliant set of posts it was. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I have learned so much from this series of articles. Thank you for sharing-


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