Richborough and the Romans in Britain - Where it all Began
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If you are travelling through the County of Kent in the southeastern corner of England, and you happen to be on the A258 main road which runs between Dover and Ramsgate or Margate, you may see a signpost and a small side road leading to an obscure place called Richborough. If you do, and if you have the time, then take a short detour. Because when you arrive, you will be standing on the very ground where one of the most dramatic events in our history may well have taken place.
It is, at first glance, fairly nondescript. You will see a rather attractive but very modern, low level building, and next to it, a long and crumbling wall several metres high. The modern building is a Visitor's Centre, and its presence here signifies that the wall is a lot more than just a crumbling ruin. In fact, the wall marks the southern boundary of one of the most important sites of ancient Britain.
When did 'Britain' start? It's not at all easy to answer that question. Was it when the first humans migrated here hundreds of thousands of years ago? Many would say it was when the island of Britain first formed with the rising sea levels after the end of the last Ice Age about 8000 years ago - an event which ever since has cut us off from continental Europe. But some would argue Britain started on the day the Roman Empire finally came to town and recorded history really began. Where the Romans landed, they built a settlement, and they would later build that wall. Richborough is where it happened.
The Location of Richborough and Reculver in S.E England
The map shows how the coastline looked in the centuries of Roman occupation, and how Richborough at that time lay in a sheltered location on the banks of the Wantsum Channel (shown in dark blue together with other areas since reclaimed from the sea)
Today Richborough is a site in a field about three kilometres inland from the sea. But 2,000 years ago the geography was very different. Then, this place was right on the very edge of England, on the banks of a wide waterway known as the Wantsum Channel. This was a waterway which separated the mainland from a large island called the Isle of Thanet.
Since Roman times however, water levels have gradually receded and the Wantsum Channel has silted up. Today it is no more. Thanet is no longer an island (though still called the 'Isle' of Thanet) and Richborough is therefore no longer on the coast.
But it is the Roman era that we are concerned with here, and back then, the coastal location and the proximity of this region to the continent of Europe, coupled with the seclusion which was provided by the Wantsum Channel and the Isle of Thanet, made this an ideal location for an invading army to pitch camp.
The First Romans In Britain
During the great days of the Roman Empire there were two quite different invasions of Britain, separated by nearly 100 years. But the first - by the most famous Roman of them all - was something of a non-event. It took place in two waves of attacks in 55 and 54 BC and was really just an expeditionary venture by Julius Caesar, the main goals of which were to enhance Caesar's reputation, and to strike back against British tribes which had aided French Gaul in its resistance to Roman occupation. The first landing made little progress beyond the beaches of the southeast before a combination of hostile local tribesmen and bad weather forced them back. But the second was more successful with strong inroads into the southeast. The surrender of a leading tribal chief at this time, and the forging of diplomatic alliances with some other chiefs, gave Rome a continuing influence in the region. But that was the limit of achievement, and British tribes were left more or less to their own devices from then on, as Caesar departed these shores and returned with his armies to Gaul and ultimately to Rome. It is not known where either of these landings took place, though Richborough is a possibility.
It was 97 years later in 43 AD, before the Romans came back to British shores, and this time they came in force, and they meant real business. And this is where the story of the Romans in Britain - and Richborough - really began.
The Origins of Richborough
The excuse for the invasion of 43 AD was dissent within the British tribes between factions loyal to Rome and anti-Roman groups, though a public relations show of strength by the new Emperor, Claudius, may also have been a motivating factor. Claudius gathered a massive invasion force of four legions - 20,000 soldiers plus another 20,000 auxillaries - on the coast of Gaul close to present day Boulogne, and after some hesitation and near mutiny by soldiers fearful of travel to the new strange land of 'Britannia', the English Channel was crossed, and a permanent bridgehead established in southern or southeastern England.
The precise location of this bridgehead has been disputed - some believe it may have been near to present day Chichester, Sussex, because this was territory commanded by a friendly tribal chief who had appealed to Rome for assistance to repel a revolt against his leadership. But the circumstantial and archaeological evidence for Richborough is considerable:
1) By far the shortest and easiest crossing from French Gaul would have been in the vicinity of Richborough, and the sheltered location of the Wantsum Channel would have made this a favourable anchorage for the fleet, and a safe base from which to explore either around the coast or across land.
2) Evidence of fortifications dating back to this time indicates that Richborough was at least an important very early site of encampment.
3) By 50 AD - just 7 years later - an encampment known as 'Londinium' (London) was already rapidly developing many miles inland on the River Thames, and the only land link between this settlement and the coast was an ancient grassy track which led directly to Richborough. That grassy track would later become the Roman road known as Watling Street (see the next section).
