Mancetter (Manduessedum) Vexillation Fort

Mutatione?, Pottery, Roman Burg and Vexillation Fort

A Roman vexillation fortress was situated some eight hundred metres (half a mile) south-west of the Watling Street settlement, on the opposite bank of the River Anker underneath the 13th century church of St. Peter and the later Mansion House (National Grid Reference: SP318966). The fortress measured approximately 1,080 x 1,010 feet (330x310m) and covered an area of around 25 acres (c.10ha). It was probably established by Legio XIV Gemina, but the question remains, when?

  1. Under the direction of the first Roman governor of the province Aulus Plautius in c.45AD, as part of the loosely-termed “Fosse Way Frontier Zone”.
  2. The work of Ostorius Scapula upon entering his new province, to counter the uprising of the Iceni in the winter of 47AD.
  3. built by governor Suetonius Paulinus to counter the full revolt of the Iceni under the leadership of Queen Boudicca in the winter of 60/61AD.

Samian fragments dated between 45AD – 67AD were found during excavation of the ditch infilling, which therefore, does not rule out an even later construction date, though this is unlikely. The latter of these three dates is the most favoured, on the strength of the etymology of the name (Welsh/Gaelic) for Mancetter (vide supra), plus the fact that the fortress is placed on the west bank of the River Anker and faces east-north-east, seemingly for protection against a threat from the east.

The fortress was superceeded by a fort, about a quarter of its size and centred around the extant principia and central buildings, which now lie beneath the Mansion House. The fort possibly housed an ala of auxiliary cavalry, perhaps equipped from the spoils of battle…

“The Place of the War Chariots”

In the winter of 60/61AD came the most serious threat to the newly-formed Roman province of Britannia, the revolt of the Iceni and their neighbouring tribe the Trinovantes from East-Anglia and Essex. Under the leadership of the charismatic queen Boudicca, some tens of thousands of disaffected Britons rebelled against the predations of the Roman procurator Decianus Catus, and sacked the Roman colonia at Colchester, the central governmental offices of the governor at London and the municipium at Saint Alban’s. At the time, the governor of Britain, Suetonius Paulinus, was on the Isle of Anglesey having just beaten the Druids into submission…

Now it chanced that Paulinus had already brought Mona to terms, and so on learning of the disaster in Britain he at once set sail thither from Mona. However, he was not willing to risk a conflict with the barbarians immediately, as he feared their numbers and their desperation, but was inclined to postpone battle to a more convenient season. … ” (Dio History of Rome LXII.viii)

Paulinus was forced to retreat rapidly from Mona and march his army down Watling Street – the road by which the rebel horde was itself approaching from the south-east. The Britons had easily overwhelmed a vexillation of the Ninth Hispanic Legion early in the revolt, a skirmish in which all of the roman foot-soldiers perished and the legate narrowly managed to escape with a detachment of horse. Having lost over two-thousand legionaries in the south-east Paulinus was unable to save St. Albans from being torched, and prepared his forces for an engagement in the Midlands.

Suetonius had already the fourteenth legion, with a detachment of the the twentieth and auxiliaries from the nearest stations, altogether some ten thousand armed men, when he prepared to abandon delay and contest a pitched battle. …” (Tacitus Annals XIV.xxxiv)

There is evidence for the build-up of auxiliary forces at Greensforge in South Staffordshire to the west-south-west, and along Watling Street to the west-north-west at Letocetvm (Wall, Staffordshire), and further west at Pennocrvcivm (Water Eaton, Staffordshire). It is possible that Paulinus’ forces numbered a little in excess of 10,000 legionaries and auxiliary troops.

… He chose a position approached by a narrow defile and secured in the rear by a forest, first satisfying himself that there was no trace of an enemy except in his front, and that the plain there was devoid of cover and allowed no suspicion of an ambuscade. …” (Tacitus Annals XIV.xxxiv)

The place so described by Tacitus has been convincingly identified with Mancetter in Graham Websters superb book Boudica. The ‘narrow defile’ may have been one of several tributary valleys of the Anker, particularly the one near White Hall Farm north of Hartshill (NGR: SP322952), the forest protecting Paulinus’ rear has now been reduced to a few patchy woods on the high ground to the south-west of the river, including Monks Park Wood, Bentley Park Wood and Hartshill Hayes Country Park. The plain on which the British host were to assemble may have been the farmland between Atterton, Witherley and Fenny Drayton, covering an area of around five square kilometers.

