Kingsholm Vexillation Fortress

Vexillation Fort

The Kingsholm Vexillation Fortress was the first Roman military presence in the area of Gloucester was a vexillation-sized campaign fort at Kingsholm on the flood-plain of the Sabrina Fluvius (River Severn), about four hundred metres to the north-north-east of the later legionary fortress. The same site was later selected to house the Saxon royal palace, the original “Kynge’s Holme”, which was itself succeeded by the early-medieval Kingsholm Manor and then by the post-medieval Kingsholm Close. Excavations on this site in 1972 and 1974 established a foundation date of c.50AD, which coincides with the establishment of the colonia at Camulodunum (Colchester, Essex). For this reason therefore, the site at Kingsholm has been identified as a Claudian fortress of Legio XX Valeria, which was removed from its old base in Essex, leaving behind a colony of veteran soldiers.

Among the various military finds recovered from the site, those which have aroused the most interest are a bronze cheek-piece from a legionary helmet and three horse-harness pendants of a design usually indicative of an auxiliary cavalry unit. From these remains it is evident that both legionary and auxiliary troops were stationed here, so the encampment would be more properly classified as a campaign or ‘vexillation’ fortress, almost certainly established during the campaigns of governor Publius Ostorius Scapula against the British warlord Caratacus- Prince of the Catuvellauni in 50AD. The fortress remained in service until the governorship of Marcus Trebellius Maximus sometime between ad64-66 when the Twentieth Legion were relocated into the existing legionary fortress at Viroconium (Wroxeter, Shropshire) in the Midlands and Legio II Augusta was moved from their old fortress at Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter, Devon) on the South Coast into a brand-new legionary fortress at Glevum a few hundred yards south of the – now defunct – Kingsholm fortress, which was probably demolished when the legionary move was completed, the area being later re-used as a major road-side cemetery of the Roman Colonia (see below).

Gathering Evidence for the Fortress

Evidence for a Roman military establishment in the Kingsholm area of Gloucester first came to light in 1938 when the sleeper-beams of rectangular ‘military style’ buildings were uncovered during the construction of air-raid shelters at Kingsholm Recreation Ground (SO836192). Excavations conducted by H. Hurst in 1972 at Kingsholm Close (SO834196) revealed two separate Roman occupation layers beneath the remains of the Saxon royal palace. The remains in the lower Roman layer were identified as a typical military barrack-block which yielded no specific dating evidence, however, the upper layer proved to be a Roman cemetery (vide infra), the establishment of which could be positively dated by finds of pottery and glass to the pre-Flavian period This proved that the underlying military remains must date before the establishment of the legionary fortress underlying Gloucester City Centre itself. Subsequent excavations throughout the Kingsholm area have helped to establish the true nature and extent of the Roman encampment.

  • A Watching Brief conducted by archaeologists from Gloucester City Museum and Art Gallery in 1981 at Kingsholm Road Rugby Football Ground recorded evidence of a possible civil settlement or vicus lying outside the fortress defences, while another investigation at 27 Sandhurst Road recorded ditches and buildings of Roman military style.
  • Other Roman buildings were recorded in the back garden of 72 Deansway in 1982 and the following year a Roman roadway and ditch were observed during work at 6a Kingsholm Square.
  • Another archaeological Watching Brief at 27 Sandhurst Road in 1986 recorded the post-holes of an interval-tower within the fortress rampart buried beneath medieval deposits, and the following year recorded an oven built into the rear of the rampart.
  • Further work at Kingsholm Road Rugby Football Ground in 1987-8 recorded the line of the fortress ditch, a pottery kiln, buildings, pits and metalled surfaces, and a Watching Brief on a construction trench at 3 Kingsholm Square in 1988 revealed a Roman ditch and metalled surfaces which had been partly removed during post-medieval gravel quarrying.
  • Watching Briefs at 24 Kingshome Square in 1986 and at 23 Kingsholm Square in 1989 recorded the defensive ditch and rampart of the Roman fortress including pits and ovens overlain by the later inhumation cemetery; this was in turn sealed by a metalled surface and cut through by a well-shaft both of which dated to the post-medieval period.
  • A Watching Brief conducted in 1996 by Gloucester Archaeology monitoring the work of Severn Trent Water Authority at 2-24 Edwy Parade and outside 23 & 24 Kingsholm Square uncovered more Roman buildings and revealed the alignments of three separate ditch systems, the earliest of which was thought to represent the inner southern ditch of the vexillation fortress. This was overlaid by the “King’s Ditch” which enclosed both the Saxon royal palace and the early-medieval Kingsholm Manor, which was overlaid in turn by the post-medieval boundary ditch of Kingsholm Close.
  • Further Watching Briefs in 1997 on road-widening works at Agriculture House on Sandhurst Lane recorded a Roman ‘extraction pit’ and other undefined features lying outside the northern defences of the fortress, and foundation trenches for a residential development on Sandhurst Lane revealed the location of the outermost northern defensive ditch itself.
  • Two ditches recorded in 1997 within the grounds of Denmark Road High School for Girls probably represent the boundary ditches of the later Roman roadside cemetery, not of the fortress itself.

