Villas were one aspect of traditional Roman life that was exported to Britain. They were comfortable countryside houses, often at the centre of an estate or farm. Well-off individuals or families generally owned them, as they were expensive properties. Some contained mosaics, tessellated floors and hypocausts1 and some even had private bathhouses. Villas often changed and expanded a great deal over time as new owners added to and expanded them.
Lockleys villa is near the town of Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire, about 25 miles from Central London. It is eight miles to the north east of Verulamium (modern St Albans), a major Roman town. The villa is situated about 875 yards (800 metres) east of Welwyn and there is also a suspected villa 650 yards (600 metres) to the east. Most villas were located within 10 miles (16 kilometres) of a town, to allow transport and easy access backwards and forwards for supplies. Welwyn was built on the first section of a Roman road leading from Verulamium to Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester) another major Roman town, so Lockleys was well situated. It is a scheduled Ancient Monument.
Lockleys has been fully excavated and the earlier sections are a good example of the 'corridor' form of villa. These villas had a rectangular building split into several rooms and sometimes a veranda or corridor to allow access without having to go through other rooms. Other examples include the Park Street and Frocester Court villas.
History and Development
The site of Lockleys villa was originally a Belgic2 farm and contains two Belgic Iron Age round huts. The first house during the Roman period was built on the site between 50 AD and 120 AD, but was probably built in the later reign of the Emperor Nero, in about 65 AD. This was later removed leaving only a row of post-holes3 from the timber it was constructed of.
Another house was built in stone in about 300 AD. It was originally built in strip house form (a long building with interconnecting rooms) but before long a corridor was added, as well as new rooms in the wings. The villa was now in the 'winged corridor'4 form. The corridor allowed privacy, a hierarchy of rooms (such as those for the family being at the opposite end to servants rooms) and to allow the rooms to be utilised for different purposes. However, the presence of a corridor or veranda could cause light problems, as windows would only be able to be included on the open side. The gradient of the site allowed the rare luxury of an upper storey to be constructed over the front of the villa, which is very uncommon and indicates a degree of wealth and status for the inhabitants, as it would be difficult and expensive to build. The lower walls were built of flint and mortar while the upper portion was probably timber.
Lockleys suffered a fire in about 340 AD, which led to a further stage of building on the right hand side of the house, constructing a sequence of new rooms. Near one of these was a pit, which was probably used for dumping rubbish. Further evidence of buildings has been found during road-widening work on the nearby A1, which may be further buildings of the Lockleys estate or possibly an entirely new site.
Economic and Social Function
Villa life flourished between 150AD and 200AD and again from the late 3rd to the early 4th Centuries, largely because many British towns were then large enough to provide markets to sell the estate produce of the villa owners. Villas were often the centre of farms or estates as well as being homes, but much of their produce was taken in tax. This is another reason why most villas were within ten miles of a town – to allow the sale of produce.
Lockleys was probably owned by British farmers and modelled on the Roman townhouses. In fact, many villa owners also had a townhouse with staff at each, to look after whichever home they were currently at. Villa owners were generally wealthy and could afford a house in the town and the country. The town house would have been used when taking care of business or serving in public office, such as the Ordo (town council). The villa would be used for relaxation and holidays.
Little is known about the economic and social impact of most villas but the villa owner at Lockleys probably had several servants doing jobs around the house; such as cooking and cleaning and quite possibly had estate workers in addition, as well as other tradesmen and craftsmen whose expertise would be required from time to time. They may also have made use of slaves in some jobs and educated individuals to help with the running of the estate. Some villa owners let areas on their estates, sometimes with cottages, to tenants, which may have occurred here. If the owner also had a townhouse, the villa would probably have been run by a bailiff and slaves in his absence. It is likely that many people relied on Lockleys for their livelihood.