Old drawings of “Walton Castle”, the Roman fort of the Saxon Shore at Felixstowe

We do possess a number of old drawings of the Roman “Saxon Shore” fort that once stood on the cliff at Felixstowe. These show what it looked like, before it went over the cliff into the sea, and then after.  These were printed in 1907 in The Victoria history of the county of Suffolk, Vol. 1, between p.288 and 289,[1] and appear in the Wikipedia article.

The first was drawn in 1623:

Engraving from a drawing made in 1623 of “Walton Castle”, the Roman saxon shore fort at Felixstowe before its destruction,

It was accompanied by a plan:

Plan of the Roman saxon shore fort of Felixstowe made in 1623.

The “ruins” may be the remains of a medieval baron’s castle slighted by Henry II.

Next the Victoria History prints a drawing from 1766 by Francis Grose of the ruins lying on the beach after the sea undermined the sandy cliff on which it stood.

Engraving showing the remains of the Roman Saxon Shore fort known as “Walton Castle”, in Felixstowe, Suffolk. From: The Antiquities of England and Wales by Francis Grose. Drawn in 1766. Published in 1786

The Victoria County History volume was published in 1907, at a time when the landscape around the area was rather different, for the port of Felixstowe did not exist, and much of the area now occupied by the town was just marshes!

The two rivers, the Stour and the Orwell, pour into the sea together to the south.  The river Deben is to the north.  The VH reads (p.288; I have added paragraphing and modernised spelling where needed):

… the united waters of the Stour and Orwell poured themselves into the sea by a passage running at the foot of high land called at its eastern end Bulls Cliff, at Felixstowe. Marshes at the foot of this high land, and the traces of a waterway in the marshes, in fact, seem to point out the line or which the united waters of the Stour and Orwell reached the sea in very early times.

The VH continues:

Between the Deben and these other estuaries lay a broad flat tract of land some miles in extent, a sort of peninsula. In the Roman period this tract projected farther into the North Sea than it does now. On a site on this land about a mile south of the mouth of the Deben, but possibly then at some distance from the sea-shore, stood the fortress whose history, scanty as it is, is still worth tracing.

Of the walls not a fragment remains above the waves, which undermined the last relics of them in the 18th century. Now and again when the tide is at its lowest two or three weed-covered masses may be seen, but that is all there is to show that a Roman station once stood on the spot.

Fortunately the memory of it has been preserved in letters and drawings which show clearly enough the character of the buildings. The place was known in the 17th century, and probably much earlier, by the name of Walton Castle, no doubt from some traces remaining within the inclosure of the Roman walls of a keep and other structures of the 12th century, built by the rebel earl Hugh Bigod, whose castle here was destroyed by the king (Henry II) after the suppression of the rebellion in which the earl had been engaged.[11]

11.  On the Pipe Roll of 22 Hen. II, an. 1, 176, is the amount of the costs involved in its destruction. The Norman additions to the Roman fortress would find a parallel in those made within the Roman walls of Pevensey (Anderida), another of the ‘forts of the Saxon Shore.’

The intruder structure then is very like the situation at Porchester (not Pevensey), where a Norman keep stands in one corner of the Roman enclosure:

The Roman fort of Porchester with a Norman castle keep in one corner.

The VH has more to tell us, however:

However this may be, it is not until the 18th century that it is possible to speak with any certainty as to the remains called Walton Castle, and then the descriptions show them to be clearly Roman. The first in date is the following, which occurs in vol. i of the Minute Books of the Society of Antiquaries under date 28 November 1722, in a letter from Dr. Knight. It runs thus:

“Some distance east of this town (i.e. the neighbouring village of Walton) are the ruins of a Roman wall situate on the ridge of a cliff next the sea between Languard fort and Woodbridge River (the Deben) on Bawdsey haven.  It is 100 yards long, five foot above ground, 12 broad at each end and turned with an angle. It is composed of pebble and Roman bricks in three courses, all round footsteps of buildings, and several large pieces of wall cast down upon the strand by the seas undermining the Cliff, all which have Roman brick. At low water mark very much of the like is visible at some distance in the Sea. There are two entire pillars with balls, the cliff is 100 foot high.”

