Papcastle (Derventio) Roman Fort

Flavian Auxiliary Fort (AD 69–96)

The Romans, arriving in Britain in AD 43, probably did not venture as far north as Cumbria before about AD 80. Of the many forts they built, the first in Papcastle, no doubt with only wooden defences, is believed to date from this time.   This was succeeded by a more substantial one by the second century and remained in use until almost the end of the Roman occupation period.

Unfortunately for historians, much of the stonework of the fort above ground  and probably the township, was taken to build Cockermouth Castle in the 12th century.  No doubt farmers were not slow to acquire useful building stone for wall and farm buildings.

Litereary References to Papcastle (Derventio ) Roman Fort

Various antiquarians have recorded visible remains; Camden (1586 to 1594) called Papcastle “the carcase of an ancient fort” and in 1610, recorded that the font, now in Bridekirk church, had been discovered here. Gale in 1709, identified the fort as Derventio, correcting earlier misidentifications. Stukeley, in 1725 gave a very detailed account. The latest description of any value was that of Askew in c.1864 who wrote:

The village of Papcastle occupies the site where once stood the Roman City of Derventio, for a period of at least two hundred years. Coins, altars, buried grain, and earthen vessels are still frequently found in the gardens and fields. […] On the high ground above the village there was a strong castrum or Roman castle, up to which there are still some faint traces of streets. The Romans did nothing on a small scale – their walls and edifices nearly always approached the stupendous, so that we have every reason to conclude that Derventio was no mean city. In excavating for the foundations of Derwent Lodge, the workmen opened out a fine Roman well, and turned up a quantity of burned grain, together with some coins. Sibey Brows is one of the earliest and richest pastures in the neighbourhood.

Classical references to Papcastle (Derventio ) Roman Fort

The name of this station is recorded only in the Ravenna Cosmology of the seventh century, where it is appears as Derventione (R&C122), between the compound entry for Maglona (Old Carlisle, Cumbria) and the entry for Bravoniacvm (Kirkby Thore, Cumbria). Epigraphic evidence from the site is sparse (only four inscriptions on stone are listed in the RIB), and neither confirms nor refutes the identification of Derventio with Papcastle. The modern name first appears as Pabecastr in 1260, which is a compound of Old Scandinavian and Old English papi+cæster, meaning ‘the Roman fort inhabited by a hermit.’

The Derventio Fort and Garrison Units

RIB 884 - Building inscription of the Sixth Legion

The Sixth Legion Victrix Pia Fidelis built (this).


Presumably it was brought from Papcastle; it resembles Hadrianic building-inscriptions of the Sixth Legion from the Birdoswald sector of Hadrian’s Wall.

RIB 882 - Dedication of the cuneus of the Frisians of Aballava (AD 241)

… to the cuneus of the Frisians of Aballava … in accordance with his vow set this up on October 19th and 20th in the consulship of Gordian for the second time and Ponpeianus, willingly and deservedly fulfilling his vow.

[...]NSIVM [...]
EX V P XIIII [...]
  • This was found n the courtyard at Cockermouth Castle, presumably taken from the Roman fort at Papcastle.
  • A cuneus literally means ‘wedge’, and represented a third-century unit-title of uncertain significance, consisting of cavalry or non-Roman irregulars.
  • Aballava is present-day Burgh-by-Sands, “cuneus of the Frisians of Aballava” means that this cuneus force came from the settlement Aballava, meant they had been stationed there before.

The name of this unit, the Cuneus Frisiavonum Aballavensium, itself imparts a wealth of information to the military historian:

  1. the first element of the name describes the unit’s size and function, a cuneus was a small irregular auxiliary unit named after the wedge-shaped formation in which they were deployed in battle;
  2. the second element tells us from which native tribe the soldiers were originally levied, and naturally, we can also infer their country of origin, the Frisii or Frisiavones were a Germanic tribe who inhabited the lowlands of northern Belgium and the southern Netherlands;
  3. the final element, Aballavensium is unique to this particular unit, and indicates that they were formerly stationed at Burgh-by-Sands (Aballava) (Burgh-by-Sands, Cumbria) on the western part of Hadrian’s Wall.

The ‘Frisian Wedge’ is also attested on another similar inscription from the Papcastle site (RIB 883; not shown) dated a few years later, at which time the unit was under the command of Nonius Philippus who held the rank of legatus. There are other examples of Cunei Frisiorum; at Vinovia (Binchester, Durham; RIB 1036; undated) and Vercovicivm (Housesteads, Northumberland; RIB 1594; 222-35AD).

References for Derventio [carvetiorvm]

  • Air Reconnaissance of North Britain by J.K. St. Joseph in J.R.S. xli (1951) pp.52-65;
  • The Roman Inscriptions of Britain by R.G. Collingwood and R.P. Wright (Oxford 1965);
  • Chronology of the Ancient World by E.J. Bickerman (Thames & Hudson, London, 1980);
  • Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names by A.D. Mills (Oxford 1998);
  • Atlas of the Greek and Roman World in Antiquity by Nicholas G.L. Hammond (Bristol Classical Press);

Roman Roads near Derventio [carvetiorvm]

NE (8.5) to Blennerhasset (Cumbria) NW (6) to Maryport (Maryport, Cumbria) probable road: SSW (17) to Tvnnocelvm (nr. Braystones, Beckermet, Cumbria)

Sites near Papcastle (Derventio) Roman Fort