Roman Ruins of a Fort of the Saxon Shore Bastion, Dover, Kent, England, UK

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John Latter on April 9, 2011

In the centre of the photo is the circular tower-base of a bastion set against the southern wall of Dover's Saxon Shore fort, built around 270 AD in the second-half of the third century.

The Roman bastion is about 12 feet in diameter and the perimeter wall extends either side of it, entering the bottom right-hand corner of the photo and then running upwards along the line indicated by the brick-built bench.

Behind the bastion, just below the left-hand side of the curved brick wall, is a small, darker, area of masonry. This is a rear part of the rectangular and semi-circular foundations 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 exposed North Gatehouse, largely hidden behind the bastion in the above photo, are approximately 15 feet by 10 feet and can be seen in Roman Ruins of the Classis Britannica and Saxon Shore forts at Dover.

These 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).

More about the site

From the air, this location showing where the wall of one Roman fort cuts across the line of another appears to be the 'centre of attention' lying as it does 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 adds to the 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 (to the left), York Street (to the right), and the entrance to Gaol Lane (behind).

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!

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 (!)

The Dover Fort of the Saxon Shore

Early in the third century AD, the Classis Britannica left Dover, never to return. Later in the same century, the ever increasing Saxon raids (the Saxons were a confederation of Old Germanic tribes) necessitated the strengthening of Britannia's (ie Roman Britain) coastal defences. Around 270 AD, Roman army units moved into Dover to construct a new "Fort of the Saxon Shore". They ignored the old navy style Classis Britannica fort and built anew, although the corners of the two forts did overlap: from the viewpoint shown in the photo, the top left-hand corner of the Saxon Shore fort has been superimposed upon the bottom right-hand corner of the Classis Britannica fort.

The Saxon Shore fort enclosed a number of civilian buildings to the north (ie to the right) of the earlier fort and the west wall went straight through the west end of the Roman Painted House (built around 200 AD; a military bathhouse was built around 140 - 160 AD). The fort seems to have been occupied at least until the first half of the 5th century, and there is some evidence of occupation into the 6th century.

More about the Saxon Shore (4)

The Saxon Shore (Latin: litus Saxonicum) was a military command of the late Roman Empire, consisting of a series of fortifications on both sides of the English Channel. It was established in the late 3rd century and was led by the "Count of the Saxon Shore". In the late 4th century, his functions were limited to Britain, while the fortifications in Gaul (5) were established as separate commands. Several Saxon Shore forts survive still in east and south-east England.

During the latter half of the 3rd century, the Roman Empire faced a grave crisis. Internally, it was weakened by civil wars, the violent succession of brief emperors, and secession in the provinces, while externally it faced a new wave of attacks by "barbarian" tribes. Most of Britain had been a Roman province (Britannia) since the mid-1st century. It was protected from raids in the north by Hadrian`s Wall and the Antonine Wall, while in the Channel, the Classis Britannica patrolled, keeping seaborne raiders at bay.

However, as the frontiers came under increasing external pressure, a massive fortification drive was undertaken throughout the Empire in order to protect cities and guard strategically important locations. It is in this context that the forts of the Saxon Shore were constructed. Already in the 230's AD, under Severus Alexander (Roman Emperor from 222 to 235 AD), several units had been withdrawn from the northern frontier and garrisoned at locations in the south, and built new forts at Brancaster, Caister-on-Sea and Reculver. Dover was already fortified since the early 2nd century, and when the other forts were constructed in the period between the 270's and 290's, the full chain of forts was completed.

The only contemporary reference that mentions the name "Saxon Shore" comes in the late-4th century Notitia Dignitatum, which lists its commander, the Comes Litoris Saxonici per Britanniam ("Count of the Saxon Shore in Britain"), and gives the names of the sites under his command and their respective complement of military personnel. However, due to the absence of further evidence, theories have varied between scholars as to the exact meaning of the name, and also the nature and purpose of the chain of forts it refers to.

