We need to consider firstly that the two conquests are separated in time by a millennium and from us by two, and therefore the preservation of the earlier evidence will be hindered by time, and two thousand years of intensive land-use. That said, we are not measuring the relative impacts of the conquests in terms of quantity of artefacts and structures remaining, it is the way in which surviving evidence remains that will tell us how much of an impact it had.

We also have to consider that the two events are not mutually exclusive: the Normans were aware of the Roman invasion and subsequent conquest (Prior 2006), and would have been able to use information about the strategies and tactics deployed previously when considering their own plans. There is also the possibility that the lure of Empire and the sense of following in such illustrious footsteps may have added an extra dimension to the impetus to invade. Further evidence for the Roman influence on the Normans comes from the deliberate positioning of the castle at Colchester, on the temple of Claudius and in the first occupied town in Roman Britain (Prior 2006, 237).


The obvious primary point of similarity is that both conquests were by force. Both Romans and Normans constructed military fortifications as they progressed across the landscape. Hillforts such as Maiden Castle, Hod Hill and Cadbury Castle all show evidence of attack. Evidence from Hod Hill, Dorset gives a graphic demonstration of the military capabilities of the Roman Army: excavations showed ballista bolts inside the hillfort, and that shortly afterwards, a Roman fort was constructed within the enclosed area of the hillfort (Cunliffe 2009, 196).

Where the Romans built forts, the Normans introduced a new concept to Britain: castles (Johnson 2002,5). Stone castles take time to construct, so the first castles built by the Normans were, of necessity, a simple earthwork ringwork (Liddiard 2005, 19) such as the first phase of Cary Castle in Somerset (Prior 2006, 87); all that was required during the initial phase was security to house the attacking forces.

The archaeological evidence for the Norman Motte and Bailey castle seems to indicate that these were not constructed until after the actual Conquest, with the earliest example being at Winchester (Liddiard 2005, 23). In a contrast to the Romans imposing their architecture on the populace by building Roman-style civic buildings such as the imperial temple at Colchester (de la Bedoyere 2002, 53), the Normans seem to have adopted and adapted native designs such as the Burh-geat, and using it as a basis for their gate towers (Liddiard 2005, 21).







The ‘Britain’ that the Romans occupied, was not a single, united country. In the late Iron Age, there is evidence for disparate groupings of people, each with a separate group identity and loyalty, sometimes expressed through images on coinage, and certainly not united against a common foe (Russell & Laycock 2010, 43). It may be that the Roman invasion was not necessarily either unexpected, or entirely unwanted on the part of the subject peoples. There is evidence for the formation of Client Kingdoms, paying tribute and enjoying preferential trading arrangements with the Empire, as shown by high-status goods such as amphorae of wine and olive oil, and other ‘Roman’ trappings (de la Bedoyere 2010, 21). Iron Age coinage, mimicking and integrating Roman images and words shows that Roman ideas were already part of elite British life from 54BC (Mattingly 2007 ,71).

The ‘Britain’ that the Normans conquered, however, was likely to have had much more of a clearer idea of a united Nation, England having been united by the kings of Wessex (Thomas 2005,23) (although we are still talking about separate nations of England, Wales and Scotland at this stage). But Anglo-Saxon England was well-administered, well-run and well-organised, with a single King of England, with local justice and government taken care of by the Shire and Hundred courts (Prior 2006, 98). Contrast this with the Iron Age tribal arrangements and it is easy to see that the two political landscapes were vastly different.

Although there doesn’t appear to be much archaeological evidence for Roman forts in the South-East of England (Hanson W.S. 1999, 139)(the proposed landing area (de la Bedoyere 2010,28)), this may be due to the client kingdom arrangements in those areas that were geographically and culturally already close to the Empire (Hanson W.S. 1999, 139). But there is evidence for an expanding sequence of forts across most of England and Wales, with fort-building still continuing decades after the initial incursion, with the fort at Lincoln dating from the 60s and 70s (de la Bedoyere 2010, 38). Boudica’s revolt of AD59/60 shows that even nearly 20 years after the invasion, Britain was still not entirely under the Roman control, with the evidence being the ‘red layer’ of burnt material found in Colchester (Wacher 1975, 110), consistent with a large-scale burning event.

Contrast this with the documented battle of Hastings, taught in schools throughout the land, where the incumbent king was slain, and the new King crowned a couple of months later. A unified people can be symbolically conquered as a whole, whereas disparate groups of communities, where the concept of their individual grouping is stronger than their sense of sharing an island nation, must be individually dealt with. This is somewhat of an oversimplification, perhaps, but the conquest phase of the Norman invasion was relatively quick and decisive (Prior 2006, 34), but the Roman subjugation of the English and Welsh was the work of generations, and arguably never completed in reality, given the rapidity with which the Roman trappings disappear from the archaeological record once the legions have departed (Jones 1996, 256).

In terms of the evidence for conquest itself, we know from documentary sources that a battle was fought between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans and the Normans emerged victorious, but as Barker points out, the Norman Conquest itself did not bring about any appreciable change in material culture (Barker 1993, 251). Coinage, pottery and burial practise show no clear delineation (arguably apart from William now gracing the coins) between the Anglo-Saxon culture and the incoming Normans. If it weren’t for documentary sources, we might not see the Norman invasion at all (Creighton 2005, 175). Indeed, the oppression and re-organisation of land-holding that we traditionally associate with the ‘Norman Yoke’ (Wood 2010, 118), seems hardly to leave a trace archaeologically.

