Watling Street is a historic route in England that crosses the River Thames at London and which was used in Classical Antiquity, Late Antiquity, and throughout the Middle Ages. It was used by the ancient Britons and paved as one of the main Roman roads in Britannia (Roman-governed Great Britain during the Roman Empire). The route linked Dover and London in the southeast, and continued northwest via St Albans to Wroxeter. The line of the road was later the southwestern border of the Danelaw with Wessex and Mercia, and Watling Street was numbered as one of the major highways of medieval England. First used by the ancient Britons, mainly between the areas of modern Canterbury (Durovernum) and St Albans using a natural ford near Westminster, the road was later paved by the Romans. It connected the ports of Dover (Portus Dubris), Richborough (Rutupiae), Lympne (Portus Lemanis), and Reculver (Regulbium) in Kent to the Roman bridge over the Thames at Londinium (London). The route continued northwest through Verulamium (St Albans) on its way to Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum). Watling Street is traditionally cited as having been the location of the Romans’ defeat of Boudica, though precisely where on the route is disputed.
The Origin of the name Watling Street
The original Celtic and Roman name for the road is unknown, and the Romans may not have viewed it as a single path at all, since parts of it were assigned to two separate itineraries in one 2nd-century list. The modern name instead derives from the Old English Wæcelinga Stræt, from a time when “street” (Latin: via strata) referred to any paved road and had no particular association with urban thoroughfares. The Waeclingas (“people of Waecla”) were a tribe in the St Albans area in the early medieval period with an early name of the city being “Waetlingacaester”, which would translate into modern English as “Watlingchester”. The original Anglo-Saxon name for the section of the route between Canterbury and London was Casingc Stræt or Key Street, a name still borne by a hamlet on the road near Sittingbourne. This section only later became considered part of Watling Street.
History of Watling Street
The broad, grassy trackway found by the Romans had already been used by the Britons for centuries. The main path led from Richborough on the English Channel to a natural ford in the Thames at Thorney Island, Westminster, to a site near Wroxeter, where it split. The western continuation went on to Holyhead while the northern ran to Chester and on to the Picts in Scotland.
Westminster ford and Watling Street
There is a longstanding tradition that a natural ford once crossed the Thames between Thorney Island, (present-day Westminster) and the Lambeth/Wandsworth boundary.[better source needed] Its location means that it is possible that Watling Street crossed it. Several factors may have slowed the river here, leading to the depositing of enough sediments to create a usable ford:
- The bend in the Thames near Vauxhall Bridge.
- The two arms of the River Effra joining in that vicinity, depositing their own load, with the cross-flow causing the Thames to eddy and slow.
- Similarly the southern arm of the Tyburn, once joined the Thames at this point, on the northern bank.
- These factors mean the area is likely to have been the tidal head for some of the historic period.
Roman Watling Street
The Romans began constructing paved roads shortly after their invasion in AD 43. The London portion of Watling Street was rediscovered during Christopher Wren’s rebuilding of St Mary-le-Bow in 1671–73, following the Great Fire. Modern excavations date its construction to the winter from AD 47 to 48. Around London, it was 7.5–8.7 m (25–29 ft) wide and paved with gravel. It was repeatedly redone, including at least twice before the sack of London by Boudica’s troops in 60 or 61. The road ran straight from the bridgehead on the Thames to what would become Newgate on the London Wall before passing over Ludgate Hill and the Fleet and dividing into Watling Street and the Devil’s Highway west to Calleva (Silchester). Some of this route is preserved beneath Old Kent Road.
Antonine Itinerary and Watling Street
The Roman Antonine Itinerary lists sites along the route of Watling Street as part of a longer route of 500 Roman miles connecting Richborough with Hadrian’s Wall via Wroxeter. The continuation on to Blatobulgium (Birrens, Dumfriesshire) beyond Hadrian’s Wall in modern Scotland may have been part of the same route, leading some scholars to call this Watling Street as well, although others restrict it to the southern leg.
