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Vectis Insvla

Romano-British Occupation

Isle of Wight

NGRef: SZ4988

OSMap: LR196

Type: Saxon Shore Fort, Fort, Villa, Roman Building


  • None identified

Vectis - The Division

In the 1st century BC, the Graeco-Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus (V. 22) refers to an unlocated Ίκτιν (Ictin), which is possibly a reference to the Isle of Wight. A century later, Pliny the Elder uses Vectis and in the mid 2nd century Ptolemy confirms the position of Vectis as "...below Magnus Portus." The form Vectis seems reasonably robust but Rivet and Smith were uncertain of its etymology. A gloss on an AD 1164 MS of Nennius that equates Old English wiht with Latin divorcium has encouraged many writers to think that the Isle of Wight sits like a lever (Latin vectis) between the two arms of the Solent. The word could be Brittonic, from a Celtic root akin to Irish fecht "journey" and Welsh gwaith "work". A 2010 detailed study of the etymology draws attention to the Proto-Germanic word *wextiz, which would have been written Vectis in Latin, and survives in various modern-language forms, including Modern English whit "something small" (English wight is considered a revival of the Middle English word), German wicht "dwarf, imp", Dutch wicht "little girl" and Norwegian vette "being, creature (especially supernatural)". This might suggest that the fundamental meaning is something like "daughter island" or "little companion"; however Germanic languages were not widely spoken in Britain at this time, and the name Vectis is attested before the large-scale migration of Germanic-speaking peoples to Britain (not before the late Roman period).

Julius Caesar recognised the culture of this general region as "Belgic", but made no reference to Vectis. Later, Suetonius describes the first century Roman invasion of Vectis by the Second Legion Augusta, commanded by the Claudian legate and future emperor Vespasian, who "proceeded to Britain where he fought thirty battles, subjugated two warlike tribes, and captured more than twenty towns, besides the entire Isle of Vectis".

The Isle of Wight became an agricultural centre in Roman times, and at least seven Roman villas are known on the island. The Roman villas at Newport and Brading have been excavated and are open to the public. When fully developed around 300 AD, Brading was probably the largest villa on the Island, being a courtyard villa with impressive mosaics.

Caesar reported that the Belgae took the Isle of Wight about 85 BC and named it Ictus (or Vectis). The Roman historian Suetonius mentions that the entire island was captured by the commander Vespasian, who later became emperor. The remains of at least five Roman villas have been found on the island, including one near Gurnard which is submerged. First century exports were principally hides, slaves, hunting dogs, grain, cattle, silver, gold, and iron. Ferriby Boats and later Blackfriars Ships likely were important to the local economy.

At the end of the Roman Empire, the island of Vectis became a Jutish kingdom ruled by King Stuf and his successors until AD 661 when it was invaded by Wulfhere of Mercia and forcibly converted to Christianity. When he left for Mercia the islanders reverted to paganism.

In AD 685 it was invaded by Caedwalla of Wessex and can be considered to have become part of Wessex. The resistance to the invasion was led by the local King Arwald and after he was defeated and slain, at Caedwalla's insistence, Wight became the last part of the English lands to convert to Christianity in AD 686. After Alfred the Great (who reigned 871 - 899) made the West Saxon kings the kings of all England, it then became administratively part of England. The island became part of the shire of Hampshire and was divided into hundreds as was the norm. From this time the island suffered especially from Viking predations. Alfred the Great's navy defeated the Danes in 871 after they had "ravaged Devon and the Isle of Wight."

Below Magnus Portus¹ is the island Vectis, the middle of which is in 19*20 52�."

  1. Magnus Portus was the Roman name for Bosham Harbour in Hampshire.
  2. The island of Vectis is easily identified as the Isle of Wight.
  • Above quote from Ptolemy's Geography (final entry, Part.2 Chapter.2)

The island is mentioned in the Ravenna Cosmology of the seventh century, again as Vectis (R&C#303), between the entries for the Dorcades (the Orkney Islands) and Malaca (Isle of Mull, Inner Hebrides).

"Wight, Isle of (the county). Vectis c.150, Wit 1086 (DB). A name (Welsh/Gaelic) possibly meaning 'place of the division', referring to its situation betreen the two arms of the Solent." (Mills)

There is an oft-quoted passage by the great polymath Pliny the Elder (Natural History Book XVI, verse 104) dating to the late 70's AD which names the island Mictis as the centre of the British tin trade, stating that it lay off the south coast of Britain some six days sail from Gaul. This name has often been mistakenly associated with the Isle of Wight, but is now known to refer to Saint Michael's Mount off the Cornish coast opposite Marazion, known in ancient times as Ictis.

The historian Suetonius Tranquillus wrote in the latter half of the second century, and a reference to the Isle of Wight appears in his biography of the emperor Vespasian, which is dated to the early Claudian campaigns in Britain, during 43AD or 44, and states:

"He reduced to subjection two powerful nations,¹ more than twenty towns,² and the island of Vectis, near Britain, ... "

  1. The Durotriges of Somerset and Dorset, and possibly the eastern Dumnonii of Devon.
  2. Only a few of these 'towns' have been identified with any certainty, such as Hod Hill and South Cadbury.

