For millennia island nations have known that invasion would come from the sea and that the enemy would select the most suitable point of disembarkation—a safe bay or harbour, a wide estuary of a deeply penetrating river or a good sheltered beach. Britain has been preparing for such invasions since ancient times. Eventually invaders did come in the form of the Romans followed by the Normans, and both built coastal defences to suit their needs. Each later monarch of England added new defences—from castles to estuary chains—according to the dangers they faced. This excellent book charts and describes, with diagrams and other illustrations, notable British coastal defences from the earliest period to the 19th century. It is an invaluable reference work but also a very useful guide for those who wish to visit these vital buildings and elements of national and maritime defence. This book is enhanced by the addition of a fascinating (though somewhat naive) speculative piece, written by a fervent detractor in the Victorian era, describing the inevitable successful invasion of England as a consequence of the proposed building of a Channel tunnel to France.
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Or Ithanchester, near Bradwell-on-Sea, in Essex, was another important member of the Roman coast defences of Britain. It commanded the entrances of the Rivers Blackwater and Colne. Little now remains of Othona, although it is on record that the fortress enclosed an area of 4 acres, and that its walls possessed foundations no less than 14 feet in thickness.
The defence of such a point as this against the incursions of foes was a matter of much importance, because this was a point on the coast of Britain specially susceptible to attack by marauders, and, as we shall see, special precautions were taken against attacks of this kind.
At a distance of about four miles to the north of Othona, across the estuary of the River Blackwater, lies the island of Mersea. In the year 1896 some Roman foundations were accidentally discovered in the western part of the island which, upon examination, appear to have an important bearing on the Roman scheme of coast defence in this part of Britain. The foundations were circular, 65 feet in diameter, and closely resembling in gigantic form the steering-wheel of a ship.
The foundations were of Kentish rag and chalk lime mortar, and above this the low walling was almost entirely composed of Roman bricks set in red mortar. Dr. Henry Laver, F.S.A., who communicated the discovery to the Society of Antiquaries of London, modestly abstains from giving any explanation or theory as to the purpose of the building which stood on this site, but in the opinion of the present writer there seems to be little doubt that the foundations were intended to carry a lofty pharos, or perhaps signalling tower of timber by means of which messages might have been transmitted to Othona and Colchester.
Now known as Reculver, is situated about three miles to the east of Herne Bay. The site, although originally some distance inland, is now, owing to the encroachment of the sea, quite close to the shore. Indeed, about half of its area has been destroyed by the waves, and is now covered at high water. Its area when complete was over seven acres, and its walls which, in the eighteenth century, stood 10 feet high, and still remain to a height of 8 feet in some places, are no less than 8 feet in thickness with two sets-off inside. It seems doubtful whether there was ever a ditch round the castrum. Owing to the ruinous condition of the main part of the masonry, and the complete destruction which has overtaken the northern part of the foundations, it is impossible to ascertain any particulars as to the gates or internal arrangements.
As will be seen from the accompanying ground-plan the form of the castrum at Reculver was quadrangular. The angles were rounded, but there are no indications of towers or bastions. These features are considered characteristic of Roman fortresses of early date. Another feature pointing to the same conclusion is the absence of tile courses in the walls.
The only recorded facts about this fortress is a mention in the Notitia, from which we learn that it was garrisoned by the first cohort of the Vetasians commanded by a tribune.
At a comparatively early stage in the art of Roman masonry in Britain the idea was conceived of protecting the enclosing wall of the fortress by means of projecting bastions and towers. In an early type represented in the Romano-British coast fortresses, of which this of Reculver is an excellent illustration, there were, as we have seen, no projections whether of walls, bastions, towers, or gates. Reliance was placed in the strength and solidity of the walls themselves, which were 8 feet in thickness. But the desirability of having some points from which the enemy could be attacked in flank whilst battering the wall soon became evident, and in other cases such as Richborough, Lymne, Pevensey, etc., we find that the fortress was furnished not only with massive walls, but also with strong angle-towers and bastions or towers at intervals by which the wall could be commanded and protected.
