Great Chesterford Roman Fort

Claudian Auxiliary Fort (AD 43–54)

It would appear likely that the Roman site at Great Chesterford is one of the earliest in Britain, possibly occupied during the initial campaign season of Aulus Plautius A.D. 43, possibly by the men of Legio IX Hispana. The site occupies an excellent strategic position astride the ancient trackway overlooking the Cam valley, but is positioned somewhat anomalously between two later Roman roads, the ‘Via Devana‘ lies about 6 miles to the north-east, and ‘Ermine Street‘ is 10 miles to the west. The known road to the east-south-east doglegs south to Great Dunmow at a point seven miles along its course, but the road very likely continued east-south-east to Camulodunum (Colchester).

A plan of the fort has been obtained by piecing together information from aerial photographs and excavations conducted below the northern half of the later Roman walled town. These reveal a large fort of around 36 acres with the available dating evidence suggesting an occupation during the Neronian period, though a Claudian foundation can not be ruled out. The location of the site certainly would have made it an excellent rearward base in the aftermath of the 60/61AD Boudiccan rebellion. It is possible that a Plautian fort or marching camp was sited nearby, not necessarily on the same site, but perhaps on the Braughing road south of the river.

The Roman Fort at Great Chesterford

The first evidence of Roman military occupation at Great Chesterford was a bronze trumpet mouthpiece found sometime prior to 1923. The Roman military presence was confirmed when rescue operations during gravel quarrying in 1948/9 recorded a military ditch running east-west just outside the northern gateway of the Roman town. The ditch had a typical military V-shaped profile 13 ft (4 m) wide by 6 ft (1.75 m) deep with a square drainage slot in the bottom, and was traced to east and west of the Roman roadway for a distance of 455 ft (140 m).

Aerial photographs taken by Dr. J.K. St. Joseph between 1959 and 1966 were closely studied in advance of M11 Motorway development in 1971. These studies revealed the north-east corner-angle and part of the southern defences of the fort, and also indicated that the roads from Braughing and Colchester converged on the fort’s southern gateway. The via Principalis of the fort could also be traced on the A.P.’s, running from north to south between the north gateway recorded in 1949 and the south gateway indicated by the converging roads.

The site is bounded on the west by the River Cam, which would constrain expansion of the defenses in this direction to between 500-580ft (150-175m), and allows an estimation of the camps size to be calculated despite the fact that the western defenses cannot be located. The camp was quite large, measuring 1,000ft (300m) from north to south, with an east-west dimension between 1,580-1,660ft (475-500m), this would enclose an area between 35-37 acres (14/15ha) which is large enough to accommodate half a legion and perhaps a couple of auxiliary cavalry units. It would appear that the camp faced towards the west-south-west over the River Cam, which implies that there was a threat from this direction when the camp was built.

Sparse dating evidence consists of a few ‘pre-Flavian’ coins, and sherds of Neronian and early-Flavian samian pottery recovered from the ditch infill. It would appear from the lack of Claudian remains that this fort was built during or immediately after the revolt of Boudicca in the winter of 60/1AD.

The Great Chesterford Romano-British Temple

This square temple lies on a gentle hill(-slope) about a mile east of the town. The portico measures about 46 feet square, the cella about 22 feet square with a mosaic floor which was probably covered. The inner walls were about 2 feet thick, the outer walls about 2½ feet thick. The temple faced east. The temple was probably built during the 2nd century, and was deliberately destroyed sometime during the 4th, its mosaics being smashed. (Type I, or II)

References for Great Chesterford

  • The Roman Fort at Great Chesterford, Essex by Warwick Rodwell in Britannia iii (1972) pp.290-293 & fig.1;
  • Temples in Roman Britain by M.J.T. Lewis (Cambridge 1966);
  • Air Reconnaissance of Southern Britain by J.K. St. Joseph in J.R.S. xliii (1953) pp.81-97; 

Map References for Great Chesterford

NGRef: TL5043 OSMap: LR154; B20.

Roman Roads near Great Chesterford

Ridgeway: WSW (17) to Baldock SW (14) to Bravghing Probable road: ESE (33) to Camulodunum (Colchester, Essex) Probable road: ESE (33) to Camvlodvnvm Trinovantvm NNW (13) to Dvroliponte (Cambridge, Cambridgeshire) Ridgeway: NE (27) to Camboritvm Possible road: WNW (12) to Wimpole Lodge Possible road: E (13) to Wixoe (Suffolk) SE (17) to Great Dvnmow (Essex)

Sites near Great Chesterford Roman Fort