Richborough Roman Fort (Rutupiæ)

Richborough Roman Fort

Location: Richborough, Kent Map

Constructed: AD 43
Former roman name: Rutupiæ
Tel. 01304 612 013
Open: Apr- Sept daily
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Children (5- 15 years) £2.90
Family (2 adults, 3 children) £12.70


Description of Richborough Roman Fort

Richborough Roman Fort (Rutupiæ)

The late antique fort of Rutupiae is located near present-day Richborough, in the county of Kent in England, district of Dover.

Richborough was occupied by the Romans from AD 43 until the end of their reign in 410. It gained importance as a naval base and base camp for the conquest of the island with the invasion of Britain by Emperor Claudius in 43 AD. During the Roman occupation, a civilian settlement and an important trading and transit port developed alongside the fort. It was one of the two main gateways to Roman Britain and thus one of the busiest ports of call for shipping, which connected the island to Portus Itius/Gesoriacum (today Boulogne-sur-Mer) on the Gallic coast. The Roman fleet controlled the waters of the English Channel and the North Sea from here. In the 3rd century Rutupiae was integrated into the chain of forts of the so-called Litus Saxonicum (Saxon coast), an important part of the late antique Limes Britannicus.



The name Rutupiae (= "murky water" or "the muddy estuary") probably comes from the Celtic language area.

Richborough is referred to as Rutupiai in the geographical treatise of Claudius Ptolemy in the early 2nd century AD.
The Itinerarium Antonini, created in the late 2nd century, mentions Richborough in three places, once in the Iter Britanniarum and twice in Iter II, "The road from the rampart to the port of Ritupiae". All road stations from Hadrian's Wall to Richborough are also listed here. The distance between the Portus Ritupiae and the penultimate station, Durovernum (Canterbury), is given as twelve miles.
The place is entered as Rutupis in the Tabula Peutingeriana.
In the Notitia Dignitatum, Rutupis appears in the late 4th century as a garrison town of the Litus Saxonicum between Regulbium (Reculver, Kent) and Anderitum (Pevensey, East Sussex).
Furthermore, Richborough is also mentioned in the 7th century Cosmographia of the Ravenna geographer, as Rutupiae, this time between Durovernum Cantiacorum (Canterbury) and Durobrivae (Rochester, Kent).


Location and function

The garrison of the fort - along with Regulbium fort - secured one of the most important port locations in the British provinces, the southern entrance to the Wantsum Canal, the Isle of Thanet and the entrance to the Stour Valley. From here it was relatively easy to cross the Oceanus Britannicus to the Gallic Gesoriacum (Boulogne-sur-Mer). The fort was just north of Sandwich (Kent), near the east coast of Kent. It stood on a low, isolated hill, a spur of the Canterbury Downs, rising 18m above sea level and now entirely surrounded by marshland. Plains spread north and west separating it from the Isle of Thanet, these also extend east and south where the Stour meets the sea. Only in the west and south-west is the swamp belt narrower, from where you can reach the plateau in the interior. It's still a somewhat remote spot today and is the last vantage point off the coast. In Roman times the fort hill was a peninsula and surrounded by the sea on two sides except the south and west. The then navigable Wantsum Canal was a major tidal sluice that guaranteed ships entering the Thames/Thamesis safe passage to London/Londinium without the risks involved in sailing around the island of Thanet on the open sea. It has silted up over the centuries, only marshland and dykes mark the places where brisk shipping traffic was still possible in ancient times. The ruins of the Saxony coast fort are now about three kilometers inland. The ancient harbor is now also swampland. Today there is a factory on the edge of the fort area, the eastern end of the camp was destroyed by erosion from the 15th century and later by the construction of a railway line. The place was also the starting point of Watling Street, a trunk road that led first to London and then via St. Albans and Wroxeter to central Wales and the north. Today only a narrow dirt road west of Richborough reminds of her.