These various works furnish an interesting series of illustrations of the progress made in the military architecture of the period.
Now known as Richborough, situated about two miles north-north-west of Sandwich, was a station of great importance in the Roman period, being then, as Sandwich was subsequently for many years, the chief British port for travellers and traffic to and from the Continent. In shape Rutupiae was a rectangular parallelogram, with the greater length from east to west. Its walls, which were lofty and massive, enclosed an area of somewhat less than 6 acres. At each angle is, or was, a circular bastion 18 feet 6 inches in diameter, and square towers or bastions at intervals projected beyond the general face of the walls.
A considerable part of the south-east corner, and the whole of the east wall have been destroyed by the falling of the cliff in the direction of the River Stour. The theory formerly propounded that the castrum had no eastern wall has been disproved by the careful examinations of Mr. G. E. Fox and other eminent antiquaries. These examinations have definitely shown that large fragments of the east wall have fallen down the cliff. It is certain that the castrum of Rutupiae as also those of Regulbium and Portus Lemanis, in spite of the doubt which has been expressed in each instance, had four walls.
The chief peculiarity of Rutupiae is the presence of a solid mass of masonry underground, a little to the east rather than in the middle of the enclosed space. Many different theories have been put forward to account for its purpose, but it is now generally agreed that it was intended to serve as the foundation for a lofty structure, perhaps of timber, the purpose of which was for signalling between this station and that at Reculver, and possibly also answering to the pharos at Dover. It is not improbable that it also served as a lighthouse for ships entering the estuary of the Stour from the sea. If lights or signals could be seen as far as Dover they might from that point be communicated easily to and fro from the coast of France from the high ground on which the pharos of Dover stands.
In order to understand the functions and relative positions of Regulbium and Rutupiae as coast fortresses during the Roman period, it is necessary to reconstruct the ancient geography of the north-eastern part of Kent. The small stream now falling into the sea near Reculver was at the period under consideration a river sufficiently broad and deep to afford a convenient channel for shipping. It was known as the Wantsum. Boats and ships voyaging from the French coast as well as from the British coast near Dover to London, usually took their course through the channel formed by the Stour and the Wantsum, thus avoiding the strong currents and tempestuous seas often raging off the North Foreland.
It will be seen, therefore, that a lofty tower or lighthouse at Rutupiae would have been of the greatest value both for the guidance of friendly shipping and as a means of giving warning of the approach of the enemy.
The north wall of the castrum at Richborough is a remarkably perfect and interesting specimen of Roman masonry. It is noteworthy, too, as furnishing proof of the great care and thoroughness with which the Romans carried out their building works. At the base of the wall, on the outside, one sees four courses of flint in their natural form, and above them the following succession of materials, in ascending order: three courses of dressed flint; two courses of bonding tile; seven courses of ashlar and two of tile; seven courses of ashlar and two of tile; seven courses of ashlar and two of tile; seven courses of ashlar and two of tile; eight courses of ashlar and two of tile; nine courses of ashlar. The wall is 23 feet 2 inches high, and 10 feet 8 inches thick.
There is one aspect of some of the Roman coast fortresses which shows that their builders were not influenced entirely by utilitarian ideas. This is the methodical and tasteful use of stones of different colours in such a way as to produce a pleasing species of colour decoration. The aim obviously was to break up the monotony of broad spaces of masonry, and possibly, also, to enhance their apparent size by multiplication of detail. The north wall of Richborough, although to some extent marred by rebuilding of some part of it, affords an illustration of this. Here we find dark brownish-red ironstone built into the wall in a way which reminds one of bands of chequer work. A Pevensey again, where the stones are cut with the regularity and precision of brickwork, large blocks of similar sandstone are employed in regular order at different heights in the walls and bastions. To the latter in addition to their decorative use they serve to tie in the outer skin of masonry to the inner rubble.