Friday, 16 September 2011

King Caractacus on the Medway

The wide River Medway with its broad, marshy valley and extensive flood plain cuts south across Kent from the Thames estuary to Tonbridge, where its headwaters rise in the Weald. Until recently the Weald was an area of thick forests standing on damp clay soils that were almost impassable in winter or wet weather. The Medway thus formed a distinctive and very real barrier to movement from east to west. So clear was this dividing line that folk on one side of the river called themselves Kentish men, while those on the other termed themselves men of Kent.

The river was no less a barrier to the movement of armies, so crossing points have long been a key strategic aim for any army operating in the area. The Romans built a bridge over the Medway at what is now Rochester. That crossing point was retained in good condition through the centuries that followed and in medieval times was guarded by the massive Rochester Castle, the ruins of which are still among the most impressive in England. This drive takes in three key battlefields which determined the outcomes of three very different wars.

Find the Watermans Arms in Wouldford on the main street just south of the church. On leaving the pub drive south along the High Street to find the battlefield of the Medway Battle, fought in AD43 during the Roman invasion of Britain. The Roman army led by the general Aulus Plautius consisted of three legions, the IX Hispania, the XIV Gemina and the XX Valeria, plus a number of auxiliary units and cavalry forces - probably around 35,000 combat troops, plus a number of support and administrative personnel. This army landed at Richborough, secured the harbour at Reculver for their supply ships then headed west along the chalk ridge of the North Downs until they found their route blocked by the Medway. Plautius had left troops behind to garrison Reculver and other places,so he may have had 30,000 men with him on the day of battle.

On the far bank stood an army raised by the Celtic King Caractacus of the Catuvellauni tribe with his various allies. He had an army considerably larger than that of the Romans, perhaps 50,000 men. He seems to have put his main force on the bank more or less opposite Wouldham. There was a ford here in those days, long since dredged out to make the Medway navigable.

The battle began before dawn when Plautius sent a force of Batavian troops down river to swim across. The Batavians came from the lower Rhine and were skilled in river crossings. Plautius seems to have hoped to get these men around the left flank of the British. The move failed as the men were seen and Caractacus sent a force off to attack them. Plautius then moved most of his army forward as if hoping to force the ford. In fact this was a diversion, for the II Augusta under its commander Vespasian (later to be emperor of Rome) was marching south through woods to cross the Medway further upstream. The II Augusta got over the river safely, but by this time it was dusk and the incoming tide cut Vespasian off from any reinforcement.

At dawn Caractacus attacked. It was a bloody engagement and was nearly a defeat for the Romans, but the tide fell just in time to join the action and Plautius was able to push the remaining two legions over the river just in time. Caractacus retreated from the Medway. The defeat proved to be decisive. The tribes allied to Caractacus melted away to make separate peace treaties with Rome. There would be other battles in the years to come, but never again did the Romans look likely to be pushed out of Britain.

Drive south along the lane to the village of Burham. Turn right to the smaller village of Burham Court. A footpath beside the old church here leads to the banks of the Medway. If you are feeling energetic you could walk north along the river bank to find the monument erected in the 20th century to mark the spot where Vespasian crossed the river. The river today flows between embankments and most of what was the marshy floodplain has been drained. The landscape is quite different from that faced by the Romans, but this is still a bleak and largely uninhabited area.


Teashop and Pub Drives in Kent

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