Research history

In 1540, John Leland first described the walls of the Saxony Coast Fort and the foundations of the triumphal arch. More accounts of Roman remains were written by William Boys in 1799. He mentions the traces of roads that ran west of the fort. In 1846, during the construction of the railway line to the east of the fort, remains of flint and brick walls and an apse were destroyed. In 1849 parts of the amphitheater were uncovered. In 1887 George Dowker found the remains of ancient stone buildings with mosaic floors. 350 m further south, during railway construction work in 1926, the remains of two Romano-British temples, a burial ground, kilns and other Roman buildings were discovered near the amphitheater. The ruin site was bought by the Kent Archaeological Society in 1894, first placed in the hands of a board of trustees and fenced off; later the area was included in the National Heritage of England.

The most extensive excavations were carried out by Joselyn P. Bushe-Fox - on behalf of the Society of Antiquaries of London and the Minister for Public Works and Labor - with the help of unemployed miners in the 1920s and 1930s. Between 1959 and 1969 the Kent Archeological Rescue Unit (KARU) carried out excavations at the fort. In 1965 Ian Archibald Richmond recognized that the foundations at the center of the fort and fragments of marble belonged to a triumphal monument. A final summary of the excavation results was published by Barry Cunliffe in 1968. In 2000, aerial photographs of the ancient city area were taken. In 2001, 22 hectares of the excavation site were geophysically surveyed to complete the work. In particular, the exact course of the Roman roads could be clarified. In 2001 and 2008, English Heritage archaeologists were able to confirm that the ancient coastline is almost identical to the current bed of the River Stoure.



The banks of the Wantsum Canal have been inhabited since the late Bronze Age. The canal itself was probably an important traffic route from prehistoric times. Traces of a larger settlement from the 7th-6th centuries have been found near Richborough. century B.C. observed. Early Iron Age pottery shards, associated in some cases with burials, also provide evidence of pre-Roman settlement on the hill. At the time of the Roman invasion, the region was ruled by the Celto-British tribes of the Catuvellauni, Atrebates and Trinovantes.

In AD 43, the Romans under Emperor Claudius landed in Britain in their second invasion. Rutupiae was one of their bridgeheads, where Aulus Plautius went ashore with most of the troops - probably up to three legions. The Legio II Augusta under the command of Vespasian entered British soil a little further south. The army of occupation is now estimated at around 800 ships and 40,000-50,000 men. At that time, this place was a well-protected lagoon between the coast and the island of Thanet (Thanatusins). Archaeological excavations have shown that immediately after landing, the bridgehead was fortified and infrastructure was built.

Almost all of Richborough Hill was probably built on extensively during Roman times. Today, only the remains of the Saxon Coast Fort are visible in the north-east corner, which formed the core of the port town in the last decades of Roman rule. However, excavations by Bushe-Fox for the Society of Antiquaries have shown that the fort was preceded by a number of other buildings, some of military origin and others apparently of civilian origin. After consolidating their rule in south-eastern Britain in the mid-1st century, Rutupiae became the most important naval and supply base for further Roman advances in Britain. New military roads were laid from here towards Canterbury and London, numerous wooden structures erected along a grid-like road network to house the soldiers and supplies. Around the year 85, the appearance of Rutupiae changed fundamentally, the provisional wooden buildings of the founding period were removed and partially replaced by more solid stone constructions and a monumental triumphal arch (quadrifrons). The locations of such monuments were of great symbolic importance to the Romans. The erection of the monument is therefore also the strongest indication that Claudius' invasion troops actually first set foot on British soil here. Subsequently, however, he was also supposed to emphasize the subjugation of the local population and Rome's power. However, the military focus now shifted to the north and west of the island. Rutupiae was also replaced by Portus Dubris/Dover, 25 km away, as the main supply and naval base. Despite this, it developed into a thriving coastal town, and its infrastructure now included a large mansio (inn). The city was also known throughout the Roman Empire for the quality of its oyster beds. These are mentioned by Juvenal as being on a par with those from the southern Italian Lake Lucrin/Lucrinus Lacus.

