13th April 2020
Author: Dr Andrew Birley

Brigomaglos – A ‘high chief, lord’ or ‘mighty prince’ from Vindolanda 

A question that I get asked more and more when I am on site is the one below:

Was the end of Roman Britain, the beginning of the 5th century, the end of Vindolanda? What happened next?

The answer to that is no, the end of Roman Britain was not the end of Vindolanda but was rather closer to the mid-point in the history of the occupation of the site, the half-life of Vindolanda. But a simple answer, a yes or no, does not do justice to the complicated and often broken up nature of the evidence for ‘what happened next’ and to whom.

For quite some time now, we have been encountering more and more archaeological evidence for the continuation of life after Rome at Vindolanda and we will talk about that in a future blog.

However, our journey into discovering more about sub-Roman Vindolanda started with the discovery of the probable war-band leader of the site from the 5th or 6th centuries, a man called ‘Brigomaglos’ which was discovered over 130 years ago.

The Brigomaglos tombstone was recovered from the site by the notable antiquarians Robert Blair and Collingwood Bruce, when they visited Vindolanda in 1889. The stone was lying amongst a pile of loose stones heaped outside the kitchen door of Chesterholm cottage (the current Vindolanda museum). They contacted the landowner at the time, John Clayton, and persuaded him to move the stone to his collection at Chesters where it is now on display in the museum.

Clayton later discovered that the stone had originally been taken from a pile ‘a little to the northeast of the fort’ which had been collected some time before for the construction of a new road (which was never built). As Robin Birley later speculated, the stone may have been used as part of an ancient farmhouse, named ‘Little Chesters’ or ‘Smith’s Chesters’, which was once situated just to the west of the north gate of the last stone fort at Vindolanda, between the Stanegate road and the fort itself, and had been demolished before the 1871 census. There are no significant clues to the original location of the stone, and it could have been procured as building material from any part of the site, per Bruce reported the discovery of the stone to the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries at their meeting on November the 11th, 1889. He drew attention to the Christian formula [HIC] IACIT, and to the obvious British name of the deceased, and he suggested that this must have been a monument to a sub-Roman inhabitant. Haverfield then raised the intriguing proposal that Vindolanda’s Brigomaglos might have been the same person as Brigomaglus, also known as Briocus, a priest sent from Gaul to join St Germanus in the late 4th or early 5th century – a friend of St Patrick. This view was accepted by scholars without a great deal of debate and when Wright completed the Vindolanda section of RIB vol I, he noted the Brigomaglos stone (without awarding it a RIB number) and restored the damaged text to follow the Haverfield suggestion:



‘Brigomaglos, who is also known as Briocus, lies here’.


This suggestion was dismissed by Jackson in his comprehensive re-evaluation of the stone when he suggested a plausible alternative reading (Jackson 1982:60). Perhaps as early as the beginning of the 16th century. Jackson points out that the name of Brigomaglos is a familiar type of Celtic name, consisting of two main elements ‘brigo’ meaning ‘high’ and ‘maglos’ meaning ‘chief, lord’ (Jackson 1982: 62). This is a view that is supported by Swift in her book ‘Ogam and the Earliest Christians’ (Swift 1996) who suggested that the name Brigomaglos appeared to have Welsh and Irish connections, and that it could alternatively be translated to mean ‘mighty prince’. All the scholars who have studied the stone broadly agree on the dating, which must be somewhere between AD 500 and 600, thus placing Brigomaglos firmly into the transition period of a sub-Roman environment.


Whether or not Brigomaglos was a ‘high chief, lord’ or ‘mighty prince’ it seems certain that he was a man of high status who was given a formal Christian burial with an accompanying tombstone which reflected his position in sub-Roman Vindolanda. It is plausible that Brigomaglos was a war band chief and may even have been the de-facto head of the Vindolanda community for a period in the 5th or 6th century. The transformation from Roman fort to a seat of power for a war band leader (or bandit, depending on the world view of other inhabitants of the time) is a model which has been put forward for the nearby fort of Birdoswald by its excavators, thanks to the discovery of a hall built over the remains of the Roman period granaries at the site (Wilmott 1997: 224). Such a model could be easily applied to many more of the military installations along the former frontier (Collins 2012:154-170), and at Vindolanda there is a strong case for this having taken place.


Further reading:

Birley Andrew R. (2014) Brigomaglos and Riacus: A Brave New World? The Balance of Power at Post-Roman Vindolanda. In AD410: The History and Archaeology of Late-Roman and Post- Roman Britain.  Edited by Haarer. Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. London. 195-205

Collins, R. (2012) Hadrian's Wall and the end of empire: The Roman frontier in the 4th and 5th centuries (Routledge studies in archaeology; 4). Routledge: London

Petts, D. (2016) ‘Christianity in Roman Britain’ in The Oxford Hanbook of Roman Britain, Oxford: oxford University Press, 660-81

Rivet A. L. F. & Smith C. (1979) The Place-Names of Roman Britain. Batsford: London

Rivet A.L.F. (1980) ‘Celtic Names and Roman Places’, in Britannia 11, 1-20

Jackson K.H. (1982) ‘Brigomaglos and St. Briog’, in Archaeologia Aeliana.  5th ser., 10, 54-62

Swift C. (1996) Ogam stones and the Earliest Christians. Maynooth Monographs. Dept. of Old and Middle Irish, St. Patrick's College: County Derry.

Wilmott T. (1997) Birdoswald: Excavations of a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall and its successor settlements: 1987-92. Archaeological Report 14. English Heritage: Swindon