The Fortlets (‘Signal Stations’) along the Yorkshire Coast

A colour photo showing a well maintained ruin from a cliff top view - there is a range of walls and structures that remain from a fortlet close to Scarborough Castle - there is also a bank that surrounds most of this area
Figure 4 – Scarborough Fortlet

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Fortlets might not sound like they are really up to much, although these strategic defences were very well built structures that were essential in defending Roman Britain from many attacks.

During the late 4th century Roman Britain was being attacked from land and sea by the Picts, the Attacotti, the Scots, the Franks and the Saxons. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus paints a picture of a chaotic situation with bands of raiders wandering around unchecked, taking prisoners and loot where they fancied, and destroying or killing at will.

In AD 367 the Emperor Valentinian dispatched a task force to try to get a grip on the situation, placing Theodosius (the father of the future Emperor Theodosius the Great) in command. Ammianus Marcellinus wrote that, on his arrival, Theodosius ‘rendered the greatest aid to the troubled and confused fortunes of the Britons’ including restoring ‘cities and garrison towns…and protected the borders with guard-posts and defence works’.

A colour photo showing a slightly irregular carved stone with four lines of Latin text that also seem to be slightly amateur in their presentation
Figure 1: Inscription from Ravenscar

Along the Yorkshire coast a system of fortlets (often referred to as `signal stations`) were constructed. Archaeological remains of such structures have been found at Scarborough, Filey, Goldsborough and Huntcliffe. In 1774 a tablet was also discovered at Ravenscar bearing an inscription translated as ‘Justinianus the First Centurion and Vindicianus the Magistrate, built this tower and fortification from its foundations’ (Figure 1). The original series of fortifications might have included examples at Seaton Carew, Whitby, Flamborough Head and Spurn Point too.

The fortlets consisted of a central tower within a small courtyard surrounded by a perimeter wall (incorporating bastions and a gatehouse) as well as a ditch with rounded corners (Figure 2). The excavations at Huntcliffe in 1912 revealed two particularly substantial bastions and a defensive wall (Figure 3).

A colour plan showing a coastline view orientated North - this shows sea at the top, then a beach, and onto mainland - within the mainland there is a diagram showing two outer ditches surrounding a stone wall with four bastions, within this a central tower, and close to this there is also a well - overlaid onto this plan is a red line which marks the line of the coast in 1911
Figure 2 – Plan of Huntcliffe Forlet
A black and white photo from Skelton in Cleveland in History - it shows extansive stone structures, mainly footings of a bastion, with adjoining defensive wall - there is some loose stone, in the background, probably from excavated of this site
Figure 3 – Bastion at Huntcliffe

The remains of the Scarborough fortlet are located on the headland of Castle Hill and can still be visited (Figure 4). It is estimated that the central tower was 30 metres high and the stunning views out across the sea are still evident today.

A colour photo showing a well maintained ruin from a cliff top view - there is a range of walls and structures that remain from a fortlet close to Scarborough Castle - there is also a bank that surrounds most of this area
Figure 4 – Scarborough Fortlet

The fortlet at Filey was positioned on Carr Naze but, since Roman times, the area has been badly eroded. However, five large stones were recovered from the site in 1857 and placed in Crescent Gardens where they can be found in a flower bed. The heavy blocks (one of which is decorated with a dog chasing a stag) contain sockets that would have held oak pillars, perhaps supporting the first floor of the central tower (Figure 5).

A colour photo showing a busy border full of perennial shrubs - in the foreground there is a close up view of a socketed stone, with a second socketed stone in the background - beyond this there is a beach hedge through which there is a street with terraced buildings, and a few glimpses of parked cars
Figure 5 – Socketed stones at Filey

Over the years there has been considerable discussion and debate about the function of the Yorkshire coastal fortlets. One suggestion is that they might have constituted a signalling chain – using beacons – monitoring movements and hostile activities along the coast. However, it would have required an enormous tower for Goldsborough to transmit any messages to Whitby, irrespective of the compounding effect of sea frets. An alternative may have been for them to communicate inland to forts such as Malton (via intermediate beacons), but it would still have taken some time for the military unit stationed there – Numerus Supervenientium Petuarensium – to mobilise and march to the coast or to intercept any raiders heading inland.

