You are here:Homepage > KAR article
KENT AND THE CLASSIS BRITANNICA FORTS.
Given that the Classis Britannica existed for the better part of 200 years, very little is known about this important Roman military presence in Kent.
The Classis Britannica was formed to assist the Emperor Claudius' invasion of AD42 and it was based in Boulogne (Gesoriacum to the Romans). However, a clue to the answer to the query as to whether the Romans landed in Kent or Sussex might be the great triumphal Arch which once stood in Richborough (of which, only the foundations remain). Roman Emperors put up triumphal arches all over the place and at the drop of a helmet, but they had to have a good reason for all these buildings. If the Romans' first landing spot was in Sussex, it might be thought that a triumphal Arch would have been put up there. Its presence in Richborough suggests that someone very senior in the Roman administration wanted a small patch of Kent to be commemorated in a very special way. What better way to mark the place where Rome first landed in Britain?
As well as Richborough, which guarded the south end of the Wantsum Channel, separating the Isle of Thanet from the rest of Kent, there was Reculver, now a very eroded fort guarding the north end of the Channel. There was also Dover, the Novus Portus, which boasted a Classis Britannica fort as well as a Legionary fortress, a Mansio, a posting house for Imperial couriers and other important persons preserved as The Roman Painted House. Also, 18 metres of a Roman lighthouse still stand in the grounds of the medieval Dover Castle, itself probably built on Roman foundations.
Lympne also boasted a Fleet fort, although it has long been lost, probably somewhere under Romney Marsh, or the Royal Military Canal. The Saxon Shore Fort at Lympne is much later, although this is where one of the few monuments of the British Fleet was found, an altar dedicated (probably) to Neptune, by a Fleet Prefect named Aufidius Pantera, soon after the year AD 133. This altar had been re-used in the building of the Saxon Shore fort, placed back to front in the wall, so that the dedication wouldn't be seen.
A few other places in Kent show signs of Fleet activity, one being Cranbrook, where a field was excavated by the librarian and pupils of Benenden school, about 40 years ago. They found a pottery kiln, evidence of basic iron working, and roof tiles stamped with the CL.BR signet of the British Fleet. The school requested that the site become a Scheduled Ancient Monument for its own protection - and it was so well 'protected' that no further excavation was ever permitted, so we have no real idea of the size of the site or whether it was a Fleet fort, a villa belonging to someone connected to the Fleet, or perhaps, buildings connected to the Fleet iron workings just over the Sussex border (at Beauport Park and Bardown, amongst other places).
The likelihood of it being a Fleet fort is remote, but it must be remembered that the small stream which runs through Cranbrook and which gives the place its name, was almost certainly much wider in Roman times and may have allowed transport to and fro between Cranbrook and the Sussex iron workings.
Another place which ought to have a Fleet fort, but doesn't, is Folkestone. It did have an aqueduct, a bathhouse and a luxurious villa roofed with tiles stamped with the Fleet signet, so where was the Fleet fort? William Lambarde may have given us the answer, back in 1570. He wrote about his travels around Kent and mentioned that Folkestone had suffered badly from erosion. Folkestone had lost, he wrote `... not only the Nunnery which stood 28 perches from the High Water mark (a rod, a pole or a perch are old measurements, all being 5.5 yards long, so about 150m), which is now almost swallowed up, but the Castle .... and four of those five parish churches be departed out of sight also'. More importantly, he adds, 'Only some broken walls in which are seen great bricks, the marks of British building do remain ...' As the ancient Britons didn't normally go in for 'great bricks', Lambarde may well have seen the last vestiges of Folkestone's Roman walls.
There has long been controversy as to whether Faversham had a Legionary fort, but if any Fort ever existed, it is much more likely to have been a temporary Fleet structure, put up to guard the ships re-supplying the Legionaries marching on Colchester, up the Watling Street-to-be.
Chatham may well have had some Fleet presence, too. Back when Fort Amherst was being built, one of the militia officers supervising the workers was an young man named James Douglas, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, who found a number of interesting items just east of what is now Dock Road, including two buildings with a number of small rooms. Once his War was over (around 1783) he gave a talk to the Society, suggesting that the hill on which the Fort was built had also hosted a Fleet watch tower. It could equally well have been a small Fleet fort, guarding a port or Customs post, since the bank of the Medway would have been on just the other side of the Road. In addition, Rochester is almost certainly built on the site of a Roman fort, although whether Legionary or Fleet, is unknown. Further up Watling Street is Springhead, site of the large Roman town of Vagniacae, for which there is no evidence of any Fleet activity, although it was on the banks of a river. The other Roman town site, Noviomagus (also with no known Fleet links), is near West Wickham. These two places are civilian sites, but nevertheless, they were probably well known to the men of the Classis Britannica.