Pennocrucium: Roman Penkridge pt1.

Introduction: 2015
Now for something a little different and perhaps a little self indulgent. Back in 1996 I was taking an A-level in Archaeology through the Newark and Sherwood College. As a part of the A-level I had to write a project on a agreed topic and the subject I chose was the complex of Roman (and possibly pre-Roman) features dotted along the A5, south of Penkridge – the final phase of which the Roman’s called Pennocrucium. While little work had been done on the site back then and much of what I wrote was conjecture I did go on to pass with a ‘grade A’, so it couldn’t have been that bad.

Fig 1a: Pennocrucium and Watling St in Roman England (Burke)

Fig 1a: Pennocrucium and Watling St in Roman England (Burke)

Between 1999 and 2000 I then completed an open arts degree through the Open, Warwick and Keele universities. I chose, as a part of that, to submit a dissertation – which I did in January 2000. I was undertaking a lot of qualifications at the same time, so elected to upgrade my A-level project instead of writing afresh. The dissertation scored a first, so again it couldn’t have been that bad.

I moved on and all of my back-up discs and other college/university stuff found its way to the loft during one of ‘great tidy-ups’ that we have all undertaken. On a recent tour of the said loft I rediscovered the hard copy, but alas no discs. I thought, both for old time’s sake and as a way to preserve the thing, that I would write it up and put it on Wyrleyblog. As it was originally 12,000 words or so I thought I would break it up into a series of articles to make it less of a hardship to read; saying that I will repeat illustrations if necessary, some without figure numbers, in order make each article understandable. A relevant bibliography will appear at the end of each article.

A few things need to be stressed. It is a product of its time: I have not kept track of any advances at the site since 1999, so much more may be known now, and equally the illustrations are now a little dated (as all of the notes and things I had are buried under my boyhood games, Christmas decorations and suitcases, I have had to photograph those in the project and dissertation and make them as clear as I can). Penkridge is a little out of the Blog area, however, the places referred to will be known to everyone locally (anyone that has driven from the Gailey island towards Brewood has gone through or past these sites). Finally, I have re-written parts for certain reasons, but ultimately it remains a dissertation – in other words it wasn’t written for the Wyrleyblog audience but to impress Warwick University, so please bear that in mind.

Anyhow, explanation over – I hope some find it of interest.

Introduction: 1999
The choice in covering a Roman site for this dissertation was probably inevitable: not only am I from Italian extract, but I was born within a stones throw of the Roman site at Wall (Letocetum, near Lichfield). Wall, as fate would have it, also supplied my first experience of an archaeological site; this was both as a visitor around 1970 (before the site was partially backfilled to protect the pilae from vandals) and as an amateur archaeologist in 1996.

Fig 1b: Roman Penkridge in the modern landscape.

Fig 1b: Roman Penkridge in the modern landscape – my area of study is the 6 km sq area delineated in blue.  Click on photos to enlarge.  (OS Pathfinder 871, 1972)

The area I chose for this study is located some 3 miles south-west of the modern town of Penkridge in Staffordshire (figs 1). The Romans named the area Pennocrucium. According to the Staffordshire Sites and Monuments Record, the 6 km square area that I chose to investigate houses a Roman settlement, three forts, several camps, a villa and a number of roads, as well as a pre-historic barrow and other possible cropmarks of pre-historic origin.

The cropmarks and roads around Pennocrucium (after Oldfield 1981)

The cropmarks and roads around Pennocrucium
(after Oldfield, 1981)

I first approached Chris Wardle, the Sites and Monuments Record Officer, back in 1996 regarding what was available regarding the area. Chris somewhat deflated me with his reply, in that ‘remarkably little archaeological excavation [has been] carried out in the area… most of what we know… has come from the study of aerial photographs. So many of the ideas discussed in the interpretation of the complex remain untested.’ Chris was certainly correct, not much was to be found: however, visits to Wolverhampton, Stafford and Lichfield Record Offices did supply me with information including the Victoria County History (1908), various local history books and the reports on the limited excavations carried out in the area courtesy of the Birmingham Archaeological Society’s transactions.