In the early 19th century, the course between London and the Channel was paved and became known as the Great Dover Road: today, the route from Dover to London forms part of the A2 road. The route from London to Wroxeter forms much of the A5 road. At various points along the historic route, the name Watling Street remains in modern use. The 2nd-century Antonine Itinerary gives the course of Watling Street from “Urioconium” (Wroxeter) to “Portus Ritupis” (Richborough) as a part of its Second Route (Iter II), which runs for 501 MP from Hadrian’s Wall to Richborough:
- A Blato Bulgio [= Blatobvlgivm = Birrens, Dumfries & Galloway]
- Castra exploratorum xii [= Castra Exploratorvm = Netherby, Cumbria]
- Luguvallo xii [= Carlisle (Luguvalium) Roman Fort = Carlisle, Cumbria] Voreda xiiii [= Voreda = Old Penrith, Cumbria]
- Brovonacis xiii [= Bravoniacvm = Kirby Thore, Cumbria] Verteris xiii [= Verteris = Brough Castle, Cumbria]
- Lavatris xiiii [= Lavatris = Bowes, Durham]
- Cataractone xvi [= Cataractonivm = Catterick, North Yorkshire]
- Isurium xxiiii [= Isvrivm = Aldborough, North Yorkshire]
- Eburacum xvii [= Ebvracvm = York, North Yorkshire]
- Calcaria viiii [= Calcaria = Tadcaster, North Yorkshire]
- ?Camboduno xx
- [?= Cambodvnvm = Slack, South Yorkshire?]
- Mamucio xviii [= Mamvcivm = Manchester, Greater Manchester]
- Condate xviii
- [= Condate = Northwich, Cheshire]
- Deva, leg. xx vict, xx [= Deva = Chester, Cheshire] [home of Legio Vicesimae Valeria Victrix]
- ?Bovio x [?= Bovivm = Tilston, Cheshire?]
- Mediolano xx
- [= Mediolanvm = Whitchurch, Shropshire]
- ?Rutunio xii [?= Rvtvnivm = Harcourt Park, Shropshire?]
- Urioconio xi [= Viroconivm = Wroxeter, Shropshire]
- Uxacona xi [= Vxacona = Redhill, Shropshire]
- Pennocrucio xii [= Pennocrvcivm = Water Eaton, Staffordshire]
- Eoceto xii [= Letocetvm = Wall, Staffordshire]
- Manduesedo xvi [= Mandvessedvm = Mancetter, Warwickshire]
- Venonis xii [= Venonis = High Cross, Leicestershire]
- Bannaventa xvii [= Bannaventa = Whilton Lodge, Northhamptonshire]
- Lactodor xii [= Lactodvrvm = Towcester, Northamptonshire]
- Magiovinto xvii [= Magiovinivm = Dropshort, Buckinghamshire]
- Durocobrivis xii [= Dvrocobrivis = Dunstable, Bedfordshire]
- Verolamio xii [= Vervlamivm = St. Alban’s, Hertfordshire]
- Sulloniacis viiii [= Svlloniacis = Brockley Hill, Greater London]
- Londinio xii [= Londinivm = London, Greater London]
- ?Noviomago x [?= Noviomagvs = Crayford, Greater London?]
- ?Vagniacis xviii [?= Vagniacis = Springhead, Kent?]
- Durobrivis viiii [= Dvrobrivae = Rochester, Kent]
- ?Durolevo xiii [?= Dvrolevvm = Ospringe, Kent?]
- Duroverno xii [= Dvrovernvm = Canterbury, Kent]
- Ad portum Ritupis xii [= Rvtvpiae = Richborough, Kent]
- (Total 501)
Sites near Watling Street
- London Mithraeum (3 km)
- London's Roman Amphitheatre (3 km)
- London (Londinium) Roman Settlement (3 km)
Claudian Auxiliary Fort (AD 43–54), Legionary Fort, Palace and Triumphal Arches
- Billingsgate Roman House and Baths (3 km)
- Highgate Wood Pottery Factory (9 km)
- Brockley Hill (Sulloniacae) Roman Settlement (20 km)
Claudian Auxiliary Fort (AD 43–54), Pottery and Vicus
- Crofton Roman Villa (21 km)
- Ewell (24 km)
- Banstead Villa (Walton-on-hill) (26 km)
Temple Or Shrine and Villa
- Park Street Villa (27 km)