The Notitia Dignitatum is a unique document of the Roman imperial chanceries. One of the very few surviving documents of Roman government, it details the administrative organisation of the Eastern (Byzantine) Roman Empire) and the Western Roman Empire, listing several thousand offices from the imperial court down to the provincial level. It is usually considered to be up to date for the Western empire in the 420s, and for the Eastern empire in the 400s. However, no absolute date can be given, and there are omissions and problems.

The nine forts mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum for Britain are listed here, from north to south, with their garrisons:

Branodunum (Brancaster, Norfolk). One of the earliest forts, dated to the 230s. It was built to guard the Wash approaches and is of a typical rectangular castrum layout. It was garrisoned by the Equites Dalmatae Brandodunenses, although evidence exists suggesting that its original garrison was the cohors I Aquitanorum (cohort).

Gariannonum (Burgh Castle, Norfolk). Established between 260 and the mid-270s to guard the River Yare (Gariannus Fluvius), it was garrisoned by the Equites Stablesiani Gariannoneses.

Othona (Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex). Garrisoned by the Numerus Fortensium.

Regulbium (Reculver, Kent). Together with Brancaster one of the earliest forts, built in the 210s to guard the Thames estuary, it is likewise a castrum. It was garrisoned by the cohors I Baetasiorum since the 3rd century.

Rutupiae (Richborough, Kent), garrisoned by parts of the Legio II Augusta (Legion).

Dubris (Dover Castle, Kent), garrisoned by the Milites Tungrecani.

Portus Lemanis (Lympne, Kent), garrisoned by the Numerus Turnacensium.

Anderitum (Pevensey Castle, East Sussex), garrisoned by the Numerus Abulcorum.

Portus Adurni (Portchester Castle, Hampshire), garrisoned by a Numerus Exploratorum.

There are a few other sites that clearly belonged to the system of the British branch of the Saxon Shore (the so-called "Wash-Solent limes"), although they are not included in the Notitia Dignitatum, such as the forts at Walton, Suffolk, which has by now sunk into the sea due to erosion, and at Caister-on-Sea. In the south, Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight and Clausentum (Bitterne, in modern Southampton) are also regarded as westward extensions of the fortification chain. Other sites likely connected to the Saxon Shore system are the sunken fort at Skegness, and the remains of possible signal stations at Thornham, Corton and Hadleigh.

Further north on the coast, the precautions took the form of central depots at Lindum (Lincoln) and Malton with roads radiating to coastal signal stations. When an alert was relayed to the base, troops could be dispatched along the road. Further up the coast in North Yorkshire, a series of coastal watchtowers (at Huntcliff, Filey, Ravenscar, Goldsborough, and Scarborough) was constructed, linking the southern defences to the northern military zone of the Wall. Similar coastal fortifications are also found in Wales, at Cardiff and Caer Gybi.

The Notitia Dignitatum also includes two separate commands for the northern coast of Gaul, both of which belonged to the Saxon Shore system. It must be noted, though, that when the list was compiled, in ca. 420 AD, Britain had been abandoned by Roman forces.

More about Dubris from Pastscape (6)

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 and Saxon 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 Saxon Shore

(5) Gaul: A region of Western Europe during the Iron Age and Roman era, encompassing present day France, Luxembourg and Belgium, most of Switzerland, the western part of Northern Italy, as well as the parts of the Netherlands and Germany on the left bank of the Rhine.

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

Other sources include an information plaque within Dover Library.

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.

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 10, 2011

william-lee, on April 9th, 2011, said:

What a picture! Great and beautiful!

Greetings from USA.

Thank you, William - Greetings from Dover, England!

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Photo details

  • Uploaded on April 6, 2011
  • © All Rights Reserved
    by John Latter
    • Camera: PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D
    • Taken on 2011/03/23 10:56:04
    • Exposure: 0.004s (1/250)
    • Focal Length: 26.00mm
    • F/Stop: f/13.000
    • ISO Speed: ISO200
    • Exposure Bias: 0.00 EV
    • No flash