Norfolk has a rich and varied history of invasion and conquest, but it was the Romans who came here first and put their stamp on the county, much of which you can still see today in some beautiful and diverse locations.
Their story includes Queen Boudicca, the original exponent of Girl Power, and her Iceni tribe, the magnificent Roman Burgh Castle fort near Great Yarmouth and Roman regional capital at Venta Icenorum at Caistor St Edmund near Norwich.
Brittonic Queen Boudicca (Latinised as Boadicea), a great British heroine whose statue stands today on Westminster Bridge opposite Big Ben, ruled the Iceni tribe with King Prasutagus.
When the Romans conquered most of England in AD 43, they let Prasutagus continue to rule, but when he died in AD 59 or 60 they were outraged and insulted that he wanted to split his kingdom in two, leaving half to Roman emperor Nero and the other half to Boudicca. Under Roman law a woman had no right to inherit her husband’s property, so they decided to rule the Iceni directly and confiscate all the tribe’s property. It is claimed they stripped and flogged Boudicca and violated her two daughters.
Boudicca wasn’t happy (who could blame her!), and the actions exacerbated resentment at Roman rule so while Roman governor Gauis Suotonius Paulinus was heading a campaign in North Wales, Boudicca and the Iceni took their opportunity to rise up against the oppressors.
Boudicca’s marauding Brythonic tribe defeated the Roman Ninth Legion and razed the-then capital of Roman Britain at Colchester. They then destroyed Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St Albans) before succumbing to the forces of the returning Paulinus at an unknown battle site. Boudicca is thought to have poisoned herself rather than be captured.
The defeat ushered in a 350-year period of Roman rule of Britain.
Sites of that period include the earthworks of a huge hillfort at Thetford Castle which the Normans built upon. An open space on a high point, at Gallows Hill, in Thetford, was once the location of a major ceremonial centre that Boudicca would have known.
Another great hillfort at Warham Camp, north of Fakenham, provides stunning views across rolling countryside and was created in the Iron Age but used by the Romans.
Thetford was a major religious centre at an important river crossing whilst at Snettisham there is a Celtic centre on the Icknield Way. The ancient trackway, linking East Anglia to the Chilterms, may have been named after the Iceni.
The Iceni, whose name might have come from Iken, the original name of the River Ouse, where the tribe are said to have come from, had settlements across Norfolk, in north Suffolk and east Cambridgeshire. One of them was at Brettenham on the Peddars Way, east of Thetford, which was built by Romans to quickly transport troops up to The Wash and Brancaster, where they had a fort protecting north Norfolk.
Although nothing remains above ground of the Brancaster fort, large grey stone blocks from the fort have been re-used and can be seen in a number of local churches, including St Mary the Virgin at Brancaster.
At Caistor St Edmund, just 3 miles south of Norwich, are the flint walls of a Roman town, known then as Venta Icenorum, and once the civitas capital of this part of Britain for the Romans but also possibly for the Iceni before. Located next to the river Tas, this remains a beautiful location for walkers to explore.
This is one of only three major Romano-Briton towns that haven’t been buried underneath later towns and cities.
The Roman town is on the route of the Boudicca Way, between Norwich and Diss.
At the time of the Romans this would also have been a port, navigable from the North Sea when it came in at a great estuary, more than a mile wide, where Great Yarmouth is now.
There were forts on either side of the estuary, the greatest at Burgh Castle, where visitors can stand among massive Roman flint walls overlooking Breydon Water, just inland from Great Yarmouth. This is largest remaining Roman construction in the country.
Parts of the gateway and defences of another fort can also be seen at Caister-on-Sea. In fact, the name Caister comes from the word ‘ceaster’, Latin for fort.
Norwich Castle has a Boudicca Gallery where you can learn more about the Romans in Norfolk.
So what did the Romans do for us? Well, they created roads, ports and gave us farming (and rabbits and lavender) but they’ve also left behind some fabulous history for us to enjoy and explore.