Isle of Wight (Vectis Insvla)

Saxon Shore Fort and Villa

Vectis – The Division

Below Magnus Portus¹ is the island Vectis, the middle of which is in 19*20 52?.

  1. Magnus Portus was the Roman name for Bosham Harbour in Hampshire.
  2. The island of Vectis is easily identified as the Isle of Wight.

The island is mentioned in the Ravenna Cosmology of the seventh century, again as Vectis (R&C#303), between the entries for the Dorcades (the Orkney Islands) and Malaca (Isle of Mull, Inner Hebrides).

Wight, Isle of (the county). Vectis c.150, Wit 1086 ( DB ). A name (Welsh/Gaelic) possibly meaning ‘place of the division’, referring to its situation betreen the two arms of the Solent.” (Mills)

There is an oft-quoted passage by the great polymath Pliny the Elder (Natural History Book XVI, verse 104) dating to the late 70’s AD which names the island Mictis as the centre of the British tin trade, stating that it lay off the south coast of Britain some six days sail from Gaul. This name has often been mistakenly associated with the Isle of Wight, but is now known to refer to Saint Michael’s Mount off the Cornish coast opposite Marazion, known in ancient times as Ictis.

The historian Suetonius Tranquillus wrote in the latter half of the second century, and a reference to the Isle of Wight appears in his biography of the emperor Vespasian, which is dated to the early Claudian campaigns in Britain, during 43AD or 44, and states:

He reduced to subjection two powerful nations,¹ more than twenty towns,² and the island of Vectis, near Britain, …

  1. The Durotriges of Somerset and Dorset, and possibly the eastern Dumnonii of Devon.
  2. Only a few of these ‘towns’ have been identified with any certainty, such as Hod Hill and South Cadbury.

In the year 296, Constantius Caesar made preparations to take back the British provinces from the usurper Allectus. His fleet set out from Gaul and sailed along the south coast, expecting to meet the rebel British fleet somewhere along the way, however:

… As we learn by their own accounts, at the very moment such mist swirled over the surface of the sea that the hostile fleet, on station at the Isle of Vecta as look-out and in ambush, was bypassed with the enemy in total ignorance, and thus unable to delay our attack, still less resist it. …” (Panegyric on Constantius Caesar 15)

Constantius landed all his troops somewhere on the south coast opposite Vectis, and immediately burned his ships, thus proving to his men that they would either succeed in taking back Britain for Rome, or else die in the attempt, for there would be no turning back.

The island’s name also occurs in Geography of Ptolemy of the mid-second century, where it appears at the very end of book two chapter two:

… Below Magnus Portus¹ is the island Vectis the middle of which is in 19*20 52?.

  1. Magnus Portus = Noviomagus, Chichester, Hampshire.

And again in the Ravenna Cosmology of the seventh century:

Once again, there are within the selfsame ocean (islands) which are named: Vectis, MalacaInsenosTaniatide

  1. Island of Mull, Inner Hebrides.
  2. Possibly Hibernia, Ireland.
  3. Tanatus; Isle of Thanet, Kent.

Roman Villas on the Isle of Wight

There are five known Roman villas on the Isle of Wight; at Rock (SZ4284), Carisbrooke (SZ4888), Newport (SZ5088), Combley (SZ5387) and Brading (SZ5986). There are also substantial Roman buildings on the north coast at Gurnard (SZ4795).

Carisbrooke I. of Wight. Caresbroc 12th cent. Possibly ‘the brook called Cary‘. Lost river-name (Welsh/Gaelic) + OE broc.Rock Probably ‘the rock’, from ME rokke or OFrench roche; or possibly ‘(place of) the rooks’, from OE hroc.Newport ‘new market town’, OE newe + port: … Newport I. of Wight. Neweport 1202. …Combley Probably ‘the valley of the woodland clearing’; from OE cumb + leah.Brading I. of Wight. Brerdinges 683, Berardinz 1086 ( DB ). ‘(Settlement of) the dwellers on the hill-side’. OE brerd + -ingas.Gurnard Probably ‘(place belonging to) a man called Gurnard‘; or possibly ‘the grassy (place where) Valerian (grows)’, from OE gærs + Medieval Latin nardi.

Possible Saxon Shore Fort

At Carisbrooke, in the Isle of Wight, the remains of a Saxon Shore fort have recently been discovered, consisting of walls 10 feet thick, with bastions, embedded in the Norman earth-works (J.R.S., xvi, 235 ; Antiquity, i, 476).” (Collingwood, p.53)

Excavations at Carisbrooke, Isle-of-Wight in 1969

SZ485882 – “… re-examination of the 3rd-century aisled house, discovered in 1859 at the vicarage, showed that it had originated as an aisled barn measuring 19.8 x 14.0 m (64 x 46 ft), having a room with opus signinum floor 6.7m (22ft) square projecting at the north end. Later alterations (? 4th century) added further rooms at the north end, internal partitions in the aisles, a number of tessellated pavements, and the bath-suite in the south-west corner.” (Britannia, 1970)

References for Vectis Insvla

  • Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names by A.D. Mills (Oxford 1998);
  • Roman Britain – A Sourcebook by S. Ireland (Routlege, New York, 1986);
  • Britannia i (1970) p.300.
  • The Archaeology of Roman Britain by R.G. Collingwood (Methuen, London, 1930)

Map References for Vectis Insvla

NGRef: SZ4988 OSMap: LR196

Roman Roads near Vectis Insvla

None identified

Sites near Isle of Wight (Vectis Insvla)