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Roman Launceston


The following extract was taken from Sir Alfred Robbins 1883 book ‘Launceston Past and Present.’

The Romans invaded the land, and, although it was the south-east that was first attacked, the south-west had in turn to face the foreigner. The invasion of Julius Csesar in B.C. 55 resulted in no permanent Roman settlement, but in A.D. 43 Claudius Caesar, determining to conquer Britain, sent Aulus Plautius with an army for the purpose. This general was materially assisted by his lieutenant Vespasian, to whom is due the credit of having subdued the two most powerful peoples of Britain. Who these may have been ” we are not told, but they were most likely the Belgae and the Dumnonii, who occupied nearly the whole of the south-west of the island, including the tin districts, which cannot have escaped the attention of the Romans, whose operations here, up to the time of the departure of Plautius, are spoken of as having emphatically made Britain a part of the Roman Empire. “Speculation has built much upon this connection of Vespasian with Cornwall, and one county historian has adventured the theory that it was this general, who was afterwards himself Emperor, who founded the Castle. But this there is no reason to believe. Some Roman coins, of Vespasian and of Domitian, were certainly a long time since discovered in a Launceston wall of great antiquity, and another inscribed with the letters IVLI (Julius) in the soil upon which St. Mary Magdalene‘s now stands, while half-a-century ago when the Eastern Road was being made another coin bearing the image and superscription of Csesar was found, and further specimens of Roman money have been discovered in the neighbourhood. Remains of an ancient encampment (supposed by some to be Roman) have also been suspected to have been seen in KestleWood (since the book was published these rings are now thought to pre-date the Roman occupation and are of the iron age), about two miles from the town, and traces of a Roman road recognised at Bradririge or Broadridge (Boyton), between Launceston and Stratton, the last-named certainly a Roman station. All these facts establish a connection between the Romans and the Launceston district, but the attempts to prove that the town was established by our earliest recorded conquerors are only attempts after all. Dr. Borlase  has argued that the very name of Launceston carries with it the proof that it was given by the Romans. He contends that it was originally Lancestreton, a name formed like Execestre (the old Exeter) and on the same principle as Lancaster and Lanchester, this being shortened in course of time into that which the borough at present bears. The theory is ingenious but scarcely conclusive ; it merits respect but not reception, at least until we have further evidence than is at present forthcoming of the continued presence of Romans in our midst. That some names in the neighbourhood were known to or given by the Romans is assured ; Exeter was to them Isca Damaoniorum and the Tamar was the not greatly different Tamarus. The river was noted by Ptolemy, a Roman geographer who visited these islands in the second century, and who mentions as being in its vicinity the four towns Voluba, TTxela, Tamare, and Isca. The last-named is the only one now clearly to be identified. Grampound and Falmouth both assume to be Voluba, as well as Lostwithiel, which in default of proving this asks to have its claims weighed with those of Saltash for Uxela; while Saltash in its turn has in the estimation of local historians divided with Tainerton and Tavistock the honour of being Tamare. But if the theory that Launceston was a Roman town be accepted, may not its name have been that one akin to the river upon which it stands ?

The whole question is at once so full of difficulties and of interest that it merits close attention. Upon the face of it, no violence to the imagination is done by the belief that one of the ways by which the Romans marched into Cornwall was the route so often in after times followed as the main road from the capital to the Land’s End, and that the hill overlooking the fords of the Tamar, framed by nature for defence, was elaborated by art into a fortification, added to afterwards, and traces of which may remain to us even now. Some county historians would go even further back than this. Davies Gilbert, for instance, quotes authorities for the opinion that the Castle is of more than Roman antiquity. Kennet agreed and contended that “the conjecture appears to be fully warranted that its foundation is as remote as the time of the Britons.” Carew endeavours to compromise the question. “Although,” he observes, “the origin of Launceston Castle has been attributed to the Britons, it still appears to bear about it some marks of Roman workmanship. The Romans succeeding the Britons in the dominion of the country no doubt took possession of all their strong and fortified places ; and consequently this fortress then fell into their hands. All such alterations as were then deemed necessary were therefore made in the Roman style. Its repairs were finished on the same common principle ; and hence the motley appearance which its parts exhibit even in the present day.” Borlase is of the same opinion : ” the buildings which remain of this castle are of different styles, and shew that the several parts of it were built
at different times. . . That the Roman? should fortify here is not at all improbable.” And, Anally, Lysons remarks ” there seems good reason for Dr. Borlase’s opinion that it was a British work, and the chief residence of the Cornu- British Prince: it is supposed, with great probability, to occupy the site of a Roman station.”.
Of all these theories it can only be said, as has been stated of Borlase’s derivation of the name of the town, that they are ingenious but scarcely conclusive. The proof of the existence of a Roman road from Stratton to Launceston would be worth more than a thousand speculations ; for while there were Roman ways to the site of the present Stratton not only from Exeter but from the spot on which Taunton now stands, there is no evidence that there was a road through Launceston from Exeter to the west, and this despite the fact that there is mention many centuries since of a bridge over the Tamar at Polson. It is consequently safe to assume that if the Romans made a way from Stratton to Launceston it was because the latter was already either a British town, as might be conjectured from what has been said, or a Roman station which it was desired to link with the other camps. But against this theory it must be borne in mind that there is no record of the existence of Launceston during the Roman occupation, that no Latin inscriptions have been found in the neighbourhood, as would almost certainly have been the case had
there been a camp established here, and that the Castle cannot in these days be assumed to have been of Roman design.

In 1924 a Mr. James found some Roman coins and spoon found on Trebursye Estate, while digging a drain.
Coin of CARAUSIUS, Emperor in Britain AD 286-293 “In Pax Aui”.
Valens, AD 364-378 “Gloria Romanoricia” (Emperor dragging captive).
Valens, “Securitas Reipublicae” (Victory).
Gratian, AD 368-383 “In Gloria non Saccoli”.
Gratian, AD 370-383. Victory
And the spoon, undoubtedly Roman, maybe of like period, but no actual date.

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