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The Lost Roman History of the East Riding of Yorkshire.

A Forgotten History

The Humber estuary has been the focal point for trade, industry, religion and agriculture for as long as people had settled along its muddy shores. Along the banks of the mighty River Humber the history of the British people has been played out and has gone relatively unnoticed. The north bank of the River Humber serves the county of East Yorkshire, a region that is often overlooked due to its geography and distance away from grouped urban population centres.

The area know as Holderness has some of the best arable land in the country, but is also under threat from severe coastal erosion. Recent studies by the European Union state that East Yorkshire's coastline is losing land rapidly to the North Sea. If the trend is not reversed then population centres such as Kingston upon-Hull could suffer the fate of the Medieval town of Ravenspurn and be lost forever. Along with massive loss of property and potential loss of life, there is a chance more of the region's heritage and history could be lost to the North Sea.

Map A: Roman Britain.

The Yorkshire region of the UK was important to the Roman Empire.

The Yorkshire region of the UK was important to the Roman Empire.

Celtic East Yorkshire

The East Riding of Yorkshire was inhabited by a variety of Ancient British peoples, and the North bank of the River Humber was populated by Celtic tribes before the Roman invasion of the First Century A.D. The Eastern area encompassing the area of Holderness, parts of the Yorkshire Wolds and what is now Kingston-upon-Hull, belonged to the Parsii tribe. The Parsii tribe may have some shared culture with the Parsii tribe which held lands in Northern France. Before the Roman invasion, there would have been a lot of settlement in Great Britain by continental Celtic peoples.

The Parsii tribe had their main capital at what is now Brough, about eight miles outside of Kingston-upon-Hull. The landscape of the area has changed greatly and the Ancient Britons could have walked across the River Humber at low tides to trade with the people of Lincolnshire. This was due to the sea levels being much lower than we see in this modern age. The Celtic peoples, would have used the local wetland forests and marshes for both hunting and worshipping their gods.The Holderness area before irrigation projects by Dutch settlers in the seventeenth century changed the geography of the local area.

When the Romans moved into the East Yorkshire area, the Parsii capital is thought to have become one of the Roman Empire's most important naval bases. The Roman base was instrumental in resupplying the northern coastal settlements and helped moved troops north to help to quell the native Scottish peoples.

The Humber Bridge links East Yorkshire with North Lincolnshire, it is thought that it isbuilt along the route of the old Roman Ferry.

The Humber Bridge links East Yorkshire with North Lincolnshire, it is thought that it isbuilt along the route of the old Roman Ferry.

Folklore and the Romans

The area around Skipsea Castle is home to a piece of East Yorkshire folklore concerning the Romans. It is said that the sound of Roman Legions marching can be heard coming from the sea. As incredulous as that sounds, we must remember that as much as four miles of coastline could have been lost from the East Yorkshire coastline since Roman times. Similar stories concerning ghostly Roman soldiers have been a part of much of the area that Romans once settled in Britain.

Where there is a legend, there is often a small amount of truth at the heart of all folklore.

When we also add in evidence of Roman pathways once been visible along the coastline of East Yorkshire, it starts to make you question what has been lost.To leave the fertile East Yorkshire coastline undefended would seem a poor tactic, especially when the River Humber is the gateway to the important trading city of York. We know there was a strong Roman Naval presence centred around modern day Brough and Filey. The Yorkshire coast line would have also afforded Roman merchant vessels safe inlets and bays to anchor in.

Roman Legionaire at rest.

Roman Legionaire at rest.

Roman Finds

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Apart from the Roman use of Petuaria ( Brough ) as a regional capital to oversee the territory, we know that the Roman's had a major settlement at Malton on the River Derwent. We believe that Malton was called Derventio by the Romans and it may have housed the elite Roman cavalry for a number of years. We have archaeological evidence of Romano-British farms across the area of East Yorkshire.These settlements helped supply the Roman Military in their efforts along Hadrian's Wall. One theory as to why East Yorkshire has very little evidence of Roman influence is that the entire area was under Military control. The entire county could have been geared to the production of materials and food stuff's vital to the Roman military occupation.

