Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:15 am
Richborough has always fascinated me. Caesar may have landed near Deal but it was at Richborough, a century later, that the story of Roman Britain really began. It was in this corner of Kent that part of Emperor Claudius’ 40,000 strong invasion force landed in 43 AD. They quickly established a beachhead, throwing up defensive barriers – the remains of which are visible – before moving inland and systematically conquering most of the rest of the island, with the notable exception of the north of modern-day Scotland. Richborough – Rutupiae to the Romans – became a military supply base, then a significant port town. In 85 AD, an ornate monumental marble-clad arch was built there, one of the largest in the Empire, more than 80 feet (25 metres) high, with four gateways. It would have been visible from approaching ships, towering over visitors as they stepped ashore – Welcome to Britain! Quite a statement. Here was the start of Watling Street, already an ancient path before the Romans came, but which became a major artery for them stretching to the town of Viroconium Cornoviorum – and beyond. Watling Street is still an important route today, followed by part of the main A2 and A5 roads. So, Rutupiae truly was the gateway to Britain. Moreover, it was a Roman town right up to the last days of official Roman rule in the 5th century – a period of some four hundred years. In relative terms, that would take us back to the time when James I (VI of Scotland) was king.
Clearly, much can happen in four centuries, so Richborough is a multi-layered site that takes a bit of understanding. For a start, the geography is very different today. Two thousand years ago, it was on the coast, separated from the Isle of Thanet by Wantsum sea channel. Now it is 2 miles inland across marshland, overlooking the modestly sized and slightly muddy River Stour. A railway cuts through part of the site. Back in the day, it became a thriving port with a very substantial town around it. There were houses, shops, baths, a mansio – an inn for official visitors – all the trappings of an imperial town and extending far beyond the walls that can be seen today. On the edge of town was an amphitheatre, which it is estimated could accommodate an audience of 5,000. Here, the locals and any visitors would have been entertained by wild beast hunts, gladiatorial fights and the execution of criminals.
A crisis developed in the third century, when the province of Britannia came under attack from raiders – Saxons, Franks, Frisians. The entire centre of Rutupiae, including its wonderful arch, appears to have been demolished and replaced by two successive forts. The first of these had a wooden palisade and three concentric ditches – which are a feature of the site today. It is the massive stone walls of the second fort, however, built sometime after 273 AD, that dominate now. Once, these had circular corner towers, rectangular interval towers and walkways. Thus, Richborough became militarised and one of the forts of the Saxon Shore, a network of defences that stretched from present day Norfolk to Hampshire, including the castle at Portchester.
We can only speculate what happened next. What happened to the inhabitants of the town, whose ancestors may well have lived there for generations? Did they stay around, trying to carry on as their world collapsed around them; or did they become refugees, fleeing west, away from the barbaric invaders?
There must have been some continuity. Intriguingly, there is the outline of a church on the site, close to where the Roman mansio stood. This was Anglo-Saxon, probably 10th century, though an earlier chapel may have stood there. There is evidence of Anglo-Saxon burials. Traditionally, St Augustine landed nearby – some say at Richborough itself, which the Anglo-Saxons called Reptacaestir – and was met by King Ethelbert on the Isle of Thanet. In any event, the church was dedicated to Augustine and was still in use until the 17th century. At some point, an apse was added – as can be seen in the outline. Richborough itself continued to be occupied in some way into the late medieval period, but settlement petered out as the Wantsum channel silted up.
We dropped in on Richborough Roman fort one warm September evening. It was a scouting mission; the small visitor centre had long closed. Old stone walls glowed in the setting sun and it seemed very lonely. In the distance, on the skyline, someone walked their dog, waved and disappeared. Even returning the following day, there were few people about, though the place was undoubtedly full of ghosts. How could anyone not hear the hub of a town, footsteps, soldiers calling to one another, laughing? Four hundred years – and then centuries more.
Like many Roman sites in Britain, a great deal relies on imagination – but English Heritage, who look after the place, have installed some excellent interpretation boards and these help explain the multiple layers of history you are walking on. Standing on the rubble foundation of the archway, I turned west, along the lines of Watling Street. As it leaves the fort now it is merely a dusty farm track; yet it is right at the heart of Britain’s story.