… The legionaries were posted in serried ranks, the light-armed troops on either side, and the cavalry massed on the extreme wings. The British forces, on the other hand, disposed in bands of foot and horse were moving jubilantly in every direction. They were in unprecedented numbers,¹ and confidence ran so high that they brought even their wives to witness the victory and installed them in waggons, which they had stationed just over the extreme fringe of the plain.” (Tacitus Annals XIV.xxxiv)

  1. Cassius Dio mentions 230,000 British troops, though his figure is deemed to be greatly exaggerated.

The British method of fighting was essentially based on individual heroism, akin to the bronze-age battles and Homeric heroes immortalised in the Iliad and Odyssey, but the Roman modus operandi was to drill the 5,500 men in a legion to think and operate as one huge killing organism, with 5,500 steel ‘claws’ to thrust and stab, and 11,000 hobnailed boots to stamp and crush. Against such an opponent, individual sword-play was obsolete. The battle was decisive and according to Tacitus, who gives the more conservative estimates of manpower and losses, over 80,000 Britons were killed whereas only 400 Roman soldiers lost their lives.

As of yet, no supporting evidence has been found which links Mancetter to the battle site.

The Walled Settlement of Mancetter

The settlement of Mancetter lay along the Watling Street outside Atherstone, just to the south-east of the crossing of the River Anker. In the middle of the settled area a branch road lay off the Watling Street oriented north-south, having other branch roads to the east and west. It was metalled at least twice, with the primary surface dating no earlier than the 3rd century.

The Watling Street settlement was fortified in the late 3rd or early 4th century. The defended rectangular enclosure of 2.5ha measured c.183m by 137m. The defences consisted of a wall with footings c.2.6m thick, backed by a rampart c.7.62m wide and fronted by a berm c.11.28m wide and a ditch varying in depth from 2.74m to 1.5m. The northern and eastern ramparts lay along the line of an earlier ditch, apparently infilled during the early 2nd century.

Latest coinage found on the site is of Maximus (c.455AD).

The Local Pottery Industry

The main manufacturing industry of this small town and its surrounding area was pottery, which came to be distributed throughout the province. Twenty one pottery kilns have been found in a cluster immediately south-west of the Watling Street settlement, others have been found nearby at Hartshill and there are tile kilns at Arbury further southwards.

Excavations in 1964 revealed evidence of a glass-working workshop established amidst the Mancetter potteries. A glass-making furnace, and five other kilns or furnaces were found in the same area in 1969 (centred at SP326967). These kilns had been used by the potter I COTASGVS and others, to produce coarse-ware, beakers and mortaria during the mid-2nd century. On another part of the site at the same time, 3 x 3rd and 2 x 4th-century kilns were also uncovered.

SP326967 – Excavations conducted in 1970 revealed a ditch on the west margin of Broadclose. Measuring 9ft (2.7m) wide and 4 ft (1.2m) deep, the infill was of turf-like material. This suggests the deliberate levelling of a military camp built sometime in the mid-1st century. A causeway (10.1m) wide marked an entrance, but no traces of a gateway were detected. The same area later housed several potter’s kilns, wells and a working-floor upon which were two small rectangular features thought to be used for puddling clay. The pottery wasters recovered from these kilns suggest a working lifetime throughout the second and third centuries, and included works by SARVS and VICTOR. A side-road off the Watling street was found to have been twice resurfaced: the original surface of 6.1m was succeeded by another, 2.4 m and finally by a road 7.9 m in width.

Classical References to Mancetter Vexillation Fort

The sole classical mention of Mancetter occurs in the Antonine Itinerary of the late second century, where in Iter II, ‘the route from (Hadrian’s) Wall to the port at Richborough’, the entry Manduesedo is listed 16 miles from Letocetum (Wall, Staffordshire) and 12 miles from Venonis (High Cross, Leicestershire), this corresponds very closely to the modern measurement of fifteen and eleven miles respectively.

Mancetter Warwicks. Manduessedum 4th cent., Manacestre 1086 ( DB ). OE ceaster ‘Roman fort or town’ added to a reduced form of the original name (Welsh/Gaelic) which probably means ‘horse chariot’ (perhaps alluding to a topographical feature).” (Mills, 1998)

There are no texts on stone recorded in the Roman Inscriptions of Britain (RIB) for either the Mancetter settlement or the fortress; the only epigraphic evidence comes in the form of potters stamps (vide infra).

References for Mandvessedvm

  • Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names by A.D. Mills (2nd ed., Oxford, 1998);
  • The Boudican Revolt against Rome by Paul R. Sealey (Shire, 1997);
  • Boudica by Graham Webster (Batsford, London, 1993); Britannia i (1970) p.286;
  • Britannia ii (1971) p.263; J.R.S. liv (1964) p.165;
  • Annales by Cornelius Tacitus, translated by J.Jackson (Loeb, Harvard, 1937); ??????? ?????? by Cassius Dio translated by Earnest Cary (Loeb, Harvard, 1914)

Roman Roads near Mandvessedvm

Watling Street/Iter II: WNW (15) to Letocetvm (Wall, Staffordshire) ENE (16) to Ratae (Leicester, Leicestershire) Watling Street: ESE (10) to Venonis

Sites near Mancetter (Manduessedum) Vexillation Fort