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Roman villa 140m east of St Mary and St Nicholas' Church

A Scheduled Monument in Bledlow-cum-Saunderton, Buckinghamshire

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Latitude: 51.7104 / 51°42'37"N

Longitude: -0.8481 / 0°50'53"W

OS Eastings: 479685.889718

OS Northings: 201923.763586

OS Grid: SP796019

Mapcode National: GBR C2Q.NDV

Mapcode Global: VHDVQ.880N

Entry Name: Roman villa 140m east of St Mary and St Nicholas' Church

Scheduled Date: 26 January 2000

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1016788

English Heritage Legacy ID: 29436

County: Buckinghamshire

Civil Parish: Bledlow-cum-Saunderton

Built-Up Area: Princes Risborough

Traditional County: Buckinghamshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Buckinghamshire

Church of England Parish: Bledlow with Saunderton and Horsenden

Church of England Diocese: Oxford


The monument includes a Romano-British villa, sometimes referred to as the
`Saunderton Villa', which is located to the south of the road between Princes
Risborough and Bledlow, flanked to the west by the seasonal stream which
formerly fed the Saunderton Mill, and to the east by the embankment of the
Wycombe to Bicester railway line.

The position of the villa can be identified at ground level by an area of dark
soil which covers a broad terrace and contains numerous fragments of tile,
flint and other building materials. One of the villa buildings, made apparent
by such remains, was discovered and partly excavated in 1938 and is therefore
known in some detail. The layout of the remainder of the complex is largely
defined from cropmarks (anomalies in crop growth caused by underlying
archaeological features) recorded in a sequence of aerial photographs, the
first of which were taken in 1948.

The nucleus of the villa complex appears to have been contained within a
rectangular enclosure which corresponds with the area of the terrace -
flanking the stream over a distance of about 90m and extending to the north
east for approximately 60m. The 1938 excavations revealed a single rectangular
building, measuring 35m by 15m, which is now known to lie across the northern
end of this enclosure. The excavated building was constructed in the mid-
second century AD and originally included a suite of ten small rooms and two
large rooms linked to a corridor running along its southern side; the largest
of these rooms contained a series of channels beneath the floor which the
excavator, Diane Ashcroft, interpreted as evidence of a hypocaust (a ducted
heating system). The wall foundations, composed of flint and mortar, were left
in place after the excavation. Their construction appeared to have been
preceded by three infant burials, as well as by some evidence of earlier
occupation on the site. The building suffered a period of decay, but was
rebuilt from the ground up in the early 4th century, covering the same area
but with the interior divided into three large rooms. This arrangement, with
minor alterations, lasted until the settlement was finally abandoned in the
late 4th century. At the time of the excavation this was thought to be the
only substantial building on the site, and it was therefore interpreted as
essentially domestic in character, albeit with a corn drying oven within the
centre of the original ground plan. In 1969, however, the building was
reinterpreted as a barn or agricultural store. A separate domestic structure
was identified some 60m to the south where walls had recently been struck
during ploughing and a trial hole had revealed a solid floor of opus signinum
(mortar and crushed tile). This second building has been recorded as a
cropmark on aerial photographs. It occupies a corresponding position across
the southern end of the enclosure and is also rectangular in outline,
measuring some 38m by 10m, with some traces of extensions along the northern
side. In 1952 a pit containing a large quantity of Roman refuse was discovered
a little to the west of this building, within the medieval moated site (which
is the subject of a separate scheduling) on the opposite side of the stream.
This material included local and imported pottery, painted wall plaster,
Purbeck marble, roof and flue tiles, mosaic pieces and tesserae (small tile
squares used in composite floor surfaces). The deposit is thought to relate to
the demolition of the southern building in the late 4th century, and it
reflects an elaborate, highly decorated structure originating in the late
first or early second century AD, incorporating high quality building
materials and employing a proper hypocaust system. Fragments of iron clinker,
copper slag and lead waste also found in this pit indicate that metalworking
took place on the site, and numerous coins found both here and in the fields
hereabouts point to the existance of a developed economy based around the

