Bigbury Wood Hillfort

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Caesar left detailed instructions for his requirements for the second expedition to Britain in the spring. The 600 transports were to be of shallow draft, and thus easier to and beach, but to contain stores and animals they had to be broader. The vessels were thus rather ungainly and difficult to manage; but to compensate for this Caesar was probably advised to equip them with sails and oars. The fighting force he assembled was a large one consisting of five legions and 2000 cavalry; although it was a major expedition it is difficult to appreciate whether Caesar was intent on conquest or merely punishing the hostile tribes or opening Britain up to trade. It was by now evident that there were no suitable havens on the south-east coast of Kent, only the gently shelving beaches. But this time, in the face of such a formidable armada, the Britons did not oppose the landing, so that the Roman forces were able to disembark without difficulty. This time the ships were not beached, but left riding at anchor.


With typical audacity, Caesar marched his legions 12 miles inland, in the dark of the early morning, to a river, which may have been the River Stour near Canterbury. The Britons must have been taken aback at the sudden appearance of the Romans and they retired to a fortified position. Caesar then gives us a brief description of a British hill-fort. ‘A place well fortified by nature and strengthened by artifice, built doubtless for their own tribal wars, all the entrances were blocked by felled trees packed closely together’ (v 9). There is a hillfort which may have been the one he attacked three miles west of Canterbury in Bigbury Wood at Hambledown. It is a roughly rectangular enclosure constructed round the 200-foot contour. The site has been much disturbed by old gravel workings, during the course of which many iron objects, mainly tools and farm implements, have been found, as one might expect from a peasant community. While these modest defences were quite adequate to keep out raiding bands from nearby tribes, they presented no problem for the disciplined professional legionaries trained in such storming attacks. The Seventh Legion quickly built a ramp against the rampart and formed a testudo (tortoise) by holding their shields over their heads to protect themselves from missiles, and hacked their way into the fortress, driving the Britons out and through the woods. The whole action had taken the best part of a day, and Caesar needed time to build his own fortified camp, so he did not take up the pursuit until the following morning. But he was forced to abandon any thought of a speedy advance which would have found the Britons in a state of disarray, with the news of a storm which had wrecked his fleet. So, once more, he had underrated the fearful and sudden powers of the elements.


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