27 June 2022
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.
In the Calendar of the Church, we are in Ordinary Time. The Caleendar of the Church today commemorates Saint Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria and Teacher of the Faith. Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections drawing on the Psalms.
In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:
1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;
2, reading the psalm or psalms;
3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.
Psalm 124 is the fifth in a series of 15 short psalms (Psalm 120-134) known as the ‘Songs of Ascents.’ These psalms begin with the Hebrew words שיר המעלות (Shir Hama’a lot). In the slightly different numbering system in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is counted as Psalm 123. It is sometimes known by its Latin opening words, Ad te levavi oculos meos.
Many scholars say these psalms were sung by worshippers as they ascended the road to Jerusalem to attend the three pilgrim festivals. Others say they were sung by the Levite singers as they ascended the 15 steps to minister at the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Mishnah notes the correspondence between the 15 songs and the 15 steps between the men’s court and the women’s courtyards in the Temple. A Talmudic legend says King David composed or sang the 15 songs to calm the rising waters at the foundation of the Temple.
One view says the Levites first sang the Songs of Ascent at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple during the night of 15 Tishri 959 BCE. Another study suggests they were composed for a celebration after Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in 445 BCE. Others suggest they may originally have been songs sung by the exiles returning from Babylon, ascending to Jerusalem or individual poems later collected together and given the title linking them to pilgrimage after the Babylonian captivity.
These psalms are cheerful and hopeful, and they place an emphasis on Zion. They were suited for being sung because of their poetic style and the sentiments they express. They are brief, almost like epigrams, and they are marked by the use of a keyword or repeated phrase that serves as a rung on which the poem ascends to its final theme.
Psalm 124 is a short psalm of eight verses, and is sometimes known by its opening words in Latin, Nisi quia Dominus. In the slightly different numbering in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is Psalm 123.
This is a psalm of thanksgiving, using – as so often in the Psalms – a rapid succession of different images, recalling the Exodus and the escape from slavery in Egypt.
The people have been in danger of being swallowed up or swept away, as in a flood, a prey to the enemy’s teeth, captured in a hunter’s trap.
The images do not coalesce into one single metaphor. Rather, they combine to express a mood – in this case, the sense of sudden release from danger.
I often wonder how, during the horrors of the Holocaust, suffering Jews could possibly have sung the words of Psalm 124:
If it had not been the Lord who was on our side
– let Israel now say –
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
when our enemies attacked us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us … (Psalm 124: 1-3).
Yet they maintained the hope and the expectation that God can and would act through political decision-making to protect the rights of the vulnerable, the abused and the violated. For, as the Psalmist says, and as we – and all children – should be able to sing:
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth (Psalm 124: 8).
Psalm 124 (NRSVA):
A Song of Ascents. Of David.
1 If it had not been the Lord who was on our side
—let Israel now say—
2 if it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
when our enemies attacked us,
3 then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
4 then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
5 then over us would have gone
the raging waters.
6 Blessed be the Lord,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth.
7 We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped.
8 Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘Ethics and Leadership.’ It was introduced yesterday by Andy Flannagan, Executive Director of Christians in Politics.
Monday 27 June 2022:
The USPG Prayer invites us to pray today in these words:
Let us give thanks for the work of Christians in Politics. May we encourage our fellow Christians to get involved in the decision making process.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org