The origins of Verulamium

By the Iron Age, what is now Hertfordshire was extensively cultivated, and iron ore was being extracted from the area near Tring now known as Cow Roast. Trackways through the area facilitated the trading of surplus produce, and one of them led to a point on the River Ver where the riverbed was not too deep and a way could be found through the surrounding marshland.

Iron Age Verlamion

Close to this crossing, a dispersed settlement called Verlamion developed, taking its name from the river.  Not far to the north lay an earlier Iron Age settlement on the site of present day Wheathampstead. Verlamion appears to have become more significant, and on the basis of excavations carried out in the last century, may have become a trading and administrative centre for the Catuvellauni tribe, the largest tribe in the South East of England.

The importance of the area is signified by some large-scale Iron Age earthworks, including Beech Bottom Dyke, which lies to the north of St Albans, and Devil’s Dyke, east of Wheathampstead. One or both of these may have been intended to delineate Iron Age settlements, or provide a defensive barrier. 

The arrival of the Romans

Shortly after the Romans invaded for the second time in AD 43, they established contact with a number of British tribes in southern and eastern England. Several of these, including the Catuvellauni, chose to co-operate with the Romans, and to establish trading relations with them. With the award of municipium status in AD50, the Catuvellauni were entrusted with self-government and, over time, their elites began to emulate some aspects of Roman architecture and culture.

The Romans organised the construction of paved roads, including Watling Street, which ran through what became Verulamium,  and is likely to have been based on Iron Age trackways. These roads were important for trade and, of course, the movement of troops.

Boudicca lays waste to Verulamium

Relations between the Romans and the British tribes, particularly those based in the north and west of what is now England, did not always run smoothly. In AD60, Roman troops were sent to pacify tribes in north west England, and the Trinovantes, a British tribe in East Anglia led by the aggrieved Boudicca, took advantage of their absence to destroy first Camulodnum (Colchester), then Verulamium and finally Londinium (London). Archaeologists have found evidence of burnt layers consistent with the razing of these settlements (though burnt layers are relatively common as fires leading to the destruction of wooden buildings were not infrequent).

Verulamium recovers and expands

While unfortunate for those affected, this did little to slow the development of Verulamium. Indeed, the destruction of the remaining Iron Age buildings may have provided the opportunity to create a fresh layout on conventional Roman lines. In any event, Verulamium soon resumed its trading role with Londinium (and doubtless other settlements), and grew to become the third largest Roman city (by enclosed area) in Britannia. There is no evidence that it was ever a garrison town; it is likely that the population was Romano-British, with a few residents drawn from other areas of the Roman Empire.