HOUSESTEADS ROMAN FORT
Housesteads Roman Fort was a large infantry fort constructed along the line of Hadrian’s Wall. It was garrisoned by a regiment recruited from Belgium and remained occupied for around 300 years. Today it is the most complete of any Roman Fort in Britain and offers a unique insight into Roman military operations.
By the early second century AD Roman forces had been in Britain for almost sixty years but, although successful campaigns had been waged in the far north of Scotland, military cutbacks had meant the northern extremity of their occupation had settled upon the Stanegate Road which ran between the River Tyne and the Solway Firth. For many Romans continued expansion north would have seemed inevitable but all that changed with the accession of Emperor Hadrian in AD 117. He embarked upon a radical policy of entrenchment and consolidation creating physical borders across the Empire, a concept previously alien to Roman ideology. In Britannia, which he visited in AD 122, he ordered the construction of Hadrian's Wall - a substantial frontier system constructed to the north of the Stanegate Road along the Whin Sill, a series of rocky cliffs that formed a strong natural barrier. Work started almost immediately and the original plan was for a continuous wall with two turrets and a fortified gateway, now known as a Milecastle, every Roman mile. One of the turrets, today classified as number 36B, was built on the site of the Housestead Fort. The original intent had been for the garrison of the frontier to remain in the existing forts upon the Stanegate Road but instead the decision was taken to build new forts upon the Wall itself at intervals of around seven miles. Housesteads Fort was one of seventeen such installations on the line of the Wall.
Housesteads was known to the Romans as Vercovicium meaning 'place of the effective fighters'. It was laid out in the traditional 'playing card' shape and covered an area of around five acres. In the centre was the Headquarters building which held the administrative centre and the strong room. This was flanked by a Commanding Officer's house, granaries and a hospital. The remainder of the fort was occupied by barracks and workshops. It was designed to garrison an Auxiliary infantry regiment of around 800 men. The first unit to be stationed there may have been part of the First Cohort of Tungrians (cohors I Tungrorum milliaria peditata), a regiment recruited from the area occupied by modern day Belgium. A civilian settlement, known as a vicus, became established outside the walls of the fort.
Emperor Hadrian died in AD 138 and was followed by Antoninus Pius. He sought an easy military victory and ordered his British Legions to advance north and establish a new frontier, the Antonine Wall, along the Clyde/Forth isthmus. Hadrian's Wall was abandoned although not all outposts were decommissioned. Housestead's garrison of Tungrians were re-assigned to Castlecary whilst a detachment of soldiers from the Second Augustan Legion (Legio II Augusta) was moved into the fort to replace them. The new frontier only lasted a few decades before Hadrian's Wall was re-established and by AD 160 the Tungrians were back at Housesteads.
Housesteads Fort was enlarged in the early third century AD during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus. During this period the Caledones and the Maetae north of the Wall were causing trouble for the Romans and it is likely the modifications made to Housesteads were a reflection of an expanded military presence on the frontier at this time. The Tungarians were still the garrison during this period and the enhanced fort meant it was now big enough to garrison the entire unit. Furthermore other units may have been based at Housesteads possibly including members of the First Cohort of Hamian Bowmen (Cohors Primae Hamiorum Saggitariorum), a regiment of archers recruited from Syria.
The fourth century saw substantial changes to Housesteads Fort. The vicus was abandoned around AD 320 and elements of it seem to have moved within the fort's perimeter. Some of the barrack blocks were adapted into 'chalets' and probably served as accommodation for soldier's families. The defences of the fort were also substantially enhanced suggesting a deterioration in the security situation enjoyed during much of the third century AD.
Housesteads was occupied until the end of Roman Britain in the early fifth century AD. However, once the connections with Rome were severed it is likely the population departed soon after as the fort's remote location made it unsuitable for supporting large settlements. There is no evidence of the site remaining occupied during the Dark Ages or Medieval period with the nearest manors being Sewingshields Castle and Bradley Hall. The abandoned fort became a shelter for the thieves and raiders who plagued the lawless border region - the so-called Border Reivers. This continued into the seventeenth century when the notorious Armstrongs occupied the site. However, following the Union of the Crowns in 1603 efforts were made to suppress lawless activity and it ended completely following the construction of the military roads in the early eighteenth century effectively making the site easily accessible to the authorities.
Berggren, A. J (2000). Ptolemy's Geography. Princeton University Press.
Breeze, D.J (2002). Roman Forts in Britain. Shire Archaeology, Oxford.
Breeze, D.J (2011). The Frontiers of Imperial Rome. Pen and Sword Books Ltd, Barnsley.
Campbell, D.B (2009). Roman Auxiliary Forts 27BC-AD378. Osprey, Oxford.
Collingwood, R.G and Wright, R.P (1965). The Roman Inscriptions of Britain. Oxford.
Crow, J (1992). Housesteads Roman Fort. English Heritiage, London.
Davies, H (2008). Roman Roads in Britain. Shire Archaeology, Oxford.
Fields, N (2005). Rome’s Northern Frontier AD 70-235. Osprey, Oxford.
Hobbs, R and Jackson, R (2010). Roman Britain. British Museum Company Ltd, London.
Ordnance Survey, Historic England and RCAHMW (2016). Roman Britain. 1:625,000 Scale. Ordnance Survey, Southampton.
Waite, J (2011). To Rule Britannia. The History Press, Stroud.
Housesteads is the most complete Roman Fort in Britain with extensive remains of barracks, granaries, the perimeter defences, the Commanding Officer's house and the civilian settlement. It is a must-see attraction and a superb starting point for exploring Hadrian’s Wall.
Housesteads Roman Fort Layout. The fort was configured in the standard 'playing card' configuration associated with Roman forts of the period. However, it differed from many of the other forts along the length of the frontier as it did not straddle the Wall and accordingly only had one exit to the north.
Whin Sill. The wall and fort ran along the summit of the Whin Sill. The steep scarp in front of the fort's northern wall can clearly be seen. Knag Burn Gate is in the foreground.
North Gate. The fort's northern gateway consisted of a double arched entrance flanked by square towers.
Hadrian's Wall / Turret 36B. The fort was added after the wall had been started and a turret, which today is classified as number 36B, had already been built on the site. This was demolished to make way for the new facility but its foundations have been exposed and are on display (left). The wall itself intersected with the fort's north-eastern and north-western corners.
Barracks. The fort's barrack blocks were originally communal accommodation. They were adapted in the fourth century AD into 'chalets' seemingly for family groups after the vicus moved into the fort itself.
Headquarters (Principia). The central building was the command building, the Principia. This included a courtyard, strongroom and administrative offices.
Commanding Officer's House (Praetorium). The Commanding Officer had a large house built to the south of the Principia.
Granary. A large granary stored the food provisions for the garrison.
Roman Military Disposition. The Roman military established a network of forts and roads that extended north from the Legionary base at York.
Knag Burn Gate. Other than the milecastles and the forts, there were only three gates that allowed access through Hadrian's Wall. The major ones were Port Gate on Dere Street and another near Carlisle. The third was Knag Burn gate that was presumably added due to the presence of a local trade route.