Roman Navy Classis Britannica Fort and Saxon Shore Fort Ruins, Dover, Kent, UK

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John Latter on March 30, 2011

From above, these ruins showing where the wall of one Roman fort cuts across the line of another appear to be the 'centre of attention' lying as they do near the middle of an amphitheatre-shaped arena formed by the northern arc of the Dover Discovery Centre and the curve of a wooden fence to the south.

In addition, the brick-built bench with its paving-stone seats at top-left also gives an impression the site is easily accessible to the general public.

The reality is somewhat different: the ruins lie at the bottom of a small hollow in an enclosed area and an outer 6-feet high wooden fence means they remain unseen by passers-by on Queen Street, York Street, and the entrance to Gaol Lane.

From within the Dover Library section of the Discovery Centre, however, a large window overlooks the ruins but the aspect means that large vertical blinds are often in place: readers sitting at the bench running along the inside of the window have to face south and are usually more concerned with how light levels affect the business they are about than with ruins that can only be seen - with a bit of neck-craning around the blinds - through glass, from a fixed distance, and not from the most advantageous angle.

Consequently, the view in the above photo of this one small part of Dubris (Roman Dover) is probably better than if you were standing in the library!

At top-right is the circular tower-base of a bastion on the southern wall of the Saxon Shore Fort, built around 270 AD in the second-half of the third century.

The bastion is about 12 feet in diameter and the perimeter wall extends either side of it along the line indicated by the brick-built bench. A description of this fort, once under the command of the "Count of the Saxon Shore", will accompany a second photo of the bastion (a link will added here or in a subsequent Comment).

In the bottom-half of the photo is the rectangle and semi-circular front of the North Gatehouse, or Gate house, of the East Gateway to the second Classis Britannica Fort which was built in Portus Dubris around 130-140 AD (a first fort was laid out around 115-120 AD but never completed). The external dimensions of the North Gatehouse are approximately 15 feet by 10 feet.

The Classis Britannica was "a provincial naval fleet of the navy of ancient Rome. Its purpose was to control the English Channel and the waters around the Roman province of Britannia" (see below).

The axis of the outer wall of the the naval fort is indicated by the 'bar' at the base of the semi-circular front: if you extrapolate this line to the left you can see how the southern wall of the later Saxon Shore Fort cuts straight across it.

In plan view the East Gateway consists of another three rectangles extending to the right of the one shown. The next two are under the gateway itself, and the last - also with a semi-circular front - forms the base of the South Gatehouse.

The ruins were excavated in 1974 on the site of the old Warren and Reynolds Warehouse in Queen Street by an archaeological team led by Brian Philp (1).

Its no doubt of little interest to the reader, but I lived in Queen Street (near the centre of the fort) until I was 3 years-old: John Latter on a Rocking Horse, John Latter in his very own Armchair; later on I went to St Mary`s Primary School which was also once located there.

Back to business: The Classis Britannica navy style fort was found to occupy an area of about 2 acres (100 x 112 metres) on a shoulder of land below the Western Heights. It contained a headquarters building, at least two granaries, a latrine, and 9 barracks, or barrack blocks. Buildings were separated with metalled roads along which ran piped water and drains.

Dr Andy Russel of Southampton Archaeology states (2):

No military base that could be directly linked to the Classis Britannica was known until Brian Philp’s excavations in Dover between 1970 and 1977. He revealed the plans of two successive forts, superimposed by a Saxon Shore Fort. His monograph placed these remains in context with other aspects of Roman Dover, such as the Pharos (3) and is vital to an understanding of the Classis Britannica.

Extract from The Council for Kentish Archaeology (CKA) webpage, "Dover- Forty Years of Non-Stop Rescue!":

In July, 2010 the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit (KARU) celebrated its 40th year of non-stop rescue archaeology in the ancient town and port of Dover. It was way back in July, 1970, that Brian Philp cancelled his major excavation at Reculver (Regulbium), then in its 12th year, to take the whole CIB team to Dover...

