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A Saxon Shore fort, Roman port and associated remains at Richborough

A Scheduled Monument in Ash, Kent

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Latitude: 51.2931 / 51°17'35"N

Longitude: 1.3291 / 1°19'44"E

OS Eastings: 632199.878393

OS Northings: 160148.977975

OS Grid: TR321601

Mapcode National: GBR X0W.T0J

Mapcode Global: VHLGK.ZRHL

Entry Name: A Saxon Shore fort, Roman port and associated remains at Richborough

Scheduled Date: 9 October 1981

Last Amended: 10 July 1996

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1014642

English Heritage Legacy ID: 27039

County: Kent

Civil Parish: Ash

Traditional County: Kent

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Kent


The monument includes an area of c.40ha containing a variety of archaeological
components dating from the Iron Age, Roman and medieval periods, situated on a
low sandy promontory around 2.5km from the present coastline of eastern Kent,
overlooking the River Stour to the east. The Saxon Shore fort is Listed at
Grade I.

The promontory, which has been shown by part excavation and the study of
aerial photographs to have undergone a complex history of development and
reuse, originally took the form of a small island situated near the south
eastern end of the Wantsum Channel, a broad stretch of sea water which
separated the Isle of Thanet from the Kent mainland until at least the Late
Roman period. The earliest known use of the promontory is represented by a
series of drainage ditches which formed part of a farmstead dating to the
Early Iron Age. This is situated near the eastern edge of the monument beneath
the northern sector of the later Saxon Shore fort. The ditches, which survive
in buried form, were discovered during the part excavation of the promontory
between 1922-1938. The farmstead, which was abandoned by c.100 BC, may have
been surrounded by a defensive palisade.

The strategic importance of the former island during the Early Roman period is
illustrated by the landing of part of the Roman invasion force here in AD 43.
The Roman division, which sailed from Boulogne under Senator Aulus Plautius,
constructed a temporary camp on the island, shown by the excavation to have
been defended on its western side by a pair of closely-spaced, roughly north
east-south west aligned crescent-shaped ditches originally running across the
whole width of the island, enclosing an area of c.4.45ha. The south western
and north eastern ends of the defences were destroyed many centuries ago by
natural erosion of the sandy cliff which forms the eastern edge of the
monument by the River Stour, and by the construction of the adjacent railway
cutting in 1847. The surviving part of the ditches, which take the form of
buried features, were traced during the excavation for a total length of
c.700m. They have V-shaped profiles up to c.1.8m deep and were originally
flanked on the inside by a now levelled earthen bank. The total width of the
defences is c.10m. The entrance to the camp coincides with the main, western
entrance of the later Saxon Shore fort and is a passageway 3.35m wide and deep
flanked on each side by three squared timbers set in large pits, representing
a timber gateway. Leading up to the gateway from the west is Watling Street,
the main Roman road from London and Canterbury, which was also first
constructed shortly after the invasion and terminates here. This survives just
to the west of the camp as a low earthen bank c.5m wide and as a buried
feature beneath the modern surface of Castle Lane.

The invasion camp was used for a period of less than ten years before being
levelled to make way for the construction of a military and naval supply base.
This helped store and distribute the supplies needed by the Roman forces
during their rapid conquest of southern Britain. Part excavation during the
19th and early 20th centuries revealed that the base extended westwards beyond
the ditches of the earlier invasion camp and was constructed on a grid
pattern. The base survives in buried form and includes traces of timber
buildings alongside metalled roads. The via praetoria, or main road, runs from
west to east along and continuing the line of Watling Street. This was found
to have been flanked by three blocks containing storehouses and granaries. To
the north was a series of open-fronted shops or stores fronted by verandahs.
To the east, within the north eastern corner of the later Saxon Shore fort,
was a large building arranged around a courtyard which has been interpreted as
an administrative centre or hotel. Crop marks representing the foundations of
further Roman buildings and roads which may date to this phase are visible on
aerial photographs to the west, north and south.

