The ‘Anglian Tower’ is a small stone tower in the north-west wall of the Roman legionary fortress at York. It is near the west corner, about 60 m north-east of the surviving Multangular Tower at the west corner. The name ‘Anglian Tower’ was bestowed when the tower was opened for public display after the 1970 excavation, but it owes more to confidence than evidence, since the tower itself is not securely dated. What do we know about it?
Picture from Wikipedia under Creative Commons licence
The Anglian Tower was first discovered in 1842, when a route was being constructed through the city defences to allow access to St Leonard’s Yard (Tweddle et al 1999, p. 216). It had been buried inside an earth bank that had been constructed on top of the original Roman defences. A later re-excavation was carried out in 1970.
The Anglian Tower is rectangular, about 3.6 m by 3.1 m, and the standing remains are about 4.7 m high (Tweddle et al 1999, p. 189). The walls are 0.45 to 0.6 m thick, (Tweddle et al 1999, p. 251). It has two doorways, one in each side, supported by simple arches. The original roof was replaced by a brick vault in the nineteenth century (Ottaway 2004, p.142).
The front of the tower is set into a shallow cut in the top of the Roman fortress wall, and the back wall of the tower stands on the Roman rampart (Ottaway 2004, p.142).
The tower is constructed of roughly cut and shaped blocks of oolitic limestone (Ottaway 2004, p.142). This is a different type of limestone to the magnesian limestone used to construct the Roman walls, and the masonry technique is also different.
The 1970 excavation did not find any direct dating evidence associated with the Anglian Tower (Tweddle et al 1999, p. 189). The date range for the tower’s construction is book-ended by stratigraphy:
- Since the Anglian tower stands on top of the Roman defences and is inserted into a cut in the wall, it must post-date the construction of the Roman wall;
- The Anglian Tower was buried inside an earth rampart strengthened with rough stonework, which was constructed on top of the Roman defences. So it must pre-date the construction of this rampart.
The walls of the Roman legionary fortress at York were rebuilt and repaired at several stages in the life of the fortress. Projecting towers like the Multangular Tower are more commonly seen in later Roman military architecture of the later third and fourth centuries, like the Roman shore forts in Britain. So on stylistic grounds York’s Roman walls have sometimes been dated to the early fourth century, perhaps associated with the Emperor Constantine (the Great) who was proclaimed Emperor by his troops in York in 306 AD. However, the abundant pottery in the associated rampart consistently dates to the late second or early third century (Ottaway 2004, p.75). On the basis of the pottery, Patrick Ottaway considers that the defences had been rebuilt in stone and the Multangular Tower constructed by, or shortly after, the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus (193 – 211 AD), perhaps to mark the Emperor’s stay in York in 208-211 (Ottaway 2004, p. 75).
The stone-reinforced earth rampart on top of the Anglian Tower contained a few sherds of eighth- to ninth-century pottery (Ottaway 2004, p.142). A plausible context for its construction could be as a refurbishment of the defences at around the time the Vikings took York in 867 (Tweddle et al 1999, p.189).
So, these indicate that the Anglian Tower was built at some time after the completion of the Roman stone walls in the early third century (or possibly the early fourth century), and at some time before the stone-reinforced earth bank was constructed in approximately the middle of the ninth century.
The Anglian Tower is built of blocks of oolitic limestone. This stone occurs in flat slabs, and is found in the North York Moors north of York and in the Yorkshire Wolds east of York (Ottaway 2004, p.53-54). It was commonly used in Roman York but mainly in the Roman colonia (civilian city) on the west bank of the River Ouse. A different type of limestone, magnesian limestone, was used extensively in the Roman military fortress. Magnesian limestone is a higher quality building stone than oolitic limestone because it can be cut in any direction and to any size and shape, and is the limestone used to make the facing blocks for the surviving stretches of Roman fortress wall. It comes from the Tadcaster area, west of York.
The other notable feature of the stone used to build the Anglian Tower is that it appears to have been freshly quarried. It is not re-used stone from earlier Roman buildings. In this it contrasts sharply with later buildings such as York’s medieval churches, some of which were almost entirely constructed from re-used Roman stone (e.g the tower of St Mary Bishophill Junior, built in the eleventh century; Ottaway 2004, p.151).
Three inferences can be drawn from the stone used to construct the Anglian Tower:
- At the time it was built, Roman York was not yet regarded as the giant stone quarry it became in the Anglo-Scandinavian and medieval periods. Either the Roman buildings were still in use, or they were still respected, or whoever built the Anglian Tower lacked the technology to demolish them safely;
- Whoever built the Anglian Tower did not use the same materials or construction techniques as the Roman military had used to build the fortress defences, implying a break in construction methods. This in turn could imply that the necessary knowledge had been lost, or that access to the Tadcaster quarries was no longer possible, or a change in fashion, or some more prosaic reason such as a builders’ merchant happening to have a load of oolitic limestone ready to hand at the time of construction;
- Whoever built the Anglian Tower had sufficient knowledge of stone construction methods to build a sturdy tower – it hadn’t fallen down by the time it was buried in the overlying ninth-century earth rampart - and sufficient resources available to obtain the stone and carry out the construction. They also regarded York as sufficiently important to be worth the effort of building the tower.