It appeared that excavations on the settlement site, under the care of Professor J K St Joseph, took place in the August months of 1947 and 1948 and in the July months of 1953 and 1954, on behalf of the University College of North Staffordshire. Excavations at the Kinvaston site took place over three seasons between 1954 and 1956, while Engleston Villa was excavated by the Wolverhampton Archaeological Society in the summer of 1937.

The lack of excavation wasn’t to be the only problem: in this case site visits would help with the correlation between the various features and the topography of the area, but there is nothing visible of these sites from the ground and access is difficult as they are on private property. Then, while there are a number of good oblique aerial photographs of the site at the Aerial Photography Centre, housed within the National Monuments Record, Swindon, many are from private collections and cannot be reproduced by them. Finally, I have managed to trace some of the archaeological finds from the excavations (how complete is unclear) to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery; however, they are jumbled and not on public display.

Despite the lack of material, this dissertation intends to explore the following:

  • Current discussion around the name of Pennocrucium, especially with regard to its location, extent and the local topography.
  • The accepted and conjectural road network that encompasses the area.
  • To examine the forts, camps, settlement and villa separately, as well as their possible relationship to each other.
  • To submit a construction sequence, taken from before the arrival of the Romans (involving speculation on the nature of the other cropmarks that appear in the areas) to the 4th century and the later phase of Engleston Villa.

Pennocrucium Location and Extent
One thing I noticed while collating the published material on the sites was the more encompassing discussion that surrounded Pennocrucium: this discussion took the form of, firstly, the actual location of and what actually constituted Roman Penkridge, after all cropmarks showed a complex of forts, camps and settlement; secondly, there was much discussion on the philology and etymology of the name of Pennocrucium, as it seemed to contrast sharply with the current topography.

Quite why this is so is perhaps, in relation to the first discussion, the legacy of the the Victoria County History. According to this essential text, ‘The actual site of Pennocrucium, a station on Watling St, which is placed at Stretton, is not definitely known, and there is nothing apparently nothing above ground to indicate its position. It was a small posting station, such as existed elsewhere along Roman roads, without masonry walls and earthworks.’ (Lynam, VCH vol 1, 1908, p184).

The major source of evidence from the Roman period for the existence of Pennocrucium in name, although not its precise location, comes from the Antonine Itinerary (fig 2), which was perhaps drawn-up for the Emperor Caracalla in AD 214; as Guy de la Bedoyere points out it was, ‘like a modern [road] map, armed with such a map a traveller knew where the next town was and how long it would take to get there’ (de la Bedoyere, 1992, p27).

The Itinerary is a collection of routes throughout the empire and comes in the form of a list of places between the two extremes of a ‘roadway’, with the distance in miles between each. It shows that Pennocrucium was part of the local chain that linked Wall (Letocteum, or Etocetum), through Red Hill (Uxacona, by Lilleshall) to Wroxeter (Urioconium). The mileages given are not always exact, but would place Pennocrucium within the road context of the Stretton/Water Eaton area.

Fig 2: The northern section of route II from the Antonine Itinerary, covering Watling St. It shows both places and mileages. (Rivet & Smith, 1982, p157)

Fig 2: The northern section of route II from the Antonine Itinerary, covering Watling St. It shows both places and mileages.
(Rivet & Smith, 1982, p157)

Apart from the linguistic evidence surviving in the names of the River Penk and of the latter Saxon settlement of Penkridge, the Itinerary is the only historical evidence we have of some sort of occupation at Pennocrucium. Unlike Pennocrucium, Wall and Wroxeter also survive in the Ravenna Cosmography, which was compiled around AD 700.

Archaeologically the Roman settlement site, with its distinct playing card shape, was re-discovered by aerial photography in July 1946 (JK St Joseph, BAST 74, p1-5). This of course was nearly 40 years after the reference quoted from the Victoria County History had been written. Therefore, regarding the discussion over the siting of the settlement is concerned, one wonders if the simple fact that the VCH was written so long before not only the re-discovery, but even the advent of the technology to find it, is overlooked. Surely, the location of Pennocrucium is now accepted.

