Watling Street

Watling Street

Watling Street, important ancient road in England, built by the Romans in the course of their military occupation. It ran from London generally north to the intersection with the Fosse Way, c.13 mi (21 km) SW of Leicester, and thence in a westerly direction to Wroxeter in Salop, SE of Shrewsbury, a distance of more than 100 mi (161 km). The principal town through which it passed was Saint Albans (ancient Verulamium). Its later importance arose from its use as a thoroughfare throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times. In places the ancient Roman road is still in daily use, and in others it has been used as a base for modern thoroughfares. Some other Roman roads in England are also called Watling Street, notably the extension which led from London to Dover.

Watling Street is the name given to an ancient trackway in England and Wales that was first used by the Celts mainly between the modern cities of Canterbury and St Albans. The Romans later paved the route, part of which is identified on the Antonine Itinerary as Iter III: "Item a Londinio ad portum Dubris" - from London to the port of Dover. The name derives from the Anglo-Saxon Wæcelinga Stræt, which has come to be understood as the A2 road from Dover to London, and then the A5 road from London to Wroxeter. Originally the word "street" simply meant a paved road (Latin: "via strata"), and did not have the modern association with populated areas.



A Roman road known as Iter III went from London to Dover. The last section of the long Iter II route from Hadrian's Wall travelled through Viroconium (now Wroxeter in Shropshire), past Letocetum (modern day Wall), Manduessedum (modern day Mancetter - possible site of Boudica's last battle), Venonis (modern day High Cross), Bannaventa, Lactodorum (modern day Towcester - near another possible site of Boudica's last battle)), then through Stony Stratford and Magiovinium (Fenny Stratford) in modern day Milton Keynes, Durocobrivis (modern day Dunstable), Verulamium (near modern-day St Albans in Hertfordshire) and London (by way of the ford at Thorney Island until London Bridge was finished, and the line of the modern Old Kent Road) to Rutupiae (now Richborough in Kent) on the southeast coast of England. While another section of Iter II linked Wroxeter to Chester, and other roads went into north Wales and central Wales, these are not generally considered to be part of Watling Street. Thus the Roman routes which comprise Watling Street are all of Iter III and the middle southern section of Iter II.

Main section

The main section of the road is that from Dover to Wroxeter. It was named Wæcelinga Stræt by the Anglo-Saxons, literally "the street of the people of Wæcel". Wæcel could possibly be a variation of the Anglo-Saxon word for 'foreigner' which was applied to the Celtic people inhabiting what is now Wales. This source also gave us the name for Wæclingacaester (the Anglo-Saxon name for Verulamium) and it seems likely that the road-name was originally applied first to the section between that town and London before being applied to the entire road.

Subsidiary routes

Stone Street ran south for some 12 miles from Watling Street at Canterbury (the Roman Durovernum) to Lympne (Lemanis) at the western edge of the Romney Marsh. Most of it is now the current B2068 road that runs from the M20 motorway to Canterbury.

Another Stone Street from Magnis (Kenchester) in modern Herefordshire to Caerleon, Isca Augusta and the main Roman legionary base in the south of Roman Wales.

Battle of Watling Street

Part of the route was the site of the Roman victory at the Battle of Watling Street in 61 AD between the Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus and the Briton leader Boudica.


In the 9th century, Watling Street was used as the demarcation line between the Anglo-Saxon and Danish-ruled parts of England. The Treaty of Wedmore required the defeated Danes to withdraw to an area north and east of Watling Street, thus establishing the Danelaw.

Chaucer's Pilgrims

Like most of the Roman road network, the Roman paving fell into disrepair when the Romans left Britain, although the route continued to be used for centuries afterwards. It is likely that Chaucer's pilgrims used Watling Street to travel from Southwark to Canterbury in his Canterbury Tales.


The road north of London became a Turnpike firstly in 1707 when the section from Fornhill near Hockliffe to Stony Stratford was paved following an Act of Parliament on March 4th 1707.