...Within two days of starting the team located the long-lost Roman shore- fort of Dubris, predicted by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1929, but later deleted from the record by others (!)

More about the Classis Britannica (4)

The Classis Britannica (literally, British fleet, in the sense of 'the fleet in British waters' or 'the fleet of the province of Britannia', rather than 'the fleet of the state of Britain') was a provincial naval fleet of the navy of Ancient Rome. Its purpose was to control the English Channel and the waters around the Roman province of Britannia. Unlike modern (and some contemporary Roman) "fighting navies", its job was largely the logistical movement of personnel and support, and keeping open communication routes across the Channel.

There is no literary reference in the classical historians to the Classis Britannica by that name, and archaeological evidence is also tantalizingly scant (although tiles stamped CLBR, where CL BR = Classis Britannica, are common along the east Kent coast and in London (Londinium), suggesting either government buildings or an early instance of army surplus), meaning that details of its history and form are unfortunately based on a large degree of interpretation.

It was originally believed that the main base of the fleet was in Richborough (Rutupiae) but more recent archaeological work has uncovered one of only three surviving forts occupied by the fleet's marines at Dover, suggesting this was in fact a major base of the Classis. It may even have been its primary base, though one of the other surviving fleet forts, at Boulogne-sur-Mer (Bononia), is far larger and thus said by some to be a more likely contender than Dover for that role. Portus Adurni (which was later adapted and known as Portchester Castle) at the north of Portsmouth harbour is another contender and believed to have been at the very least a major base for the fleet.

History (4)

A fleet was raised for the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, led by Aulus Plautius under the Emperor Claudius, and tasked with bringing an invasion force of 40,000 men from the Roman Army, plus supplies, to Britain. It continued after the successful invasion to provide support for the army, shuttling massive quantities of supplies across the English Channel.

This fleet played a major role in the subsequent conquest of Britannia. However, Tacitus states that, about twenty years after the invasion, it was not present at Suetonius Paulinus's crossing of the Menai Strait to Anglesey before the Boudican Rebellion (Boudica, Queen of the Iceni; alt Boudicca, Boadicea). This suggests the force was still occupied in the English Channel area, unsuitable to the long voyage up to north Wales, or too small by then to offer any useful level of support to the ground troops.

In the Flavian period (from 69 to 96 AD: Emperors Vespasian 69–79, Titus 79–81, and Domitian 81–96) what had been raised initially as a temporary invasion fleet was formalised as the Classis Britannica and made permanent in statute. Also in the Flavian period, under the governor Agricola, it circumnavigated Scotland (Caledonia), and in 83 attacked the eastern coast of Scotland. One year later the fleet is recorded as having reached the Orkney Islands.

Due to the lack of serious naval opposition in the early Imperial period in the area of the fleet's operations - the AD 43 invasion crossing, for example, went navally uncontested - the Classis's main role was as logisitical support both to the army in Britannia, and also to armies campaigning in later years in Germania.

The fleet disappears from the archaeological record towards the middle of the 3rd century but is known from contemporary sources to have continued in existence after this date.

In 286, Carausius, a Roman military commander of Gaulish origins, was appointed to command the Classis Britannica, and given the responsibility of eliminating Frankish and Saxon pirates who had been raiding the coasts of Armorica and Belgic Gaul (Gallia Belgica). However, he was suspected of keeping captured treasure for himself, and even of allowing the pirates to carry out raids and enrich themselves before taking action against them, and Emperor Maximian ordered his execution.

In late 286 or early 287 he learned of this sentence and responded by usurping power and declaring himself emperor of Britannia and northern Gaul (the Carausian Revolt). When the British fleet was attacked by a German and French fleet representing the Roman Empire, the British fleet was victorious, showing that it must have been substantial at the time. The would-be invaders, however, blamed poor weather for their defeat.