In 1722, then, part of the fort had fallen into the sea, but the landward side still stood, as a “Roman wall” which was 100m long.

The next notice that can be given is from Kirby’s Suffolk Traveller (1735), where it is stated under the head of Walton :—

“For the neighbouring Parish of Felixstowe on the Colnes side of Woodbridge (Bardsey) haven, still appear the ruins of a quadrangular castle, advantageously situated”;

and further and more fully in the second edition of his book, published in 1754, he says:

“He that would look for the site of this castle within the bounds of Walton strictly taken will never find it; but upon a high Cliff in Felixstowe, at the distance of about one mile from the mouth of Woodbridge River (the Deben) and two miles from Orwell Haven, part of the foundation of the west side of it is still to be seen: being now one hundred and eighty-seven yards in length, and nine feet thick; it is called by the country people, Stone-Works. How much larger it was we cannot judge. Part of the south end being washed away: and the sea, which is daily gaining upon this coast having swallowed up the ruins. Such was the condition of it about the year 1740 : but since then the sea hath washed away the remainder of the foundation. There can be no doubt but Walton Castle was a Roman fortification as appears from the great variety of Roman urns, rings, coins, etc., that have been found there, etc.”

A page further on contains the following paragraph, which seems to identify the place:

“In a survey of the Manor of Felixstowe Priory made in 1613 we find a close of arable land called Great Long-Dole, in which close are the ruins of Walton Castle.”

The close is still known by its ancient name, and its position may be seen on the Ordnance Survey maps. It lies close against the sea.

The landward side of the fort fell into the sea, then, between 1740 and 1754.  Sadly a Google search on “Great Long-Dole” reveals that, whatever it was, it is no longer known by that name.

Grose, in his supplement to the Antiquities of England and Wales, published in 1787, gives a view of the wall in question, which by that time had fallen on the beach. He says:

“Its remains in 1766 when this view was drawn, were only visible at near low water, the sea having gained so considerably on this coast as to wash away the cliff on which it stood. A gentleman now living remembers the ruins of the castle to have stood at least fifty yards within the extremity of the cliff.”

Thus the only remaining fragment of Roman enclosure had fallen beneath the waves in 1766. The wall unquestionably formed part of a station of the same class as the one by the Waveney, though perhaps not covering quite so large an extent of ground.  Kirby speaks of it as standing on a ridge. This was the southern edge of a wide depression, scarcely a valley, which, wide upon the shore, gradually narrowed as it ran westward to the ancient village of Felixstowe. Both slopes of this shallow valley appear to have been used as the cemetery of the station; a boarded well has been discovered ; and perhaps some few scattered houses, judging from the building material found, may have existed here. On the north side of the valley, where a fall of the cliff occurred in 1853, two skeletons were uncovered. These had bronze armlets, which were placed with the bones in the museum at Ipswich.[12]

12.  For an account of other views representing the ruins of the Roman station called Walton Castle see Topographical Index under Felixstowe.

The “valley” is today known as “The Dip”, and any driver passing along the coast road will recognise the big dip in the road instantly.

From a report [13] in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries (1885) we learn that ‘during the progress of works carried on in what is known as the Park, situated a short distance from Felixstowe Church (close to, if not actually part of, the field known as the Great Long-Dole), the men in their search for Coprolites came upon many most interesting relics of the Roman occupation.’  Amongst the list of objects turned up occur ‘coins of Severus, Gordianus, Gallienus, Victorinus, Constantinus, Arcadius’ &c. Of more consequence than the miscellaneous finds were the cinerary urns found, ‘containing bones and ashes and either closed with a cover or with a stone only.’ The discovery of these last showed the situation as part of the cemetery.