4) The construction on this site 40 years later of a prestigious monumental arch demonstrates without question that Richborough was a site of huge symbolic importance to the pioneering Romans in Britain.
5) A much later 3rd century document records only one historic crossing point dating to this time period; that was the route from Boulogne to Richborough.
Perhaps the oldest relic of Roman Richborough to have survived is the grassy track mentioned in the previous section. It had existed for centuries before the legions arrived as a pathway north and west across country, used by the native tribes. This pathway passed through the newly developing settlement of Londinium on the River Thames, and recent excavations have shown that by 50 AD the track here was being paved over and turned into a fully fledged Roman Road. Meanwhile the pathway at Richborough was extended into the encampment.
Much of this road - Watling Street - still exists, and it has been incorporated into modern street planning. Many of those who pass along it in their cars would never know they were following a route which was once walked by centurions and ancient Britons! But at Richborough, the road which was perhaps the first in England is once again just a grassy path through the fields.
The Early Days of Roman Occupation At Richborough 43 AD To 85 AD
The first requirement of anybody invading a potentially hostile country is to consolidate and make secure their position, and the first thing the Romans in Britain did at Richborough was to dig defensive trenches and build ramparts to protect themselves and their ships from the native tribes. In time, these makeshift defences were strengthened and a military base was built at the site. Timber buildings including grain stores to feed the army were soon in place around a grid-like street plan, and not long after this, the first stone structures, including shops, were established over an area far greater than the current ruins represent. By about 70 AD this was no longer merely a fortification to defend the Romans' encampment - it was a depot which could keep the troops supplied as they moved across Britain, a port from which goods could be exported back from the new colony to Rome, and a town which people could call 'home'. And it had a name - but not Richborough of course, because that is the modern English name. The town was called 'Rutupiae'.
By 85 AD one of the edifices synonymous with the greatest of Roman towns and cities was under construction at Rutupiae - a monumental arch. Today, a strange cross-shaped mound in the middle of the fort complex is all that remains, and for many centuries, the building which originally stood here, remained something of a mystery. But the shape of the mound, as well as excavations revealing fine white marbe at the site, have recently made clear that this was indeed a triumphal arch, and a very big one too - conceivably the largest in the Empire. Such arches were usually celebratory of some great event, and the monumental arch of Rutupiae / Richborough may have been built in celebration of the defeat of a Caledonian army in Scotland in 83 AD - a battle which effectively completed Rome's conquest of Britain. But whatever the inspiration, the location is probably significant - built at Rutupiae to indicate that this was the historic 'Gateway to Britain'.
The Heyday of Roman Occupation 85 AD To 250 AD
The monumental arch may well have consisted of several separate archways in a line, and would have surely been the most impressive Roman building in England at this time. All who had newly arrived in England from the Roman colonies in Europe would have passed through it. And if they were continuing on across England to join the conquering legions or to settle in one of the new Roman towns like Londinium, then they would have set off on their journey via Watling Street.
But first they may have had a respite from their travels by resting up at Rutupiae / Richborough. And that stay could have been increasingly comfortable as the 1st century AD became the 2nd. Perhaps if they were sufficiently important, they would have stayed at a new 'mansio' - an official inn for visiting dignitories - which was built at this time. And they would surely have taken advantage of a new bath house. Temples were built too, and in the 2nd century AD, Rutupiae got its own ampitheatre, set on high ground some distance from the main site we know today. The ampitheatre would have been about 62 m long, and offered seating for upwards of 4000 citizens.
By about 120 AD, the town of Rutupiae had reached its greatest extent, believed to be about 21 hectares. And in the surrounding countryside well-to-do Romans for whom Britain was now their home, would build their villas. This was a thriving and vibrant place where Romans could now live out their lives, and they did so for about 200 years, before the fortunes of Rutupiae began to change again.
The Return To The Fortress Status Of Richborough 250 AD To 350 AD
By the mid 3rd century AD, Rutupiae, had begun to decline as a civilian town. The symbolic importance would remain, but competition from other ports such as Dover had diminished its value as a trading centre.
And much more seriously, events on mainland Europe were beginning to have a significant impact. There was trouble in Rome's northern outposts. Germanic tribes were in revolt, and piracy around the English coast by Saxon raiders became an increasing threat which needed to be countered with a network of defences. Many new forts were constructed around the coast of Kent on what became known as the 'Saxon Shore'. And Rutupiae itself underwent a drastic reduction in size and a huge build-up of its fortifications as it returned to its original defensive role. This included major demolitions of many of the stone buildings and their replacement with three large trenches and an earth rampart around the monumental arch. Finally, in the late 3rd century, the great fortress walls which still exist today were constructed around the arch and trenches, and two more defensive trenches were dug outside of these walls.
