Horncastle –Early years 1

HE ROMANS built a fort here in Horncastle — really a walled rectangle which encompassed about five acres — in the last quarter of the third century, ie AD275-285. Its walls are still some 12 feet thick and well deserve the epithet ‘indissoluble’ given them by William Stukeley; their height, however, remains uncertain, but would obviously have been enough to prevent easy scaling —

so a height of up to 20 feet or more seems likely. [The walls of Hadrian’s Wall were of similar dimensions.] Since the last of the Romans finally left Britain in 410 AD, the fort has been ordered destroyed more than once; it has also been a source of stone for new building, eg the church and the Manor House, while portions have resisted demolition even recently — short of explosives, that is. Facing stones have been removed to leave the core, a mix of mortar and rubble and sandstone blocks, which still stands to about 10 feet.
When we think of forts and castles, we usually think of great stone edifices. This is mistaken. Our image comes from those which have survived and in movies; and stone obviously survives well; whereas, in fact, most forts and castle were wooden structures with a simple motte and bailey and little more. The Romans were running an empire and thought rather differently; they took their point of view from history — and theirs was the long view, even in 300 AD. So they used stone for the long-term.
[For more on castles click here]

Horncastle gets its name from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Hyrnecastre’, meaning a fort in a corner (hyrne, see right)¤ — the corner being the junction of the Rivers Bain and Waring. But people have lived in this, the Bain Valley, for considerably longer. Flint tools have been found close by which date from perhaps 6000 BC. Also from about the same time, are vessels left by a people known as Beaker folk [see picture below right] found at Denton.

With its readily available water and well-draining land, the valley would have made a good place to settle. The Bain would have been navigable to Boston and from there on to the sea — until the sea level rose, silting both river and basin. Of course, Anglo-Saxon settlements have been found all around Horncastle, in Roughton and Edlington, for example, and also in Langton and Thornton, to name a few.

The figures used in the article about Hereward the Wake are apposite here. It’s thought that some 2,500,000 million people lived in England at the time the Romans were here.

In the centuries after the Romans left, this was not a wealthy country; life was lived here at the level of a poor Third World country today. The Dark Ages were in many ways truly dark: some drastic climatic event effected the weather after 540, producing poor harvests and poor tree growth. Also, in the late 540s, there was plague throughout the Roman Empire§ — from Syria to Britain. By the time William of Normandy invaded [1066] and became King William I, the population had perhaps halved or worse. Wealth began to arrive only with the Tudors. The Industrial Revolution confirmed it.

A map with details of the town can be found by clicking here.

¶ Anyone interested in a detailed history of Horncastle town, with a larger number of photographs than is possible here, could not do better than to start with David Robinson’s excellent The Book of Horncastle & Woodhall Spa, published by Barracuda Books in 1983. Most public libraries in Lincolnshire should have a copy in stock; or will be able to lay hands on one from within the system.

§ The exact date is not clear but 549 is thought the most likely for its occurrence in Britain. It is said that Maelgwyn, king of Gwynedd, died that year with many others.. Certainly, according to the historian Procopius it was found throughout the empire and its neighbouring Persian empire; perhaps in India as well. He said, ‘During these times (542+) there was a pestilence, by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated.’