The history of Newcastle upon Tyne dates back almost 2,000 years, during which it has been controlled by the Romans, the Saxons and the Danes amongst others. Originally known by its Roman name Pons Aelius, the name “Newcastle” has been used since the Norman conquest of England. Due to its prime location on the River Tyne, the town developed greatly during the Middle Ages and it was to play a major role in the Industrial Revolution, being granted city status in 1882. Today, the city is a major retail, commercial and cultural centre.
The history of Newcastle dates from about AD120, when the Romans built the first bridge to cross the River Tyne at that point. The bridge was called Pons Aelius or ‘Bridge of Aelius’, Aelius being the family name of Roman Emperor Hadrian, who was responsible for the Roman wall built across northern England along Tyne-Solway gap. Hadrian’s Wall runs through present-day Newcastle with stretches of wall and turrets visible along the West Road, and at a temple in Benwell. Traces of a milecastle were found on Westgate Road, midway between Clayton Street and Grainger Street and it is likely that the course of the wall corresponded to present day Westgate Road. The course of the wall can be traced eastwards to the Segedunum Roman fort at Wallsend, with the fort Arbeia down river, on the south bank in what is now South Shields. The Tyne was then a wider, shallower river at this point and it is thought that the bridge was probably about 700 feet (210 m) long, made of wood and supported on stone piers. It is probable that it was sited near the current Swing Bridge, due to the fact that Roman artefacts were found there during the building of the latter bridge. Hadrian, himself landed at the site in AD122. A shrine was set up on the completed bridge in AD123 by the VIth Legion, with two altars to Neptune and Oceanus respectively. The two altars were subsequently found in the river and are on display in a local museum.
The Romans built a stone-walled fort in AD150 to protect the river crossing which was at the foot of the Tyne Gorge, and this took the name of the bridge so that the whole settlement was known as ‘Pons Aelius’. The fort was situated on a rocky outcrop overlooking the new bridge, on the site of the present Castle Keep. Pons Aelius is last mentioned in AD400, in a Roman document listing all of the Roman military outposts. It is likely that nestling in the shadow of the fort would be a small vicus, or village. Unfortunately, no buildings have been detected; only a few pieces of flagging. It is believed that there was a Roman cemetery near Clavering Place, behind the Central Station, as a number of Roman coffins have been unearthed there.
Less than fifty years later the Roman Empire in the west came to an end. The Roman troops stationed on the Wall and in Pons Aelius were recalled.
It should be noted that despite the presence of the bridge, the settlement of Pons Aelius was not particularly important among the northern Roman settlements. The most important stations were those on the highway of Dere Street running from Eboracum (York) through Corstopitum (Corbridge) and to the lands north of the Wall. Corstopitum, being a major arsenal and supply centre, was much larger and populous than Pons Aelius.