Remains of the city walls
Verulamium shown within Hertfordshire
|OS grid reference||TL136070|
Verulamium was an ancient town in Roman Britain. It was sited in the southwest of the modern city of St Albans in Hertfordshire, Great Britain. A large portion of the Roman city remains unexcavated, being now park and agricultural land, though much has been built upon (see below). The ancient Watling Street passed through the city. Much of the site and its environs is now classed as a scheduled ancient monument.
Before the Romans, there existed a settlement of the Catuvellauni tribe, which is usually called Verlamion. The etymology is uncertain but the name has been reconstructed as *Uerulāmion, perhaps meaning "[settlement of] Uerulāmos [Broad-Hand]" in the Common Brittonic language. In this pre-Roman form, it was among the first places in Britain recorded by name. The settlement was established by Tasciovanus, who minted coins there.
The Roman settlement was granted the rank of municipium in c. AD 50, meaning its citizens had what were known as 'Latin Rights', a lesser citizenship status than a colonia possessed. It grew to a significant town, and as such received the attentions of Boudica of the Iceni in AD 61, when Verulamium was sacked and burnt on her orders: a black ash layer has been recorded by archaeologists, thus confirming the Roman written record. It grew steadily: by the early 3rd century it covered an area of about 125 acres (0.51 km2), behind a deep ditch and wall. It is the location of the martyrdom of the first British martyr saint, St Alban, who was a Roman patrician converted by the priest Amphibalus.
Verulamium contained a forum, basilica and a theatre, much of which were damaged during two fires, one in AD 155 and the other around AD 250. One of the few extant Roman inscriptions in Britain is found on the remnants of the forum (see Verulamium Forum inscription). The town was rebuilt in stone rather than timber at least twice over the next 150 years. Occupation by the Romans ended between 400 and 450.
There are a few remains of the Roman city visible, such as parts of the city walls, a hypocaust still in situ under a mosaic floor, and the theatre, which is on land belonging to the Earl of Verulam – as well as items in the Museum (below). More remains under the nearby agricultural land which have never been excavated were for a while seriously threatened by deep ploughing.
The abbey and the associated Anglo-Saxon settlement were founded outside the Roman city. The abbey is near the site of a Roman cemetery, which, as normal in Roman times, was outside the city walls. It is unknown whether there are Roman remains under the medieval abbey. An archaeological excavation in 1978, directed by Martin Biddle, failed to find Roman remains on the site of the medieval chapter house.
As late as the eighth century the Saxon inhabitants of St Albans nearby were aware of their ancient neighbour, which they knew alternatively as Verulamacæstir or, under what H. R. Loyn terms "their own hybrid", Vaeclingscæstir, "the fortress of the followers of Wæcla", possibly a pocket of British-speakers remaining separate in an increasingly Saxonised area.
Loss and recovery
The city was quarried for building material for the construction of medieval St Albans; indeed, much of the Norman abbey was constructed from the remains of the Roman city, with Roman brick and stone visible. The modern city takes its name from Alban, either a citizen of Verulamium or a Roman soldier, who was condemned to death in the 3rd century for sheltering Amphibalus, a Christian. Alban was converted by him to Christianity, and by virtue of his death Alban became the first British Christian martyr.
Since much of the modern city and its environs is built over Roman remains, it is still not uncommon to unearth Roman artefacts several miles away. A complete tile kiln was found in Park Street some six miles (10 km) from Verulamium in the 1970s, and there is a Roman mausoleum near Rothamsted Park five miles (8 km) away.
Within the ancient walls of Verulamium, which he took for the name of his Barony, the Elizabethan philosopher, essayist and statesman Sir Francis Bacon built a “refined small house” that was thoroughly described by the 17th century diarist John Aubrey. No trace of it is left, but Aubrey noted "At Verulam is to be seen, in some few places, some remains of the wall of this Citie" (see illustration).
The Verulamium Museum is a sizeable museum run by the district council in Verulamium Park (adjacent to St Michael's Church), which contains much information about the town, both as a Roman and Iron Age settlement, plus Roman history in general. The museum was established following the excavations carried out by Mortimer Wheeler and his wife Tessa Wheeler during the 1930s. It is noted for the large and colourful mosaics, and many other artefacts such as pottery, jewellery, tools and coins from the Roman period. Many were found in formal excavations but some, particularly a coffin still containing a male skeleton, were unearthed nearby during building work. It is considered one of the best museums of Roman history in the country and has won an architectural award for its striking domed entrance.
- Boundary of settlement walls , Pleiades
- "1003515 - The National Heritage List for England". and related schedules.
- Isaac, Graham R. "Place-Names in Ptolemy's Geography: An Electronic Data Base with Etymological Analysis of the Celtic Name-elements". Aberystwyth : CMCS Publications, 2004. Computer file : CD-ROM.
- This story is recorded by Bede and also by the monks of the abbey of the town, notably Brother Matthew Paris in his Anglo-Norman Vie de Seint Auban.
- "Chapter House History - The Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban". Stalbanscathedral.org. Retrieved 2013-11-13.
- Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, 2nd ed. 1991:11.
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