Watling Street

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Coordinates: 52°39′22.5″N1°55′37.7″W / 52.656250°N 1.927139°W / 52.656250; -1.927139

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Watling Street
1911Watling Street.png
A map of the Saxon Watling Street overlaid on the Roman road network
The old A5 (Watling Street) - geograph.org.uk - 373527.jpg
A stretch of modern-day Watling Street in Buckinghamshire [lower-alpha 1]
Route information
Length276 mi (444 km)
[230 mi (370 km)] Rutupiae to Viroconium
Time period Roman Britain
Saxon Britain
Major junctions
FromThe Kentish ports
  Canterbury, London, St Albans
To Wroxeter

Watling Street is a route in England that began as an ancient trackway first used by the Britons, mainly between the areas of modern Canterbury and St Albans using a natural ford near Westminster. The Romans later paved the route, which then connected the Kentish ports of Dubris (Dover), Rutupiae (Richborough), Lemanis (Lympne), and Regulbium (Reculver) to their bridge over the Thames at Londinium (London). The route continued northwest through Verulamium (St Albans) on its way to Viroconium (Wroxeter). The Romans considered the continuation on to Blatobulgium (Birrens) beyond Hadrian's Wall to be part of the same route, leading some scholars to call this Watling Street as well, although others restrict it to the southern leg.

Canterbury Cathedral city in Kent, England

Canterbury is a historic English cathedral city and UNESCO World Heritage Site, situated in the heart of the City of Canterbury, a local government district of Kent, England. It lies on the River Stour.

St Albans City in Southern Hertfordshire, England

St Albans is a city in Hertfordshire, England and the major urban area in the City and District of St Albans. It lies east of Hemel Hempstead and west of Hatfield, about 20 miles (32 km) north-northwest of central London, 8 miles (13 km) southwest of Welwyn Garden City and 11 miles (18 km) south-southeast of Luton. St Albans was the first major town on the old Roman road of Watling Street for travellers heading north, and it became the Roman city of Verulamium. It is a historic market town and is now a dormitory town within the London commuter belt and the Greater London Built-up Area.

Westminster Area of central London, within the City of Westminster

Westminster is a government district and former capital of the Kingdom of England in Central London within the City of Westminster, part of the West End, on the north bank of the River Thames. Westminster's concentration of visitor attractions and historic landmarks, one of the highest in London, includes the Palace of Westminster, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral.

Watling Street was the site of Boudica's defeat by the Romans and was later the southwestern border of the Danelaw. In the early 19th century, the course between London and the Channel was paved and became known as the Great Dover Road: today, the route from Dover to London forms part of the A2 road. The route from London to Wroxeter forms much of the A5 road. At various points along the historic route, the name Watling Street remains in modern use.

Danelaw Historical name given to part of England ruled by the Danes

The Danelaw, as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is a historical name given to the part of England in which the laws of the Danes held sway and dominated those of the Anglo-Saxons. Danelaw contrasts with West Saxon law and Mercian law. The term is first recorded in the early 11th century as Dena lage. Modern historians have extended the term to a geographical designation. The areas that constituted the Danelaw lie in northern and eastern England.

English Channel Arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates southern England from northern France

The English Channel, also called simply the Channel, is the body of water that separates Southern England from northern France and links the southern part of the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It is the busiest shipping area in the world.

A5 road (Great Britain) major road in England and Wales

The A5 London Holyhead Trunk Road is a major road in England and Wales. It runs for about 252 miles (406 km) from London to the Irish Sea at the ferry port of Holyhead which handles more than 2 million passengers each year. In many parts the route follows that of the Roman Iter II route which later took the Anglo-Saxon name Watling Street.


The original Celtic and Roman name for the road is unknown and the Romans may not have viewed it as a single path at all, dividing it amongst two separate itineraries in one 2nd-century list. The modern name instead derives from the Old English Wæcelinga Stræt, from a time when "street" (Latin: via strata) referred to any paved road and had no particular association with urban thoroughfares. The Waeclingas ("people of Waecla") [1] were a tribe in the St Albans area in the early medieval period [1] [2] with an early name of the city being "Waetlingacaester", which would translate into modern English as "Watlingchester".

Common Brittonic was an ancient Celtic language spoken in Britain. It is also variously known as Old Brittonic, British, and Common or Old Brythonic. By the sixth century AD, this language of the Celtic Britons had split into the various Neo-Brittonic languages: Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish, Breton and probably the Pictish language.