This was the first Turnpike Trust and showed how financially hazardous the undertaking could be.

The Fornhill to Stony Stratford case provides more evidence that Parliament would void undertakers’ rights if they were negligent. The trustees for the Fornhill to Stony Stratford road borrowed more than 7000 pounds in 1707 and 1708 to improve the road. The creditors, however, claim to have been misinformed regarding the expected revenues from the tolls, and requested in 1709 that a new act extend the term and increase the tolls. A new act was passed in 1709 extending the term, but the tolls were not increased. It also included a provision that the creditors could take receivership of the tolls if the trustees had not repaid their debts by 1711.

Apparently, the trustees were unable to borrow and the creditors took over the tolls. In 1716, Parliament tried to clarify the situation by passing an act that vested authority in the trustees from the 1709 act and another group appointed by the Justices of the Peace for Buckinghamshire.

The 1716 act was not amended for its entire term of 23 years, but once it was set to expire, Parliament decided that it would not renew the rights of the existing trustees for the Fornhill to Stony Stratford road. In 1736, the trustees submitted a petition for an extension of their rights, but it failed to pass and in 1739 their authority ended. In 1740, a new act was passed naming a replacement body of trustees. In the petition for the new bill, the inhabitants of Buckinghamshire described the road as being ‘ruined.’ This sentiment was affirmed by the Member heading the committee for the bill.

The road was re-paved in the early 19th century by Thomas Telford who brought it back into use as a turnpike road for use by mail coaches bringing mail to and from Ireland, his road being extended to the port of Holyhead on the Isle of Anglesey in Wales. At this time the section south of London became known as the Great Dover Road. The toll system ended in 1875.

Modern road

Most of the road is still in use today apart from a few sections where it has been diverted. The stretch of the road between London and Dover is today known as the A2, and the stretch between London and Shrewsbury is today known as the A5 (which now continues to Holyhead). At Blackheath the Roman road's exact path is uncertain: either diverting towards Deptford Bridge like the modern A2, or staying on a straight line through Greenwich to cross the mouth of Deptford Creek. Through Milton Keynes, the A5 is diverted onto a new dual-carriageway and Watling Street forms part of the new town's grid system and carries the additional designation V4. The name of the town of Wellington, Shropshire, which lies just east of Shrewsbury, is believed to be a corruption of the word 'Watling town' as Watling Street supposedly ran straight through the centre of Wellington.

Continued use of the name along the ancient road

The use of the street name is retained along the ancient road in many places: for instance, to the south east of Roman London and on into Kent (including the towns of Canterbury, Gillingham, Rochester, Gravesend, Dartford, and Bexleyheath). Within London, a major road joining the A5 in north west 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, Warwickshire (including Nuneaton), Staffordshire (including Cannock, Wall and Lichfield), Shropshire (including in Church Stretton as the residential Watling St North and South) and Gwynedd.

Other Watling Streets

A Watling Street still exists in the City of London, close to Mansion House underground station, though this is unlikely to be on the route of the original Roman road which traversed the River Thames via the first London Bridge. In Lancashire, Watling Street is the Roman Road through Affetside which leads from Manchester to Ribchester.

The Roman Road from Catterick (Cataractonium) to Corbridge (Corstopitum) and onto the Antonine Wall also came to be known as Watling Street, with perhaps a similar Anglo-Saxon etymology owing to its path into the foreign land of Scotland. This route is also known as Dere Street. This may also be the case for another Watling Street between Manchester (Mamucium) and Ribchester (Bremetennacum) which ultimately led to another 'foreign land' in Saxon times, that of Cumbria.

A Watling Street Road exists to this day in the city of Preston, Lancashire. It connects the districts of Ribbleton and Fulwood and passes the site of Sharoe Green Hospital.

See also


Further reading

O. Roucoux, The Roman Watling Street: from London to High Cross, Dunstable Museum Trust, 1984, ISBN 0-9508406-2-9.

External links

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