This lack of visible material culture is in contrast with the ‘package’ of Roman life that was introduced to the elite of British society. However, this Romanitas, as we have already stated, started to be introduced before the Claudian invasion (Russell & Laycock 2010, 38 ) and is not necessarily a marker of the invasion itself, merely of influence. If it were not for the excavated remains of forts attesting to military presence in these islands, the occupation may not be obvious. However, the archaeological record shows a rapid decline in Roman-type material culture in the decades after the legions left Britain (Russell & Laycock 2010, 174), so it seems the change in material culture due to the occupation itself is perhaps more apparent at the end of the occupation, than at the beginning. Even without the documentary evidence that the legions were being withdrawn, the archaeological record contains evidence for the decline of Roman material culture, even if it cannot categorically prove the withdrawal of the actual legions. There is evidence for the decline of villa buildings in the fifth century, and in some instances like at Dinnington, wooden post holes have been found in mosaic flooring, consistent with a wooden structure being inserted into the former Roman-style building (de la Bedoyere 2010, 265).



Enduring Impact

One of the most enduring and iconic emblems of the Norman invasion is the swathe of castles strewn across the British countryside. There is no evidence to suggest that Britain had castles before the Norman conquest (Prior 2006, 20), although earthwork fortifications in the form of Saxon burhs were in place, and at Stamford some of these earthworks were overlain by the Norman castle (Liddiard 2005, 19).

It is important to remember that the military function of a castle as a defensive and offensive structure, is not necessarily the beginning and the end of its purpose (Johnson 2002, 3). Castles are a statement in the landscape: just as during the Conquest they would have told the people they were conquered, a castle holds dominion over its surroundings and reminds the population who is in control (Creighton 2005, 64). The legacy of the castles of the subjugation phase of the conquest (Prior 2006, 29) developed into something more theatrical, more about status than safety (Johnson 2002).


As we have seen, one Conquest built on the work of the previous one and whilst it is probably not reasonable to suggest that the Normans would not have succeeded without the Roman groundwork, nevertheless, the infrastructure and military know-how bequeathed by the Romans must have made the Norman Conquest more feasible.

The legacy of the Romans seems to be more psychological and slightly nostalgic, rather than forming part of our character today. The rapidity with which the trappings of imperial possession faded away surely indicated that we were none too attached to the Roman ways and that cultural domination was never really achieve, or perhaps even attempted. It is reasonable to infer that dressing up as a Roman may have been a passing fashion amongst the elite in society, but when the legions left, what was left behind was Iron Age societies, not Romans.

The Norman Conquest appears to be one of settlement rather than occupation: from the outset, the emphasis was to display power and control in the way that the conquered peoples understood, using their metaphors and methods for display. Taking over the land of the British gentry and directly replacing them with Normans was perhaps a conquest more sympathetic to the indigenous culture than to simply ride roughshod over the existing society, imposing an alien civilisation on a reluctant people. That is not to say that it was not a harsh rule, or that the British people did not suffer greatly as a result but the Normans did not seem to want to replace the British culture with their own, as long as the wealth and land belonged to them.


Barker, P., 1993. Techniques of Archeological Excavation 1st ed., Routledge.

Creighton, O.H., 2005. Castles and Landscapes: Power, Community and Fortification in Medieval England New editio., Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Cunliffe, B., 2009. Iron Age Communities in Britain 4th ed., Routledge.

de la Bedoyere, G., 2002. Gods with Thunderbolts: Religion in Roman Britain, The History Press LTD.

de la Bedoyere, G., 2010. Roman Britain: A New History, Thames {&} Hudson.

Hanson W.S., 1999. Roman Britain: The military dimension. In J. Hunter & I. Ralston, eds. The Archaeology of Britain. Milton Park, Oxon: Routledge, pp. 135-156.

Johnson, M., 2002. Behind the Castle Gate: From Medieval to Renaissance 1st ed., Routledge.

Jones, M.E., 1996. The end of Roman Britain 1st ed., New York: Cornell University Press.

Liddiard, R., 2005. Castles in Context: Power, Symbolism and Landscape, 1066 to 1500 1st ed., Macclesfield: Windgather Press.

Mattingly, D., 2007. An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 54 BC – AD 409, Penguin.

Prior, S.J., 2006. A Few Well Positioned Castles: the Norman Art of War, Stroud: Tempus Publishing Ltd.

Russell, M. & Laycock, S., 2010. UnRoman Britain, The History Press Ltd.

Thomas, H.M., 2005. The English and the Normans, Oxford: OUP Oxford.

Wacher, J., 1975. The Towns of Roman Britain 2nd ed., London: Batsford Ltd.

Wood, M., 2010. The Story of England, Viking.


Written on May 16th, 2011 , Essays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

archaeo.log is proudly powered by WordPress and the Theme Adventure by Eric Schwarz
Entries (RSS) and Comments (RSS).


Notes from a field