History of 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.
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 AD 367, 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 AD 630 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. Caister is also a likely candidate, however. 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.
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.
Gurney, D, ‘The Saxon Shore in Norfolk’, in Margeson, A, Ayers, B, and Heywood, S (eds), A Festival of Norfolk Archaeology (Norwich, 1996)
Anon, Outposts of the Roman Empire: A Guide to Norfolk's Roman Forts at Burgh Castle, Caister-on-Sea and Brancaster (Norwich, 2002)