People have lived in the area of Wheathampstead for many years. The earliest evidence of occupation was found during excavations in St. Helen’s Churchyard in 1969, when an area of Mesolithic (8500-4000 BC) occupation was discovered.
There is evidence that Wheathampstead and the surrounding area was settled by Belgic invaders who moved up the rivers Thames and Lea from what is now Belgium at least two centuries before the Claudian invasion of Britain.
Nearby archaeological finds of Belgic and pre-Belgic pottery, in excavations during the 1970s, at the eastern side of Wheathampstead, confirm their influence here.
The site is marked as “Belgic Oppidum” on Ordnance Survey maps.
Turnershall Farm, Wheathampstead, Romano British Burial Ceremony by Peter Froste
In the two centuries before the Claudian invasion of Britain, the south of the country was subjected first to raiding and then to settlement by the Belgae of north-east Gaul – who left no history of these events. We have to piece together the story from comments by Julius Caesar and the clues in the ground. Belgic tribes in Britain can be identified archaeologically by oppida, wheel-thrown pottery and the minting of their own coinage. Linguistically they differed so little from Brythonic-speaking Britons that we cannot detect their presence from place-names. The earliest coins appear on both sides of the Channel.
Moat Devil’s Dyke
The Devil’s Dyke earthworks, which lie at the east of the village of Wheathampstead, are part of the remains of an ancient settlement and site of the original capital and royal Palace of the British Catuvellauni tribe. The capital was later moved to Verlamion (which after the Roman conquest the Romans would rename Verulamium, which in turn would become modern St Albans) in about 20 BC.
Map of Devil’s Dyke
Today two sections of the ditch remain. The western section, adjacent to the village, is the part of the ditch named Devil’s Dyke. It is around 30 m wide and 12 m deep at its largest. A smaller ditch to the east is known as “The Slad”.
This, and other similar earthworks in the district, were built by the Catuvellauni, to define areas of land around their tribal centre. It is believed that the fortifications were erected by King Cunobelinus.
The Devil’s Dyke is reputedly where Julius Caesar defeated King Cassivellaunus in 54 BC. Some archaeologists suggest that the dyke was part of the same defensive rampart as nearby Beech Bottom Dyke, creating a large enclosed settlement, using a single defensive earthwork, running from the River Lea to the River Ver, creating a fortified enclosed settlement of approximately 35 hectares (86 acres),which if correct, would make the area one of the largest and most important British Iron Age settlements.
The Slad is the name given to the defensive earth rampart thought to have formed part of the larger defensive fortification, joining up with Beech Bottom Dyke and the Devil’s Dyke and bordered on the other side by the River Lea and the River Ver. It was constructed towards the end of the Iron Age, and probably in the early 1st century AD. A moat continues the line of the ditch to the south of The Slad. Unlike Beech Bottom Dyke and Devil’s Dyke, the Slad is located on private property, and is not accessible to the public.
Beech Bottom Dyke, is a large ditch running for almost a mile at the northern edge of St Albans, Hertfordshire flanked by banks on both sides. It is up to 30 m (98 ft) wide, and 10 m (33 ft) deep, and it can be followed for three quarters of a mile between the “Ancient Briton Crossroads” on the St Albans to Harpenden road until it is crossed by the Thameslink/Midland mainline railway at Sandridge. Beyond the railway embankment it continues, to finish just short of the St Albans to Sandridge road. This part is not accessible to the public.
In Caesar’s day the site at Wheathampstead was, in his own words, `a natural stronghold of the surrounding forest and swamps, into which large numbers of both cattle and men had already flocked’. Though the Britons call it a town [oppidum], he continues, `it was so only in the British acceptation of the term, by which is meant no more than a central rallying-point from hostile incursion, formed of some inaccessible piece of woodland that has been fortified by a high rampart and ditch’.
There were, in fact, no towns in the modern sense of the word in Britain before the Romans. London was founded by the Romans. When Julius Caesar and his expeditionary force reached the River Thames for the first time in the year 54 B C they found no town or even any permanent settlement there.
