ROMAN SHORE FORTS in EAST ANGLIA

 Forts of the Saxon Shore

BBUGH CASTLE near GREAT YARMOUTH

BURGH CASTLE near GREAT YARMOUTH

These are better known as the Forts of the Saxon Shore. This term we derive from the Notitia Digitatum, a late 4th century document, which give us the Latin version. It lists them, but some Roman forts existed along the coast of East Anglia that do not appear in this document although they obviously made up the Roman defensive system. The forts omitted from this list include Caister-on-Sea and Walton Castle, the latter was near Felixstowe but now lost to the sea.

Although some Roman shore forts existed to the north of East Anglia (at Scarborough for instance), the most northerly of those listed in the Notitia was at Brancaster in North West Norfolk. Although the foundations of the fort there have recently been excavated, nothing now remains to be seen above ground level. This was not true three hundred years ago when the fort stood tall, but the landowner in the eighteenth century thought these old ruins spoilt the view, and he demolished them. The structure was on the usual square Roman plan, and was built of the local carstone.

It is interesting to see why these forts were built where they were. Obviously Brancaster was intended to protect the entrance to the Wash. The necessary adjunct to the shore based fort was  a fleet of warships to venture out, to deter raiders from Northern Europe. Brancaster harbour made a safe anchorage for these vessels. Also the cavalry from the fort would  have been able to ride out along the coast road to Holme and beyond to discourage these raiders from landing. South of that the marshy nature of the Wash coastline did not make ideal territory for possible invasion. The river Great Ouse certainly gave access deep into the heart of the country, and by defending the Wash it was hoped to prevent foreign ships from entering. Brancaster fort would have been directly connected to the Roman road network both around the coast and inland. Peddars Way was a major route which terminated at Holme-next-the-Sea .

Going south round the coast the next fort was at Caister, that lay on the opposite bank of the river Yare to Burgh Castle. Incidentally the name  Yare (or Gare) was used for the river by the Romans, as we can tell from the Latin word for Burgh Castle, Gariannonum. Caister would have been a fortified town, but Gariannonum on the south bank of the river was the main fort; there was no town associated with this southern fortThe accompanying fleet would have been moored along the estuary that now forms Breydon Water.

Brancaster was the first fort to be built in East Anglia, about the year 230. Bradwell-on-Sea was another early fort, probably to defend Camulodum (Colchester), the early capital of Roman Britain, although by then this had moved to Londinium. The first garrison at Brancaster may have been from Aquitane, but during the latter decades of Roman occupation it was held by the Dalmatian Cavalry.  Burgh Castle may also have been held by Dalmatians. This use of troops from across the Empire gave a sense of unity; certainly once they were withdrawn the local militia were quite inadequate for the task of defending the country.

Only very minor waterways like the rivers Stiffkey and Glaven ran out to sea between the Great Ouse and the Yare and did not merit a naval present or fort; nor apparently did the river Alde in Suffolk. The Deben, Orwell and Stour all flow into the North Sea within a few miles of each other; any of these could have held a Roman fleet. The estuary of the Deben was the nearest to the Roman garrison at Walton Castle, and therefore probably was where it was based.

Further south in Essex the fort at Bradwell-on-Sea defended the rivers Colne and Blackwater, and that at Reculver defended the Thames. There were other forts in Kent and two to guard Southampton Water, one on the Isle of Wight. There was a similar series of forts down the coast of Gaul from Calais to Nantes on the river Loire. In Britain these placers were settled by the invading Anglo-Saxons once the Roman legions had been withdrawn. The dire results of invasion may be seen in a recent DNA survey which shows that East Anglian bloodlines are still predominantly Anglo-Saxon; Romano-British Celtic blood is absent. Historians at one time used to suggest that the take-over was relatively peaceful, but modern genetic research suggests this was not so. Hundreds of  years later the Viking raiders sailed with impunity along the Saxon shore, mirroring the invasion of the of their Germanic predecessors four centuries earlier. In spite of leaving great changes in the history a geographical divisions of the country, and even changes to its language, the numbers of the Vikings were too small to affect the overwhelming Anglo-Saxon nature of the population.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA

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