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


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Dover (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
TR 32178 60189

Reasons for Designation

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 BRITANNIAM). 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.


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 excavations.

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.

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


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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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)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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