Part of a Roman fort and its associated vicus and remains of a pre-Conquest monastery and a Benedictine priory on Castle Hill


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Lancaster (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SD 47350 62012

Reasons for Designation

Roman forts served as permanent bases for auxiliary units of the Roman Army. In outline they were straight sided rectangular enclosures with rounded corners, defined by a single rampart of turf, puddled clay or earth with one or more outer ditches. Some forts had separately defended, subsidiary enclosures or annexes, allowing additional storage space or for the accommodation of troops and convoys in transit. Although built and used throughout the Roman period, the majority of forts were constructed between the mid first and mid second centuries AD. Some were only used for short periods of time but others were occupied for extended periods on a more or less permanent basis. In the earlier forts, timber was used for gateways, towers and breastworks. From the beginning of the second century AD there was a gradual replacement of timber with stone. Roman forts are rare nationally and are extremely rare south of the Severn Trent line. As one of a small group of Roman military monuments, which are important in representing army strategy and therefore government policy, forts are of particular significance to our understanding of the period. All Roman forts with surviving archaeological potential are considered to be nationally important.

Saxon Shore Forts were heavily defended later Roman military installations previously thought to be located exclusively in south east England to combat the threat from sea-borne Saxon raiders. Latterly it has come to be recognised that these distinctive fortifications are more widely spread and examples are now known from the coasts of France, Belgium, Anglesey and at Lancaster in north west England. Their most distinctive features are their defences which comprise massive stone walls, normally backed by an inner earth mound, and wholly or partially surrounded by one or two ditches. Wall walks and parapets crowned the walls, and the straight walls of all sites were punctuated by corner and interval towers and/or projecting bastions. Saxon Shore forts are rare nationally. As one of a small group of Roman military monuments which are important in representing army strategy and government policy they are of particular significance to our understanding of the period and all examples are considered to be of national importance.

The attached vicus would have comprised a cluster of buildings such as domestic residences, workshops, shops and temples, together with roads, trackways, enclosures and garden plots. Such vici were similar to contemporary small towns although they lacked the planned street grid normally evident in the latter. Normally they also lacked the defences surrounding the small towns. Unlike other towns vici were probably administered by the military authorities rather than being self-governing. The juxtaposition of fort and vicus allows the civilian communities to be investigated.

From the time of St Augustine's mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597 monasticism formed an important facet in both religious and secular life in the British Isles. The main components of pre-Conquest monasteries might include two or three small timber or stone churches, a cemetery and a number of small domestic buildings, contained within an enclosure or vallum. The ealiest sites were not dissimilar from contemporary secular settlements, although their ecclesiastical role may be indicated by the existence of objects indicating wealth and technological achievement as only the church and leading secular figures are thought to have had access to the skills and trade networks which produced such goods. Later monastic foundations in the 10th and 11th centuries generally had one major stone church and a cemetery. By this time other domestic buildings were more regularly aligned, often ranged around a cloister. Documentary sources indicate the existence of about 65 early monasteries. As a rare monument type and one which made a major contribution to the development of pre-Conquest England all those which exhibit survival of archaeological remains are considered worthy of protection.

It is estimated from documentary evidence that about 700 post-Conquest monasteries, abbeys and priories were founded in England belonging to a wide variety of different religious orders, each with its own philosophy. As a result they vary considerably in the detail of their appearance and layout, although all possess the basic elements of church, domestic accommodation for the community, and work buildings. Benedictine monasticism had its roots in the rule written about 530 by St Benedict of Nursia for his own abbey at Monte Cassino, and the Benedictine monks, who wore dark robes, came to be known as `black monks'. Over 150 Benedictine monasteries were founded in England and as members of a highly successful order many Benedictine houses became extremely wealthy and influential, this wealth frequently seen in the scale and flamboyance of their buildings. Benedictine monasteries made a major contribution to many facets of medieval life and all examples exhibiting significant surviving archaeological remains are worthy of protection. Despite being partly overlain by the priory church, a former vicarage and a modern vicarage, limited archaeological excavation has revealed that the buried remains of the Roman military and civilian occupation of Castle Hill are extensive and survive well. Additionally excavation has also revealed the existence of what is considered to be evidence for a pre-Conquest monastic settlement on Castle Hill, together with well-preserved remains of part of the Benedictine priory known to have been constructed here late in the 11th century. Further buried remains of these features are expected to survive on Castle Hill and its environs.