We know of many area's within East Yorkshire that have returned good evidence of Roman pottery and customs. There have been some notable finds in East Yorkshire, a Roman villa was discovered near Beverley with a stunning Mosaic which is now on display locally. Below is a list of sites around the River Humber, which had been commonly believed to be free of Roman occupation.

  • Market Weighton
  • Dimlington
  • Sutton
  • Bridlington
  • Patrington
  • Swine
  • Brandesburton
  • Burton Constable
  • Leven

With the continued threat of Picts landing in Northern England by sea and of pirate raids from Saxon shores, the Roman command built watchtowers along the coast of North and East Yorkshire. We believe that there was such installations at modern day Scarborough, Bridlington and Filey. It has also been suggested that Skipsea could have also had one of these watch towers.

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Map B: Northern England

The East Yorkshire coast around 400 AD

The East Yorkshire coast around 400 AD

Coastal Erosion

In Map (B) you will notice the small Island off the coast of Holderness, it is likely this is the religious Island spoken of in early Christian writings( I have highlighted the Island in a Yellow circle). Sometime after the Saxons took over the East Yorkshire area the St Andrew's Church and settlement was established. The Catholic Saint Wiglis/ Hilgis became a hermit at this location for a short time. We know of this as St Wiglis was the father of St Willibrord, the "Apostle of the Frisians" The reason the location is worthy of mention, is that most Saxon religious buildings were built with the stone from former Roman buildings such as temples, walls and public buildings.

This would also strengthen the case for this south-east part of Yorkshire as been the location for Ptomely's Ocelum Promontorium , this translates as eye of the headland. Ravenspurn which was claimed by the North Sea in the thirteenth century would be a likely location for a fortified harbour. With Saxons and Danes taking over the settlement the Roman name would have been lost and changed to the Ravenburg ( a name that denotes a castle or fortified point in Saxon tongue). The original sites name may never be known and there are a few Roman names for places we are at a loss to put into the correct location.

The theory is open to much debate as Flamborough head and Bridlington have been suggested as alternative locations. On some 1550 AD maps you can also see the term Cornu Vallis, this translated as " Horn Valley". This would allude to the shape of the peninsula of East Yorkshire where the River Humber meets the North Sea. This would also back up the headland been able to look out over a wide area, like it does today.

We are fairly certain that modern day Filey was known as Portus Felix or "Happy Port", the Roman's thought of Filey as an excellent port and they integrated it into their network of defences and signal towers. There are local rumours of a Roman bathing area and a Roman jetty on the coastline.

Roman Roads

Cade's Road is thought to be the continuation of the Ermine Street road to York from Lincolnshire. Crossing the Humber by ferry or ford the Roman Legions could have travelled to the military outposts at modern day Bridlington, Malton or up to the fortified centre of York. There is little evidence to suggest that East Yorkshire had many other Roman roads. Given the swampy geography of the area, any roads constructed would have sunk into the clay terrain. With the presence of a busy Roman supply port in Brough, it would have been more efficient to travel via ships around the coastal areas of the region. The area around modern Hull and Hedon would have allowed many acceptable docking locations.

Various amateur historians have theorized that there would have been a road from modern day Falkirk and it would possibly terminate at either Patrington or in the area of Spurn point( Ravensburg/ Ocellum Promontorium). Roman roads always terminated at either a port, a capital or a town. We would assume that the coastal watch towers would have to have some form of road network to connect the locations. In living memory residents of the East Yorkshire coast could recall seeing Roman paths along the cliff tops.

Sparsley Populated But Vital Part of the Roman Empire

When looking at a Roman map of East Yorkshire we have to remember the changes that have occurred to the region's geography in the last thousand years. The largest city in modern day East Yorkshire would have been under water in Roman dominated Britain. The Spring Bank area of the town centre would have been the shoreline back in 71 AD.

We know that the area has been used for agricultue since the Iron Age and it is entirely likely that the Romans used the area to feed the Legions and rear cattle to make their leather equipment. The whole of East Yorkshire is rich in Roman finds, but lacks the known infrastructure of other parts of England. There are no existing settlements with a Roman name and the people of the area are now overwhelmingly Anglo-Scandinavian in ethnicity and culture. Under the waves of the North Sea there may still be hard evidence of the Roman's influence in East Yorkshire.

Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Andrew Stewart

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