Roman Cambridge – Magdalene Bridge


During Roman times, the River Cam was fully navigable from the Wash as far as Cambridge and was the northernmost point where transport from East Anglia to the Midlands was practicable. Therefore, Magdalene Bridge marks the site of an important Roman era river crossing. It used to be known as “Great Bridge”. All routes, both local and long- distance, had to converge on this crossing point, giving it strategic importance. From 1118 to 1845, when the opening of the railway to London dealt the river trade its death-blow, the River Cam was the essential travel and trading route by which Cambridge was fed and built with boats bringing fish and grain, meat and salt, coal and reeds, timber and stone.

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The Roman era for Britain begins with the enterprise of Julius Caesar, undertaken, as it would seem, rather with a view to making a sensation at Rome by carrying the eagles-the standards of the Roman Legions-to so distant a region, than with any idea of permanently occupying the country. But the first wave of Roman invasion, which thus, in 55 B.C., broke upon the shores of Britain, spent its force just before it reached the borders of Cambridgeshire.

In AD 43, the Emperor Claudius sent 20,000 legionaries to invade Britain. As the Romans first arrived in Cambridge in AD 70, they were travelling north from Colchester, trying to avoid the wet and marshy Fens to the east. They arrived in Wandlebury and looked down on a very, very muddy Cam Valley. They would have seen Castle Hill in the distance, and rather than go round the muddy swamp below, they preferred to go in a straight line right across.

Imagine them going past Addenbrooke's Hospital, along Regent Street, crossing the river at the Quayside, then up past Shire Hall and off towards Godmanchester!

Local investigation shows that at Cambridge we find the remains of a considerable Roman station. It is evident, indeed, that Cambridge must always have been the crossing-place of the river, as there, and there alone for many miles, the higher ground approaches the water at both sides. Elsewhere one bank or the other is always low, and must of old have been marshy.

On this higher ground, then, and on the highest part of it, that on the west side of the Cam, the Romans fixed their station, possibly on the site of a pre-existing British town. The site is of some natural strength, the projecting extremity of a low range of hills, so that there was a rapid descent from the north and south ramparts, and a perceptible slope from the west side, while the river defended the eastern approaches.

The Roman camp on Castle Hill due to its strategic importance on the road to the major Roman colony of Londinium (modern-day London) was one of the primary targets of Boudica, the warrior-queen of the Iceni tribe of Norfolk. Outraged by the Romans’ bullying behavior, she led a successful uprise against the enemy. It sent shockwaves throughout the Roman Empire. Leading 80,000 Iceni rebels, Boudica marched from Thetford to Colchester, burning to the ground the newly founded Roman camp in Cambridge. Boudica and the rebels completely destroyed Colchester, London and St Albans. They massacred the Romans mercilessly, soldiers and civilians alike. Finally, there was a showdown between the Celts and the Romans in the Midlands. The Roman army won decisively. The cause of Boudica’s death is unknown, but according to modern myth, her body lies buried beneath Platforms 10 and 11 of London’s King’s Cross Station. 

About 100 years after the Romans had arrived the immediate military threat was over. The Roman Peace, Pax Romana, ensured the continuous prosperity of the initial establishment. For nearly four centuries Cambridgeshire was wholly peaceful and, to judge by the remains of the period, fully populous. All along the valley of the Cam, in particular, remains have been unearthed in extraordinary abundance, remains indicating the presence not of soldiers, nor of the great landlords who dwelt in villas, so much as of a teeming swarm of small agriculturists, whose ashpits, filled with the rubbish of their humble households, have been found by the archaeologists in field after field.

The most characteristic feature of this rubbish is, naturally, broken pottery, of coarse and common type for the most part, with an occasional fragment of more delicate "Samian" ware. This ware was not, so far as we know, manufactured anywhere in Britain; it was imported from abroad, and almost invariably bears the stamp of the maker, e.g., CISTIO. The common home-made ware is never thus stamped.

But, next to pottery, the commonest objects by far are the Roman coins, which have been, in Cambridgeshire, turned up literally by the thousand. No great hoards have been discovered— at least, of late years; but the individual coins are everywhere. They are rarely of precious metal, and for the most part of common type and in poor preservation ; but their number is astonishing, and proves how vast an amount of petty traffic then went on in the district year after year and century after century. It would be hard to name a single Emperor, from Augustus to Honorius, whose currency does not occur amongst them, while the list also includes Republican coins and those of Julius Caesar at the one end, and the name of Valentinian III at the other. The most plentiful are those of the especially British emperors, Carausius, Allectus and Constantine; and amongst the most interesting are specimens of the commemorative issue struck on the capture of Jerusalem, AD 70, bearing the head of Vespasian on the obverse, and on the reverse " the daughter of Jerusalem " weeping beneath a palm-tree, with the inscription IVDAEA. CAPTA.

As the Roman Empire collapsed, the Roman legions finally left Britain. From AD 410, the people left living in the walled town of Cambridge had to fend for themselves against attacks from foreign invaders. The town of Cambridge was abandoned and left into obscurity for several hundred years.

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Magdalene Bridge, Magdalene Street, Cambridge, CB2 1UW

Roman Cambridge – Magdalene Bridge


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