MARYPORT ROMAN FORT
Maryport Roman Fort was built concurrently with Hadrian's Wall and formed part of an extension of that frontier which guarded the Cumbrian coast. During the Elizabethan period, many artefacts from the site were saved by the collector John Senhouse but, two hundred years later, the fort's stone was used to build the town and port.
Maryport Roman Fort was built on top of a sandstone ridge over 40 metres above sea level giving the site superb views over the Solway Estuary and across the ten mile stretch of water to Scotland. Due to the nearby River Ellen, which created a small natural harbour, the site could be easily resupplied by sea. It is possible a Roman fort was established on the site in the late first century AD, perhaps current with the campaigns of Gnaeus Julius Agricola who fought in southern Scotland in AD 80. However, the first known fortification was built around AD 122 concurrently with the work on Hadrian's Wall. This formed part of the West Coast Defences, a scheme of watchtowers, fortlets and forts that extended south of the Wall along the Cumbrian coast and was intended to prevent an enemy force by-passing the frontier by crossing the Solway Firth. Maryport, which was known as Alauna Carvetiorum, probably had a logistical role in supporting the various outposts in its vicinity.
Maryport Roman Fort was configured in the standard layout associated with military outposts of the period and would have had a Headquarters building (Principia) in the centre surrounded by granaries, barracks and workshops. The defences included a stone rampart and an extensive series of ditches - two surrounding the whole site with additional ones on the landward north and east sides. The fort enclosed an area of just over six acres making it unusually large and implying the outpost may have had additional roles, perhaps associated with the British Roman Navy (Classis Britannica) or as the administrative centre for the Western Sea Defences. The fort was built by soldiers drawn from the Second (Legio II Augusta) and Twentieth (Legio XX Valeria Victrix) Legions whilst the first garrison was the First Cohort of Spaniards (Cohors I Hispanorum Equitata), a 500 strong mixed infantry/cavalry force recruited from Spain and who were transferred from Ardoch Roman Fort in Scotland. A large town (vicus) grew up to the north and north-east of the fort along the line of the Roman road. Recent investigation has identified long rectangular buildings extending out from this road which have been interpreted as shops. There was also a Roman Temple.
Around AD 138 Hadrian's Wall was abandoned as the Romans occupied southern Scotland and built the Antonine Wall to serve as the new frontier on the Clyde/Forth isthmus. However, Maryport continued to be occupied although the garrison was seemingly changed at this time with the new occupants being the First Cohort of Dalmatae (Cohors I Delmatarum), a 500 strong unit traditionally recruited from Croatia. When the Antonine Wall was abandoned around AD 158, in favour of a return to Hadrian's Wall, the garrison at Maryport was changed again - this time to the First Cohort of Baetasii (Cohors I Baetasiorum) who were transferred from Bar Hill Roman Fort. How long they remained at Maryport is unknown but by the mid-fourth century AD they had been moved to Reculver Roman Fort (Regulbium) in Kent. The fort was partially rebuilt by the Romans in the third century with the work conducted by a vexillation from the Twentieth Legion perhaps in support of the Severan campaigns. The outpost seemingly remained in use until the end of Roman rule in Britain in the early fifth century although there is no clear evidence of abandonment so it is possible that occupation continued even after AD 409.
In 1570 the manor's owner, John Senhouse, started a collection of altar stones and other finds from the site. However, his successors were less sympathetic to remains of the fort. In 1749 Humphrey Senhouse started work on a new planned town, which he called Maryport after his wife, and the fort's stone was plundered to provide the building materials. By 1762 work had started on the harbour and again stone was robbed from the Roman site to support the construction effort.
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Maryport Roman Fort survives as a series of earthworks. Although the field itself is in private ownership, the remains can be viewed from the surrounding roads/pathways. Furthermore, a visit to the site can be paired with the adjacent Senhouse museum which has a large collection of Roman altars and other archaeological finds associated with the fort. The museum also has a dedicated viewing platform offering a good view of the site.
Maryport Roman Fort Layout. The fort enclosed six acres and was surrounded by numerous ditches; four on the north side, three on the east and two on the south and west. A substantial vicus grew up to the north and north-east of the fort along the line of the Roman road.
Earthworks. The surviving earthworks as viewed from the south.
Earthworks. The earthworks viewed from the east.
View. The fort was built on top of a sandstone ridge approximately 50 metres above sea level giving it superb views in all directions including across the Solway Firth towards Scotland.
Hadrianic Frontier Western Sea Defences. Hadrian’s Wall terminated at Bowness but extending beyond that were a scheme of fortlets spaced one mile apart with watch-towers in-between. It is not known how far they extended down the Cumbrian coast.
Senhouse Museum. The Senhouse museum, which houses the largest privately owned collection of Roman antiquities in Britain, is housed within a Royal Navy Artillery Reserve drill shed built in 1885.