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York's Spanish connection
Shields showing the Legio IX Hispana standard
Modern day shields of the Legio IX Hispana

Thanks to the Romans, York and Spain have a connection that dates back almost 2000 years.

Archaeologist Mike Griffiths explores York's Spanish connection, through the Legio IX Hispana.

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On a dreary wintry day in York, Spain with its white-washed villas and Moorish legacy, seems a long way both geographically and culturally. However, there is a very ancient link between York and Spain, one that stretches back nearly 2000 years.

It started in 71 AD when a Roman legion, Legio IX, arrived to set up a fortress on the north bank of the Ouse. When they arrived there was nothing here; nobody had found any good reason to settle the area.

When the legionaries arrived they probably didn't know if they were going to be based here for a matter of months or a few years; in fact, they stayed for a full half century, the longest single posting in their history.

Roman roots
Their legacy survives today. The fortress that they built, first in wood and later in stone, established the pattern and layout of York's historic core. If you approach the city from the A19 it is along a road established by the IX. Going through Bootham Bar you are entering through the one of the original openings in the Roman defences.

Walking down Petergate you follow the line of one of the principal streets within the fortress and when you gaze on the Minster you are looking at the spot where there once stood an equally massive and impressive structure, the Roman Headquarters Building.

So what is the Spanish connection in all this? Well like many Roman Legions the IX also had a name, not just a number. Like all legionary titles it was a name which reflected something in the history of a particular legion that marked it out from others and was borne with pride. The IX was known as Legio IX Hispana, or as we would say today the Ninth Spanish Legion; not that there were ever eight other Spanish legions.

Re-enaction of Legio IX Hispana
Legio IX Hispana re-enactment

A noble reputation
Legio IX was one of the oldest imperial legions and had served with distinction under Julius Caesar fighting for him in Spain in 49 BC. It later served in Africa, Macedonia, and then spent 12 long years campaigning back in Spain. Here the legion acquired its first Spanish title, Hispaniensis, meaning based in Spain. Sometime later, after it had moved on to fight more battles in equally hostile corners of the Empire, this became Hispana and that is the title that stayed with it until its bitter end.

From tombstones found at the many different locations where the legion was based before it came to York we know that it it continued to attract recruits from Spain. This part of the empire may well have remained one of the IX's principal recruiting areas.

During its time in York there would have been an influx of many thousands of new recruits and the retirement of many time served soldiers. Most would presumably have returned to their birthplace attracted by the prospect of sun, sand and sangria.

Yorkies with Spanish blood?
Others were probably encouraged to take up generous land grants and settle around York to contribute to the process of romanisation, a policy promoted from Rome itself. On their retirement they would also have been able to enter into a legal marriage for the first time and gone on to start their own local dynasty. Today, running through the gene pool which is now York, there may well be some traces of those old Spanish troopers.

Legio IX left York sometime around 120AD, possibly redeployed after suffering some humiliating defeat in a campaign in northern Britain. They were replaced by another legion, this time Legio VI Victrix, the Victorious. Like the IX they had spent most of their history moving around the empire, never staying more than ten years in a single place. Perhaps it is something in York's water but it also proved to be their longest single posting; they were still here at least two hundred and fifty years later.

And presumably it is no more than mere coincidence that this legion had also served in Spain for many years, that its veterans settled there in large numbers, set up the city of Zaragoza and it was known for many years as Legio VI Hispaniensis; the only other legion to bear the title.

So the Spanish connection was continued and still continues today. Perhaps we should celebrate it by giving York's Quarter the honorary title of the 'Spanish' Quarter and look for a twinning link in Spain. How about Zaragoza? You never know we may even have some very distant relatives out there...

Mike Griffiths

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