Worcester was possibly the site of the Roman town of Vertis, with evidence of early military occupation. There is evidence of 2nd century iron working at Talbot Street/City Walls Road. Worcester lies in the plain of the Severn, a little above its confluence with the Teme. This stretch of the Severn marks the junction between lowland and highland Britain, a contrast which can be dramatically seen from the summits of the Malvern Hills.
The iron age settlement at Worcester would have been sited on a bend in the river Sabrina, at the watershed between lowland and highland Britain. Trade routes date from Neolithic era, first settled around 400 BC when a village surrounded by defensive ramparts was founded on E. bank.
A burial mound was excavated in north Worcester in the mid-19th century. The ‘Perdiswell Barrow’ was probably originally Neolithic or Bronze Age (a Neolithic arrowhead was found here) but the best known find from the site (though not necessarily from the barrow) was part of a torc or neck collar of Iron Age date. Torcs are usually associated with high-status individuals, and this was a very rare find, made of iron and bronze.
It seems that the Roman town was sited in a place which was already settled. Remains of banks and ditches, probably dating to the late Iron Age, have been found on development sites close to the Cathedral, and it is thought that there was a defended enclosure or fort here covering c. 8 hectares (20 acres). Pottery and boiling stones were also found in this area, indicating occupation, while a horse-burial found underneath the present day Crowngate centre has been radiocarbon dated to the period 160 B.C. – 1 A.D. Across the country, many of these Iron Age defended sites later developed into Roman towns.
Worcester lies in the northern, poorer, half of the territory of the late iron-age tribe of the Dobunni. Four coins issued by the rulers of these peoples have been found within the city and one of a tribe far to the south, the Regnenses of Sussex. Scattered evidence for occupation of this date was found in investigations to the north of the defensive enclosure, including pits, a possible roundhouse and a horse burial at Deansway. Iron-age Worcester seems, so far as the present evidence goes, to have been a settlement of minor importance, dominated, in all probability, by the occupants of the great Malvern hill-forts.
Vertis (Worcester)has long been thought of as the site of a Roman town, supported by the Anglo-Saxon descriptive suffix “cestre”, but the status of the settlement is vague.
No public or private building (apart from the possible temple in Britannia Square, SO 85 NW 29), no traces of mosaic floors or hypocausts have ever been discovered, and its defences have been obliterated. However, remains have been found, including large quantities of pottery and coins over an area roughly corresponding to that of the medieval city, which may be accepted as evidence of some little town or settlement with continuous occupation throughout the Roman period. Its existence as a settlement is strengthened by its strategic importance as it is positioned on the road between Droitwich and Gloucester.
A short-lived early Roman settlement lying just over 1 km to the west of the River Severn at St John’s was suggested as a trading post established by locals to exchange goods with the army.
Roman Fort at Worcester
While there is evidence that the late Iron Age defensive ditches on the east bank may have been dug out during the first century A.D., there is no other evidence to suggest that this was used as a fort by the Romans, and scatters of military equipment and coins found in the city centre from this early period may have been lost during the course of road building, or won by the local inhabitants in battle, rather than being rubbish from a Roman military garrison.
As the Roman military machine soon passed across the Severn to begin campaigning in Wales, the military significance of the river crossing at Worcester would have quickly faded, leaving the local inhabitants to adapt to the new economic and political conditions of the times.
A ditch of 1st century date, discovered during excavations at Lich Street has been suggested as part of the defences of such a fort. It was V-shaped and contained an early Flavian sherd in its lower filling. Another site lies south of the cathedral where excavations revealed a ditch with an “ankle breaker” slot in the bottom. However later excavations however revealed another similar ditch parallel to the first, but with medieval pottery in its early silting.
Worcester’s Northern Suburb
The distribution of chance finds had suggested, before the excavations of 1966-68 in the Broad Street development site, that there was a Roman suburb extending northward from the Pump Street / High Street gate. The Broad Street excavations amplified our knowledge of this suburb. It appears to have been residential in the second century, with at least one building with sophisticated decorative wall paintings. A pebble-surfaced road 18 feet wide ran through the suburb from north to south on the higher ground to the west.
While there is clearly a substantial agricultural element to the economy of Roman Worcester, its industrial capacity would appear to have been its mainstay, at least during the second and third centuries A.D.
The massive investment in capital works which took place in Britain during the first half of the second century A.D. (in particular during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian) provided a demand for raw materials, tools and manpower which stimulated economic development throughout the province, and it was probably this that prompted the development of a major iron smelting industry at Worcester.
This industry seems to have begun in the Deansway/Broad Street area, where excavations have revealed three regularly laid out streets associated with clay furnace bases and other structures forming part of a ‘iron-smelting factory’ which extended northwards into Blackfriars (now the Friary Mall shopping centre) and Angel Place. During the course of the third century this complex grew northwards along the main road as far as Castle Street, a distance of over 0.5km, and extended down as far as the river banks on Pitchcroft – an area of over 16 hectares (c. 40 acres).