The monument includes the upstanding and buried remains of the northern parts of Lancaster Roman fort and its associated civilian settlement or vicus, together with the buried remains of a pre-Conquest monastery and a Benedictine priory. It is located on the top and the northern slopes of Castle Hill and extends beneath the present Priory Church of St Mary and its churchyard, the modern and former vicarages and their gardens, the garden of No. 2, St Mary's Gate, the garden of No. 100 Church Street, and north into Vicarage Fields. The buried remains of the pre-Conquest monastery are considered to lie beneath the priory church, while the buried remains of the Benedictine priory and its associated precinct and precinct wall are considered to lie beneath the priory church and within land to the north and west.

Lancaster Roman fort, the Roman name of which is unknown, was constructed during the latter quarter of the first century AD and, apart from occasional periods of abandonment, it remained in military occupation until the early years of the fifth century. The fort was strategically located to command the lowest bridging/fording point of the River Lune and was connected by a series of Roman roads with forts to the north, south, north east and south east. A combination of chance finds and 20th century limited excavations have revealed that the first Roman fort was constructed about AD 80. It was rectangular in shape with rounded corners and was defended on its north, west and east sides (its south side not yet having been ascertained) by a clay-and-turf rampart and two `V'-shaped ditches. The north wall of the rampart ran east-west a little to the north of the Old Vicarage and measured about 187m long. Inside the rampart excavation found an intervallum road and remains of timber buildings thought to be barrack blocks. Later in the first century the fort was remodelled by extending the northern defences some 37m further north and rebuilding the timber barracks. An inscription from a tombstone discovered in the late 18th century suggests that the fort may at this time have been garrisoned by the Ala Augusta, a cavalry unit. Following the first century development there appears to have been a short period of abandonment which may have coincided with Roman military policy to develop the Stanegate road as a northern frontier of the province. The fort was reoccupied very early in the second century and an inscription found beneath the priory church and dated to about AD 102 records building work here. The enlarged late first century fort formed the basis for the reoccupation, and a stone revetment wall almost 2m thick was added to the front of the clay-and-turf rampart with at least one new ditch with a timber palisade on the inner lip of the ditch being located outside the wall. Traces of the intervallum road were found adjacent to the new fort's north west corner as were traces of internal buildings of an unspecified nature. The buried remains of a ditch running north-south through Vicarage Field is thought to be a drainage ditch associated with a Roman road running north from the fort to a crossing of the River Lune. If so, this would suggest that the fort's north gate may be located a short distance east of Vicarage Lane. Coin-loss evidence suggests that the fort was abandoned during the mid-second century coinciding with a military advance into Scotland. However, coin-loss figures also suggest activity within the vicus during this period indicating some form of occupation. Futher coin-loss figures suggest that the fort was briefly reoccupied in the latter half of the second century only to be again abandoned by the end of the century. By the mid-third century a building inscription indicates that the fort was again in use and occupied by a cavalry garrison, the Ala Sebosiana, whilst an altar found a short distance up the Lune valley in the late 18th century suggests that a Numerus Barcariorum or `unit of boatmen' may also have formed part of the garrison at this time and may even have formed the entire garrison during the remainder of the fort's lifetime. About AD 330 a major new military fort was constructed here on a different alignment from the earlier forts. A surviving upstanding fragment of this structure, a masonry stub known as The Wery Wall which formed the defensive wall, is located in the eastern Vicarage Field and represents the core of a polygonal external bastion, presumably situated at the northern angle of the wall's circuit. This wall, which was about 3m thick, ran in a south westerly direction and has been located by limited excavations in the former vicarage grounds and was also reported in the late 18th century at a point south west of the priory church and in part running west of the castle. A fragment of the south wall of this fort, which is noticably not parallel to the north wall, was also noted in the 18th century and a further fragment was located at the southern end of Mitre Yard in the 1970s. Overall the structural fragments of this fourth century defensive wall suggest that the fort was a Saxon Shore Fort construction wherein the bastions were used for mounting pieces of heavy defensive artillery, thus indicating a new phase of static defence to which Roman military philosophy had moved. The fort's north wall was protected by at least one ditch. The abundance of fourth century pottery and coins suggests a well-used site extending into the early years of the fifth century, at which point the Roman occupation of Britain ceased. Excavation and chance finds in the area of the vicus in Vicarage Fields include remains of a large stone-built courtyard building complete with a bath-house range of buildings which is thought to have been the residence and offices of an important regional official or, alternatively, a `mansio' or official inn. It is located in the eastern Vicarage Field and remains partly exposed after excavation and consolidation. This building overlay two earlier phases of timber buildings of uncertain function dated to the late second century. Construction of the fourth century Wery Wall and its defensive ditch necessitated the destruction of the bath-house and associated large courtyard building as part of the vicus area was taken in within the boundaries of the new fort. Nearby are the buried remains of a Roman building of uncertain function lying parallel to the courtyard building, whilst further west a number of Roman strip buildings were found flanking the road leading from the north gate of the pre-fourth century fort. Chance finds located during construction of a railway line on the northern edge of Vicarage Fields in 1849 suggest the existence of a shrine or holy well towards the northern edge of the vicus.