Others have proposed that the fortlets could have been places of refuge for isolated coastal communities against hostile forces. Both Goldsborough and Huntcliffe certainly had a good water supply with wells being found by excavators in their courtyards. Soldiers might have been garrisoned within timber barracks inside the walls with, perhaps, artillery being placed on the towers.

More recently Alistair McCluskey has argued that the fortlets acted as a deterrent by threatening a raiding party`s escape route rather than blocking its primary incursion into Roman Yorkshire. Given the nature of their substantial defences they would have been difficult for a small force to attack but, once any incomers had left their landing grounds, the Roman garrison could have simply marched out of the fortlets destroying any beached boats.

The Yorkshire coastal fortlets probably only enjoyed a brief period of Roman military use – perhaps, 20 to 30 years – before being abandoned. What happened to them next is a matter of conjecture but might have been somewhat gruesome. In the excavations at Huntcliffe fourteen skeletons of men, women and children were found dumped in the well. At Goldsborough, the archaeologists who uncovered the remains of the fort wrote:

‘In the south-east corner of the tower we made discoveries that can only be described as sensational. A short, thick-set man had fallen across the smouldering fire of an open hearth, probably after having been stabbed in the back. Another skeleton, that of a taller man, lay also face downwards, near the feet of the first. Beneath him was the skeleton of a large and powerful dog, its head against the man`s throat, its paws across his shoulders – surely a grim record of a thrilling drama.

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Figure 1: Inscription from Ravenscar ©Whitby Museum

Find out more online: Whitby Museum


Figure 2: Plan of Huntcliffe Fortlet ©Creative Commons

Figure 3: Bastion at Huntcliffe ©Historic Environment Image Resource Database

Figure 4: Scarborough Fortlet ©Nick Summerton

Figure 5: The socketed stones at Filey. On the stone in the foreground a dog can be seen chasing a stag ©Nick Summerton

The Fate of the Ninth Legion

A colour photo of a terracotta roof tile presented on a metal display stand which is clasped in several places along the tiles edge
Figure 1: Roof tile made in the legionary tilery near River Foss

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There seems to be a great deal of speculation about what happened to The Ninth legion as it moved northwards across England, and then into Scotland, to seeminly dissappear completely.

Four legions participated in the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43: the Second, the Fourteenth, the Ninth and the Twentieth. The Ninth, originally raised by the Emperor Augustus, had been awarded the title Hispana for its bravery during the wars against the tribes in northern Spain. The full Roman name for this Legion was Legio IX Hispana.

By the early AD 70s the Ninth Legion had moved up from Lincoln to its new bases at York and Malton. Roman bricks and tiles were often stamped with the name of the legion supervising their production and, at York and Malton, complete examples (and fragments) have been discovered marked with the letters LEG IX HISP (Figure 1).

From Yorkshire the Ninth was involved in campaigns across the North and into Scotland. But its military reputation within Britain was far from outstanding, having been badly mauled by Boudicca`s troops in AD 61 (see previous blog: Petillius Cerialis and the Brigantes). Also, in his biography of his father-in-law, Julius Agricola, who was Roman governor in Britain during the Scottish campaigns, the Roman historian Tacitus explained how the Legion had been attacked as it was considered `the weakest point`.

A colour photo showing a fragment of a carved stone inscription - this is set onto a reconstruction of the stone's full text, so that it can be read in its entirety
Figure 2: Inscription from the Roman Fortress at York

After campaigning in Scotland, the Ninth returned to York as evidenced by an inscription discovered near the south-east gateway of the Roman Fortress (Figure 2) and translated as:

The Emperor Caesar Nerva Trajan Augustus, son of the deified Nerva, Conqueror of Germany, Conqueror of Dacia, pontifex maximus, in his twelfth year of tribunician power, six times acclaimed imperator, five times consul, father of his country, built this gate by the agency of the Ninth Legion Hispana.