Around the middle of the 3rd century, drastic political and economic upheavals in the empire made it necessary to fortify the port city, which had apparently already been largely destroyed. Possibly much of the economic activity had shifted to Londinium. A temporary fortification was built around the triumphal arch. A large part of the area of the civil town was leveled, and the Quadrifrons, which has probably also fallen into disrepair in the meantime, was completely demolished. The massive defensive walls of the Saxony coast fort were raised with the demolition material and its marble was burned to lime. It seems that its construction started around 277 and ended in 285. When the fort walls were completed, the remaining earthworks and ditches were removed or filled in. The fortress was probably commissioned by the usurper Carausius to repel an invasion by troops from the Roman central government. A new threat now emerged in the form of Anglo-Saxon and Frankish pirates. They were the vanguard of the later Saxon settlers who were soon to settle permanently in Britain coming from the North Sea. The Limes on the "Saxony coast" was set up as an independent military district or more heavily fortified. At the mouth of the Wantsum was u. a. also built the camp of Regulbium/Reculver.

359/360 Picts and Scots broke through the northern border and devastated large parts of Britain. In order to repulse them again, Emperor Julian Apostate sent his army commander, the Magister equitum per Gallias Lupicinus, on the march, who soon afterwards arrived in Rutupiae with an army of Herulian and Bataver mercenaries and marched with them first to Londinium in order to proceed from there to plan. In 367, the Attacotts, Picts and Saxons invaded Britain simultaneously, annihilating or scattering the Roman forces stationed on the island, killing their general, the Comes Maritimus Nectaridus, and besieging the Dux Fullofaudes in his fortress. After that, a usurper, Valentinus, seized control of the British provinces. In 368 the Comes Flavius Theodosius landed in Rutupis on behalf of Emperor Valentinian I with his army, quickly put down Valentinus' rebellion, secured Hadrian's Wall, defeated the invaders and thus restored the Roman order on the island - for the last time - again. It is likely that the gradual decline of Roman Britain began in the second half of the fourth century, with its infrastructure falling apart more and more. Certainly there were still functioning trade networks, as can be seen from the pottery finds for this period, but local production also declined. However, the forts in East Kent and especially that in Richborough probably still played an important role in the last years of the Roman province. There is some evidence of stamped lead ingots and other late fourth-century finds recovered there. In the north-west corner of the fort, the remains of a late antique church have been unearthed and recent investigations have shown that the vicus was even expanded somewhat in the fourth century. During the excavations, more than 20,000 coins from the period between 395 and 402 were also found on the site of the fort, far more than in the rest of Britain. Among them were a lot of smaller denominations, a strong indication that Rutupis was an important economic and financial center in the region until the end of Roman rule. The fort at Richborough was arguably one of the last Roman strongholds in Britain to be vacated of its regular garrison.

In the early 5th century, the Western Roman administration and army in Britain had already dissolved, but the former Saxon coastal fort was still very busy. When Augustine of Canterbury visited Britain in 597, he probably landed at Rutupis. With the landing of the missionary sent by Pope Gregory I, contact with Rome was restored. Due to its favorable location on the Channel coast, this place continued to be populated. The Romano-British King Vortigern made the island of Thanet available for settlement to Anglo-Saxon mercenaries led by Hengist and Horsa. From there the Anglo-Saxon occupation of Britain would begin in 449. Towards the end of the 5th century Thanet was part of the first Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Kent. During excavations in 2008 one encountered u. a. also on a dock from the Middle Ages. Proof that the place - and probably also the fort - was still used as a harbor at that time. The Wantsum Canal began to silt up from the 12th century, the last ship passed through it in 1672, and the port also had to be abandoned after that.


