Sunday 22 November 2015

Lullingstone Villa

Known buildings of the villa complex.

Roman villas are plentifully scattered across the English lowlands, mostly alongside the military zone but also in the London zone. The River Darent had a villa every two kilometres or so along the bank. The one at Lullingstone was built in the first century AD.

The artwork depicts  Lullingstone in the 4th Century, showing the known buildings: (i) the main villa on a levelled shelf cut back into the hill, (ii) immediately behind it a kitchen building, a mausoleum up on the hill to the right containing lead coffins with a man and woman in their mid twenties, and (iv) a massive barn to the right to store agricultural products for shipping down the Darent into the Thames.

It went through roughly three phases (i) as a farming estate with a manor house, (ii) as a high status country retreat possibly for the Governor of Britain, and (iii) as a major grain supplier probably for the Roman Army in Gaul.

The villa had an expensively imported bust of Pertinax, son of a freedman, teacher soldier, Governor of Britain and finally Emperor of Rome (192-193 AD).

Lullingstone is quite small but was always more than just another villa. A deep cellar-like cult room for veneration of river nymphs was built under the left wing (top right in the photo) with external exit for use by the community.

External access was blocked off, presumably in the second phase when the villa was used by senior officials.

Eventually a Christian chapel was built in the room over the pagan cult centre in the fourth century.

A Chi-Rho from the chapel.

One of the paintings of worshippers from the chapel. Note if this looks Byzantine, that's because it's late 4th Century Rome.

The main dining room at the back of the villa.

A high-status dinner party for the elite, say 380 AD

Note the mosaics in the dining room are pagan, built at the same time as the Christian chapel.

So what happened to the cult room? It was accessed by a wooden ladder from a trapdoor in the floor of the chapel and was still used to venerate the river gods.

The pagan Anglo-Saxon burial at Sutton Hoo has a mixture of Christian and pagan symbols - but so does the late Roman villa at Lullingstone.

The villa and estate reached its peak in the last years of the fourth century and then it burned down in the early fifth and was never rebuilt. The next record we have of any activity at Lullingstone is the estate recorded in the Domesday book. The hamlet is now dominated by a 15th Century Manor House that has always been owned by the Hart-Dyke family.

In between the fifth and eleventh centuries there is only minimal evidence of Anglo-Saxon activity. Lullingstone translates into modern English as something like The Enclosure of The People of Lull.

In 390 there was a massive agricultural complex along the Darent exporting food across Europe. One generation later in 420 it was all gone - and we don't really understand why.


  1. In 390 there was a massive agricultural complex along the Darent exporting food across Europe. One generation later in 420 it was all gone - and we don't really understand why

    The withdrawal of Empire had to be a factor, right? Don't need the complex if the Empire's given up on England, maybe?

    1. Britain was the Empire. It's wrong to see the Romans as some sort of occupying foreign power.

    2. Well, that's true.

      But when the Roman Legions withdrew in the 5th century, the Empire basically told England she was on her own, right? So exporting to the continent wasn't really something they'd be interested in doing, not with Gaul under siege as it was by then.

    3. True but it's the speed of the collapse that is incredible plus the fact that the successor states spoke Celtic and Saxon, not low-Latin. And the language division itself is intersting. Almost no Celtic in Saxon.

  2. Excellent post. If the smalls ever exhibit the slightest interest in Roman stuff; this could be on the list.

    1. Well worth a vist, Zzzzz. And it's all under cover so something to do in the rain.