In his account of his two expeditions to Britain (the first one, a quick reconnaissance raid in the previous year, had not penetrated as far as the Thames) Caesar only mentions one town, the capital of the British chief, Cassivellaunus, which scholars now think was at Wheathampstead.
Cassivellaunus was a historical British chieftain who led the defence against Julius Caesar’s second expedition to Britain in 54 BC. He led an alliance of tribes against Roman forces, but eventually surrendered after his location was revealed to Caesar by defeated Britons.
Cassivellaunus made an impact on the British consciousness. He appears in British legend as Cassibelanus, one of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s kings of Britain, and in the Mabinogion, the Brut y Brenhinedd and the Welsh Triads as Caswallawn, son of Beli Mawr.
His name in Brythonic, Cassiuellaunos, comes from Proto-Celtic cassi- “passion, love, hate” (alternately, “long hair”, or “bronze”) uelna-mon- “leader, sovereign”.
Cassivellaunus appears in Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico, having been given command of the combined British forces opposing Caesar’s second invasion of Britain. Caesar does not mention Cassivellaunus’s tribe, but his territory, north of the River Thames, corresponds with that inhabited by the tribe named the Catuvellauni at the time of the later invasion under Claudius.
Caesar tells us that Cassivellaunus had previously been at constant war with the British tribes, and had overthrown the king of the Trinovantes, the most powerful tribe in Britain at the time. The king’s son, Mandubracius, fled to Caesar in Gaul. Despite Cassivellaunus’s harrying tactics, designed to prevent Caesar’s army from foraging and plundering for food, Caesar advanced to the Thames. The only fordable point was defended and fortified with sharp stakes, but the Romans managed to cross it. Cassivellaunus dismissed most of his army and resorted to guerilla tactics, relying on his knowledge of the territory and the speed of his chariots.
Five British tribes, the Cenimagni, the Segontiaci, the Ancalites, the Bibroci and the Cassi, surrendered to Caesar and revealed the location of Cassivellaunus’s stronghold, thought to be at Wheathampstead, which Caesar proceeded to put under siege.
Cassivellaunus managed to get a message to the four kings of Kent, Cingetorix, Carvilius, Taximagulus and Segovax, to gather their forces and attack the Roman camp on the coast, but the Romans defended themselves successfully, capturing a chieftain called Lugotorix. On hearing of the defeat and the devastation of his territories, Cassivellaunus surrendered. The terms were mediated by Commius, Caesar’s Gallic ally. Hostages were given and a tribute agreed. Mandubracius was restored to the kingship of the Trinovantes, and Cassivellaunus undertook not to wage war against him. All this achieved, Caesar returned to Gaul where a poor harvest had caused unrest. The Roman legions did not return to Britain for another 97 years.
The Greek author Polyaenus relates an anecdote in his Stratagemata that Caesar overcame Cassivellaunus’s defence of a river crossing by means of an armoured elephant. This outlandish claim probably derives from a confusion with the Roman conquest of 43 AD, when Claudius is supposed to have brought elephants to Britain
The Devil’s Dyke area was excavated by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1932. According to a plaque at one entrance to the dyke, the land was presented by Lord Brocket in 1937 on the occasion of the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
The village is recorded in the Domesday Book under name Watamestede. It appears that a church existed at Wheathampstead before the Norman Conquest, as Wheathampstead was given by Edward the Confessor to Westminster Abbey, but it is very difficult to determine whether any portion of the present St Helen’s Church is of Saxon work. The original structure was demolished in the reign of Henry III, the oldest portion of the present church, in the chancel, is assigned to the year 1280.
Some historians have claimed that in 1312 the barons who leagued against Edward II and his favourite Piers Gaveston, gathered their troops at Wheathampstead, and whilst there refused to receive emissaries from the Pope, although there seems to be no other documentary evidence of this.
Map of Wheathampstead around 1897