This can be dated to AD 108 and, perhaps from the same period, was the tombstone of Lucius Duccius Rufinus, the standard bearer for the Ninth Legion (Figure 3).

A colour image showing an almost complete carved tombstone of Lucius Duccius Rufinus wearing robes - he is holding his standard in his right hand, and a square object in his left hand - he is standing within an arched alcove with a double stepped impost, and a triangular apex that is decorated with a cross within a circle - below this is a carved inscription - both these have a double inset border
Figure 3: Tombstone of Lucius Duccius Rufinus

However, after this the Ninth seems to have disappeared from the historical record, a mystery that has intrigued numerous individuals since the 18th century. It was replaced in York by the Sixth which travelled to the province with the Emperor Hadrian in AD 122 and no inscriptions referring to the Ninth have been found anywhere on Hadrian`s Wall. Moreover, the list of Roman legions on the Collonetta Maffei pillar in Rome (dated to AD 168) makes no mention of any Ninth Legion.

There are various theories surrounding the demise of the Ninth. Some argue that it left the province for the continent and finished its days fighting along the Rhine or the Danube. Certainly, some brick and tile stamps unearthed around Nijmegen imply that at least a detachment was deployed to the region sometime between AD 104 and AD 120.

Other historians believe the fate of the Ninth can be put down to redeployment in the East, with the Legion being sent to help quell the Second or the Third Jewish revolts in Palestine in AD 115 or AD 132. Others suggest that the Legion was destroyed in Armenia during Marcus Aurelius’ Parthian War. The Roman historian Dio Cassius stated that a Parthian army surrounded and annihilated an entire Roman unit during the conflict, but failed to name it.

The traditional view originally put forward by Theodor Mommsen in the 1850s was that the Legion was simply wiped out in action within northern Britain soon after AD 108, perhaps during a rising of the Brigantes against Roman rule. This view was further popularised in the 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe that paints a picture of the Ninth Legion marching into the mists of Scotland, never to be seen again.

A full colour book cover of Simon Elliott's book 'Roman Britain's Missing Legion - based on the Ninth legionthis - this depicts an image on a Roman standard of a golden coloured charging bull on a red square - the books title is above this bull, and subtitle below it with a gold stripe on either extreme of this red square - at the top there is section of the rope and frame of this standard with the author's name inset between these - at the bottom there is also a black tassled hem
Figure 4: Front cover of Roman Britain’s Missing Legion by Dr Simon Elliott

Dr Simon Elliott`s recent book (Figure 4) takes up the mantle from Mommsen arguing that the Legion was most likely lost in dramatic circumstances somewhere north of York. But echoing Rosemary Sutcliffe we now just need to find the location of the Ninth`s final stand and, if possible, their Eagle too!

Malton Museum are very excited to announce, that to celebrate our reopening, the first of our Summer Lecture series this season is a FREE online lecture, taking place on Wednesday May 26th at 7pm. Our guest will be renowned Archaeologist and author Dr Simon Elliott, who will talk about his latest book on the infamous ‘Missing Legion, Legio IX Hispana’.

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Kemps of Malton & Whitby have some copies of this book in store, especially ordered for our lecture


For full details of this lecture, and to book: Roman Britain’s Missing Legion


Figure 1: Roof tile from York marked with LEG IX HISP. ©Yorkshire Museums Trust (Creative Commons)

Figure 2: Inscription from the Roman Fortress at York. ©Yorkshire Museums Trust (Creative Commons)

Figure 3: Tombstone of Lucius Duccius Rufinus, the standard bearer for the Ninth Legion. ©Yorkshire Museums Trust (Creative Commons)

Visit: York Museums Trust

Figure 4: Front cover of book by Dr Simon Elliott ©Dr Simon Elliott & Pen and Sword Books.