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Roman and Anglo-Saxon
Newcastle's castle was built on the ruins of a Roman Fort called Pons Aelius. ‘Pons’ is the Latin word for ‘bridge’ while ‘Aelius’ comes from the family name of the Emperor Hadrian, so the name means something like ‘Hadrian’s Bridge’. It was named after the Roman bridge across the Tyne which it guarded, which stood where the Swing Bridge is today.
It was built in around 122AD, about the same time as Hadrian’s Wall, which it formed part of. It was built of timber, and was rebuilt in stone in around 211AD. The soldiers who garrisoned it originally were members of a tribe called the Cugerni from Germany. This regiment was later replaced by a regiment of the Cornovi – a British tribe from near Manchester. This was the only regiment of British soldiers stationed along Hadrian’s Wall.
The fort was abandoned in around 400AD when Roman rule in Britain ended. The Anglo-Saxons who came after them built on the ruins. Today, the only things which can be seen of the Roman fort are the lines of cobbles on the ground around the Keep which mark where the foundations of the buildings used to be.
We don’t know very much about Newcastle after the Romans left. The Anglo-Saxon historian Bede writes about a settlement 12 miles from the sea called ‘Ad Murum’ meaning ‘On the Wall’ which some people have suggested was on the site of modern Newcastle. Later writers say that Newcastle was known as ‘Monkchester’ in Anglo-Saxon times, although there is no evidence of a monastery here.
What we do know is that there was an Anglo-Saxon cemetery on the site of the old Roman fort, underneath the Castle Keep and the railway viaduct. Over 600 graves were excavated between the 1970s and 1990s. There are also the remains of the tower of a small church under one of the viaduct arches, but no evidence of the surrounding settlement.
The church and cemetery were still in use when the Normans invaded in 1066.