Latin Indo-European language of the Italic family

Latin is a classical language belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. The Latin alphabet is derived from the Etruscan and Greek alphabets and ultimately from the Phoenician alphabet.

Antonine Itinerary

The Antonine Itinerary is a famous itinerarium, a register of the stations and distances along various roads. Seemingly based on official documents, possibly from a survey carried out under Augustus, it describes the roads of the Roman Empire. Owing to the scarcity of other extant records of this type, it is a valuable historical record.

The original Anglo-Saxon name for the section of the route between Canterbury and London was Casingc Stræt or Key Street, a name still borne by a hamlet on the road near Sittingbourne. [3] This section only later became considered part of Watling Street. [3]

Sittingbourne industrial town in Kent, England

Sittingbourne is an industrial town situated in the Swale district of Kent in south east England, 17 miles (27 km) from Canterbury and 45 miles (72 km) from London. The town sits beside the Roman Watling Street, an ancient British trackway used by the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons and next to the Swale, a strip of sea separating mainland Kent from the Isle of Sheppey. The town became prominent after the death of Thomas Becket in 1170, since it provided a convenient resting point on the road from London to Canterbury and Dover.

Used as a boundary

Watling Street has been used as a boundary of many historic administrative units, and some of these are still in existence today, either through continuity or the adoption of these as by successor areas. Examples include:

The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum is an agreement between Alfred of Wessex and Guthrum, the Viking ruler of East Anglia. Its date is uncertain, but must have been between 878 and 890. The treaty is one of the few existing documents of Alfred's reign; it survives in Old English in Corpus Christi College Cambridge Manuscript 383, and in a Latin compilation known as Quadripartitus. All translations below come from Dorothy Whitelock, English Historical Documents 500-1042.

London Borough of Harrow London borough in United Kingdom

The London Borough of Harrow is a London borough in north-west London, England, and forms part of Outer London. It borders four other London boroughs - Barnet to the east, Brent to the south-east, Ealing to the south and Hillingdon to the west - plus the Hertfordshire districts of Three Rivers and Hertsmere to the north. The local authority is Harrow London Borough Council.

London Borough of Brent London borough in United Kingdom

The London Borough of Brent is a London borough in north west London, and forms part of Outer London. The major areas are Wembley, Kilburn, Willesden, Harlesden and Neasden.


Watling Street near Crick in Northamptonshire Watling Street Northamptonshire.jpg
Watling Street near Crick in Northamptonshire


The broad, grassy trackway found by the Romans had already been used by the Britons for centuries. The main path led from Richborough on the English Channel to a natural ford in the Thames at Thorney Island [4] near Westminster to a site near Wroxeter, where it split. The western continuation went on to Holyhead while the northern ran to Chester and on to the Picts in Scotland. [5]

Westminster Natural Ford

There is a longstanding tradition [6] that a natural ford once crossed the Thames between Thorney Island (modern Westminster) and the Lambeth\Battersea boundary. Its location means it that it is possible that Watling Street crossed it.

Several factors may have slowed the river here, leading to the deposition of sufficient sedimentary material to allow fording: [7]


The road at Richborough Castle, one of the Romans' Kentish ports and a Saxon Shore fort. Watling Street Richborough.jpg
The road at Richborough Castle, one of the Romans' Kentish ports and a Saxon Shore fort.

The Romans began constructing paved roads shortly after their invasion in AD 43. The London portion of Watling Street was rediscovered during Christopher Wren's rebuilding of St Mary-le-Bow in 1671–73, following the Great Fire. Modern excavations date its construction to the winter from AD 47 to 48. Around London, it was 7.5–8.7 m (25–29 ft) wide and paved with gravel. It was repeatedly redone, including at least twice before the sack of London by Boudica's troops in 60 or 61. [8] The road ran straight from the bridgehead on the Thames [9] to what would become Newgate on the London Wall before passing over Ludgate Hill and the Fleet and dividing into Watling Street and the Devil's Highway west to Calleva (Silchester). Some of this route is preserved beneath Old Kent Road. [10]

The 2nd-century Antonine Itinerary gives the course of Watling Street from "Urioconium" (Wroxeter) to "Portus Ritupis" (Richborough) as a part of its Second Route (Iter II), which runs for 501  MP from Hadrian's Wall to Richborough: [11] [12]

Route II of the Antonine Itinerary


Some site in the middle section of this route is supposed by most historians to have been the location of G. Suetonius Paulinus's decisive victory over Boudica's Iceni in AD 61.

