Longthorpe Roman Vexillation Fort

Vexillation Fort

A Roman camp of a size sufficient to house half a legion lies on the south bank of the River Nene at Longthorpe near Peterborough, in Cambridgeshire. The fortress probably housed five cohorts of Legio IX Hispana, very likely together with a force of auxiliary cavalry.

The Original Vexillation Fortress

The original fortress measured 1,150 feet NW-SE by 950 feet NE-SW (350 x 290 metres) within the ramparts, which were fronted on all sides by a double ditch system and enclosed an area of almost exactly 25 acres (c. 10ha); enough room to comfortably house half a legion. The gateways of this large fort were centrally placed in the NE and SW sides, but on the NW and SE sides were off-set markedly towards the south-west by a ratio of 3:2; on this evidence it would appear that the fortress faced north-east.

The fortress may have been built as early as c. A.D. 44, prior to the campaign against the Coritani of Lincolnshire. It is probable however, that the fortress was built in response to the uprising of the Iceni c. A.D. 48. That the fortress was not in existence at the beginning of the revolt is possibly substantiated by the fact that the revolt was suppressed by the use of auxiliary forces only, implying perhaps that there were no legionary forces nearby.

The Reduced Legionary Fort

The reduced fortress measured approximately 660 feet NW-SE by 725 feet NE-SW (c.200 x 220 metres), enclosing an area of approximately 11 acres (c.4.45ha) with a single ditch on all sides but the south-east where part of the original defences were utilized, the original gateway on this side being retained while a simple narrow gateway pierced the new north-eastern rampart. The ditch of the smaller fort measures about 10-11 ft (c.3.2m) wide.

The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (Annals; XIV.32) narrates how, during the initial stages of the revolt of Boudicca in the winter of 60/61AD, a detachment of the Ninth Legion under the command of Quintus Petilius Cerialis was severely mauled by the rampaging Britons, the infantry was annihilated and the legionary legate escaped “back to the camp” with only his cavalry intact. Excavations carried out on the Longthorpe site by Sheppard Frere revealed that the defences of the fortress had been reduced in size to that of a large auxiliary fort, and that the work was carried out in a hurried fashion at around this period in history. It seems reasonable to assume therefore, that the “camp” to which Cerialis’ cavalry escaped was in fact, the Longthorpe vexillation fortress.

‘Longthorpe II’ has a reduced perimeter and apparently no refurbishing of the internal buildings, which might be expected if a proper new garrison was being installed. Professor Frere suggests that Cerialis may have been left with (at the most) 1,000 cavalrymen.” (Salway, fn., p.118)

Other Roman Remains in the Locale

There are legionary potteries outside the eastern defences of the fortress at Longthorpe (TL1697), two substantial Roman buildings about 1¼ miles south-west at Orton Longueville (TL1696 & TL1795), and two more pottery kilns about 3¼ miles east along the River Nene at Stanground (TL2097 & TL2196); all of these sites in Cambridgeshire.

References for Longthorpe

  • Historical Map and Guide – Roman Britain by the Ordnance Survey (3rd, 4th & 5th eds., 1956, 1994 & 2001);
  • Roman Britain by Peter Salway (Oxford 1981); Britannia v (1974) p.38;
  • Britannia ii (1971) p.264/5 & fig.9; Britannia i (1970) p.287;
  • Air Reconnaissance in Britain, 1961-1964 by J.K. St. Joseph in J.R.S. lv (1965) p.74 & fig.1;

Map References for Longthorpe

NGRef: TL1597 OSMap: LR142

Roman Roads near Longthorpe

Fen Causeway: E (26) to Denver (Downham West, Nordelph, Norfolk) Fen Causeway: W (3) to Dvrobrivae Catvvellorvm (Water Newton, Cambridgeshire)

Sites near Longthorpe Roman Vexillation Fort