By 300, however, Britannia was once again a part of the larger Roman Empire, and the Classis Britannica restored as a Roman imperial fleet.

In the final years of Roman Britain, the fleet was devoted almost entirely to protecting the Eastern and Southern coasts of Great Britain against first piratic actions and, shortly before the withdrawal of troops from Britain, against Saxon raids against coastal towns and villages on what came to be known as the Saxon Shore. The fleet probably had some role in the operation of the Saxon Shore Forts.

More about Dubris from Pastscape (5)

Dover, the Dubris of the Antonine Itinerary and of the Notitia Dignitatum, has long been accepted as being a Saxon Shore fort and a probable base of the Classis Britannica but positive proof was not obtained until the 1970 excavations made on behalf of the MPBW (Ministry of Public Buildings and Works; ex-Ministry of Works and now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or DEFRA).

Partly underlying the Saxon Shore fort and to the south (centred TR 319413) was identified an earlier fort of which over 35 metres of wall, 1.17 metres thick, with a slight V-shaped ditch, was exposed. Six major buildings divided by at least four roads were found. Finds included more than 40 fragments of tile stamped: "CLBR".

The discovery of the Classis Britannica fort proves the existence of a major naval base at Dover during at least the 2nd century AD, the earlier fort being largely or entirely superseded in the 3rd century by the "Saxon Shore" fort but the dates have not yet been clearly established.

Three superimposed forts are known at Dover and the final excavation report on the two earliest forts has now appeared. Both are thought to be associated with the Classis Britannica. The earliest fort was apparently abandoned perhaps circa 117 AD before it had been completed. A second fort enclosing circa 2.5 acres (1 hectare) was then built on the same site in about 130-140 AD and finally abandoned circa 210 AD. A Saxon Shore fort is the latest military occupation of the site.

Further excavation of the forts and an early waterfront was undertaken by Brian Philp in 1982 within the Market Hall, Dover.

DUBRIS - possibly the place was sometimes called PORTUS DUBRIS. Identified with the Roman fort at Dover. NOVUS PORTUS - source Ptolemy. The name is Latin, `new harbour' and almost certainly represents Dover as recorded in an early coastal survey.

The fort of the Classis Britannica was situated to the south and west of the Saxon Shore fort and must have been in ruins at the time of its construction since the wall for the late 3rd century fort cuts through the barrack blocks of the earlier one.

Click to see all photos of Roman Dover.

(1) The Discovery of the Classis Britannica and Saxon Shore Forts at Dover

(2) The History of the Classis Britannica

(3) The Pharos is the Roman lighthouse/watchtower located in the grounds of Dover Castle. The Bredenstone, replica remains of a second lighthouse, stands within the Napoleonic and Victorian Drop Redoubt on the opposite side of the River Dour valley.

(4) Wikipedia entry for Classis Britannica (Abridged)

(5) English Heritage Pastscape entry for Dubris; click to see all Dover English Heritage photos.

John Latter / Jorolat

Dover Blog: The Psychology of a Small Town

This is the Images of Dover website: click on any red or blue "John Latter" link to access the Entry Page.

John Latter on April 6, 2011

A second photo of this site has been uploaded:

Ruins of a Roman Bastion of the Fort of the Saxon Shore at Dover

JBTHEMILKER on April 14, 2011

This photos evokes emotions or memories of the past. I voted for it.

John Latter on April 14, 2011

JBTHEMILKER, on Thursday, April 14th, 2011, said:

This photos evokes emotions or memories of the past. I voted for it.

Thank you, JB - Greetings from Dover, England!

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Photo details

  • Uploaded on March 28, 2011
  • © All Rights Reserved
    by John Latter
    • Camera: PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D
    • Taken on 2011/03/23 10:57:14
    • Exposure: 0.004s (1/250)
    • Focal Length: 23.00mm
    • F/Stop: f/11.000
    • ISO Speed: ISO200
    • Exposure Bias: 0.00 EV
    • No flash