A late Roman date is consistent with the lack of re-used stone in the Anglian Tower, since the fortress buildings would presumably have still been in use and would not have been available as a convenient stone quarry. ‘Consistent with’, rather than definitive proof, since the Roman army did not invariably use freshly quarried stone for military construction; it re-used stone from redundant structures at other locations, such as the walls at Chester and the fort at Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall. The rather rough construction technique may argue against a late Roman date, since one might have assumed that the late Roman Army would have been able to produce a more refined tower for its premier northern fortress. However, this could be explained by haste or the absence of the engineering corps elsewhere. There were plenty of crises in Late Roman Britain that could have provided the context for a rushed repair, or for the army to have been stretched very thin and needing to bodge up a repair with any semi-skilled or unskilled labour they had to hand.
A date shortly after the end of Roman administration, perhaps in the fifth or sixth century, is consistent with the coarse building technique and the change in materials, as the engineering skills of the Roman military may well have been partially or wholly lost when Constantine III took most of the army stationed in Britannia to Europe in his (unsuccessful) bid for the top job in 408. There is no reason to assume that Roman York was instantly deserted when Roman government ended in Britain. Quite the reverse; Honorius’ letter in 410 telling the civitas capitals to ‘look to their own defences’ implies that there was still a layer of local or regional government in place. York would be a logical centre, since it had defences and was at the hub of road and river transport networks. It probably also took a while – perhaps several decades – for people to decide that the Empire was not going to come back this time, and during this period the city authorities may well have tried to maintain Roman political and material structures for as long as possible. The Anglian Tower could be regarded as a direct response to Honorius’ command by whoever was in control of post-Roman York, perhaps using a civilian building contractor in the absence of a military engineer. A post-Roman date could also be consistent with the lack of re-used stone. If whoever was in charge in York when the Anglian Tower was built derived their authority – or claimed to derive it – from the preceding Roman military or civil administration, that might contribute to a reluctance to rob stone from Roman buildings, either through respect for Roman structures or through a fear of getting reprimanded for it if/when Roman government was later restored. It’s worth remembering that Britain had been part of breakaway Empires several times in the preceding century or two and that central Imperial control had always been restored sooner or later, frequently to the detriment of those who had been, or were perceived to have been, on the opposing side. In the early to mid fifth century there may well have been no obvious reason to expect it to be any different this time.
A date in the Anglian period, say from the late sixth or early seventh century onwards, is also possible. We know from Bede that York was under the control of the Anglian kings of Deira in 627 when Eadwine of Deira chose to have himself and his court baptised there (Bede Book II Ch. 14). Whether York was a regularly used royal centre or whether the baptism was a one-off visit to a prestigious but little-used ruin is not known. If York was a significant royal centre, repairing the defences would be a logical thing to do. The primary building material in early (‘Anglo-Saxon’) England was timber (which does not mean that buildings were necessarily unsophisticated, as discussed in an earlier post on timber architecture), which at first sight might appear inconsistent with a stone-built tower. However, Bede tells us that Eadwine began to build a stone church in York at some date after 627, and that the church was later completed by his nephew Oswald at some date between 634 and 642 (Book II Ch. 14). So the Anglian kings of the early seventh century in York had access to masonry technology for building churches, and could presumably have used the same technology in other applications, such as repairing the defences. The use of oolitic limestone would also be consistent with this, as the sources for oolitic limestone in the North York Moors and the Yorkshire Wolds are in Deiran territory and may therefore have been familiar to the Deiran kings or their officials – although I wouldn’t read too much into this as the oolitic limestone was also familiar in Roman York. The lack of re-used stone may be an argument against an Anglian date, as there must surely have been at least some derelict buildings in the city by then. However, Bede tells us that Eadwine used a Roman-style standard (Book II Ch. 16). If Roman heritage was seen as a source of authority or legitimacy, there may have been a reluctance to show disrespect by using Roman buildings, however dilapidated, as a stone quarry. There may also have been a reluctance to disturb the ruins either on grounds of superstition (who wants to risk annoying a vengeful ghost?) or practicality (collapsing arches and unstable foundations can make demolition a risky business).
On the basis of the available evidence, the Anglian Tower could have been constructed at any time between the late Roman period and the ninth-century Viking conquest. A reasonable case can be made for late Roman, post-Roman or Anglian construction. All are plausible, none is definitive. You can take your pick.
Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Ottaway P. Roman York. Tempus, 2004. ISBN 0-7524-2916-7.
Tweddle D, Moulden J, Logan E. Anglian York: a survey of the evidence. Council for British Archaeology/York Archaeological Trust, 1999. ISBN 1-902771-06-0.
North York Moors