Pennocrucium settlement site and Watling St (WA Baker 21/7/70)

Pennocrucium settlement site and Watling St
(WA Baker 21/7/70)

Well, yes and no. The argument for a fixed position for Pennocrucium could be countered by those who claim that the site is is not a single unit, but in fact a complex – as the cropmark illustration above shows – and just which part of that complex was Pennocrucium? It is a fair point, but I would suggest that they all were.

If one examines the neighbouring settlement at Wall (Letocetum), then striking similarities occur with Pennocrucium. Like Pennocrucium, Rivert and Smith (1982, p387) also translate Letocetum as a Latinised P-Celtic (Welsh, Breton and Cornish for example) name meaning ‘grey wood’. Like Pennocrucium, Letocetum is also around  2½ miles south of its later Saxon foundation. Margaret Gelling offers the possibility that both were centres of larger Roman estates that allowed for the transfer of an OE version of the name – Penkridge and Lichfield – to a new location within that estate (1979, p59).

It would be difficult to prove the existence and the exact size of a Roman estate at Pennocrucium, however, there may be clues. The pages of the Staffordshire Domesday Book (Morris, 1976) show that both Penkridge and Lichfield are themselves centres of multiple estates adding weight to the idea that both were of older, Roman origin. Further, adding to the weight of the established estate theory, is that Lichfield and Penkridge were held in tenure by the highest in 1066. Lichfield was church land – given over to support the See of Lichfield, possibly as early AD 669 when St Chad established his bishopric there. Penkridge on the other hand was king’s land.

Saying that, Domesday also show that if there was a large Roman estate it had fractured by 1066. Penkridge may well have been king’s land, but Brewood, Rodbaston, Kinvaston, Water Eaton, Gailey and Stretton had separate entries. Domesday is a tax assessment and those that study it look at groupings of manors to make units of 5-hide assessments. This doesn’t help when trying to look at Penkridge. Penkridge (and attached estates) total 7½ hides; Brewood (Bishop’s land) has 5 hides; Rodbaston (Richard the Forrester’s land) 3 hides and Kinvaston (Monks of Wolverhampton) 1 hide.

What is of note is that Robert of Stafford (and Hervey from him) holds Stretton, Gailey and Water Eaton. Stretton has 3 hides and is clearly the dominant settlement of the three, while Gailey and Water Eaton have 1 hide apiece – but added together they make a 5-hide unit. While it is tenuous, this may be evidence of at least part of a larger estate that had survived until the 11th century at least.

On a personal note, I support the estate theory [even more so since I have done later work on the Lichfield estate]. Staffordshire is a county of dispersed settlement: small villages, hamlets and isolated farmsteads, most of which arose from woodland clearances as the population increased from the 7th – 14th centuries (Hoskins, 1977, ch3-4 and Taylor, 1983, p169-174). Current settlements (see fig 1) like Stretton, Water Eaton, Kinvaston, Lapley and Rodbaston, for example, are derived from OE words from that period and possibly did not exist in any form before then. As such, Pennocrucium may not only be the name of the settlement itself, but also a large tract of land encompassing what today have become separate communities.

The Landscape: Topography and Philology
Although they must be treated with caution, both the Roman and Old English (OE) place-names can be a useful clue to the nature of the landscape under study, however, all spellings of a place-name must be taken into consideration (note Paffards’ example of Alton, Staffordshire Studies vol 8, 1995). Another note of caution is that while language/dialects may help translate place-names, they can be vague as to a date of origin – several hundred years in the case of Saxon dialects.

Old English and Roman place-names can be generally placed into two broad categories, those based on topographical features and those on personal names. Topographical names have a great advantage over habitation names in that local topography may still support the proposed translation. Therefore, after an examination of the alleged translations of local place-names by philologist JP Oaken (The Place-Names of Staffordshire, 1984) and a scrutiny of the current topography, an archaeo-topographical landscape may emerge for the Roman and early post-Roman area around Pennocrucium.

