Although it is now far inland, in Roman times Richborough was located upon an island in the Wantsum Channel situated between the mainland and the Isle of Thanet (Tanatus Insulae). It was selected by the Romans as the landing site for their army in AD 43 as they commenced the invasion of Britain. To secure their beachhead, earthwork defences were constructed consisting of a pair of parallel ditches which enclosed a portion of the coastline. As the Romans consolidated their invasion, Richborough developed into the principal port for the new Britannia province and an important logistical site. It would also have served as a base for the British arm of the Roman Navy, the Classis Britannica.
Around AD 50 the earthworks associated with the initial invasion were levelled to support the expanding nature of the Richborough site. At least eighteen granaries were constructed to store provisions along with associated administrative buildings. The Romans also started construction on the first of their nationwide roads - Watling Street commenced at Richborough and preceded on towards Canterbury (Durovernum), London (Londinium) and ultimately onto Chester (Deva). 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 continuous occupation by a large portion of the Roman Army for hundreds of years to come. Richborough remained unfortified at this time but continued to grow. It probably peaked in size as a town around AD 120 before slowly being eclipsed by Dover (Portus Dubris). Nevertheless, the third century Antonine Itinerary listed only one major crossing into Britannia which was between Boulogne and Richborough.
Around AD 250 Richborough town was partially abandoned and the great ceremonial arch was converted into a fortified signal station. This was most probably in response to the sea-borne 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' layout associated with earlier forts and instead was laid out in a square configuration. The concrete curtain wall was in excess of three metres thick and almost ten metres tall with protruding bastion towers enabling artillery fire along the length of 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 from which to march out before defeating their enemies in the field. Instead the design at Richborough was more defensively focused with the thick walls and narrow gateways suggesting it was designed to withstand a siege.
In its coastal defence role, Richborough Fort was paired with the earlier base at Reculver (Regulbium). These two outposts guarded the north (Reculver) and south (Richborough) entrances to the Wantsum Channel. Both forts were later placed under the authority of the Count of the Saxon Shore (comes litoris Saxonici per Britanniam) which was a military command tasked with protection of the coast from Saxon and Frankish raiders. The Notitia Dignitatum, a written record of Roman military dispositions dated to around AD 395, listed nine forts as part of this command including Richborough. It clearly remained an important outpost as at least two major military expeditions landed there during the fourth century; General Lupicinus in AD 360, whilst en route to campaign against the Picts, and Count Theodosius in AD 367 who had been appointed to stabilise Britannia following the ‘Barbarian Conspiracy’.
In the latter days of the Roman era, Richborough became home to the Second Legion (Legio II Augusta) who were relocated from their base in Caerleon in South Wales. By this stage the Roman military had changed significantly from that which had 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. However, by the late third century AD 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 Roman era came to an end early in the fifth century but life at Richborough continued and the site became home to a small community throughout the Dark Ages. The area lost its importance as the River Stour silted up and was eventually abandoned.
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Richborough Roman Fort consists of the remains of a third century AD Saxon shore fortification. Also visible are the foundations of a great ceremonial arch built in the first century AD to mark the conquest of Britannia and earthworks associated with the initial Roman landings in AD 43.
Richborough Context. During the Roman era, Richborough was located upon an island on the south side of the Wantsum Channel situated between the mainland and the Isle of Thanet. This provided a sheltered anchorage and harbour within easy reach of the continent. Goods would have been transferred between sea-going vessels and barges with the latter being used to move supplies along the River Stour to Canterbury.
Invasion Defences. The ditch in the foreground was part of a 650 metre long line that protected the Roman beachhead during the earliest phases on the invasion in AD 43. The wall behind was part of the late third century fortification.
Richborough Roman Fort. The fort as viewed from the interior looking west. The foundations of the ceremonial arch are in the centre.
Ceremonial Arch. Following the victory at the Battle of Mons Graupius (AD 83), Emperor Domitian ordered the construction of a great ceremonial arch to celebrate the 'final' conquest of Britannia. This straddled Watling Street and all those arriving in Britain would pass under it. Around AD 250, as the threat of Saxon and Frankish raids increased, the arch was converted into a fortified signal station. A beacon and watchtower were constructed on top of the arch and a triple ditch system was constructed around its base.
Saxon Shore. The Saxon Shore Command is described in the Notitia Dignitatum, a written record of Roman military dispositions dated to around AD 395. Nine forts were listed - Portchester, Pevensey, Lympne, Dover, Richborough, Reculver, Burgh Castle, Bradwell and Brancaster. A further two - Bitterne and Caister-on-Sea - are also believed to have been part of the scheme. The forts were under the command of the Count of Saxon Shore.
Richborough Roman Fort, AD 275. As attacks from Saxon and Frankish raiders increased, Richborough was converted into a substantive fort. It's design departed from the traditional ‘playing card’ configuration seen in earlier bases and instead it was laid out in a broadly square arrangement. The fort was surrounded on all sides by twin ditches but the third trench in the south-west corner was probably a building error. The ceremonial arch was demolished to provide building materials for the fort.
Fort Defences. The design of the third century AD fort points to a significant change in Roman military doctrine at this time. Previously Roman forts were were seen as little more than a temporary base that provided secure overnight accommodation after which the troops would march out and defeat their enemy in the field. However, Richborough was built with long term defence clearly in mind. The narrow postern gates protected by towers (left) and the thick curtain walls all suggest it was designed to withstand an attack by a strong force.
Richborough Roman Fort.
RICHBOROUGH ROMAN FORT
Richborough was originally located upon an island in the Wantsum Channel. The Romans chose it as the landing site for their invasion force in AD 43 and thereafter it evolved into a major port. Richborough Roman Fort was built on the site in the mid-third century AD and later incorporated into the command of the Count of the Saxon Shore.
Richborough Roman Fort is found to the north of Sandwich off the A256. The fort is well sign-posted and there is a dedicated car park at the site.
Richborough Roman Fort