Bridgehead attachment

This barrier was probably built in great haste during the invasion of Britain, 43 AD, to secure the landing zone against surprise British attacks. From the fortifications, traces of a double ditch could be observed on the inside of the Saxony coast fort (to the north-east). It was probably a 2700 m long, crescent-shaped barrier, consisting of a peat-earth wall with palisade posts to the east and two V-shaped ditches in front (approx. 650 m are still visible today), which runs from north to south, parallel to the coastline at that time. In the north-east the ditches ended in marshland, in the south they were destroyed during the construction of a railway line. The inner ditch was 3.5 m wide and 2 m deep, the outer one was slightly narrower and ran 2 m away. Not far from the west gate of the Sachsenküstenkastell, these ditches were interrupted by a 9 m wide paved dam, where - on the land side - a 3.25 m wide gate broke through the wall, which was secured by a wooden tower resting on four posts. The camp arguably extended far east to the present-day line of cliffs and marshland. In the west and especially in the east of Walls, the remains of Roman buildings were found. In particular, near the present-day cliff, traces of more than half a dozen elongated wooden buildings, 35 m long and 8 m wide, arranged in rows, have been found. The purpose of these buildings, it can be assumed, was to create storerooms for housing military goods and equipment during the first years of the conquest. A well shaft smeared with clay was located 6 m east of the Saxony coast fort. The contents of this well showed that it had been filled in just ten years after the invasion. Ceramics from the late Celtic and Claudian periods, coins from Agrippa, Tiberius and Claudius were found there as accompanying finds, objects from the time of Claudius were found in the layers above. How long the early military occupation of the site lasted cannot yet be said with certainty. It was probably short-lived; estimated to be around AD 50. It is only clear that the mound was used for other purposes until the last quarter of the century. The earth wall was leveled and the ditches filled in.


Wood-earth fortification on the triumphal arch

In the middle of the 3rd century the houses around the triumphal arch were apparently cleared or demolished and the area was surrounded with three pointed ditches and an earth wall. The ditches ended at Mansio and Watling Streets, where the main gate of the fort is believed to have been. The fortifications were probably in use for 25-30 years.


Saxony coast fort

The Saxony coast fort stood on slightly elevated ground in the north of the bay. The complex from late antiquity still had the rectangular floor plan typical of mid-imperial forts, but no longer had rounded corners. Furthermore, no rear earth wall could be detected. Gates were let into the defensive wall on two sides, each flanked by two towers. At 2.5 hectares, it is somewhat smaller than the neighboring Regulbium (Reculver), but the walls of the fort were much more massive and were probably later modernized again. The eastern side of the fortress is now completely destroyed. Debris from the east wall was still used as a dock in the 15th century.



Large sections of the wall, measuring 3.3 m at the base, are still standing up to a height of eight meters. This was also the height of the battlements, which were probably protected by battlements about two meters high. The wall was mainly built of flint, but many other types of rock, such as e.g. B. Limestone from the area were used for this purpose. The north wall z. B. is likely to consist largely of material from the broken off triumphal arch. A striking change in the construction of the wall can be clearly seen at one point here. Presumably this section had been erected by another construction crew.

The core of the wall consisted of quarry stone bound in cement, which was covered with roughly hewn blocks. Six two-row rows of bricks (they also contain a small amount of reused roof tiles) were inserted one meter apart. Smaller square indentations (so-called putlog holes), in which the support beams of the scaffolding were once anchored, are also clearly visible everywhere. The outer facing has now largely disappeared as its stone material was used to build the town walls of nearby Sandwich. The large holes in the wall visible today were also caused by stone robbers.


Gates and towers

The corners of the wall were protected by four cantilevered, semi-circular massive towers, while the twelve intermediate towers and four gate towers were rectangular and accessible from the inside. Their floors were made of wood. They probably housed guard rooms, living quarters or storage rooms. Their lowest floors consisted of a layer of pebbles, which can still be seen in the tower between the northeast corner tower and the northern hatch. There was a latrine in the intermediate tower north of the west gate. The foundations of the southwest corner tower can still be seen today. On the corner towers there were probably heavy slingshot guns (ballista).

