Last Updated on 4th August 2020 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
The ancient stones of little Aldborough village, less than twenty miles north of York, tell of Romans, Danes, Normans, Scots, corrupt politics, brave fliers and a trusting churchwarden. Not to mention the maypole. Before we go there, be sure you don’t confuse Aldborough with Aldbrough in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Aldbrough St John (also North Yorkshire), Aldborough (Norfolk), Aldeburgh (Suffolk), – and probably at least a dozen other variants for all I know – all of which mean something like ‘old town, stronghold, or fort’.
The old stronghold in this instance is, or was, Isurium Brigantum, an important Roman town and administrative centre on the road to the far North, just south of the River Ure. After the Norman conquest, the crossing of the River Ure was moved and a new town developed around the new Brigg, or Burbrigg, which morphed into the now somewhat larger town of Boroughbridge. Meanwhile, the more ancient settlement became ‘Old Borough’ – Aldborough – its stones long since reused and its remains slipped out of sight.
No one knows for sure how Isurium Brigantum came to be. By the late 60s AD, the Romans had conquered most of southern Britain but had yet to penetrate the North. The Romans called the people who inhabited a swathe of territory across what is now Lancashire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire the Brigantes. They were Britain’s largest tribe and it was their land that now came under bloody attack. The assault seems to have been launched from the new legionary fortress at York and it can’t have been long before the area around modern Boroughbridge was overrun. In fact, the Brigantes had an enormous power base, an oppidum (high-status defended Iron Age settlement) at Stanwick, near present-day Richmond. It seems that the invaders built a fort at Roecliffe, a couple of miles west of Aldborough, to guard the crossing over the River Ure. The fort did not develop into a town, but Isurium Brigantum did – possibly from being a trading centre with a river port supplying the army, whilst local products, including lead, would be exported down to York. The site of a late medieval quay north west of the town has been identified; was this where Roman ships berthed too? The road we call Dere Street, from York to the Wall at Corbridge and thence into what eventually became Scotland, came to run through the settlement. So why Isurium Brigantum? Isurium is thought to be derived from the old Celtic name for the Ure: Brigantum, of course, comes from the name of the tribe – because the town became a civitas, the regional capital of Brigantian territory and the centre of local government over a wide area, from the second century AD until some time in the fifth. Who wants to live on a draughty, muddy, windswept hill at Stanwick, when they can have a nice little pad close to the shops, baths and theatre?
The vast majority of Roman Aldborough lies buried under the houses, gardens and fields of its modern descendant. The southern portion of the town – the modern road runs through the site of the south gate – can be visited, where there is a small museum and visible portions of walls. All respectably important Roman towns were fortified and Isurium Brigantum was no exception; its walls were once at least 8 feet (2.5 m) thick and 12 feet (3.7 m) high, surrounded by a 13 feet (4 m) wide 6 feet (1.8 m) deep ditch. Among the variety of finds shown in the wonderful little museum, which include surgical instruments, keys and pieces of military kit, one that really caught my eye was a 3½ inch (89mm) long bone hairpin, with a decorative bird head. It was found between 1850 and 1880, donated to the museum and, frankly, is not particularly beautiful. But there was something compelling, so intensely personal, about this object. I imagined it on the dressing-table of an elegant 4thcentury Roman woman, and could almost picture her putting her hair up before going out. Perhaps it was a special occasion, but she was happy, I thought, planning her day ahead. I hope she had a good life. But possibly the most celebrated remains of Aldborough’s Roman past are its numerous mosaics, three of which remain on site. One, in the museum, is unique in Roman Britain and utilises tesserae – the little tiles that form the mosaic – made of exquisite blue glass. Two others are located further into town, in their original positions, protected from the elements inside two (rather shabby) buildings. One shows a lion under a palm tree and the other a central star, or flower, with decorations around it. They both came from the same house, as did the mosaic in the museum. The owner must have been wealthy, and probably powerful. I pictured sandalled feet padding over the tiny tiles eighteen hundred years before and wondered how the designs had been chosen. Was the lion scene a reminder of someone’s origins, perhaps somewhere the owner had served before being posted to Britannia? Maybe it represented majesty and power; or was it merely an attractive picture? Did husband and wife discuss what they planned to do, in the same way that we might debate which floor coverings to lay today? What was the Roman equivalent of the DIY store or building materials catalogue?
One thing’s for sure, Isurium Brigantum supported a degree of affluence. To the south east, outside town, was its amphitheatre, once apparently the largest outdoor arena in the North, now buried under farmland. Its site was fortified, briefly, after the Norman conquest. Walking over the buried foundations of houses, workshops and so forth in the village on a bright spring afternoon, it was hard to picture bustling, purposeful, streets full of people whose basic needs were exactly the same as ours. Aldborough would never again achieve that level of urban municipality. What is so captivating about places where people once stayed? Is it that we sense their shadows, hear their voices, picture them at work and play, oblivious to the end of their way of life? Or is it a reminder of our own fragility? Maybe it’s a little of both. We do not know what happened to the Romano-British inhabitants of Aldborough after Roman rule ended in the 5th century. It is likely the town continued as an urban centre for a while, until the established socio-economic order disintegrated. I did read in the church that the Danes had ransacked the place in 766 – but that was a long time after the Romans left. The date is also several years before the first recorded Viking attack on Britain in 789 and seems to come from a History of Ripon, published in 1801. However, it does suggest continued use – and there had to be something significant about the place to warrant its own church.