To construct the walls, more stone was desperately needed, and the solution was simple, but drastic - the monumental arch had served its purpose. No longer a symbol that the Romans felt a need to preserve, the arch which had stood for 200 years was dismantled and the stones reused for the more pressing requirements of defence. And the decorative marble which had once given the arch such a resplendent appearance, now provided lime for the concrete of the wallls.
Rutupiae / Richborough had been an ideal location for access to the rest of Britain. But as can be seen in the map of Roman Kent earlier on this page, it was also a very strategic defensive location to protect the southern entrance to the Wantsum Channel between the mainland and the Isle of Thanet.
But no settlement can exist in total isolation, and so one other fortress port will be considered here - the one which was protecting the northern entrance to the Wantsum Channel. On a headland at a site now known as Reculver, a new fort was built in the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD. Its strategic location meant that it was one of the very first of the Saxon Shore garrisons, working in tandem with Rutupiae 13 km (8 miles) to the southeast, to guard the Channel.
This wasn't as formidable as Rutupiae and the walls and earthworks were a little less impressive - more of a base for an army to lodge in than a inpenetrable citadel. It consisted of a rectangular shaped structure with gates midway along the walls on each of the four sides. It was known to the Romans as 'Regulbium'.
The Decline and Fall of Richborough 350 AD To 410 AD
The destruction of the monumental arch and the construction of the new perimeter walls in the late 3rd century was the surest sign that Rutupiae / Richborough was no longer a prestigious Roman town. And in the 4th century a general malaise throughout the Roman Empire was beginning to affect Britain, and the settlements in Kent. The fort at Reculver declined, and buildings which fell into disuse were not restored or replaced. By about 375 AD, it seems that Reculver had effectively been abandoned, though the exact reason for its demise remains in doubt.
Rutupiae continued to be of some value for some time after this, still acting as a gateway to Britain. It is known that on at least two occasions between 360 AD and 370 AD, troops were landed here to campaign against tribal rebellions in the north by Saxon invaders as well as Picts and Scots. Roman coins from this period have been found in abundance at Richborough, but in excavations from later decades, even these gradually peter out as the Romans began to withdrew from Britain. At Richborough there are the ruins of one final significant building - significant because it is a baptismal font from the time when Rome had converted to the new religion of Christianity. The church of which it is the last surviving component, was built in the 4th century, but like the rest of the fort, this too was abandoned with the departure of the Richborough garrison. The font nonetheless remains as a rare and important example of Christian Rome in Britain.
It's believed that the Romans were gone from Britain by the year 410 AD, and Rutupiae - which had quite probably been the very first point of entry into Britain - had now become possibly the very last point of exit.
The end of Roman occupation wasn't quite the end of Richborough, as it paved the way for the Anglo Saxon invasion of England during the 5th century. Throughout the next several centuries there seem to have been settlements in the area, and there was a story that St Augustine landed here in 597 AD on his mission to convert the Anglo Saxons tribes to Christianity. In the Middle Ages, a chapel dedicated to St Augustine existed at Richborough from the 12th century and continued in use until the 17th. Now however, the chapel is gone and just the bases of its walls remain, barely distinguishable to the untutored eye from the Roman ruins which lay all around. Over time, the Wantsum Channel gradually began to silt up. What was underwater in Roman times now became marshland into which the eastern wall of the old Roman fort at Richborough collapsed. Eventually during the reign of Elizabeth I, the channel was gone, and Richborough was stranded far inland.
More substantial post-Roman architecture was put in place at the site of Reculver, which became a royal estate of the King of Kent. A small church and a monastery were built here In the late 7th century, though the monastery was abandoned and neglected after the 9th century, possibly as a result of Viking raids. The church later became the parish church of a small village, and in the 12th century two impressive towers were added. A new chancel was also added in the 13th century. Reculver suffered a rather different fate to Richborough, because here the sea beyond the Wantsum Channel was winning the endless battle bewteen land and water. Reculver remained on the coast, but the village it served was eventually abandoned and lost to the sea. So was the northern side of what had once been the Roman fort. In 1809 the Reculver Church was demolished, leaving just the towers and a few crumbling ruins.
The Sites Of Richborough And Reculver Today
Today relatively little remains of the Roman town and fort of Rutupiae at Richborough, or of the Reculver outpost.
