RICHBOROUGH ROMAN FORT, CT13 9JW
Postcode: CT13 9JW
Lat/Long: 51.293291N 1.332724E
Notes: Fort is found near Sandwich. Sign-posting both for the fort and Richborough itself is fairly limited. There is a dedicated car park at the site.
WHAT IS THERE TO SEE?
Third century Roman walls and the foundations of a great ceremonial arch built in the first century AD to mark the conquest of Britannia. Also visible are earthworks that date to the initial landings in AD 43 as part of a much larger defensive fortification built to protect the beachhead.
1. The Notitia Dignitatum lists nine forts under the command of the Count of the Saxon Shore. Three of the forts were constructed early in the third century AD - Brancaster, Caister and Reculver - and confirmed to traditional Roman military design, i.e. based on a 'playing card' shape. The reminder were constructed in the latter part of the third century and were defined by thicker/taller walls, semi-circular bastions and irregular layouts. The forts of the latter group were: Bradwell, Burgh, Dover, Lympne, Pevensey, Portchester and Richborough.
2. Even after the establishment of Dover as a port, it seems Richborough remained important. The third century Antonine Itinerary lists only one major crossing into Britannia – Boulogne to Richborough – whilst in the fourth century at least two major military expeditions landed there; in AD 360 General Lupicinus on route to campaign against the Picts and in AD 367 Count Theodosius who had been appointed to stabilise Britannia following the ‘Barbarian Conspiracy’.
3. The final known garrison was the Second Austian Legion (Legio II Augusta) who had been transferred from Caerleon; albeit this was a much depleted force from that that had stormed ashore two hundred and fifty years earlier.
Richborough Roman Fort Layout. The late third century fort abandoned the standard ‘playing card’ configuration seen in earlier bases (such as at Reculver). The fort was likely surrounding on all sides by ditches but the third trench seen in the diagram above, was probably a building error.
Probably the site of the initial landing of the invading Roman Legions in AD 43, Richborough wasn’t substantially fortified until the mid-third century when raids by Saxon pirates mandated coastal defences. The fort was incorporated into the command of the Count of the Saxon Shore and later became the final British base for the Second Legion.
HISTORY OF RICHBOROUGH ROMAN FORT
Although now far inland, during the Roman period Richborough was an island on the south side of the Wantsum Channel. Although disputed by some historians, it has been generally accepted as the initial site of the Roman invasion in AD 43 and earthworks dating from this period broadly support the theory. A pair of parallel ditches were dug for a length of around 650m enclosing a portion of the coastline; it has been suggested these were constructed by the initial invasion force to protect their beachhead. Certainly the site quickly developed into the principal port for entry and exit into the Britannia province. The sheltered waters made it a superb natural harbour and, as Roman road construction started in earnest, the first major Roman highway in Britain started here - Watling Street which proceeded onto London and across the Midlands to Chester.
Richborough served as a Supply base initially for the army and later for the Classis Britannica (the British arm of the Roman Navy) who utilised the harbour facilities. Around AD 50 the earthworks of the initial invasion were levelled to support the expanding nature of these functions. Circa-AD 85 Emperor Domitian ordered the construction of a great ceremonial arch to celebrate the 'final' conquest of the island following the Roman victory at the Battle of Mons Graupius in the north of Scotland. This monument straddled Watling Street but was somewhat premature - Britannia would require a vast portion of the Roman Army for hundreds of years to come. Richborough remained unfortified at this time but continued to grow - it probably peaked as a town around AD 120 before slowly being eclipsed by Dover.
Around AD 250 the town was partially abandoned and the great ceremonial arch was converted into a fortified signal station; most probably a reaction to the threat from Saxon and Frankish raiders. The situation clearly deteriorated because around AD 273 a Roman Fort was built (known as Rutupiae) with the great ceremonial arch, which by this time had stood for almost 200 years, demolished and used as building materials. Like contemporary Roman defences (for example at Caister), this abandoned the traditional 'playing card' shape instead opting for a (broadly) square configuration. The concrete curtain wall was in excess of 3 metres thick and almost 10 metres tall with protruding bastion towers enabling artillery fire on anyone attempting to scale the walls. Whilst the fort had an entrance on each side, the north and south gates were deliberately narrow postern entrances through turrets. All these modifications were indicative of a significantly changed mindset in the Roman military. In the first, second and early third centuries AD Roman forts were merely a more permanent version of marching camps and were seen as a secure site to march out from to defeat their enemies in the field. Instead the designs at Richborough was more defensively focused with the thick walls and narrow gateways suggesting it was designed to withstand siege.
After construction Richborough was paired with the earlier base at Reculver. The two forts were sited at the north (Reculver) and south (Richborough) entrances to the Wantsum Channel - a sheltered natural harbour (long since silted up) that sat between the mainland and the Isle of Thanet (Tanatus Insulae) and offered access, via the River Stour, to Canterbury (Durovernum). Both forts were later incorporated into the military command under the Count of the Saxon Shore which was a military command tasked with protection of the coast from Saxon and Frankish raiders.
In the latter days of the Roman era, Richborough became home to the Second Legion (Legio II Augusta). By this stage the Roman military had changed significantly from that which invaded England in the first century AD. Then the Legion numbered around 5,500 men strong and was a complete, standalone fighting unit that was one of Rome’s main battle formations. But by the late third century countless changes had reconfigured the army and the unit stationed at Richborough numbered no more than a few hundred men relegated to a coastal defence role.
The British Romans era came to an end in the early in the fifth century however life at Richborough continued and the site became home to a Saxon community throughout the Dark Ages. The area lost its importance as the River Stour silted up.