Roman villa 140m east of St Mary and St Nicholas' Church


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:


Ordnance survey map of Roman villa 140m east of St Mary and St Nicholas' Church
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Wycombe (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SP 79687 01923

Reasons for Designation

Romano-British villas were extensive rural estates at the focus of which were groups of domestic, agricultural and occasionally industrial buildings. The term "villa" is now commonly used to describe either the estate or the buildings themselves. The buildings usually include a well-appointed dwelling house, the design of which varies considerably according to the needs, taste and prosperity of the occupier. Most of the houses were partly or wholly stone-built, many with a timber-framed superstructure on masonry footings. Roofs were generally tiled and the house could feature tiled or mosaic floors, underfloor heating, wall plaster, glazed windows and cellars. Many had integral or separate suites of heated baths. The house was usually accompanied by a range of buildings providing accommodation for farm labourers, workshops and storage for agricultural produce. These were arranged around or alongside a courtyard and were surrounded by a complex of paddocks, pens, yards and features such as vegetable plots, granaries, threshing floors, wells and hearths, all approached by tracks leading from the surrounding fields. Villa buildings were constructed throughout the period of Roman occupation, from the first to the fourth centuries AD. They are usually complex structures occupied over several hundred years and continually remodelled to fit changing circumstances. They could serve a wide variety of uses alongside agricultural activities, including administrative, recreational and craft functions, and this is reflected in the considerable diversity in their plan. The least elaborate villas served as simple farmhouses whilst, for the most complex, the term "palace" is not inappropriate. Villa owners tended to be drawn from a limited elite section of Romano-British society. Although some villas belonged to immigrant Roman officials or entrepreneurs, the majority seem to have been in the hands of wealthy natives with a more-or-less Romanised lifestyle, and some were built directly on the sites of Iron Age farmsteads. Roman villa buildings are widespread, with between 400 and 1000 examples recorded nationally. The majority of these are classified as `minor' villas to distinguish them from `major' villas. The latter were a very small group of extremely substantial and opulent villas built by the very wealthiest members of Romano-British society. Minor villas are found throughout lowland Britain and occasionally beyond. Roman villas provide a valuable index of the rate, extent and degree to which native British society became Romanised, as well as indicating the sources of inspiration behind changes of taste and custom. In addition, they serve to illustrate the agrarian and economic history of the Roman province, allowing comparisons over wide areas both within and beyond Britain. As a very diverse and often long-lived type of monument, a significant proportion of the known population are identified as nationally important.

Despite its location in a ploughed field, the villa 140m east of St Mary and St Nicholas' Church is considered to survive well. Without actually removing the main structural components, the limited excavations of 1938 demonstrated the nature and design of one of the principal buildings; furthermore, this area is still thought to retain remains either overlooked by the original excavators or capable of yielding far more information given the range of scientific techniques available now or in the future. Clear evidence for the wider extent of the complex has been provided by aerial photography. This has confirmed that the excavated structure is only one of a pair of principal buildings separated by a courtyard which, by comparison with other excavated examples, will contain buried remains of further structures and features related to the operation of the settlement, the lifestyle of its inhabitants and the duration of occupation.

The site has additional interest as part of the wider pattern of changing settlement and land use within the Chiltern valleys. Viewed alongside evidence of earlier Iron Age occupation on Lodge Hill to the south and later Anglo- Saxon burial practices on Hemley Hill to the east, the villa (and its nearest neighbour at Saunderton Lee to the south) clearly form part of a prolonged sequence of human activity in the area. Sites such as these will provide particularly valuable insights into the impact of Roman culture on the indigenous population of the Chilterns, and the nature of the Roman legacy following the collapse of provincial government in the early 5th century.


The monument includes a Romano-British villa, sometimes referred to as the `Saunderton Villa', which is located to the south of the road between Princes Risborough and Bledlow, flanked to the west by the seasonal stream which formerly fed the Saunderton Mill, and to the east by the embankment of the Wycombe to Bicester railway line.

The position of the villa can be identified at ground level by an area of dark soil which covers a broad terrace and contains numerous fragments of tile, flint and other building materials. One of the villa buildings, made apparent by such remains, was discovered and partly excavated in 1938 and is therefore known in some detail. The layout of the remainder of the complex is largely defined from cropmarks (anomalies in crop growth caused by underlying archaeological features) recorded in a sequence of aerial photographs, the first of which were taken in 1948.

The nucleus of the villa complex appears to have been contained within a rectangular enclosure which corresponds with the area of the terrace - flanking the stream over a distance of about 90m and extending to the north east for approximately 60m. The 1938 excavations revealed a single rectangular building, measuring 35m by 15m, which is now known to lie across the northern end of this enclosure. The excavated building was constructed in the mid- second century AD and originally included a suite of ten small rooms and two large rooms linked to a corridor running along its southern side; the largest of these rooms contained a series of channels beneath the floor which the excavator, Diane Ashcroft, interpreted as evidence of a hypocaust (a ducted heating system). The wall foundations, composed of flint and mortar, were left in place after the excavation. Their construction appeared to have been preceded by three infant burials, as well as by some evidence of earlier occupation on the site. The building suffered a period of decay, but was rebuilt from the ground up in the early 4th century, covering the same area but with the interior divided into three large rooms. This arrangement, with minor alterations, lasted until the settlement was finally abandoned in the late 4th century. At the time of the excavation this was thought to be the only substantial building on the site, and it was therefore interpreted as essentially domestic in character, albeit with a corn drying oven within the centre of the original ground plan. In 1969, however, the building was reinterpreted as a barn or agricultural store. A separate domestic structure was identified some 60m to the south where walls had recently been struck during ploughing and a trial hole had revealed a solid floor of opus signinum (mortar and crushed tile). This second building has been recorded as a cropmark on aerial photographs. It occupies a corresponding position across the southern end of the enclosure and is also rectangular in outline, measuring some 38m by 10m, with some traces of extensions along the northern side. In 1952 a pit containing a large quantity of Roman refuse was discovered a little to the west of this building, within the medieval moated site (which is the subject of a separate scheduling) on the opposite side of the stream. This material included local and imported pottery, painted wall plaster, Purbeck marble, roof and flue tiles, mosaic pieces and tesserae (small tile squares used in composite floor surfaces). The deposit is thought to relate to the demolition of the southern building in the late 4th century, and it reflects an elaborate, highly decorated structure originating in the late first or early second century AD, incorporating high quality building materials and employing a proper hypocaust system. Fragments of iron clinker, copper slag and lead waste also found in this pit indicate that metalworking took place on the site, and numerous coins found both here and in the fields hereabouts point to the existance of a developed economy based around the villa.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
Legacy System:


Books and journals
David, A, Hemley Hill: Ancient Monuments Lab Geophysical Survey Report, (1977)
Ashcroft, D, 'Records of Bucks' in Report on the excavtion of a Roman villa at Saunderton, Bucks, , Vol. 13, (1939), 398-426
Branigan, K, 'Records of Bucks' in The Romano-British villa at Saunderton reconsidered, , Vol. 18, (1969), 261-75
AP plot (paperstrip method) Bucks SMR, Allen, D, Saunderton Villa, (1979)
Farley, M, SMR 2515 AS cemetery Hemley Hill, (1997)
Info from informal metal detecting, Shingleton, P, Hemley Hill, (1998)
Oblique monochrome AP, CUCAP, AU/62-63, (1948)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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