The Romans, or should I say Romano-British, were in trouble in Kent in the late third century because the natives were getting restless, both the ones across the sea and those across the Scottish border. The biggest problem was the tribes from Germany that we call Saxons, Franks, Angles and Jutes; the Germanic tribes of Europe were increasingly raiding our, or the perhaps I should say, the Romano-British coast and seaways perhaps preparing for a full scale invasion as had happened on the Continent; something had to be done about this threat of invasion and minor piracy and, of course, this contempt for Rome.

All around the coast from Norfolk to Hampshire the Romans built a series of large forts, at harbours where trade was focussed. Inland towns too were fortified with walls. The forts are built on a massive scale, I have included the four Kent ones in these pages as you will have seen, they may have been used as bases for the Classis Britannica, the British fleet. Map of Roman Kent after Detsicas

The nine still in existence are often mentioned but there were more even in France and Belgium. These UK forts are: Branodum (Brancaster), Gariannonum (Burgh Castle), Othona (Bradwell) Regulbium (Reculver), Rutupiae (Richborough), Dubris (Dover) Lemanis (Lympne), Anderitum (Pevensey) & Adurni (Portchester).

The earliest of the Saxon Shore forts may have been Reculver in its latest form dating from ca. 230AD (remember a small version was in place just after Claudius' 43AD arrival) while the others may have been built later, according to coin finds, in the period ca. 260 to 285 AD. Marble veneerThe Dover Saxon Shore fort was the third fort to be built on its site but Richborough was perhaps the finest. In its previous incarnation with its Quadrifons it was gateway to Britannia, although this was removed on the building of the Saxon Shore fort. Some parts of the original marble veneer (left) can still be seen at the fort embedded in pieces of the wall. The fort was still occupied right up to the end of Roman rule in the 5th century and may have been the last place to be evacuuated. 

There is only one written source for the existence of Saxon Shore forts and that is the Notitia Dignitatum a document dating to the turn of the 4/5th century, it lists these nine military installations and their garrisons as Castrorum Litus Saxonicum, hence the name we give them. Apart from being stationed with soldiers or marines the forts must also have contained catapults and ballistae (hence the bastions seen on forts) and been capable sheltering the local population (one assumes?) and withstanding a prolonged, determined siege from overseas.

Not all the forts are the same shape or size, Lympne is pentagonal and Reculver square, but they all have massive stone walls (not all with bonding courses) with projecting bastions or towers, they seem to have had earth rampart inside the walls and a protective ditch, or ditches in the case of Richborough, surrounding them. Not so much is known of the insulae within the forts but we can imagine there were granaries, storerooms, baths, administrative blocks, temples, altars and so on. One thing is sure - they were well built - it is a testament to the Roman construction method that they are still standing, in most cases metres high, (even after being robbed for stone blocks) after two millennia.

Continental sea pirates were a serious problem for the Romans with any town or village anywhere near the coast or navigable channel vulnerable to attack. But consider the investment required to quarry all the stone from afar, create the lime mortar from chalk and charcoal, move it, build the fort walls, dig the ditches, garrison the forts continually, feed the men, cut firewood, and a host of other considerations. Communications needed to be kept up to date as well with semaphore, signal, or beacon sites manned and every inlet policed somehow.

But all this work can't have been just for the sake of a few pirates in longboats from Denmark. It is easy to be blinkered by the Saxon Shore forts around the southeast but one must remember at this time inland cities across Britannia were being fortified too. On the Continent there had recently been large scale raids by Franks into Belgium and France.

Archaeological evidence apparently provides information that places near coasts were burned down, large towns inland like Canterbury had their walls rebuilt or fortified. Even seeing the destruction of the extensive Roman Painted House or mansio in Dover to make way for the new Classis Britannica fort, cut straight through it, makes me think this threat was an important, serious issue and that drastic actions were undertaken quickly. This was the beginning of the end but did the Romans know it, I wonder?

Notitia Dignitatum XXVIII (Extract)

Comes litoris Saxonici per Britanniam

(= the list of Saxon Shore Forts)

Othona, Dubris, Lemannis, Branoduno, Garriano, Regulbi, Rutupis, Anderidos, Portum Adurni

Sub dispositione uiri spectabilis comitis litoris Saxonici per Britanniam

(= the names of the units garrisoned)

  • Praepositus numeri Fortensium, Othonae

  • Praepositus militum Tungrecanorum, Dubris

  • Praepositus numeri Turnacensium, Lemannis

  • Praepositus equitum Dalmatarum Branodunensium, Branoduno

  • Praepositus equitum stablesianorum Gariannonensium, Gariannonor

  • Tribunus cohortis primae Baetasiorum, Regulbio

  • Praefectus legionis secundae Augustae, Rutupis

  • Praepositus numeri Abulcorum, Anderidos

  • Praepositus numeri exploratorum, Portum Adurni