The two slightly offset gate systems in the east (port side) and the main gate in the west (land side) were each provided with a passage. The guardrooms were above the archways. They were flanked by two rectangular towers. They also gave access to the battlements. On the north and south walls, two small slip gates were let into the central intermediate towers (on their east and west sides). The northern one has been preserved to its original height.


Defensive ditches

Two V-shaped defensive ditches also surrounded the fort walls as an approach obstacle. The inner one was 10 m wide and 3 m deep, the outer 8 m wide and 2 m deep. A third ditch, between the two main ditches, at the west gate was probably the result of a survey error. It was therefore filled up again soon after it was excavated.


Interior constructions

In the 4th century almost all the buildings inside the fort were made of wood. A total of 17 of them have been archaeologically proven. These were mostly simple, long rectangular timber frame buildings. The partition walls were made using half-timbering technology. In the southeast corner were two larger storage buildings (Horreum). In the centre, on the site of the former triumphal arch, the Principia of the camp were erected.

In the 5th century a small chapel with a hexagonal tiled basin (probably a baptismal font) was built on the north-west wall over the remains of a 1st-century wooden building. It is one of the very rare testimonies to the activities of burgeoning Christianity in Britain and may have been in use for some time after the Roman army had left.


Thermal bath

In the north-eastern part of the fort area, a small, east-west oriented bathhouse (row bath type) with a pool attached to the side was uncovered. It was probably the only stone building in the late antique camp and was built directly over the remains of the earlier mansio and probably at the same time as the fort (a coin of Emperor Tetricus, 268–273 AD, found under the floor of the frigidarium) and probably abandoned in the 5th century.

A total of three rooms could be examined during the excavations, one of which could not be heated. It is located on the east side of the building and measures 3.40 m × 3.60 m. On the north side there is a piscina that has been remodeled several times and was built into a rectangular niche (2.40 m × 1.65 m). To the west was the 2.70 m × 3.60 m tepidarium, followed by the caldarium. Both are equipped with a hypocaust heater, the praefurnium of which is located on the west side of the caldarium. The associated water basin was located in an apse attached to the north side.



At the end of the 4th century, according to the Notitia Dignitatum, a prefect with a vexillation of the Legio II Augusta was stationed in the castle of Rutupis under the command of the Comes litoris Saxonici per Britanniam (Praefectus legionis secundae Augustae, Rutupis). The camp of Rutupis was not big enough to hold the whole legion. The resulting vexillations were probably already scattered throughout the Western Roman Empire at that time, since the army reforms of Emperors Gallienus and Diocletian assigned the best soldiers to the mobile field army (Comitatenses).


Civilian town

The first temporary fortification was followed by a phase of development during which the ditches were leveled, a road network laid, and 12.28 m × 9 m wooden structures, including two warehouses, were erected. From 70 Rutupiae had established itself as an important trading port. The warehouses were demolished and replaced by narrow, long-rectangular wooden buildings with a porch and street-facing commercial and living quarters at the rear (strip house).

The multi-phase civil settlement (at first probably just a vicus) arose in pre-Flavian times. Its center was to the west of the triumphal arch in an area surrounded by earthworks and continued beyond these ramparts. Military warehouses were gradually being replaced by residential buildings as early as the 1st century. Along Watling Street and just to the west of the Late Antique fort, behind a ridge, an extensive regular grid of streets and smaller foundation ditches of stone buildings emerged. However, most of the buildings were made of wood. In some, oil lamps were made or metal worked. It must have been a city-like settlement of about 21-25 hectares, which reached its heyday and greatest extent in the 2nd century. A burial ground and the remains of two small temples (Temple 1 and 2) were also found. After 270 AD the city had apparently already been abandoned by most of its inhabitants. Their terrain was then leveled and the fort of the Saxony Coast Limes was built on it - over the area of six former insulae.



Little is known about him. It was located to the east of the fort grounds, its last remains were destroyed during the construction of the railway. The harbor provided a safe anchorage, protected (geologists believe) by the natural breakwater of Stonor Beach. In the 3rd century, sedimentary deposits from the River Stour began to silt up the port area, particularly to the west of the town, which may have been one of the reasons for its decline during this period.