From what has preceded it is clear that there was on this spot of the Suffolk coast a Roman station, approximating in size and details of construction to those noted for the defence of the east coast. It occurs at a most important point for the protection of this coast, and its omission would have caused a dangerous gap in the line of defence. On the cliff 100 ft. above the sea it commanded a full view of both the Stour and the Orwell and of the Deben, the harbour at whose mouth, called Bawdsey Haven, scarcely a mile away, would have held the auxiliary ships of the fleet. It seems strange that the site should be so little known by antiquaries, perhaps owing to its disappearance early in the 18th century and the very little interest shown by them in the later Roman fortresses in comparison with those which are more obvious and earlier.

13. Proc. Soc. Antiq. Lond. (Ser. 2), 1885, xi, 12, 14.

The VH winds up (p.291) with:

It is a curious fact that though eight of the ‘forts of the Saxon Shore’ have been identified with all probable correctness, the place of one of them has never been settled with general assent. This is the Portus Adurni. The station has been supposed to have been situated on the Adur, a stream flowing into Shoreham Harbour, in Sussex, the name being given to it from that of the stream ; but this has been shown to be an error, as the little river in question had no certain name till the 17th century, when that name was bestowed upon it.[14] Portchester has also been suggested for its site, as a large Roman station of the late class still exists there at the head of Portsmouth Harbour. There is, however, no river or stream here whose name might be associated with that of the port. From the most westerly of the identified ports of the Saxon Shore, Pevensey (Anderida), round to Brancaster on the Wash, in Norfolk (Branodunum), the sites of the stations have been found and named, yet here at Walton on the most important point in the whole line lies a station as important as Gariannonum, which station it is suggested was Portus Adurni. If we knew the Roman name of the Stour such a suggestion would be settled.

In the Notitia Dignitatum Portus Adurni is spoken of as garrisoned by a body oi exploratores ; that is, in modern phrase, mounted scouts. No better troops could be selected for such a fort as that at Walton. There seems not very much doubt that if all the facts connected with the site could be fairly arrayed the name given above would with little hesitation be bestowed upon it and the last gap in the list of the Notitia would be satisfactorily filled.

14. Haverfield, Proc. Soc. Antiq. 1893 (Ser. 2), xiv, 112, 116.

The “Topographical Index” is later in the volume, on p.300.  Pp.305-7 contains yet more information.  I will give it all, having dug it out, but it is rather dry.  The possibility of more drawings, however, deserves attention.

Felixstowe.—Here was a Roman station known under the name of Walton Castle, formerly existing on land near the village of Felixstowe, which has long been washed away by the encroachments of the sea (see p. 287). The site of the cemetery attached to it still remains. The following are the principal authorities for the former existence of the station :—

A communication from Dr. Knight to the Society of Antiquaries of London, which has been inserted in the manuscript Minute Book of that society [i, 71, 2]. The letter is dated 28 November 1722 [A Tour in the Whole Island of Britain, by a Gentleman (ed. 3), 39-40].

Mr. T. Martin, in his account of the remains, which is dated 16 September 1725 [Church Notes, i, 185], says, ‘ About half a mile from the town (of Felixstowe) are the ruins of a Roman fortification upon the brink of the cliff (great part being already fallen down, a few years are likely to put a period to the whole), ’twas built very substantially with rock-stone and Roman brick.’  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The portion of this wall of the station, still standing in 1740, and the site generally, are described by J. Kirby [Suffolk Traveller (ed. 2), 89-91].

Camden mentions Walton Castle, but not as a Roman station.

Gough in his ‘Additions’ to his edition of Camden speaks of ‘a castle (at Walton), the foundations 187 yds. long and 9 ft. thick . . . plenty of Roman coins and other antiquities found there’ [Camden, Brit. (ed. Gough), ii, 85]. The mention of the length of wall
remaining is probably taken from Kirby.