Around AD 85-AD 90, many timber buildings were cleared to make way for the
construction of a large, north east-south west aligned rectangular monument
designed to celebrate the conquest of Britain and marking what was to become
the main port of entry into the province. This lies within the eastern sector
of the later Saxon Shore fort. The superstructure has not survived, but the
excavations revealed that the great monument was built on cross-shaped rubble
footings above a rectangular foundation of mortared flint pebbles, set in a
pit measuring 38m by 34.5m and 10m deep. Fragments of the superstructure found
during the excavations suggest that it took the form of a quadrifrons, or
four-way arch above a cross-passageway, set on a raised plinth. The arch was
constructed of ashlar masonry faced with white Carrara marble, decorated with
gilded bronze statuary and inscriptions. It measured c.26.5m by c.14.5m and
has been estimated to have stood to a height of around 25m. The footings and
foundations were left uncovered after the excavation and are still visible.
From c.AD 90 to c.AD 250, the former supply base developed into a town
associated with a nearby harbour, the site of which is not known for certain,
but which may have been destroyed by river erosion on the eastern side of the
promontory. The port, known as Rutupiae, is featured on many contemporary road
maps and itineries. The early buildings were of timber, but after a serious
fire destroyed much of the settlement in c.AD 90, many were rebuilt in stone.
The town survives mainly in the form of buried foundations and some buildings
are visible as crop marks on aerial photographs. Around 550m to the south west
of the great monument is an amphitheatre, used for mass entertainment, public
ceremonies and military training, visible as a roughly west-east aligned,
elliptical hollow c.60m by c.50m, measuring 3m deep. The hollow, which formed
the central arena, is surrounded by a bank c.12m wide rising to a height of up
to 2m above the surrounding ground. The amphitheatre was partly excavated in
1849, when the bank was found to be constructed of clay. This originally
supported wooden seating which has not survived. Three entrances were found,
the largest being through the centre of the northern side of the bank, with
two subsidiary entrances to the west and south. The amphitheatre is enclosed
by a flint wall c.1m thick faced with chalk blocks.

The increasing political and military tensions within the Roman Empire and the
province of Britain from around the middle of the third century are reflected
at Richborough, at which time much of the central part of the town was
levelled and the great monument converted into a signal station. The
great monument and surrounding area totalling 0.5ha were enclosed by a square
defensive rampart with rounded corners formed by three closely-spaced, V-
shaped ditches separated by narrow berms and originally flanked on the inside
by a now levelled bank. The station is entered by way of a simple gap in the
western arm of the defences on the line of Watling Street. The eastern side of
the ramparts and a small area of the interior have been destroyed by river
erosion. At the north eastern corner, the two outer ditches are interrupted by
the foundations of the earlier, large courtyard building, by now rebuilt in
stone and in use as a guest house or hotel. The foundations of the building
have been marked out in modern concrete, and the signal station ditches left
open after their excavation between 1929-1938. The signal station was a
military installation used for maritime observation, with the news of any
perceived threat being conveyed along the coast or into the interior by means
of fire or smoke signals.

By c.270 AD stronger defences were needed as the civilian settlement fell into
disuse under the threat of hit and run raiding by Saxon pirates. The signal
station was levelled to make way for a roughly west-east aligned, rectangular
Saxon Shore fort originally enclosing an area of around 4.5ha. The eastern
side of the fort has been destroyed by river erosion, but the surviving part
takes the form of ruined structures, buried deposits and earthworks. Its most
prominent feature is a massive curtain wall, now ruined, built of a beach
pebble and rubble core faced with small, squared limestone and ironstone
ashlar, interspersed with narrow bonding and levelling courses of red tile.
The wall is around 3.5m thick and survives to a height of up to 8m. The
ashlar blocks have been heavily robbed in places over the years to provide
masonry for later buildings. Each corner is protected by a solid circular
tower, and projecting rectangular bastions placed at regular intervals guard
the sides. The main access is provided by a gateway situated on the western
side of the fort on the line of Watling Street. This survives in the form of
exposed foundations which show that it had a pair of projecting rectangular
towers flanking an entrance passage. The towers were built of large ashlar
blocks, probably reused from the great monument. There are smaller, postern
gates to the north and south. The curtain wall is surrounded by a double, V-
shaped ditch, left open for the purpose of display after the 1922-1938

The fort continued in use into the fifth century, and the Notitia Dignitatum
states that it was garrisoned during the fourth century by the Legio II
Augusta, formerly stationed at Caerleon-on-Usk in southern Wales. The part
excavation of the interior revealed traces of mainly timber buildings which
would have included a headquarters building, officers' housing and barrack
blocks, and associated wells and rubbish pits. More substantial structures
included a stone-built bath block which replaced the earlier courtyard
building in the north eastern corner of the fort, and a small rectangular
temple c.10m by c.5m with an annexe to the east, constructed just to the west
of the site of the earlier great monument. Associated with the fort and
situated around 205m to the south west is an inhumation cemetery found to
contain burials dating to the early fourth century.

By the end of the fourth century, the Saxon Shore fort ceased to be garrisoned
by regular troops as the administrative machinery of the Roman Empire broke
down. Finds indicate, however, that the fort remained in use as a settlement
into the fifth century. Around this time a small, rectangular timber-built
Christian church with an apsidal eastern end was constructed within its north
western corner. The excavation revealed that the church, which survives in
the form of buried traces, measured 24m by 12m. Its main timbers were set on
regularly spaced stone pads. Associated with the church is a small hexagonal
font built of reused, mortared Roman tiles, thought to have been originally
sited within a lean-to wooden aisle built against the northern side of the
nave, although this has left no discernible traces.

