Visit Historic Lincoln: From The Romans To Today

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Lincoln is known as a cathedral city on a tall hill packed with medieval buildings. It is certainly the medieval history that is most on display today but look closer and you’ll find plenty of evidence of the Roman town. Between them, the Romans and the citizens of the Middle Ages shaped the city that we see today. But why does Lincoln have so much history and where are the best places to explore historic Lincoln?

The Long History Of Lincoln

Lincoln’s geographic position, at the point where the River Witham breaks through a long escarpment known as the Lincoln Edge, has always made it strategically important. The first known settlement was during the Iron Age, when wooden dwellings were built at the bottom of the hill, but it first became an important town in the Roman era, with a fortress at the top of the hill and an inland port around the river.

Cobbled street at the top of a hill. There are old shops on either side.
Steep Hill follows the route of the Roman Ermine Street

The Romans left in the 4th century and for a while Lincoln became a Viking trading centre, prominent enough to have its own mint for the creation of coinage. However it was not until after the Norman Conquest that the town as we now know it emerged. The Castle was built in 1068 and the first Cathedral in 1092, and the surrounding area (known as The Bail) was developed. The city now became very prosperous, its economy mostly centred around the wool trade.

The city started to decline during the Civil War, when it was occupied at different times by both the warring sides. However its fortunes revived to some extent during the Georgian period and the Industrial Revolution. And, more recently, commerce, tourism and the establishment of a University have revitalised this ancient city.

Exploring Roman Lincoln

There were in fact two distinct Roman settlements in Lincoln. The legionary fortress of Lindum, together with the forum and other public buildings, was in a walled area at the top of the hill. At the bottom of the hill a canal was dug close to the river and a supply town grew up. The legion later abandoned the fortress, and the lower town became a home for army veterans known as Lindum Colonia.

Many of the remaining sights can be explored by following a Roman Trail through the town.

The Fortress Of Lindum

Unfortunately nothing remains of the fortress itself, which stood on the site now occupied by Lincoln Castle. However fragments of the walled settlement around the castle remain. Walk along Bailgate and you will see markers in the road showing the location of the pillars of the Roman Colonnade, which once formed the entrance to the forum. The site of the forum itself includes a Roman well, and the location of an early basilica is marked out on the floor.

To get your first sight of Roman remains walk along the nearby West Bight to find the Mint Wall. This was part of a basilica at the edge of the forum, and is unusual in Britain for being a substantial Roman wall not built for defensive purposes.

There is more evidence of Roman Lincoln in the town walls and the gates that marked the entrance to the city. At the end of Bailgate is the Newport Gate. This is the only Roman gate in the country that traffic can still drive through, and there is a smaller pedestrian entrance beside the road arch. A small section of wall is visible in a garden behind the gate.

Stone archway across the road with a smaller arch beside it for pedestrians.
The Roman Newport Arch

Carry on along East Bight and you’ll find another section of wall and the site of the Roman aqueduct. Further along, in the grounds of the Lincoln Hotel, are the remains of the East Gate.

Lincoln’s Roman Roads

Lincoln was at the northern end of the Fosse Way, the Roman road that ran to Exeter via Leicester and Bath. Large sections of this road still exist, including the A46 out of Lincoln, and the B4465/A429 to the south. A small part of the Fosse Way can now be seen beneath St Mary’s Guild Hall (see Lincoln in the Middle Ages below).

The other major road was Ermine Street, which ran from London to York. In Lincoln it connected the fortress with the lower town via the road that we now know as Steep Hill (the remains of the city’s South Gate can be seen in a shop at No 44 Steep Hill). Then, as now, it was just about impossible for wheeled vehicles to get up and down this road, and an alternative route was provided via Danesgate.

Historic Places Of Lindum Colonia

There is less to be seen in the colonia at the bottom of the hill, as this now forms the nucleus of the modern city centre. However this area was also walled and you can see the remains of the Lower West Gate and a bit of the wall behind the Council offices on Orchard Street. One other site exists, but will need a bit of planning in advance: the Posterngate is now underground and can only be visited on a tour.

Remnants of Roman masonry in front of a modern building.
The remains of the Lower West Gate

The Fossdyke

Perhaps the most remarkable remnant of Roman occupation in Lincoln is the Foss Dyke. Starting at Brayford Pool beside the River Witham, this is a canal that connects the city to the River Trent, 18km away. Built around 120 CE, this established Lindum Colonia as an inland port, and enabled commerce to and from the city.

The canal remained in use after the Romans left and in the Middle Ages it was used to transport stone for the building of Lincoln Cathedral. Today it is the oldest artificial waterway still in use in Britain. Walkers and cyclists can follow the Fossdyke Canal Trail along the canal.

Lincoln In The Middle Ages

Despite the importance of Lincoln in Roman times, and to a lesser extent during the Viking era, the most visible part of the city’s history is medieval.