In Grose’s account accompanying his text a view apparently taken in 1766 is given showing the remains of the wall lying upon the beach [Grose, Antiq. of Engl. and Wales ; Suppl. ii].

Besides the view of the ruined wall in Grose’s account others may be mentioned.

There is a small sketch in Indian ink entitled ‘ Remains of Felixstow Castle 1780,’ the drawing being by Isaac Johnson, in vol. ii of Suff. Illus. (Fitch Coll.).

Another drawing in pen and ink, washed, was in the collection of the late Mr. Eyre of Ipswich. It purports to be a copy from a print in the possession of Mr. Oxburgh of Hartcliff in Kent, the print itself having been executed from a drawing made in 1700 by Thomas Bates of Ipswich. A second copy of this print is in the collection of Miss Nina Layard of Ipswich. Neither print nor original drawing is now traceable. These copies show the ruins of a circular bastion on the edge of the cliff, evidently that of the one at the south-west angle of the station, with a small portion of the south wall running seawards, and overhanging the precipice. Masses of the same wall lie upon the beach.

Mr. Eyre also had a tracing from a pen-and-ink outline drawing washed with colour, of much earlier date than the last mentioned. Upon the original drawing there appears to have been this inscription in writing of the 17th century: ‘E Pros (?) Walton Castel,’ and it was signed in one corner ‘John Sheppard 1623.’ The
sea front of the station is represented entire, the edge of the cliff being in the foreground. A circular bastion is seen at each angle, and a wide break about the centre of the front marks a gateway. Beneath the view is a rough plan indicating that the walls of the station formed a parallelogram with a bastion at each angle. The drawing from which this tracing was made is not now to be found, and judging from the tracing it had the character of a sketch of the 18th rather than of the 17th century, although the writing on it seemed to be of the latter period. Unless something more could be ascertained respecting the original drawing from which the tracing in question was made, its value as an authority for the condition of the remains early in the 17th century must be considered doubtful.

Many objects of the Roman period have been found about the site. Beginning with coins, it may be mentioned that Davy [Suff. Coll. B.M. MSS. 19087, fol. 53-60] described a collection made at Felixstowe in the years 1742-3-4, in full detail. The coins range from Pompey the Great (ob. 48 B.C.) of whom there was one example, to Honorius (A.D. 395-423), and their total number amounted to 420. This collection was the property of the Rev. W. Brown of Saxmundham, and at the sale of his goods in 1827 it passed into the possession of the Rev. W. Layton of Ipswich.

Coins were found at a later date, of Victorinus (a.d. 265-8), Tetricus (a.d. 268-73), Urbs Roma, Valens (2) (a.d. 364-78), and Gratian (a.d. 375-83) [Journ. Brit. Arch. Assoc. xiv, 271] ; also a gem of oval form, possibly a cornelian, engraved with a figure wearing a petasus, and with a panther skin hanging from one arm. In the right hand it held a poppy head and wheat ear, and in the left a pedum [ibid. 339].

A find is recorded in 1749 of very small Roman coins and some pieces of metal, as if melted in the fire, near Bawdsey Haven [MS. Min. Soc. Antiq. v, 241].

During the process of digging for coprolites in the field known as the Park near Felixstowe Church, many objects of the Roman period were turned up. Such as were noted were as follows :—

Vase of so-called Samian ware, with hunting scenes and ornament of oak leaves and acorns (purchased by the South Kensington Museum), flue tiles, amphorae, lagenae, a small glass phial, bronze pins, tweezers, a speculum, several fibulae and gold rings, silver rings, some set with stones, a gold chain of twisted wire, and a bronze bracelet, a bronze disk enamelled (a circular fibula ?), a bronze enamelled tag ox fibula, and other objects in the same metal ; coins of gold, silver, and bronze, of Severus (a.d. 222-35), Gordian III (a.d. 238-44), Gallienus (a.d. 253-68), Victorinus (a.d. 265-8), Constantine (a.d. 306-37), and Arcadius (A.D. 383-408). There was a great quantity also of mussel, periwinkle, and cockle shells, and of snail shells. Many sepulchral urns were dug up containing bones and ashes, closed in some instances with a cover, in others only with a stone [Proc. Soc. Antiq. (Ser. 2), xi, 12, 14: ‘Communication from Mr. E. St. F. Moore of Woodbridge’].