In the year 296, Constantius Caesar made preparations to take back the British provinces from the usurper Allectus. His fleet set out from Gaul and sailed along the south coast, expecting to meet the rebel British fleet somewhere along the way, however:

"... As we learn by their own accounts, at the very moment such mist swirled over the surface of the sea that the hostile fleet, on station at the Isle of Vecta as look-out and in ambush, was bypassed with the enemy in total ignorance, and thus unable to delay our attack, still less resist it. ..." (Panegyric on Constantius Caesar 15)

Constantius landed all his troops somewhere on the south coast opposite Vectis, and immediately burned his ships, thus proving to his men that they would either succeed in taking back Britain for Rome, or else die in the attempt, for there would be no turning back.

The island's name also occurs in Ptolemy's Geography of the mid-second century, where it appears at the very end of book two chapter two:

"... Below Magnus Portus¹ is the island Vectis the middle of which is in 19*20 52�."

Magnus Portus = Noviomagus, Chichester, Hampshire.

And again in the Ravenna Cosmology of the seventh century:

"Once again, there are within the selfsame ocean (islands) which are named: Vectis, Malaca,¹ Insenos,² Taniatide.³"

Island of Mull, Inner Hebrides. Possibly Hibernia, Ireland. Tanatus; Isle of Thanet, Kent.

Roman Villas on the Isle of Wight

There are five known Roman villas on the Isle of Wight; at Rock (SZ4284), Carisbrooke (SZ4888), Newport (SZ5088), Combley (SZ5387) and Brading (SZ5986). There are also substantial Roman buildings on the north coast at Gurnard (SZ4795).

  • "Carisbrooke I. of Wight. Caresbroc 12th cent. Possibly 'the brook called Cary'. Lost river-name (Welsh/Gaelic) + OE broc." ...
  • "Rock Probably 'the rock', from ME rokke or OFrench roche; or possibly '(place of) the rooks', from OE hroc." ...
  • "Newport 'new market town', OE newe + port: ... Newport I. of Wight. Neweport 1202. ..." ...
  • "Combley Probably 'the valley of the woodland clearing'; from OE cumb + leah." ...
  • "Brading I. of Wight. Brerdinges 683, Berardinz 1086 (DB). '(Settlement of) the dwellers on the hill-side'. OE brerd + -ingas." ...
  • "Gurnard Probably '(place belonging to) a man called Gurnard'; or possibly 'the grassy (place where) Valerian (grows)', from OE gærs + Medieval Latin nardi."

Above entries from the Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names.

Possible Saxon Shore Fort

"At Carisbrooke, in the Isle of Wight, the remains of a Saxon Shore fort have recently been discovered, consisting of walls 10 feet thick, with bastions, embedded in the Norman earth-works (J.R.S., xvi, 235 ; Antiquity, i, 476)." (Collingwood, p.53)

Excavations at Carisbrooke, Isle-of-Wight in 1969

SZ485882 - "... re-examination of the 3rd-century aisled house, discovered in 1859 at the vicarage, showed that it had originated as an aisled barn measuring 19.8 x 14.0 m (64 x 46 ft), having a room with opus signinum floor 6.7m (22ft) square projecting at the north end. Later alterations (? 4th century) added further rooms at the north end, internal partitions in the aisles, a number of tessellated pavements, and the bath-suite in the south-west corner." (Britannia, 1970)


  • Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names by A.D. Mills (Oxford 1998)
  • Roman Britain - A Sourcebook by S. Ireland (Routlege, New York, 1986)
  • Britannia i (1970) p.300.
  • The Archaeology of Roman Britain by R.G. Collingwood (Methuen, London, 1930)
  • Adams, William Henry Davenport (1877). Nelsons' hand-book to the Isle of Wight. Oxford University.
  • Saxon Graves at Shalfleet, Isle of Wight History Centre, August 2005 Archived 1 November 2006 at the Wayback Machine.
  • "England, A Narrative History, Peter N. Williams". Retrieved 25 September 2010.
  • The English Accept Christianity, The Story of England, Samuel B. Harding
  • St. Michael's mount at Land's end is another possibility. Full but inconclusive discussion is at - [1] (accessed 11 August 2009)
  • "The Great Port", possibly at or near the site of modern Bosham Harbour, between Portsmouth and Chichester: [2]
  • Rivet, A. and Smith, C., The Place-Names of Roman Britain, Book Clubs Associates (1979), 487-9.
  • Durham, A, The origin of the names Vectis and Wight, Proc. Isle Wight nat. Hist. archaeol. Soc. 25, 93-97.
  • Channel 4 - Time Team 2002
  • Villas are known at Brading, Carisbrooke, Clatterford (southwest of Carisbrooke), Combley (on Robin Hill), Gurnard, Newport, and Rock (north of Brighstone).
  • David Wharton Lloyd, Nikolaus Pevsner, (2006), The Buildings of England: Isle of Wight, pages 15-16. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-10733-1