1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ermine Street
ERMINE STREET. Documents and writers of the 11th and succeeding centuries occasionally mention four “royal roads” in Britain—Icknield Street, Erning or Ermine Street, Watling Street and Foss Way—as standing apart from all other existing roads and enjoying the special protection of the king. Unfortunately these authorities are not at all agreed as to their precise course; the roads themselves do not occur as specially privileged in actual legal or other practice, and it is likely that the category of Four Roads is the invention of a lawyer or an antiquary. The names are, however, attested to some extent by early charters which name them among other roads, as boundaries. From these charters we know that Icknield Street ran along the Berkshire downs and the Chilterns, that Ermine Street ran more or less due north through Huntingdonshire, that Watling Street ran north-west across the midlands from London to Shrewsbury, and Foss diagonally to it from Lincoln or Leicester to Bath and mid-Somerset. This evidence only proves the existence of these roads in Saxon and Norman days. But they all seem to be much older. Icknield Street is probably a prehistoric ridgeway along the downs, utilized perhaps by the Romans near its eastern end, but in general not Roman. Ermine Street coincides with part of a line of Roman roads leading north from London through Huntingdon to Lincoln. This line is followed by the Old North Road through Cheshunt, Buntingford, Royston, and Huntingdon to Castor near Peterborough; and thence it can be traced through lanes and byways past Ancaster to Lincoln. Watling Street is the Roman highway from London by St Alban’s (Verulamium) to Wroxeter near Shrewsbury (Viroconium). Foss is the Roman highway from Lincoln to Bath and Exeter. Hence it has been supposed, and is still frequently alleged, that the Four Roads were the principal highways of Roman Britain. This, however, is not the case. Icknield Street is not Roman and the three roads which follow Roman lines, Ermine Street, Watling Street, and Foss, held no peculiar position in the Romano-British road system (see Britain: Roman). In later times, the names Ermine Street, Icknield Street and Watling Street have been applied to other roads of Roman or supposed Roman origin. This, however, is wholly the work of Elizabethan or subsequent antiquaries and deserves no credence.
The derivations of the four names are unknown. Icknield, Ermine and Watling may be from English personal names; Foss, originally Fos, seems to be the Lat. fossa in its occasional medieval sense of a bank of upcast earth or stones, such as the agger of a road. (F. J. H.)