The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

Romano-British villas were extensive rural estates at the focus of which were
groups of domestic, agricultural and occasionally industrial buildings. The
term "villa" is now commonly used to describe either the estate or the
buildings themselves. The buildings usually include a well-appointed dwelling
house, the design of which varies considerably according to the needs, taste
and prosperity of the occupier. Most of the houses were partly or wholly
stone-built, many with a timber-framed superstructure on masonry footings.
Roofs were generally tiled and the house could feature tiled or mosaic floors,
underfloor heating, wall plaster, glazed windows and cellars. Many had
integral or separate suites of heated baths. The house was usually accompanied
by a range of buildings providing accommodation for farm labourers, workshops
and storage for agricultural produce. These were arranged around or alongside
a courtyard and were surrounded by a complex of paddocks, pens, yards and
features such as vegetable plots, granaries, threshing floors, wells and
hearths, all approached by tracks leading from the surrounding fields. Villa
buildings were constructed throughout the period of Roman occupation, from the
first to the fourth centuries AD. They are usually complex structures occupied
over several hundred years and continually remodelled to fit changing
circumstances. They could serve a wide variety of uses alongside agricultural
activities, including administrative, recreational and craft functions, and
this is reflected in the considerable diversity in their plan. The least
elaborate villas served as simple farmhouses whilst, for the most complex, the
term "palace" is not inappropriate. Villa owners tended to be drawn from a
limited elite section of Romano-British society. Although some villas belonged
to immigrant Roman officials or entrepreneurs, the majority seem to have been
in the hands of wealthy natives with a more-or-less Romanised lifestyle, and
some were built directly on the sites of Iron Age farmsteads. Roman villa
buildings are widespread, with between 400 and 1000 examples recorded
nationally. The majority of these are classified as `minor' villas to
distinguish them from `major' villas. The latter were a very small group of
extremely substantial and opulent villas built by the very wealthiest members
of Romano-British society. Minor villas are found throughout lowland Britain
and occasionally beyond. Roman villas provide a valuable index of the rate,
extent and degree to which native British society became Romanised, as well as
indicating the sources of inspiration behind changes of taste and custom. In
addition, they serve to illustrate the agrarian and economic history of the
Roman province, allowing comparisons over wide areas both within and beyond
Britain. As a very diverse and often long-lived type of monument, a
significant proportion of the known population are identified as nationally

Despite its location in a ploughed field, the villa 140m east of St Mary and
St Nicholas' Church is considered to survive well. Without actually removing
the main structural components, the limited excavations of 1938 demonstrated
the nature and design of one of the principal buildings; furthermore, this
area is still thought to retain remains either overlooked by the original
excavators or capable of yielding far more information given the range of
scientific techniques available now or in the future. Clear evidence for the
wider extent of the complex has been provided by aerial photography. This has
confirmed that the excavated structure is only one of a pair of principal
buildings separated by a courtyard which, by comparison with other excavated
examples, will contain buried remains of further structures and features
related to the operation of the settlement, the lifestyle of its inhabitants
and the duration of occupation.

The site has additional interest as part of the wider pattern of changing
settlement and land use within the Chiltern valleys. Viewed alongside evidence
of earlier Iron Age occupation on Lodge Hill to the south and later Anglo-
Saxon burial practices on Hemley Hill to the east, the villa (and its nearest
neighbour at Saunderton Lee to the south) clearly form part of a prolonged
sequence of human activity in the area. Sites such as these will provide
particularly valuable insights into the impact of Roman culture on the
indigenous population of the Chilterns, and the nature of the Roman legacy
following the collapse of provincial government in the early 5th century.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
David, A, Hemley Hill: Ancient Monuments Lab Geophysical Survey Report, (1977)
Ashcroft, D, 'Records of Bucks' in Report on the excavtion of a Roman villa at Saunderton, Bucks, , Vol. 13, (1939), 398-426
Branigan, K, 'Records of Bucks' in The Romano-British villa at Saunderton reconsidered, , Vol. 18, (1969), 261-75
AP plot (paperstrip method) Bucks SMR, Allen, D, Saunderton Villa, (1979)
Farley, M, SMR 2515 AS cemetery Hemley Hill, (1997)
Info from informal metal detecting, Shingleton, P, Hemley Hill, (1998)
Oblique monochrome AP, CUCAP, AU/62-63, (1948)

Source: Historic England

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