Although the full ground-plan of the Kingsholm vexillation fortress has not been recorded, evidence of its remains are scattered over an area of around 50 acres (c.20.2 ha) to the west of the Kingsholm Road. Roman military buildings have been found at locations separated by distances of at least 250 metres (c.820 feet) within an area delimited by Agriculture House on Sandhurst Lane to the north and by the residences along Edwy Parade to the south.

The Roadside Cemetery of the Colonia

Excavation in 1964 by Gloucester City Museum and Art Gallery at 64-66 Kingsholm Road recorded a Roman grave pit lying beneath post-medieval buildings and in 1978 further pits and inhumations were discovered cutting through earlier Roman buildings during excavations at 74 & 76 Kingsholm Road; archaeologists also confirmed that the Roman road was resurfaced during the Medieval period. Subsequent Watching Briefs conducted by GCMAG and Gloucester City Archaeology Unit (later Gloucester Archaeology) have revealed further evidence of an extensive Roman civil cemetery lying along both sides of the Roman road to Vertis (Worcester, Worcestershire), many of those to the west of the road overlying earlier military buildings and metalled areas within the fortress itself.

  • In 1981 building work at 35 Kingsholm Road uncovered a Roman inhumation burial which cut into underlying buildings and a follow-up Excavation by Gloucester and District Archaeology Research Group in 1982 confirmed the presence of a Roman inhumation cemetery overlying the barrack-blocks of the earlier fortress. These were in turn buried beneath the remains of medieval and post-medieval buildings.
  • Work in a British Telecom trench along Kingsholm Road in 1990 recorded another Roman inhumation burial and Water-main repairs in 1992 along the east side of Deansway uncovered the metalling of the Roman road, inhumation burials, also evidence of (mausoleum?) buildings and pits.
  • Underpinning work at 127 Deansway in 1994 recorded a Roman pit containing an animal burial, and trenches by Severn Trent at 15 Kingsholm Square in 1996 revealed an opus signinum floor surface which has been interpreted as part of a Roman Mausoleum.
  • Excavation at Denmark Road High School for Girls in 1997 recorded nine pits containing human remains and two Roman ditches, possibly boundary ditches of the cemetery itself, and a Watching Brief at 19 Kingsholm Road monitoring the foundation trenches of a new entrance-porch uncovered a late-Roman inhumation burial cutting through Claudio-Neronian military deposits.

Ending on a sour note, the unsupervised machining of foundation trenches for a rear extension at 86 Kingsholm Road in 2000 destroyed evidence of Roman metalled surfaces and inhumation burials which were subsequently scattered over the rear garden of the property. [In my personal opinion, this is mindless vandalism of our ancient historical and cultural heritage – pure and simple! An act which should have resulted in someone being prosecuted and/or suitably chastised. ]

Map References for Kingsholm

NGRef: SO 835 195 OSMap: LR89

OS National Grid Reference: SO835195
Dimensions: unknown
Area: c.50 acres (c.20 ha)

Roman Roads near Kingsholm

None identified