There is ample evidence to establish the fact of Roman occupation of Doncaster, but at what period of time it became a military station is uncertain. It was a station (Danum) on the direct line from Eboracum (York) to Lindum (Lincoln), and on account of its natural features and geographical position must have been one of great importance. According to the Notitia Dignitalum, the official directory and army list of the Roman Empire, ‘the perfect of the crispian horse under the Dux Britannia garrisoned there’. In ancient as in modern warfare, the food supply of the army had to be secured, and the possibilites of being unexpectedly attacked by a lurking foe guarded against. The consideration of these questions probably led to the selection of Danum as a camp for the Crispian Horsemen. To estimate, if only approximately, the importance of Doncaster as a military station, and the gigantic task of subduing a brave and resolute people, we must first inform ourselves concerning the geography of the district under consideration.
The Don rises to the west of Penistone, and by a devious course passes Penistone on its way to Sheffield. Its several tributaries, which rise on mountain moorland, desolate wastes, and places of wild and inspiring grandeur, join it by the way.
Five rivers like the fingers of a hand, fling from black mountains, mingle and are gone. Where sweetest valleys quit the wild and grand, and eldest forests o’er the sylvan Don, bid their immortal brother journey on, a stately pilgrim watched by all the hills.
From Penistone to Sheffield it flows from North to South, but at the latter place it entirely changes its course, taking with it the waters of the Rother and also a few miles further on, the waters of the Dearne. Although the district through which it passes from Sheffield to Doncaster is not overhung with such high hills and the outline thereof is not so rugged as those above Sheffield, yet it is diversified, beautiful, and teeming with historic interest. After passing Conisborough, the change of scenery is great, geologists tell us that here is a plateau four or five miles in width and extending from North to South across the river basin, a beautiful stretch of fertile land. The river passes through this plateau and at Hexthorpe enters a level plain which extends to the Humber. Scarcely a vestige of the former condition of this vast plain now remains, and in places there is nothing whatever on the surface to indicate the waters of the Don once flowed that way. This is owing to the draining of Hatfield Chase by Vermuyden, which took place in 1626. Before reaching Doncaster, the Don cast off an arm which after travelling a short distance was reunited to the main stream. A part of the town now stands on the island thus formed, but the relative positions of the island and the Roman camp cannot now be determined. Nearing Fishlake it again divided as also it did when it was near to Thorne, here it took a northerly direction and taking along with it the waters of the Went joined the Aire at a point near to the ancient town of Snaith. The two arms took an easterly bend, and meeting, became one. This stream received the united water of the Torne and the Idle, and taking a northerly course joined the Trent near to the junction of that river with the Ouse. The condition in past ages of this level country through which the ever threatening Don wormed its way nearly baffles description. In the main it consisted of river islands, water-logged islets, extensive moorlands and boggy wastes, forests and forest swamps. In some places there was a vast network of meres, streams, pools and dykes, formed in beds of peat between 1 and 20 feet thick.
Even from this somewhat meagre description of the district immediately surrounding Doncaster it will be seen that the Roman camp, Danum, was on the edge of a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’, and facing a district, a natural stronghold from which the hunted Briton could successfully make periodical incursions into the cultivated parts. Abraham de la Pryme, the historian of Hatfield Chase and adjacent parts draws a quaint and striking word picture of how this was done, and how the Romans, almost despairing of getting rid of so persistent a foe, were driven to try different methods to obtain their object. He says, “sometimes one party had the victory and sometimes the other, but fortune generally fell to the Brigantes,
‘who issued out of ye Wings of ye Wood, which stretched on both sides ye Champain, oftentimes hedg’d ye Romans in and cut them off or else decoyed them into abuscades, where they could destroy them at pleasure’.
The Romans regarded this forest as greater than,
‘ye strongest Citty in ye Wold unto them’
and determined to destroy it by fire. Fire and the axe did their work but the Briton was unconquered still and returned again and ‘made ye reliques of this wood fastnesses, and places of safety, and began to annoy the Romans by their excursions almost as much as ever’.
As a last resort, the whole countryside was flooded by the Romans where which ‘drave all ye Brigante’s and other Malecontent Brittons out of ye same, drounded agreat many number of them and turned the reliques of ye whole forest into a great lake and ye weight of ye waters so deprest ye soil of ye country lying for a good way on ye west of ye breach that it is lower than the rest unto this day’. De la Pryme was a fellow of the Royal Society, and obtained considerable distinction as a natural philosopher. If his description of the work of the Romans in flooding out the Britons be correct, a more desolate scene could not well be imagined. Letting in the waters of the estuary of the Humber would certainly submerge part of the country in question, but as certainly never drive out of the other parts, the stubborn native, whose riddance the Romans were so anxious to secure.
Probably the marshy parts already described in conjunction with the action of the Don presented far greater obstacles in the way of the Roman commanders than those offered by the forests. There was a similar tract of wild moor where the Don and its tributaries take their rise. No doubt it was across this waste, the conqueror marched from York to Chester in 1070. “The horses of the Knights were swallowed up by the treacherous swamps and swept away by the torrents”. A similar fate would await the Roman horseman if he dared to venture where the extensive peat beds of Thorne and Goole moors now yield annually, thousands of tons of valuable litter. Human agency has so completely altered the conditions under which the water passes down the Don valley that there is no danger to the lowland from flood.
It was not so always, think of those times when the Don was in an angry mood, after a protracted frost or during a sudden storm, the waters gathering at a height of nearly 2000 feet above the sea level would rush through gorge and valley with irresistable force, gathering in bulk and power as it passed along, ploughing through the plateau, and with a final rush, spend its energiey in working desolation and change on the woody and marshy plain where dwelt the unconquered Briton.
With the exception of the remains of an ancient forest of large trees, some of them cut down and squared by the axe, others cut down and prepared as if for fencing and other purposes, together with broken axes, wedges, and similar implements, scarcely any evidence of the occupation of this marshy district has been discovered. The number of human remains, manufactured articles, coins etc, brought to light is indeed small. Some remains have been found at Austerfield, written Oustrefeld in Domesday, where tradition says a great battle was fought between the Romans and the British Tribes. Osterius is said to have commanded the Roman legions on that occasion, and that his name and the place of battle still survive in the village named Austerfield. The reason for mentioning this place is that it was probably the site of a Roman camp. Until recently evidences of a camp could be met with and Roman remains could be found in the locality. The nearness of this camp to the marshy plain warrants the assumption that its soldiers took an active part in the difficult task referred to above.
Whether the camp at Danum was formed before or after the subjugation of the native tribes is a question which need not be too closely inquired into. The date of its construction in no way affects the importance of its position. Probably the conquered people were placed under restraint, but whether in native villages or in some sort of military camp is a question not easily answered. They would have to work and were probably compelled to grow corn for the army, assist in making roads, draining the swamps and follow other useful employment. At the time of this writing there is nothing to help us to form an opinion of the political life of Roman Danum, outside the military organisation we cannot say whether it was only a village, or it held a higher position in the scale of municipal organisation. Probably its rank was that of a stipendiary town; being on the direct line between two important Roman colonies many distinguished Romans may have spent a night there, if not longer, but no evidence has survived to warrant us in assuming that in any period of its history it was the home of a thriving colony of cultivated and wealthy Roman citizens.
But, hark, the tramp of the Roman legions is again heard in the land. The Crispian horse along with the vast army of occupation turn their faces Romeward, finally leaving the shores of Britain, never, never more to return.