Hadrian’s Wall – Corbridge, Chesters, Brocolitia, Housesteads

An excerpt from the book: Travels through History – North-East England

The permanent conquest of Britain by the Romans began in 43 AD and by about 100 AD there were army units along the stretch of land between the River Tyne and the Solway Firth. Their forts were linked by a road, now known as the Stanegate, between Corbridge and Carlisle. The Emperor Hadrian came to Britain in 122 AD and the building of his wall began that year, taking at least six years to complete. The original wall was built of stone or turf, with a guarded gate every mile and two observation towers in between, and was fronted by a ditch.

Hadrian’s Wall was built by the Roman army of Britain. These three legions of regular, trained troops, comprised about 5,000 heavily armed infantrymen, though they were assisted by auxiliary units. The Wall was manned by auxiliaries organised into regiments of 500-strong mixed infantry and cavalry units and each fort on the Wall appears to have been built to hold a single unit.

Hadrian’s death in 138 AD brought emperor Antoninus Pius to power and he abandoned Hadrian’s Wall, moving the frontier to a line further north between the Forth and Clyde valleys, where he built the Antonine Wall out of turf. This had a short life of about 20 years before being abandoned in favour of a return to Hadrian’s Wall.

The effectiveness of Hadrian’s Wall had been compromised after it was abandoned, towers were removed and crossings thrown across the ditch. These changes were corrected and Hadrian’s Wall appears to have continued in this form into the late 2nd century. A major war took place shortly after AD 180, when the tribes breached the Wall and killed some Roman soldiers.

The forts on Hadrian’s Wall had a life of 300 years. Many modifications took place to the barracks, the headquarters buildings and the commanders’ houses because the Romans were always learning how to improve. All the forts continued to the end of Roman Britain, that is into the early 5th century. The latest coins found on Hadrian’s Wall were minted in AD 403–6.

Not all the sites to see were once fortresses. Corbridge was once a bustling town and supply base where Romans and civilians would pick up food and provisions. It remained a vibrant community, with two short interruptions in 105 AD and 180 AD,  until the end of Roman Britain.

As a visitor I was able to walk along the main market street of the Roman town and then branch out to admire the the granaries, barracks, commander’s house, water tanks, shrines, and even a strongroom. Inside the museum I saw the Roman armour and knick-knacks uncovered in an excavation in 1964, known as the Corbridge Hoard. This collection is an astonishing assortment of personal possessions, weapons, and armour buried by a Roman soldier. It’s the segmented plate armour that gives the hoard international significance. This find helped archaeologists understand for the first time how this armadillo-like armour fitted together. Today you can see the remains of the armour and a reconstruction side-by-side in the museum.

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