Brewood: hill wood
Congreve: the grove or copse in the valley
Crateford: the ford frequented by water-crakes
Cuttlestone: Cupwulf’s stone
Engleton: farmstead of the Angles
Gailey: woodland glade overgrown with bog-myrtle
Kinvaston: farmstead of Cynewald
Lapley: woodland glade at end of estate
Rodbaston: Redbald’s farmstead
Rowley: the rough glade
Somerford: the ford usable only in summer
Stretton: farmstead on the Roman road
Water Eaton: farmstead by the river (Water added later)

According to Oakden et al, the suffix ‘ley’ or ‘leah’, as in Lapley, Gaily and Rowley, corresponds to a ‘clearing in a wood’. Brewood and Congreve also refer to woodland topography. Current topography (see fig 1b) also features surviving patches of woodland at Stretton, Somerford and Micklewood for example, although these may be modern plantations.

The other feature extensively referred to is water. The River Penk features significantly, there are fords across it at Crateford and Somerford and the farmstead at (Water) Eaton was also near it. Gailey also has reference to marsh – with its bog-myrtle. All this means that the Roman landscape appears to have been a wet and wooded area punctured by glades and clearings.

The is little surface undulation around the settlement and the fort sites, which is extremely important in the context of the translation of the name of Pennocrucium (Rivet & Smith, 1982, p436). A site visit showed how the ground gently slopes down from the settlement site to the River Penk (Fig 4).

The site of Pennocrucium as seen from the River Penk; it shows a gradual slope upward making the location the highest ground available although not significantly prominent. 2000.

The site of Pennocrucium as seen from the River Penk; it shows a gradual slope upward making the location the highest ground available although not significantly prominent. P.Ford, 1999.

Of course, there is no exact translation for the name of Pennocrucium. Rivet and Smith give the first part – penno – as being from a British derivative (now represented in Welsh) and can represent ‘head’, ‘hill’, ‘end’ or ‘chief’. This remains a common element in Welsh and Cornish place-names, an example being Penryn – ‘promentry, cape’ (Ekwall, 1960, p362). The second part, croco, is also a British derivative that Rivet  and Smith translate as ‘mound’ or ‘tumulus’. This gives an overall translation, of a Latinised form of P-Celtic (Welsh, Breton and Cornish), as ‘chief mound’ or ‘tumulus on the hill’.

Ekwall feels that these translations are consistent with current topography (see fig 4), ‘Pennocrucium appears to have been on rising ground near the River Penk… hence a meaning of ‘mound on a hill’ is suitable’ (1960, p362). Gelling (1978, p41) and Professor Jackson and argue the opposite, that it is inappropriate with regard to the modern topography and there may have been a mound on the actual settlement site. Webster feels that the name may have originated from a native hillfort, perhaps on the site of the settlement, however, if this is true, then the fort is completely lost and partially counters Gelling’s claim that the modern topography would not support such a name; the nearest known hillfort, Berry Ring, is 6½ miles to the north. Webster also feels that the name may mean nothing more than a meeting place of some local importance (Wacher, 1966, p44).

There seems to me a glaring candidate for the ‘mound’. While there is an interesting circular feature found next to Roman camp 1 (marked Y – the camp being E on the above plan), which is discussed later, the Rowley Hill tumulus, ¾ of a mile north of Watling St, which is now much ploughed-out, was a round barrow of some 24m in diameter. The VCH states that ‘a few Celtic remains have been found there’ (VCH vol 1, p192) and the National Monuments Record (Ref 77229) that some Roman implements have been found, further describing it as ‘obviously a large barrow but not probably the size usually associated with Roman barrows’.

The barrow is too reduced to be dated, but the conical shape traditionally associated with barrows of the early Roman period (eg Bartlow Hills, Essex) is undetectable. If, as most likely, the barrow was not Roman then it must be considered as a viable option as a source from which the name Pennocrucium is derived and the evidence of Roman activity proves that the Romans were aware – even respected it. There is also evidence, discussed later, of a possible road/trackway past the tumulus site – which would have added to its prestige.