Quite apart from the Castle and the Cathedral, the upper town in particular is full of cobbled streets and historic houses. You will also find one street of very old houses and shops in the Corn Market area of the lower city. As you walk around note the names of the streets, many of which date from the Middle Ages.

Castle Hill, the once walled area at the top of the hill, was self governing until the 19th century.

Lincoln Castle And The Magna Carta

Like the Romans, William the Conqueror recognised the city’s strategic position and built a castle on top of the hill to control the north of England. Visitors are free to walk through the grounds and can pay for access to the Medieval Walls Walk to explore the walls, towers and history of the castle with the added extra of spectacular views across the city and surrounding countryside.

Stone castle with a flag on top. A long wall leads downhill from the castle.
The medieval Lincoln Castle

There are two other ticketed areas at Lincoln Castle. Firstly there is the Victorian Prison, a reminder that the castle remained in use for many centuries. Then there is the Magna Carta exhibition with one of only four original copies of the Magna Carta, the historic document signed by King John in 1215.

Close to the entrance is a curiosity: a fragment of the first of the Eleanor Crosses erected by King Edward I as his wife’s body was taken from Lincoln to London for burial.

Lincoln Cathedral

Lincoln has the third largest cathedral in Britain, and was at one time the tallest building in the world. The addition of the spire in 1311 made it taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza, but unfortunately this record was lost when the spire collapsed in a storm in 1549. However it is still a magnificent Gothic structure with vaulted roof, limestone and marble columns, and numerous intricate carvings.

Look out in particular for the famous “Lincoln Imp”, said to have been sent to the cathedral by the Devil in order to create mischief, and turned into stone for his misdeeds.

Medieval Bishops’ Palace

Close to the Cathedral are the remains of the 12th century Bishops’ Palace, now managed by English Heritage (free entrance to English Heritage members). Visitors can tour the tower and the medieval undercroft, and the Terrace Garden with views across the city. Also taking advantage of the hillside location is the recently replanted vineyard, using grapes from a twin town in Germany.

Remains of a medieval palace around a grassy area.
Remains of the Medieval Bishops’ Palace

Jewish Heritage Trail

An important part of the city’s heritage is its Jewish history. There were several prominent Jews in Lincoln in the Middle Ages, until their expulsion from England in 1290. The community was revitalised when Oliver Cromwell re-admitted Jews to England in 1655.

You can follow a Jewish Heritage Trail around the city. This includes three of only five surviving medieval Jewish houses in England: the Norman House, Jew’s House and Jew’s Court, all on Steep Hill. These are among the oldest domestic houses in the country.

Very old medieval house with arched doorway and black windows. It is now a shop.
The Norman House is a historic house on Steep Hill

Guildhall And Stonebow

The Stonebow arch stands on the site of one of the former Roman gateways into the lower city. The Guildhall above the arch has been the meeting place of the city council since the Middle Ages, and is still in use today.

Free tours of the Stonebow take place several times a week – see the website for details.

High Bridge

The High Bridge carries the High Street across the River Witham. Built around 1160, and locally known as the Glory Hole, this is the oldest bridge in England with buildings along the side. The 16th century timber framed shops include Stokes High Bridge Café, an excellent place for coffee or a light lunch.

Half timbered building on a bridge across a narrow waterway.
The historic High Bridge Café

St Mary’s Guildhall

St Mary’s Guildhall is a domestic complex built in the 12th century, possibly for use as a town house by King Henry II. It was later used by the Guild of St Mary of Lincoln. It is possible to visit the Guildhall and to see the small section of the Roman Fosse Way in the foundations but you will need to make an appointment by contacting the Lincoln Civic Trust.

Later History Of Lincoln

Lincoln may be mostly medieval, but look carefully and you will find elaborate Georgian and Victorian buildings, including the turreted Drill Hall on Broadgate. And the city has been revitalised in the 21st century with modern buildings such as those in the Brayford Pool Campus of Lincoln University.

Exploring Historic Lincoln: Museums And Tours

Any exploration of historic Lincoln must include a visit to Lincoln Museum, with its displays of history from the prehistoric, Roman, Viking and medieval periods. Roman artefacts in the museum include pots, altars and mosaics.

The site itself is on top of an old Roman house and a bit of the original floor is visible through a glass panel. Across the road from the museum is the Usher Gallery, the city’s main art museum.

Elsewhere in the city you will find the Museum of Lincolnshire Life, housed in a Victorian barracks. This features exhibitions of domestic and commercial life.

Free walking tours of Lincoln take place at weekends and explore the city’s history and heritage. Or you could try a self-guided tour with a treasure hunt theme.

If you plan to stay overnight in Lincoln have a look at the recommendations on But think carefully about whether you want to base yourself at the top or the bottom of the hill – there is a steep climb from one to the other!


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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…


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