How important was Horncastle to the Roman empire?

Sheila Jonkers in front of the Roman wall in the town's library
Sheila Jonkers in front of the Roman wall in the town's library

For years, historians have been arguing about whether Horncastle was an important Roman settlement.

There is no doubt there was a substantial fortification.

But, unlike many Roman places, Horncastle wasn’t on a major trade or transport route. It wasn’t located in a highly prized defensive position on high ground.

According to all indications, the native Celtic tribe - the Coritani - submitted without much of a fight.

There was no war-like figure in the mould of Boudica for the Romans to worry about.

Experts can’t even agree on what Roman Horncastle was actually called.

Everyone is aware of the links with Banovallum but several other towns - notably Caistor and Market Rasen - lay claim to the name.

It seems Roman Horncastle was a backwater.

But if that is the case, why did the Romans build the town walls wider and higher than many of their major cities, including Lincoln?

After all, building Roman Horncastle was no easy task. The fortifications sat on a mighty raft-like structure, because of the marshy ground. Stone for the walls had to be brought in from miles away having been quarried near Spilsby.

There are other questions:

*why were those walls protected by four massive integral towers and a special system of gates, designed to deter potential intruders?

*why did the Romans construct a second line of defence - a massive earth rampart - inside the fortification?

*why does recently uncovered evidence suggest a major building - perhaps a lavish villa - was located just outside the walls?

*why have examples of expensively imported pottery been unearthed in the area?

Questions, questions.

As things stand, there are very few answers.

But could Roman Horncastle have been more important than originally thought?

Local resident Sheila Jonkers would certainly like that to be the case. She modestly describes herself as an ‘amateur enthusiast’ when it comes to the Roman era locally.

However, even Sheila admits the reasons why Horncastle was important could lie buried forever - a mystery.

She says: “You can only speculate about how important Horncastle was because there is no conclusive evidence either way.

“Much of Roman Horncastle is buried deep beneath the Market Place which has some magnificent Georgian and Victorian buildings. Unless those buildings are demolished, then I can’t see how we will ever unravel the mystery.”

As Sheila admits, there is nothing to stop the speculation.

Perhaps a reason why Roman Horncastle was important could be that 2,000 years ago, the town was much closer to the sea.

According to latest estimates, the shoreline of the Wash was just outside Coningsby. The River Bain was party of an estuary, flowing right up to Horncastle’s walls.

Fishing boats regularly sailed up the Bain, carrying the latest catch to people either living inside the fortress or in a settlement outside the walls. The Romans loved shellfish.

The fortification covered around five acres, the settlement outside 135 acres.

Shelia adds: “The size of the fortifications would tend to indicate some importance but one problem is nothing of any military significance has ever been found. But if that is the case, why were the walls stronger than Lincoln?

“The Coritani can’t have been a problem. Although they had effectively being conquered, their lifestyle probably didn’t change that much.

“They will have continued to live outside the walls in small round huts with thatched roofs. They were hunters, farmers and fishermen. They lived a hand to mouth existence. They weren’t at all sophisticated like the Romans.”

Sheila would like to think that a major villa-like structure outside the walls indicates perhaps an official residence, of some importance. Last year, preparatory work on a new ecological house just off Boston Road revealed a well-built Roman wall, indicating a major structure.

Sheila adds: “It could have been the home of a local Romano - a Celtic chief who wanted to live like a Roman.

“That might explain the finds of expensive pottery which would have been very much part of a household like that. Back then, only a wealthy few would have used pottery like that. It would have been like our granny getting her best tea service out on a Sunday.”

It is highly unlikely the Romans would have built such a formidable fortification to protect a Celtic chief, particularly if he was no threat to them.

It has been suggested Horncastle was a storage facility. Again, though, why the need for such strong walls?

More mysteries. More questions. There is conjecture that the town was part of a system of Saxon shore forts - a string of defences to protect the North Sea coast against invaders from Scandinavia.

But why build that fortification at least six miles from the sea? There is no doubt it was the Saxons who named the site Hyrne-ceastre (‘castle/fort in the corner’).

Apparently, the fortifications were torn down in the fifth century after a Saxon King, Horsea, was defeated by his British counterpart Vortimer at the Battle of Tetford.

That, though, is another story.