In 1843 Prof. George Henslow and his father found ‘ a sort of kitchen midden in the London clay cliff near Felixstowe.’ Rough pottery, bones, cores of deer horns, a skull, rusty nails, and a so-called Samian vase, were among the objects discovered in it [Antiq. xlii, 283 (1906)]. The Roman objects of bronze in the collection of Lord Londesborough from this site are a bust of Mercury and several keys [Antiq. Etching Club Publ. iii, pi. 25].

In the Ipswich Museum there are three flue tiles, perfect, one of large size with reeded ornamentation ; vessels of ordinary ware, some probably cinerary urns ; a large thumb-pot of unusual size, and a harp-shaped fibula 2½ in. long. Here are preserved an arm and a finger bone from one of the skeletons found by Prof. Henslovy, together with bronze bracelets. The objects added to the museum in 1897 were fragments of vases of Durobrivian, Upchurch, and so-called Samian ware (all plain) ; pieces of a glass vessel, one fragment of window-glass, and small portions of roof and flue tiles. The animal remains consist of fragments of horns of red deer, &c., and there are some oyster shells.

In the Norwich Museum (Fitch Coll.) are preserved keys, tags of belts, tweezers, fibulae—two perfect, two in fragments—nails, rings, a small bronze column 3 in. high, a figure of a goat, a head of an animal, two small busts, one perhaps of Mercury, a leaf, a portion of a vase, and fragments of ligulae. All these bronzes appear to be water-worn.

In the Bury Museum are a small vase with black glaze, presented by the late Lord John Hervey, 1853; needles and bone pins (Acton Coll.); implement in bone, probably a mesh gauge ; jet pins ; a double comb in bone, one button in shale and one in jet.

In the British Museum are bronze studs found here in a leaden coffin in 1853; the central band of an enamelled buckle ; a bronze toilet implement ; a brooch ; a pin ; beads ; an armlet ; a necklace of glass beads and shell found in a glass urn with bone bracelets in 1853; glass beads, one being engraved ; a small rude flanged pan of dark drab ware, a pot of grey ware ornamented with groups of dots in slip, a small black vase with glazed bands ; a small pot of rough reddish grey ware ; and a reddish-grey vase with black bands. A vase of so-called Samian ware of oval form has the body ornamented with a wide band and simple marginal lines, this band having vine foliage, amongst which are interspersed figures of stags ; the animals appear to be of slip, and resemble those seen on Durobrivian ware. This vase was given by Sir A. W. Franks in 1881 [For site see O.S. 6-in. xc, NW. and SW.].

The Victorian County History is something with which I have hitherto had no acquaintance.  It does contain a frankly impressive quantity of information!  But I think that’s enough for now!

  1. [1]Online at Archive.org here.

5 thoughts on “Old drawings of “Walton Castle”, the Roman fort of the Saxon Shore at Felixstowe

  1. And here is a scan of John Kirby’s Suffolk Traveller, with the “Walton and Felixstow” section on pages 88-93:

    https://archive.org/details/suffolktraveller00kirb/page/88

    And a Supplement compiled by Augustine Page with “Felixstow” on pages 51-52 [= “69/1073” of scan] and “Walton and Felixstow. – Waletuna” on pages 72-73 (but with the lead with pages 74-75 not either not scanned or less probably that with pages 70-71 duplicated in its place in the original) [= “89/1073”]:

    https://archive.org/details/asupplementtosu00kirbgoog/page/n88

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