The 14th century parish church of St Andrew is just a short walk north from the Roman remains. It is the third church to be built on the site – its immediate predecessor having been destroyed by the Scots in 1318 – and somewhere beneath it lie what’s left of the Roman forum, Isurium Brigantum’s town centre. Inside, stuck in a corner between a medieval pillar and a list of Aldborough’s vicars since 1316, is a small collection of Roman stonework, including a relief believed to depict the god Mercury. It struck me that, whatever parts of Britain’s historic jigsaw puzzle we may moan about being missing, we have so much of this stuff; we are very lucky. The Mercury was unearthed near the church, giving rise to the speculation that a Temple of Mercury must have been close by and, in a burst of Christian charity, was taken in out of the cold, before the poor little pagan could weather any further. Amazingly, you can still make out his individual toes.
I had barely been inside the church for a minute or two, when an amiable well-dressed man of mature years came in. We fell into conversation about all the restoration work the church had been through. After about fifteen minutes of this, he paused and asked if I was going to be long. And I realised he had come in to lock up. When I explained that I’d only arrived seconds before he had and that I’d hoped to look around, he smiled brightly and said, “That’s fine. I’ll give you the key. Just make sure you lock the door when you leave and pop the key back through my letterbox.” He explained where his house was, which turned out to be a rather lovely old place nearby, quite substantial, with a charming garden, good paintwork and gleaming brasswork on the door. I was warmed by the amount of trust this kindly gentlemen felt able to place in a complete stranger. In among all the hatred and divisiveness of our world, gentle spirits still thrive.
So, I was left alone and responsible for a priceless historic building and its equally priceless contents, occupying a large patch of ground that had been a focus of human activity for the best part of two thousand years. Maybe longer. It was certainly quieter than it would have been in Roman times, when the Saxons (presumably) built the first church here and when the Scots later raided and burned. Coloured light flooded in through old stained glass. Was it that or traces of medieval paint I saw on the 14th century brass of Sir William de Aldeburgh? This ancient house of God, like hundreds of others across the land, is packed with historic references and art. Near the south door is a set of shelves, filled each Sunday with thirty freshly baked loaves for the poor of the parish (provided they attended church), courtesy of the will of Mark Smithson.
“To be diftributed to the poor of Aldborough every Sunday from the bounty of Mark Smithfon Efq”.
Presumably, the practice ceased sometime ago.
Before we leave St Andrew’s, I’d like to share a church record of 1537 quoted in the ‘Shell Book of English Villages’, which notes the baptism of “Elizabeth nobodie daughter of nobodie”.
There are suggestions that Aldborough was one of the victim’s of William the Conqueror’s infamous and cruel harrying of the North in the winter of 1069/70, when he sought to finally end any English resistance to Norman rule. The entry in the Domesday Survey of 1086 notes the presence of just six villagers and that the annual value of the property to its owner, which happens to be the King, was £2 15s (£2.75p) – a reduction of 72% from its £10 value before the Conquest twenty years before. Perhaps the church was one of the many buildings William’s soldiers left shattered in the wake of their destruction.
Violence certainly visited the area in the 14th century; first in 1318 when the Scots swept through, wrecking Aldborough’s church, and again just four years later. In 1322, the army of King Edward II defeated a rebel force led by his cousin Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, at the Battle of Boroughbridge. The rebel army is believed to have been positioned just north-west of Aldborough, on the south bank of the Ure. Thomas was captured and executed, as were many of his followers. The King’s victor, Andrew Harclay, was rewarded by being created Earl of Carlisle, but himself fell from favour the following year and was executed. Edward was deposed in 1327 and, allegedly, foully done away with. Anyway, the memorial to the battle, which once stood in the market place at Boroughbridge, is now outside Aldborough’s village hall, seconds from the church. It’s an unusual and ornate column of irritatingly uncertain age, looking as though it once had something mounted on the top; a cross, perhaps.
In front of St Andrew’s church is a broad village green, notable for possessing one of the few maypoles you will ever see in Britain these days. It is apparently made from a ship’s mast, the crown on top fashioned from a WW1 artillery shell case. At the far end of the green from the maypole is a sadly redundant set of stocks, behind which a plaque on the old court house steps announces “The Old Court House of the Ancient Borough of Aldborough and Boroughbridge at which the members of Parliament were elected until 1832”. Aldborough was a ‘rotten borough’, with an electorate of fewer than 100 returning two members of parliament from 1588 until the constituency was abolished in the Great Reform Act of 1832. Beneath that a newer plaque commemorates the crash of a Royal Canadian Air Force Lancaster bomber in February 1944. The aircraft belonged to 432 Squadron based at RAF Eastmoor and was on a training flight when something went badly wrong. The pilot skilfully avoided hitting the village and ditched on Studforth Hill to the south. All seven airmen, five RCAF and two RAF, perished. Studforth Hill is the location of the Isurium Brigantum’s amphitheatre. Beneath the memorials and stocks on the village green lie the foundations of a grand Roman house, which, back in the day, would have overlooked the forum.
When you’re done with all that, The Ship Inn looks like the perfect place to end up, quaff a couple of ales and wonder at all those who trod the land before you. New interpretation panels have been installed at Isurium Brigantum since my visit and a sound and visual art trail exploring the sub-surface of Aldborough has been developed.
For more detailed information, there is an active Friends of Roman Aldborough group, and an Aldborough Roman Town Project was set up in 2009 by the University of Cambridge. Here is the link to the English Heritage listing for Roman Aldborough.