The Mystery of Morbio - Ilkley

So far I have considered Scaftworth and Piercebridge as potential bases for the equites cataphractarii. Scaftworth was dismissed on the grounds that it was too small to house a regiment of heavy cavalry, whilst Piercebridge had all the hallmarks of a supply depot. I shall now turn my attention to the fort at Ilkley.

The Roman fort at Ilkley is situated in an excellent strategic location, towards the base of the in-depth defensive system which the Romans designed to guard the northern frontier. In the post conquest era, its garrison would have been able to control lateral communication between York and Ribchester, as well as the important route between Manchester and Aldborough (the civitas capital of the Brigantes). If required, the garrison could easily be deployed to either side of the Pennines.

There has been much debate about the Roman name for Ilkley and the traditional view, expressed in many early 20th century journals, was that it was known as Olicana. This identification is based upon the running order in Ptolemy's Geographia, which mentions an Olicana in Brigantian territory, situated between Rigodunum (Ribchester) and Eboracum (York). However, this attribution is far from certain and more recently it has been suggested that Olicana could just as easily refer to the fort at Elsack, which is located to the west of Skipton (see Rivet and Smith P431). In this context, the Notitia Dignitatum records the presence of the praefectus alae primae Herculeae at a place called Olenaco. Rivet and Smith are of the view that Olenaco and Olicana are synonomous, which makes the naming of Ilkley problematic. Could it be that Ilkley is the elusive Morbio?

Many Roman finds have made at Ilkley over the years, including an altar to Verbeia (goddess of the river Wharfe), dedicated by a Clodius Fronto, prefect of the Second Cohort of Lingonians (Cohors II Lingonum). The Lingonians were a mixed unit of cavalry and infantry known as a cohors equitata. Their likely deployment at Ilkley in the first and second centuries AD, was probably required to subdue the local Brigantes. In this context, four turmae of cavalry, each comprised of thirty men, could provide a rapid and long range response to any threat, whilst the infantry had the ability to traverse the moors and bogs to the north and south of the fort. However, it is unknown if the Lingonians remained at Ilkley. The Notitia lists aTribunus cohortis secundae Lingonum at Drumburgh (Congavata), which is situated at the western end of the Wall. Could the Lingonians departure have been followed by the arrival of a regiment of cataphractarii?

Archaeological investigation at Ilkley has been hampered by the presence of more modern buildings, including the manor house and the parish church. However, it is clear that the fort was built on a promontory overlooking the River Wharfe, where it guarded a ford across the river. To the east and west its flanks were protected by becks running down from Ilkley Moor. The first significant examination of the site was undertaken by A.M. Woodward in the 1920s. He excavated an area behind the north wall, which uncovered the praetorium. Finds included an extensive amount of pottery, coins up to the reign of Valentinian I, and various scraps of iron, some of which may have been pieces of armour (P283). In his report, published in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal (1926), Woodward concluded that due to the paucity of fourth century finds, occupation in this period was unlikely to have extended over the whole site (P194). He was also of the opinion that the fort was too small to have been garrisoned by an ala of cavalry (P312).

A second and more extensive excavation at the fort took place under the auspices of B.R. Hartley in the 1960s. A summary of his findings are published in Roman Ilkley. He established that the fourth century fort probably covered an area of 1.4 hectares. This excavation also confirmed the presence of at least one stable in the north east corner of the fort and an armourer's workshop in the north west corner. The diagram below shows the general layout of the fort and its surrounding ditch, as revealed by the two excavations. It demonstrates how much archaeological research still needs to be undertaken.

From the archaeology we can be reasonably confident that some Roman cavalry were based at Ilkley in the fourth century. The question is were they cataphractarii? If so, then one of the key issues would have been supply. As Donaghy points out, in the absence of good pasture a horse requires approximately 19 pounds of grain per day. Fortuitously, the area around Ilkley does provide good grazing. For example, the landscape character assessment for Wharfedale identifies pasture land on the north facing slope of the river valley. Interestingly, a census conducted by Harrogate District Council in 2005, recorded a population of 817 horses in the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beaurty. However, grazing cannot always be relied upon and the presence of a granary shows that grain was stored. It may even have been possible to convey this to Ilkley by boat. In his thesis on medieval transport Edwards provides evidence that in the Middle Ages the Wharfe was navigable as far as Tadcaster. He also suggests that a medieval ship would have been able to reach Wetherby (P161). The construction of weirs have subsequently changed the flow of the river, but canoeists often paddle the Wharfe at Ilkley. Depending upon the water level, could it have been possible to transport supplies to the fort by raft or shallows boat?

Strategically and logistically, there is no reason why a regiment of cataphractarii couldn't have been based at Ilkley. However, is this possible in the context of the Notitia. The latter lists the forts along the Wall in sequence, moving from east to west, which suggests that the record is derived from a route map. If the same principle is followed in relation to the forces deployed behind the Wall and if York is taken as the starting point, then Morbio should be located somewhere to the south of, or at least beyond Dano (modern day Doncaster). Against this criterion, Ilkley certainly lies beyond Dano, but in the wrong direction.

Undoubtedly, the biggest hurdle to linking Ilkley with Morbio is the absence of any substansive evidence that the Praefectus Equitum Catafractariorum was ever located there. There are no supporting finds, and the fort is too small to have housed a full strength regiment of heavy cavalry. Any proposition is therefore conjectural. In this context, perhaps Davies provides an insight into what may have been happening at the fort towards the end of its occupation. He examined a number of surviving military papyri from the fourth century, which belonged to the cohors XX Palmyrenorum based in Syria. These register the deployment of every soldier within the regiment. The range of responsibilities includes, garrisoning neighbouring forts, collecting supplies and wages, providing support to the provincial governor and conveying messages. Upon this basis, is it possible that the Second Cohort of Lingonians never left Ilkley but stayed there throughout the third and fourth centuries? The Notitia places them upon the Wall, but the fort at Drumburgh is only 0.8 hectares in size, much smaller than that at Ilkley. Did part of the regiment remain behind? Alternatively, could the fort have been garrisoned by a detachment from the Ala I Herculea at Elsack, or indeed from another regiment elsewhere?

To conclude, we don't know the Roman name for the fort at Ilkley, but it almost certainly wasn't Morbio. Size, location and the absence of finds tend to preclude it as a potential site for the equites cataphractarii. However, this doesn't mean it wasn't a strategically important place. Next stop....Newton Kyme!


City of Bradford; Landscape Character Supplementary Planning Document - October 2008

R.W. Davies; Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 4th Qtr., 1971, Bd. 20, H. 5/6 (4th Qtr., 1971), pp. 751-763

Thomas Donaghy; Feeding the Ancient Horse;

James Frederick Edwards; The Transport System of Medieval England and Wales - a Geographical Synthesis; University of Salford (1987).

Harrogate District Council; Guidelines on Equestrian Development in Nidderdale AONB 2007

Ordnance Survey, GB Overview Maps

A.L.F. Rivet and Colin Smith; The Placenames of Roman Britain, Cambridge University Press, 1979

Roman Inscriptions of Britain;

A.M Woodward MA; The Roman Fort at Ilkley, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, Volume 28 (1926).