Subsidiary routes

The two routes of the Antonine Itinerary immediately following (Iter III & IV) list the stations from Londinium to "Portus Dubris" (Dover) and to "Portus Lemanis" (Lympne) at the north eastern edge of the Romney Marsh, suggesting that they may have been considered interchangeable terminuses. They only differ in the distance to Durovernum: 14 and 17 Roman miles, respectively. [11] [12] The route to Lemanis was sometimes distinguished by the name "Stone Street"; it now forms most of the B2068 road that runs from the M20 motorway to Canterbury. The route between Durovernum and the fortress and port at Regulbium (Reculver) on Kent's northern shore is not given in these itineraries but was also paved and is sometimes taken as a fourth terminus for Watling Street. The Sixth Route (Iter VI) also recorded an alternate path stopping at Tripontium (Newton and Biggin) between Venonis (High Cross) and Bannaventa (Norton); it is listed as taking 24  Roman miles rather than 17. [11] [12]

The more direct route north from Londinium (London) to Eboracum (York) was Ermine Street. The stations between Eboracum and Cataractonium (Catterick) were shared with Dere Street, which then branched off to the northeast. Durocobrivis (Dunstable) was the site of the path's intersection with the Icknield Way. The Maiden Way ran from Bravoniacum (Kirkby Thore) to the lead and silver mines at Epiacum (Whitley Castle) and on to Hadrian's Wall.

Modern Watling Street in Canterbury Watling Street sign in Canterbury.jpg
Modern Watling Street in Canterbury


By the time of the Saxon invasions, the Roman bridge across the Thames had presumably fallen into disrepair or been destroyed. The Saxons abandoned the walled Roman site in favour of Lundenwic to its west, presumably because of its more convenient access to the ford on the Thames. They did not return to Lundenburh (the City of London) until forced to do so by the Vikings in the late 9th century. Over time, the graveling and paving itself fell into disrepair, although the road's course continued to be used in many places as a public right of way. "Watlingestrate" was one of the four roads (Latin: chemini) protected by the king's peace in the Laws of Edward the Confessor. [13] [14]

A number of Old English names testify to route of Watling Street at this time: Boughton Street in Kent; Colney Street in Hertfordshire; Fenny Stratford and Stony Stratford in Buckinghamshire; Old Stratford in Northamptonshire; Stretton under Fosse and Stretton Baskerville in Warwickshire. (The three adjacent settlements of All Stretton, Church Stretton, and Little Stretton in Shropshire; and Stretton Sugwas in Herefordshire have a Watling Street but they are not on the route).


Following the Viking invasions, the 9th-century Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum mentions Watling Street as a boundary.

Map of London around 1300 AD, showing Watling Street running north-west from London Bridge past Newgate Map of London, 1300.svg
Map of London around 1300 AD, showing Watling Street running north-west from London Bridge past Newgate


It is assumed that the pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales used the southeastern stretch of Watling Street when journeying from Southwark to Canterbury.[ citation needed ]

A paving stone on Kilburn High Road in London commemorates the route of Watling Street. (The date is incorrect.) Watling Street plaque Kilburn.jpg
A paving stone on Kilburn High Road in London commemorates the route of Watling Street. (The date is incorrect.)


The first turnpike trust in England was established over Watling Street northwest of London by an Act of Parliament on 4 March 1707 in order to provide a return on the investment required to once more pave the road. [15] The section from Fourne Hill north of Hockliffe to Stony Stratford was paved at a cost of £7000 [lower-alpha 2] over the next two years. Revenue was below expectations; in 1709, the trust succeeded in getting a new act extending the term of their monopoly but not permitting their tolls to be increased. In 1711, the trust's debts had not been discharged and the creditors took over receivership of the tolls. In 1716, a new act restored the authority of the trust under the supervision of another group appointed by the Buckinghamshire justices of the peace. The trust failed to receive a further extension of their rights in 1736 and their authority ended at the close of 1738. In 1740, a new act named new trustees to oversee the road, which the residents of Buckinghamshire described as being "ruined". [16]

The road was again paved in the early 19th century at the expense of Thomas Telford. He operated it as a turnpike road for mail coaches from Ireland. To this purpose, he extended it to the port of Holyhead on Anglesey in Wales. During this time, the section southeast of London became known as the Great Dover Road. The tolls ended in 1875.

