27 June 2022
A summer evening visit to
the Roman villa in Bancroft
and the excavated site
Milton Keynes may be a new city, having achieved that status last month (May 2022). But it is steeped in ancient history, and on a recent balmy summer’s evening, two of us cycled from Stony Stratford to visit the Roman Villa at Bancroft in North Loughton Valley Park.
The Roman villa at Bancroft was discovered while Milton Keynes was being developed by Milton Keynes Development Corporation in 1971 and the new estate of Bancroft was being built.
Clues about the significance of the area had already come after fragments of Roman pottery were noticed in the banks of nearby Loughton Brook in 1967. The villa was partially excavated in the 1970s, and then more fully in 1983-1987.
The area was carefully excavated over the next 15 years to reveal the villa’s underfloor heating system with a limestone open hearth, a bath suite, colonnaded verandas and porch and an ornamental walled garden with a fishpond and a summerhouse.
Bancroft was one of eight large farming estates created in the area 2,000 years ago, each centred around a Roman Villa – in Milton Keynes Village, Stantonbury, Wymbush, Walton, Dovecote Farm at Shenley Brook End, Sherwood Drive in Bletchley and Holne Chase.
The Romans arrived in England in the year 43 CE. Most of the country remained populated by the native Britons who adopted Roman culture and religion and mixed it with their own Iron Age traditions.
One of their early Roman settlements was along the old Roman road, now Watling Street, in Fenny Stratford. This was called Magnavinium and is thought to have included a small fort.
Queen Boudicca, leader of the Inceni tribe, challenged the Romans in the year 60 CE by marching her army through the country, burning towns and slaughtering thousands of people. She met the Romans south of Towcester and after being wounded, fled the scene and turned south down Watling Street towards Magnovinium at Fenny Stratford. But Boudicca died of her injuries near Newton Longville.
The villa at Bancroft is the most extensively excavated Roman settlement in Milton Keynes. The archaeological excavations revealed an underfloor heating system with a limestone open hearth, a bath suite, colonnaded verandas and porch, an ornamental walled garden with a fishpond and a summerhouse.
The villa at Bancroft was originally a winged-corridor house, and the villa eventually became a grand building with mosaics and a formal garden. The principal rooms have been marked out and the fishpond has been reconstructed.
Before the Roman era, the hill top at Blue Bridge had been the main focus of settlement in the Bancroft area. However, things changed and the river valley below became more inviting. The earlier hill top settlement was abandoned and the land was used by the new farmstead for agriculture and as a cremation cemetery.
A large farm was built further downhill towards Bradwell Brook in the late first century. A temple or mausoleum was built on the hilltop in the second century, after the year 150 CE, and the cremation cemetery went out of use. The farmstead flourished for nearly a century, but most of the buildings were destroyed by fire ca 170 CE.
A large Roman-style house or villa was built in the late third century. As there is no evidence of a farm, the people who lived in this villa must have earned a living some other way than by farming.
Major renovations were carried out on the villa and the surrounding grounds in the fouth century, turning it into a grand country estate. On the top of the hill at Blue Bridge, the Temple Mausoleum was demolished and a circular shrine was built nearby.
Geometric mosaics were added to many rooms and the main bath suite was rebuilt and enlarged. A formal garden was laid out In front of the villa, along with an ornamental fishpond. The mausoleum on top of the hill was demolished and a circular shrine was built nearby.
During the excavations, several Roman artefacts were uncovered, including Samian tableware, a board made from decorated limestone for a board game, silver-bronze brooches for fastening a toga, decorated hair combs and around 1,000 coins.
A mosaic floor excavated from the villa was pieced together, mounted on a wall and displayed in Queen’s Court Shopping Centre in Central Milton Keynes in September 1977. With the later redevelopment of Queen’s Court, the mosaic was remounted in the ‘guest services lounge’ of the centre.
The Roman villa at Bancroft has since been reburied to ensure its preservation, and the mosaics have been moved from the site. But the villa and its principal rooms have been marked out on the ground with modern stonework and the fishpond has been rebuilt. It remains one of the most extensively excavated Roman villas in Britain.