Villas symbolize the Roman period in the public mind. Some 1100 are known in Britain,
ranging from farmhouses to palatial villas such as Chedworth and Woodchester that rivalled the
grand houses of the 18th century in size and prestige. They were part of an evolving
an important display of status and wealth for the Romano-British aristocracy. Many had developed
on the sites of Iron Age roundhouses and probably indicate a continuation of the power
of pre-Roman ruling families.
According to Guy de la Bédoyère, the entire villa population in
Britain is estimated at around 66,000 - a tiny percentage of the island's population.
Their existence depended on the Roman trading system, itself linked to the army, tax-raising
and imperial coinage. Removal of Roman administration and evacuation of the army led to a rapid collapse of the system in
the fifth century. The estates could be self-sufficient in agriculture, timber and local products
but income ceased to come in to pay for maintenance and traded items. The result was a gradual
decline and collapse in their structure and use.
Intriguingly, London may also have been the location of villas. Sophie Unger (2009:107) summarises the decline of
Roman London as an industrial port and centre of public administration and contrasts this with other activities:
'...the later Roman period saw the restoration of religious buildings such as the temple of Mithras. A
Christian basilica may also have been constructed in this period. It seems that Londinium evolved into a city filled
with villas, gardens and temples rather than official business or trading activities. Excavations in the capital suggest that
there was a marked move from the widespread timber structures towards more private, masonry buildings and suburban villas with
more luxury features such as hypocausts. This may indicate that later Roman London was a vibrant and religious urban centre rather
than a city in decline.'
A free quarry
In his Plundering the Past: Roman Stonework in Medieval
Britain Tim Eaton describes the extensive reuse of Roman period materials in
early medieval buildings. While the inhabitants of most of southern Britain appeared
to prefer living in houses made of wood and other organic materials the Church began
to build prestigious ecclesiatical structures from the ruins they found around them.
The remains of Roman Britain became a vast quarry to be
plundered for recycled building material - at the same time destroying vast amounts of
archaeological evidence. Eaton contends that quarries were not reopened for fresh building material
until the late 10th century whereas the first church constructions made of reused Roman
materials occurred in the late 6th century. In effect, Roman Britain was deconstructed
over four centuries - and the process did not stop there.
Eaton argues that the recycling was not simply due to expediency but
involved a degree of symbolic gesture intended to evoke some of the 'kudos' or prestige
of the Roman Empire. He uses evidence that the patrons of ecclesiastical structures did not
necessarily go to the nearest and easiest sources for material.
As an example, according to Bede, St Wilfred founded the abbey church at
Hexham in Northumberland c.674AD on land given to him by Queen Aethelryth, wife of the Northumbrian
King Ecgfrith. Only the crypt remains of the original structure. Eaton observes that it was
Tim Eaton (2000) Plundering the Past: Roman Stonework in Medieval Britain, Tempus
Guy de la Bédoyère (2006) Roman Britain: A New History, Thames & Hudson Ltd.
Sophie Unger (2009) 'Red or yellow? The changing colour of Roman London's roof-line',
London Archaeologist, Spring 2009, Vol 12, 4, pp. 107-113.