The massive scale of the iron workings provided an abundant supply of iron slag which was selectively used as a road surfacing material (the still iron-rich slag rusting together to form a true ‘metalled’ surface), and may well have been used for other civil engineering projects. Demolition of the medieval bridge in 1781 revealed iron slag piers that were removed with ‘the utmost difficulty’, suggesting that the structure may originally have been Roman, while bore-hole evidence indicates that the medieval Newport Street/Dolday suburb was built on an artificial tongue of land between the river terrace and the bridgehead which comprised, at its lower levels, a massive dump of iron slag. So extensive was this dump that in 1653 Andrew Yarranton was granted permission by the City Corporation to mine ‘Roman cinders’ from Pitchcroft (on the site of the present cattle market) which he re-smelted in the technologically more advanced furnaces of the time.
The ore for the industry probably came from a local source of bog iron – not the Roman mines in the Forest of Dean – while the charcoal fuel would have been produced locally. Although a massive amount of pig-iron was being produced by the settlement, this appears to have been transported elsewhere for manufacturing purposes, presumably mainly by river, which raises the question as to where the settlement’s docking facilities were located. Aside from the waterfront of the east bank itself, the juncture of the Frog Brook with the Severn (at Diglis) would have provided a sufficiently deep off-channel harbouring facility, although as yet neither area has been investigated archaeologically.
While the second and third century Roman settlement is presently classed as a specialised industrial site, the area of the presumed town centre – the area of the later Cathedral Close – still remains to be investigated. This nucleus would probably have contained a market area, shops, taverns, domestic buildings and, possibly, a few public buildings, although the settlement was probably not an administrative centre during this period and does not appear to have been a formally planned Roman town. While limestone was imported from the Cotswolds, this appears to have been used mainly to line wells and make plaster (painted fragments of which are known from the city), and on the present evidence most of the settlements buildings would appear to have been timber constructions. Suburban development extended into the Sidbury area, and here the third century buildings benefited from a water supply provided by lead collared wooden pipes. To the north of the industrial suburb, in Britannia Square, the footings of a circular sandstone building discovered in the 1840s may have been the remains of a Roman temple, and finds of roof tile and the occasional tessera (mosaic fragment) in the area certainly point to the existence of one or more high status Roman buildings there. While the settlement cemeteries have still to be located, Roman cremation burials are known south of Severn Street (south of the Cathedral) and on Deansway, while inhumation burials (generally, a later practice) are known from Deansway, Blackfriars and Farrier Street.
The impression of the second and third century settlement is of a bustling industrial town and trading centre with extensive suburbs spreading loosely along the main axial road on the river terrace down into the river margins, but with no apparent sister settlement on the west bank. With close links to the salt producing centre at Droitwich and to the Malvern potteries (producing their distinctive orangey red Severn Valley Ware), and with a rich agricultural hinterland (the structure of which is still visible in the area south of Droitwich) the town would have been an important redistribution centre for local products, and it is this historic function which is likely to have been the reason for the settlement’s survival – rather than abandonment – during subsequent periods of economic and social instability.
Along the postulated road west towards Kenchester, there were tile kilns north of the road at Upper Sandlin (SO7551), and pottery kilns were found south of the road at Howsell (SO7748). A roman milestone or honorific pillar was found at Kempsey, four miles to the south of Worcester, close by the site of a couple of enclosures perhaps associated with a villa estate.
Classical References to the Roman Town of Vertis (Worcester)
The only classical reference which states the Roman name for Worcester is the Ravenna Cosmology from the 7th century. In this document the name Vertis (R&C#64) is listed between the entries for Ariconium (Weston-under-Penyard, Hereford & Worcester) and Salinae (Droitwich Spa, Hereford & Worcester); this entry has been assigned to Worcester.
Roman Roads near Vertis (Worcester)
Ryknild Street: NE (7) to Droitwich (Droitwich Spa, Hereford & Worcester) Ryknild Street: S (26) to Glevvm (Gloucester, Gloucestershire) Possible Road: SW (5.5) to Howsell S (4) to Kempsey Possible road: WSW (17) to Stretton Grandison
- The Origins of Worcester 1968-69
- The defended Vici of Roman Britain: recent research and new agendas
Sites near Worcester (Vertis) Roman Settlement
- Icknield Street (2 km)
- Hawford (6 km)
Iron Age Defended Enclosures
- Kempsey (6 km)
Iron Age Defended Enclosures and Milestone
- Howsell (9 km)
- Droitwich (Salinae Dobvnnorvm) Roman Fort (10 km)
Claudian Auxiliary Fort (AD 43–54), Industry, Salt working and Vicus
- Woodbury Hill (14 km)
Iron Age Hillfort
- Tedstone Wafer Fortlet (18 km)
- Shurnock Temporary Camp (19 km)
Marching or Temporary Camp
- Midsummer Hill Camp (19 km)
- Canon Frome (Stretton Grandison) Roman Fort (24 km)
Claudian Auxiliary Fort (AD 43–54) and Minor Settlement