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History and Research: Burgh Castle

The Roman sites at Burgh and at nearby Caister-on-Sea were part of a string of forts along what the Romans knew as the ‘Saxon Shore’, the stretch of coast extending between the Solent and the Wash.

These ‘Saxon Shore forts’ are thought to have acted as a defensive system against seaborne raiders, and would have been naval bases and perhaps defended trading centres.

An aerial view showing the impressive walls of Burgh Castle

The impressive walls of Burgh Castle. The fort originally covered 6 acres
© English Heritage

The Count of the Saxon Shore

The forts were under the command of the Count of the Saxon Shore and are documented in the 'Notitia Dignitatum', an official list of all military commands recorded at the end of the 4th century AD. This tells us that Burgh was home to the Stablesian cavalry unit, and cropmarks out-side the walls indicate there was an extensive 'vicus' (civilian settlement) there.

In the 4th century AD Burgh and Caister controlled the entrance to the Waveney estuary, which is occupied by extensive marshes. They probably operated together and one, or both, were known by the Romans as Gariannonum. 

For more than half a century the Saxon raids were checked fairly successfully and it was not until 367 AD, when the Saxons, Picts and Scots made a concerted attack on Britain, that the forts began to be overrun and the Count was killed.

Bede records that in about 630 AD Sigeberht, King of the East Angles, gave land inside a Roman fortress to St Fursa to found a monastery. The site, which was called Cnobheresburh, may have been Burgh: there is evidence for Saxon occupation and a cemetery inside the fort at this time. However Caister is also a likely candidate. It too was the site of Saxon activity from the 7th century, and there was a large Saxon cemetery to the south of the fort.

It is worth visiting both sites to get a good impression of these Roman forts: Burgh for its still imposing defences and striking location and Caister for the evidence of its internal streets and buildings.

The collapsed south wall with Breydon Water and Berney Arms Windmill beyond

The collapsed south wall with Breydon Water and Berney Arms Windmill beyond
© English Heritage

Description

Burgh Castle is one of the best preserved Roman monuments in the country. Built in the late 3rd century AD on a low cliff above the Waveney estuary, its substantial walls are an impressive sight.

Today the main route into the fort is the eastern gate. The west wall has long since tumbled into the marshes, with the result that the drama of entering the fort is increased by the panoramic view across Breydon Water.

Originally enclosing an area of about six acres, the walls of the fort were around 3.5 metres wide at the base and taper to 1.5 metres at their full height of around 4.5 metres. They were further fortified, at a late stage in the construction, by projecting towers or bastions. Each has a central circular hole, either for anchoring catapults called 'ballistae' or to support timber watchtowers that may have been linked along the top of the walls. You can see this feature more clearly on the bastion that has fallen outward from the south wall.

Over the centuries the walls have been plundered for building material, exposing the mortared flint rubble core, but they were originally faced inside and out with cut flint and tile in alternating bands. A well-preserved stretch of this facing survives along the outside of the south wall.

Inside the south wall and at the north-east corner of the fort are the remains of deep socket holes, probably the site of lean-to buildings or gantries, but other than this little is known of the fort’s interior layout.

After the Norman Conquest, Burgh was used as a motte-and-bailey castle. The walls enclosed the bailey and a motte and ditch were constructed in the south-western corner. You can clearly see where the ditch has breached the south wall, though the mound itself has long since been levelled.

In the 19th century, quarrying for the nearby brickworks further ate into the western edge of the fort; the now reed-filled wharf that once served the brickworks lies just to the south-west.


Sources

Gurney, D 1996. 'The Saxon Shore in Norfolk', in Margeson, A, Ayers, B, and Heywood, S (eds), 'A Festival of Norfolk Archaeology', Norwich: Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society

Anon 2002. 'Outposts of the Roman Empire: a guide to Norfolk's Roman forts at Burgh Castle, Caister-on-Sea and Brancaster', Norwich: Norfolk Archaeological Trust

Disclaimer

The text and pictures on this page are derived from the 'Heritage Unlocked' series of guidebooks published in 2004. We intend to review, update and enhance the content in the near future as part of the Portico project, whose objective is to provide information on the history, significance, research background and sources for all English Heritage properties.

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