If the barrow was known about back in 1908, as it is mentioned in the VCH, why was it not considered as a viable source for the name of Pennocrucium by Webster for example [I believe Margaret Gelling later – in the 1980s – proposed Rowley Hill tumulus as a source of the name of Pennocrucium, but I did not know this when writing the dissertation and do not have a reference to it]? If the distance from Watling St and the settlement site is the reason, then I believe it is a mistake. I stated above that I believed that Pennocrucium encompassed a large tract of land. The first Roman activity in the area were the marching camps and forts built to the north of Watling St and much closer to the tumulus. It is my belief that the name of Pennocrucium diffused from these forts to the later settlement to the south and on Watling St.

Clear examples of diffusion with place-names can be seen today: the village of Richard’s Castle and the market town of Bishop’s Castle, both in Shropshire, have taken their name from original military fortifications now long since abandoned. In Birmingham, a castle was built at Weoley (a Saxon word), but the area of Birmingham is known as Weoley Castle – the same being true for Castle Bromwich.

The final point I wish to raise on topography is to try to address the reason why the Romans stopped at the site at all. Yes, the symbolic meaning of occupying an area possibly classed as sacred due to the presence of a barrow cannot be ignored, nor that some cropmarks, discussed later, could possibly indicated pre-Roman settlement and influenced the Romans to halt there, but my belief is that the Romans were far more practical.

The advancing XIV legion was moving from the direction of Wall across England, during the early years after the Claudian invasion in AD43. It is possible that Watling St was  already in some form of existence as a trade route from the south-west coast at this stage, which may have influenced the Roman decision to advance at this point (Chevallier, 1976, p158). As discussed later, Kinvaston may date to around AD50 and if so, it is placed to this period. As the Saxon place-names suggest the area, being generally flat, offered good visibility along with wood for fuel and building and plenty of water and surely this is the reason as to why the Romans took advantage of the site.

Part 2 coming soon – this part is dedicated to Eileen Appleton, my A-level tutor and a big inspiration to change my career.

My thanks to:
Bedoyere, G 1993 Roman Towns in Britain, London, Batsford
Burke, J 1983 Roman England, London, Guild
Chevallier, R 1976 Roman Roads, London, Batsford
Ekwall, E 1960 Dictionary of English Place Names, Glasgow, OUP
Gelling, M 1979 Signposts To The Past, London, BCA
Hoskins, WG 1977 The Making of the English Landscape, London, BCA
Lynam, C(ed) 1908 VCH vol 1, Oxford, OUP
Morris, J(ed) 1976 Domesday Book: Staffordshire, London, Phillimore
Oakden, JP 1984 Place Names of Staffordshire, Cambridge, CUP
Rivet & Smith 1982 Place-Names of Roman Britain, London, Batsford
St Joseph, JK 1956 Birmingham Archaological Society Transactions vol 74
Taylor, C 1983 Village and Farmstead, London, George Philip
Wacher, J 1976 Towns of Roman Britain, London, BCA

Ordnance Survey
Chris Wardle, SMR for Staffordshire County Council (2000)
WA Baker
National Monuments Record

  1. […] Pennocrucium: Roman Penkridge pt1. […]

  2. angvs72 says:

    It brought back good memories to read this, many historical ventures throughout the British countryside, I look forward to the remaining parts 🙂

    • wyrleyblog says:

      Yes, we went to some places! Getting locked out of the car at Abergavenny rings a bell as well!

      • angvs72 says:

        I remember passing through the site of Pennocrucium and you pointing it out, I was unaware at that time that we were driving through the site of the Roman fort though, right along the “Via Praetoria”. (Watling Street). We do not get many chances to do that down here!

  3. Pedro says:

    There is of course your very own Walsall mon, WH Duignan; Lord Mayor, Antiquarian, solicitor and it seems long time creative accountant, who wrote Notes on Staffordshire, Place Names, in 1902. You can see this on forgotten books, although odd pages are missing if you don’t register…

    Click to access Notes_on_Staffordshire_1000895698.pdf

    I like the description of Gailey…

    “The district is called Gailey Hay, being one of the hays of the forest of Cannock and lies flat and low. An aromatic shrub grows spontaneously called gale or sweet gale (bog myrtle) and gives the name to the hamlet near it, where it flourishes in a black morassy ground between two copses, greatly sheltered from the bleak winds, which no doubt contributes greatly to its safety. It thrives not anywhere else, and seems confined to this small spot of a few acres

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