Much of the road is still in use today, apart from a few sections where it has been diverted. The A2 road between Dover and London runs over or parallel to the old path. A section of Watling Street still exists in the City of London close to Mansion House underground station on the route of the original Roman road which traversed the River Thames via the first London Bridge and ran through the City in a straight line from London Bridge to Newgate. [17] The sections of the road in Central London possess a variety of names, including Edgware Road and Maida Vale. At Blackheath, the Roman road ran along Old Dover Road, turning and running through the area of present-day Greenwich Park to a location perhaps a little north of the current Deptford Bridge. The stretch between London and Shrewsbury (continuing to Holyhead) is known as the A5 (between Elstree to just north of Dunstable (where the A5 naming resumes), the road is numbered A5183). Through Milton Keynes, the A5 is diverted onto a new dual carriageway while Watling Street proper remains and forms part of the Milton Keynes grid road system.

The name Watling Street is still used along the ancient road in many places, for instance in Bexleyheath in southeast London and in Canterbury, Gillingham, Strood, Gravesend, and Dartford in Kent. A major road joining the A5 in northwest London is called Watling Avenue. North of London, the name Watling Street still occurs in Hertfordshire (including St Albans), Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire (including Milton Keynes), Northamptonshire (including Towcester), Leicestershire (Hinckley), Warwickshire (including Nuneaton and Atherstone), Staffordshire (including Cannock, Wall, Tamworth and Lichfield), Shropshire (including in Church Stretton along the A49), [18] and even Gwynedd in north Wales.

Other Watling Streets

Dere Street, the Roman road from Cataractonium (Catterick in Yorkshire) to Corstopitum (now Corbridge, Northumberland) to the Antonine Wall, was also sometimes known as Watling Street. A third Watling Street was the Roman road from Mamucium (Manchester) to Bremetennacum (Ribchester) to Cumbria. Preston, Lancashire, preserved a Watling Street Road between Ribbleton and Fulwood, passing the Sharoe Green Hospital. [19] Both of these may preserve a separate derivation from the Old English wealhas ("foreigner") or may have preserved the memory of the long Roman road while misattributing its upper stages to better-preserved roads.

See also


  1. The sign shown is actually on the A5 on a new route just to right of the picture.
  2. equivalent to £1,156,920in 2018 money.

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  1. 1 2 Williamson, Tom (2000). The Origins of Hertfordshire. Manchester University Press. p. 64. ISBN   071904491X . Retrieved 13 September 2014.
  2. John Cannon, A Dictionary of British History, 2009.
  3. 1 2 Margary 1973, p. 34.
  4. "Loftie's Historic London (review)". The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art. 63 (1, 634): 271. 19 February 1887. Retrieved 21 October 2015.
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  6. referred to on this website https://pengepast.wordpress.com/2017/01/08/the-lambeth-ford-and-roman-watling-street/
  7. BBC Time Team excavation and discussion, from 34:50 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6Ldh2ooaUg
  8. 1 2 Wallace, Lacey. The Origin of Roman London. p. 41.
  9. Although it is possible the Romans used a ferry prior to the expansion of Londinium in the rebuilding following Boudica's sack of the city in the year 60 or 61. [8]
  10. Margary, Ivan D. (1948). Roman Ways in the Weald (third ed.). London: J. M. Dent. p. 126.
  11. 1 2 3 Itinerarium Antonini Augusti. Hosted at Latin Wikisource. (in Latin)
  12. 1 2 3 Togodumnus (2011). "The Antonine Itinerary". Roman Britain Online. Retrieved 20 February 2015.(in Latin) & (in English)
  13. 1 2 "Leges Edwardi Confessoris (ECf1), §12", Early English Laws (in Latin), London: University of London, 2015, retrieved 20 February 2015
  14. The other three were "Fosse", "Hikenildestrate" (Icknield Street), and "Herningestrate" (Ermine Street). [13]
  15. "House of Lords Journal". British History Online. University of London. Retrieved 3 June 2008.
  16. Bogart, Dan (2007). "Evidence from Road and River Improvement Authorities, 1600–1750" (PDF). Political Institutions and the Emergence of Regulatory Commitment in England. University of California. Retrieved 3 June 2008.
  17. Britain's hidden history – London's missing Roman road.
  18. Victoria County History - Shropshire A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 10, Munslow Hundred (Part), the Liberty and Borough of Wenlock, Church Stretton
  19. "Bury Metropolitan Council—History". Archived from the original on 2 July 2010.Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help).