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It is best known for its impressive excavated remains of the Roman city of Viroconium Cornoviorum, which was the fourth largest civitas capital in Roman Britain. The site of the city is one of the few of Roman Britain that remains free from later building, and it is gradually being excavated.
In Roman times Wroxeter was strategically located near the end of the Watling Street Roman road that ran across England from Dubris (Roman Dover). During the early years this was a key frontier position lying on the bank of the Severn river whose valley penetrated deep into Wales and also on a route to the south leading to the Wye valley.
Archaeology has shown that the site of the later city first was established about AD 55 as a frontier post for a Thracian legionary cohort located at a fort near the Severn river crossing. A few years later a legionary fortress (castrum) was built within the site of the later city for the Legio XIV Gemina during their invasion of Wales.
The local British tribe of the Cornovii had their original capital (also thought to have been named *Uiroconion) at the hillfort on the Wrekin. When the Cornovii were eventually subdued their capital was moved to Wroxeter and given its Roman name.
This legion XIV Gemina was later replaced by the Legio XX Valeria Victrix which in turn relocated to Chester around AD 88. As the military abandoned the fortress the site was taken over by the Cornovians' civilian settlement.
The name of the settlement, meaning "Viroconium of the Cornovians", preserves a native Brittonic name that has been reconstructed as *Uiroconion ("[the city] of *Uirokū"), where *Uiro-ku (lit. "man"-"wolf") is believed to have been a masculine given name meaning "werewolf".
Viroconium prospered over the next century, with the construction of many public buildings, including thermae and a colonnaded forum. At its peak, it is thought to have been the 4th-largest settlement in Roman Britain, with a population of more than 15 000.
Following the Roman withdrawal from Britain around AD 410, the Cornovians seem to have divided into Pengwern and Powys. The minor Magonsæte sub-kingdom also emerged in the area in the interlude between Powysian and Mercian rule. Viroconium may have served as the early post-Roman capital of Powys prior to its removal to Mathrafal sometime before 717, following famine and plague in the area. The city has been variously identified with the Cair Urnarc and Cair Guricon which appeared in the 9th-century History of the Britons’s list of the 28 cities of Britain.
N.J. Higham proposes that Wroxeter became the eponymous capital of an early sub-Roman kingdom known as the Wrocensaete, which he asserts was the successor territorial unit to Cornovia. The literal meaning of Wrocensaete is 'those dwelling at Wrocen', which Higham interprets as Wroxeter. It may refer quite specifically to the royal court itself, in the first instance, and only by extension to the territory administered from the court.
The Roman city was rediscovered in 1859 when workmen began excavating the baths complex. A replica Roman villa was constructed in 2010 for a Channel 4 television programme called Rome Wasn't Built in a Day and was opened to the public on 19 February 2011.
At the centre of Wroxeter village is Saint Andrew's parish church, some of which is built from re-used Roman masonry. The oldest visible section of the church is the Anglo-Saxon part of the north wall which is built of Roman monumental stone blocks. The chancel and the lower part of the tower are Norman. The gatepiers to the churchyard are a pair of Roman columns and the font in the church was made by hollowing out the capital of a Roman column. Later additions to the church incorporate remains of an Anglo-Saxon preaching cross and carvings salvaged from nearby Haughmond Abbey following the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The west window, bearing figures of St Andrew and St George, designed by the workshops of Morris & Co., is a parish war memorial, as is a brass plaque listing parish men who died serving in World War I, one of whom, Captain C.W. Wolseley-Jenkins, has an individual memorial plaque in the east end.
Bernard Cornwell has the main character of The Saxon Stories visit Wroxeter in Death of Kings, referring to it as an ancient Roman city that was "as big as London" and using it as an illustration of his pagan beliefs that the World will end in chaos.
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