This multi-phase building stood on the sea-facing side of the city area. The exact purpose of the building is not entirely clear, but it seems almost certainly to have served as a hostel (mansio) for travelers and state officials. In the 1st century, the mansio was still made entirely of wood, and its rooms were arranged around a large courtyard. It was completely rebuilt in stone around AD 70 and expanded even further to the northeast around AD 85. It was then rebuilt several times and completely rebuilt again during the 2nd century and also equipped with hypocaust heating for a bathroom. The late 3rd-century fortifications around the triumphal arch cut through the remains of dwellings but spared the mansio. It must have been intact at this point. Perhaps it served as accommodation for the fortress commander. The building stood until the late 3rd century. After it was destroyed by the construction of the Saxony Coast Fort, the camp baths were built to the west of its remains.


Triumphal arch

Possibly to celebrate the victory of Gnaeus Iulius Agricola at the Battle of Mons Graupius or the completion of the conquest of Britain under Domitian, a roughly 45 × 32 m triumphal arch (Quadrifrons or Great Monument) was erected at Rutupiae. The four-arched monumental building clad with white Carrara marble from Italy, originally around 25 m high, was probably also intended to symbolically mark the entrance to Rome's new province of Britannia (accessus Britanniae). Such monuments had also been erected in other provincial towns (e.g. the so-called Heidentor in Pannonian Carnuntum). Its cruciform (1.5 m wide, north-south arm 25 × 21 m long, west-east arm 14 × 7 m long), made of flint stone bound in clay and ten meters deep, are still clearly visible today. They were also known as Saint Austin-Cross since the 17th century. They were long thought to be the base of a large lighthouse, or part of its internal support structure. The four main pillars were flanked by four archways, which formed a cruciform vault in the middle. The western and eastern arches were much wider and higher and served as a passage that could be entered via stairs on both sides. A box-shaped superstructure with a flat roof was placed over the arches. He may have carried an equestrian statue or group of figures (quadriga). Coins of Vespasian (69-79) and Sami ceramics from around 60-90 AD were found as additional finds, and pottery shards from 75-120 AD were still found in the sand layer above.

Individual bronze finds and fragments of worked marble give a good idea of how imposing it might have once been. Roman numerals were carved into some of the marble fragments, all in small letters. In all cases the numerals were placed on the back of the slab and are therefore either associated with a reuse of the marble or, more likely, served as a marker to place the slabs in the correct places on the structure. It may have been dedicated to the sea god Neptune, which may have been reflected in its facade decoration. It is possible that this monument is also related to a monumental inscription found in Rome, which tells of the submission of eleven British kings to Emperor Claudius. The inscription was there on a triumphal arch erected for Claudius. In the middle of the 3rd century it was fortified with earth walls, additionally surrounded by three V-shaped ditches and used as an observation and signaling station. Towards the end of the century (275-300) it was finally broken off.



The amphitheater has been known since the 18th century. It was about 400 m south-west of the Saxony coast fort on the highest point on the peninsula. It is believed to have been built in the late 3rd century for the garrison of the fort. It was an ellipsoidal facility with two main entrances in the longitudinal axis and massive structural structures in the area of the transverse axis within the spectator tiers. The amphitheaters in Britain were not usually built entirely of stone. Excavation in 1848 and recent geophysical surveys within the area revealed an arena surrounded by sloping clay and mortar masonry substructures twelve meters wide and two meters high. The wooden seats for the spectators were attached to them. Only a slight depression, the 62 × 50 meter arena, can be seen from the amphitheater today. The magnetometer investigations also showed large stone circle areas under the spectator benches, which had very deep foundations. On the narrow sides, on the north-west and south-east sides, there is evidence of two additional gates that appear to have been flanked by towers. It seems that the amphitheater also superimposed imperial settlement structures.