At Richborough the best preserved ruins are the three northern, western and southern walls from the late 3rd century, and these are still really quite impressive, as much as 8 m high in places (even higher in their heyday) and 3 m thick at the base - even today, self-evidentally the walls of a fortress. Gateways were once to be found in the centre of each perimeter wall. The gate in the southern wall has long gone, but the gap now marks the route into the site. An opening in the western wall leads to the beginnings of Watling Street. The northern wall is the most intact, and the gate entrance here is also the best preserved.
No other substantial stone constructions survive, and certainly not beyond the 3rd century walls where most of the original town existed. Within the walls we merely have the layout of the shops, the baths, the inns and the great monumental arch - all victims of Roman reconstructions during the 3rd century change to fortress status, later human scavenging for building material, or simply the ravages of time and erosion. But some of the ditches have been preserved, including the two external perimerter trenches, the three internal trenches which surrounded the arch, and even a portion of the original Claudian ditches - the first ever known construction at Richborough.
At Reculver, even less exists from the Roman era. There is still the perimeter wall, intact in places, but all other signs of the Roman garrison are now long since gone, buried under grass, or submerged under water. The ruins of the later English church and its twin towers still present an impressive sight however, for all who visit here. And the entirety of the Reculver ruins visible today - 3rd century Roman walls, 7th-8th century Anglo Saxon church remains and the 12th and 13th century Norman towers and chancel - are a graphic illustration in stone of the passage of time in one small area of England.
The Visitor's Centre
A small free car park is just a short distance from the entrance to the site. As one approaches, the south wall of Rutupiae is on the left, and the attractive little Visitor's Centre is on the right. This is where one pays for admission to Richborough. The Centre also incorporates a shop and a small museum.
The shop offers all the merchandise one would expect in a place like this - educational literature and souvenirs of the site, and also the all important refreshments; vending machines offer snacks, drinks and sweets. Picnic tables can be found outside.
The well laid-out museum features artifacts from the site, as well as recreations of Roman Retupiae. One can spend just a few minutes there, or much longer if one wishes to read all of the well presented information boards.
Also in the Visitor Centre one can borrow an audio tour guide with information to be played and listened to at key points around the site.
Current price of admission is £5.80 for adults though with concessionary rates for children, family groups etc), Entry however, is free to members of English Heritage, who administer the site. (More about English Heritage at the foot of this page)
A Visit to Richborough and Reculver
Reculver is a nice little seaside stopover for anyone who is interested in history. or nature, with seaside walks and a nature reserve in the vicinity. There's a carpark and a caravan site and for refreshments, a public house and a cafe.
Richborough is different. There is the tiny nearby village of Richborough itself, and other local villages, but there is really only one reason for coming here, and that is to see the layout of a Roman fort and the ruins of the place where it all began for the Romans in Britain. Richborough may not have the impressive monuments of Rome in Italy, or Leptis Magna in Libya or Ephesus in Turkey. It may not have the incredible human story of Pompeii on visible display. Today there is no great amphitheatre to be seen, or a temple or forum, and there are no great carvings and sculptures. There's just those crumbling walls and a few foundations of dwellings and shops and the triumphal arch to show what once existed here and to reveal where soldiers once marched and where ordinary Roman folks went about their business and lived their lives.
But in its own way Richborough is just as special as these more celebrated sites because of its historical context - the place where mighty Rome's last great outpost in northwest Europe had its origins, and the place from which the Roman armies began their conquest of Britain, changing this country forever. This is where it all began. And that makes Richborough so important in the history of Britain.
The Aerial View of Richborough
This aerial view of modern day Richborough shows all the key features of the site. Around the perimeter walls, you can see two defensive trenches. At the top is the western wall and you may see a tiny wooden bridge leading across one of the trenches to Watling Street. In the bottom left is the south wall and the Visitor's Centre. And on the right side is the northern wall. The Eastern wall is long gone.
Within the perimeter walls you can see the remains of two 1st century ditches (close to the western wall), and in the bottom right corner, the foundations of the Roman baths and mansio. And then you can see the three 3rd century defensive ditches which form a square, incorporating 2nd century shops and houses, the Middle Ages St Augustine chapel (close to the baths and mansio) and - most dramatically - the great cross on which there once stood a monumental arch - surely the greatest building in Britain during the early days of Roman conquest.
About English Heritage - The Administrators Of The Roman Site Of Richborough
- English Heritage Home Page
English Heritage is a registered charity which manages and cares for more than 400 historic buildings and sites. These sites include such diverse places as the world famous prehistoric monument of Stonehenge and a Cold War nuclear fall-out bunker.
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