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Thursday, April 15, 2010
“The work of giants is crumbling.” So it may have seemed to fifth century Saxon peasants as they looked on the crumbling walls of the mighty Roman forts built along the Norfolk coast.
We used to think so. The old school textbooks were precise 410AD Romans leave, 450AD Saxons move in. Today the story does not look so clear. A similar story could be told for the forts the later Roman Empire built along its vulnerable east coast. From The Wash down to what is now Portsmouth in the south a string of fortifications went up that were inhabited for up to 200 years. Today remains at such sites as Brancaster, Caister and Burgh Castle provoke as many questions as answers. Why were they built? Against whom? What went on there? When were they abandoned? Archaeologists are searching for clues, and historians are divided on the answers.
The name comes from the Count of the Saxon Shore. He was the Roman commander with the responsibility of keeping the coast of Britannia safe in the third and fourth centuries. Rome had conquered southern Britain in a series of campaigns from 43AD and stamped its rule on the province. A period of prosperity the pax Romanica followed. But after 200 years of imperial rule the picture looked different. Internal chaos and civil war within and barbarians knocking on the doors without led to a more defensive regime. By the 280s Britain had a separatist ruler. A man of possibly barbarian origins named Carausius defied Rome and it took a decade to put down the revolt. In the following century others followed, as Romes authority weakened. In this atmosphere, forts were built. Brancaster was probably the first, built in the early 200s on an earlier settlement. Caister and Burgh Castle followed later in the century. They were built on the coast of what was then a vast tidal estuary, now modern Yarmouth. They were constructed facing each other across the water, part of a series of military sites and lighthouses.
These were solid constructions. At Burgh Castle the walls were of flint with courses of tiles to hold it together. Three sides remain, with several projecting bastions, the fourth wall having collapsed into the marsh. The walls are 9ft thick and at least 14ft high. These forts, the last word in contemporary military engineering, were built to withstand a seige. There is little to see now at Brancaster and Caister, where a thorough demolition job over the centuries has left little but the foundations. More rewarding for the observer are the great fortifications at Burgh Castle. Archaeologists point out that coastal erosion and siltation have changed the landscape so much they distort the reason the forts were built where they were. The estuary of the Yare, for example, was wider 2000 years ago; Caister would have been on a small island. At Brancaster the fort would have been closer to the beach than it is today, while Burgh now looks over Breydon Water, the remains of the once huge estuary. At Walton on the Suffolk coast, the Roman castle long ago crumbled into the sea. There is evidence of another fort at Skegness, also washed away by the erosion that is still a factor on this everchanging coast.
The likeliest explanation is that they were to thwart barbarian Saxon seaborne raids from what is now northern Germany. At the same time the walls at Venta Icenorum, the Roman market town at Caistor St Edmund, near modern Norwich, went up. Some bold historians beg to differ; they suggest they were built by British separatists against imperial retribution and that the threat from barbarians has been exaggerated with the benefit of hindsight, while others say they were fortified ports, engaged in trade with the greater empire but with an eye to security. We dont really know. It seems more likely they were built by the army or navy and garrisoned by troops against the Saxon threat. Naval craft were probably also based there to counter the threat of seaborne raiders.
In all three of the Norfolk forts remains of internal buildings have been destroyed. There would have been a principia (headquarters), a bath-house, of course, as well as living quarters. Wives and children may have lived within the walls. By the time of the later empire much of the army was made up of barbarians living within the empire, many of them from Germanic tribes. At Burgh there was a contingent of elite Greek cavalry who may have formed a mobile rapid reaction force to act quickly against pirates in the marshes, while at Brancaster there was a Dalmatian (modern Croatia) unit. Aerial photography has shown up dwellings outside the forts service industries feeding the garrisons as well as evidence of agriculture. Suggestions that a 500-strong complement within a space of roughly seven acres may have been housed at each fort are not implausible, although that may have been a peak number in times of emergency.
By the early fifth century Roman authority was crumbling. Whether due to internal or external pressures, people began abandoning Roman towns and fortresses throughout Britain. Some sites were deserted altogether. At Burgh, though, the walls were adapted and later became part of a Norman castle. The seventh century Saxon saint Fursey was associated with the site. But for the humble Saxon peasants who colonised eastern England and lived in small wooden buildings, surely these Roman walls must have looked like the work of vanished giants.
The Roman Shore Forts (Andrew Pearson, Tempus, 2002).
Burgh Castles walls are cared for by English Heritage, the rest of the fort is owned by the Norfolk Archaeology Trust.
The castle is west of Yarmouth, and attracts nature-lovers as well as historians. Caister is north of Yarmouth, while Brancaster is east of Hunstanton.