Little is known of the history of the fort and vicus areas after the withdrawal of Roman forces from Britain until the founding of a Benedictine priory in the late 11th century. However, the finding of a number of fragments of early Christian carved stone crosses from beneath the priory church offers clear evidence of Christianity on the site and this, taken with the discovery of numerous early ninth century coins from the priory's immediate environs, has led to the belief that here stood one of the numerous unnamed monasteries founded under St Wilfred between the seventh and ninth centuries. Documentary sources indicate that Lancaster Priory was founded in 1094 by Roger, Earl of Poitou, who bestowed upon the Benedictine Abbey of St Martin of Seez in Normandy the Church of St Mary of Lancaster. The priory stood on the same site as its present-day successor but little above-ground fabric is left of the original structure due to major rebuilding work, particularly during the 15th and early 20th centuries. Buried remains, however, survive well as indicated in 1911 when reflooring of the present chancel revealed Roman walls and the apsidal presbytery of the Norman priory church. Remains of the domestic buildings associated with the priory have not yet been located but due to space limitations thay are expected to lie to the north of the priory in the space now occupied by the King's Own Memorial Chapel and the garden of the vicarage. There is evidence that the priory had its own precinct with a wall and gatehouse. Leland, writing in the early 16th century mentions ruined walls of the suppressed priory being visible, and in 1928 limited excavation in western Vicarage Field next to Vicarage Lane found the well-preserved remains of a room or turret. A map dated 1610 depicts a gatehouse-like building in this vicinity and this evidence, taken with the results of examination of one of a series of nearby linear earthworks in 1971 which appears to be the remains of the precinct wall or bank, revetted with stone, suggests that the priory had a precinct wall and gatehouse controlling an access route from the medieval bridge across the River Lune to the north. During the 15th century the status of the priory changed gradually from a monastery to that of a parish church.

St Mary's Parish Church and Priory is a Listed Building Grade I; a 19th century chest tomb and effigy, an 18th century funerary memorial and an 18th century sundial in the priory churchyard are each Listed Grade II; the 19th century former Vicarage in Priory Close is a Listed Building Grade II, as is the 18th century summerhouse in the garden of No. 2, St Mary's Gate.

A number of features are excluded from the scheduling. These include St Mary's Parish Church and Priory, its present floor, its churchyard wall and all in-situ and relocated gravestones and funerary memorials; the walls and floor of an open-air theatre together with the reused gravestones forming the seating of the theatre; a sundial and its surrounding steps; the timber pole supporting a beacon; the former vicarage; the present vicarage; the summerhouse in the garden of No. 2, St Mary's Gate; all modern walls, fences, fenceposts and railings; the surfaces of all paths, steps, yards and access drives; all telegraph poles, lamp posts, information boards, signposts, gates and gateposts; all floodlights and their bases, and a bridge abutment at the north of Vicarage Lane. The ground beneath all these features is, however, included.

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.

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Books and journals
White, A (ed), A History of Lancaster, (2001)
White, A (ed), A History of Lancaster, (2001)
Droop, J P, Newstead, R, 'Liverpool Annals of Anthropology & Archaeology' in Vicarage Fields, 1927-9, , Vol. XV-XVII, (1930), 57-72
Jones, G D B, Shotter, D C A, 'Brigantia Monograph Series No. 1' in Roman Lancaster: Rescue Archaeology in an Historic City 1970-75, ()
Jones, G D B, Shotter, D C A, 'Brigantia Monograph Series No. 1' in Roman Lancaster: Rescue Archaeology in an Historic City 1970-75, ()
Shotter, D, White, A, 'Centre for NW Regional Studies No.18' in Roman Fort and Town of Lancaster, (1990)
Shotter, D, White, A, 'Centre for NW Regional Studies No.18' in Roman Fort and Town of Lancaster, (1990)
Shotter, D, White, A, 'Centre for NW Regional Studies No.18' in Roman Fort and Town of Lancaster, (1990)
White, A, 'Contrebis' in Did Lancaster Priory Have A Precinct Wall?, , Vol. 14, (), 8-12


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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