The fort fell into disuse during the later fifth and sixth centures. In later
years, a small chapel of pilgrimage dedicated to St Augustine, who is believed
to have landed at nearby Ebbsfleet in c.597 AD and is credited with
reintroducing Christianity into pagan Saxon England, was constructed just to
the east of the site of the earlier great monument, probably during the
seventh century. The exposed foundations show that it was a small, west-east
aligned rectangular building, with a nave, chancel and western annexe. Lying
to the south is an associated Christian cemetery in use from the seventh to
ninth centuries, which survives in buried form. The chapel, which had walls
around 0.6m thick, was substantially rebuilt during the early Norman period,
when a semicircular apse was added to the eastern end, and remained in use
until its demolition during the 17th century.

The Saxon Shore fort and amphitheatre are now in the care of the Secretary of
State, and the Saxon Shore fort is open to the public. Some of the components
of the monument are on display as foundations traced in modern concrete or re-
turfed ditches left open after the excavations.

Excluded from the scheduling are all concrete and metal signs and information
panels, the steel, glass and concrete font cover, the wooden museum building
and associated wooden sheds, and the modern surfaces of the car park, roads,
paths and tracks, although the ground beneath all these features is included.

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

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

Saxon Shore forts were heavily defended later Roman military installations
located exclusively in south east England. They were all constructed during
the third century AD, probably between c.AD 225 and AD 285. They were built to
provide protection against the sea-borne Saxon raiders who began to threaten
the coast towards the end of the second century AD, and all Saxon Shore forts
are situated on or very close to river estuaries or on the coast, between
the Wash and the Isle of Wight. Saxon Shore forts are also found on the
coasts of France and Belgium.
The most distinctive feature of Saxon Shore forts are their defences which
comprised massive stone walls, normally backed by an inner earth mound, and
wholly or partially surrounded by one or two ditches. Wall walks and parapets
originally crowned all walls, and the straight walls of all sites were
punctuated by corner and interval towers and/or projecting bastions. Unlike
other Roman military sites there is a lack of standardisation among Saxon
Shore forts in respect of size and design of component features, and they vary
in shape from square to polygonal or oval.
Recognition of this class of monument was partially due to the survival of a
fourth century AD Roman manuscript, the Notitia Dignitatum, which is a
handbook of the civil and military organisation of the Roman Empire. This
lists nine forts which were commanded by an officer who bore the title
'Officer of the Saxon Shore of Britain' (COMES LITORIS SAXONICI PER
Saxon Shore forts are rare nationally with a limited distribution. As one of a
small group of Roman military monuments which are important in representing
army strategy and government policy, Saxon Shore forts are of particular
significance to our understanding of the period and all examples are
considered to be of national importance.

The Saxon Shore fort at Richborough, despite some damage caused by river
erosion, survives well, in close association with a range of features dating
from the Iron Age to the medieval period. Part excavation and the study of
aerial photographs have shown that these will contain further archaeological
and environmental information relating to the form, function and development
of the monument. The complexity and extent of remains dating to the Roman
period illustrates the strategic importance of the promontory which, before
natural processes altered the adjacent coastline, lay alongside a natural
harbour providing a convenient landing place only c.45km from mainland Europe.
The use of the promontory throughout the Roman period above all reflects this
easy accessibility to invading or raiding forces.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
Bushe-Fox, J P, Excavations of the Roman Fort at Richborough, Kent, (1949), 3
Bushe-Fox, J P, Excavations of the Roman Fort at Richborough, Kent, (1949), 8-11
Cunliffe, B, Excavations of the Roman Fort at Richborough, Kent, (1968), 231-251
Johnson, JS, Richborough and Reculver, (1987), 8-9
Johnson, JS, Richborough and Reculver, (1987), 6
Johnson, JS, Richborough and Reculver, (1987), 10-11
Johnson, JS, Richborough and Reculver, (1987), 20-21
Johnson, JS, Richborough and Reculver, (1987), 15-20
Johnson, JS, Richborough and Reculver, (1987), 14-15
Johnson, JS, Richborough and Reculver, (1987), 11-13
Wheeler, R M, The Victoria History of the County of Kent: Volume III, (1932), 24-41
Brown, P D C, 'Britannia' in The Church at Richborough, , Vol. II, (1971), 225-231
RCHME, NMR 1661 TR3259/4 402 etc, (1979)
RCHME, NMR 1661 TR3260/37 388 etc, (1979)

Source: Historic England

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