Fishbourne Roman Palace, just outside Chichester in West Sussex gives a view through to the earliest days of Roman Britain. Long before Rome actually invaded Britain, the area of Chichester with its excellent natural harbours, was closely associated with the Roman Empire through trade. Chichester had long been an important centre. The rulers of southern central England were based here, and from around 20BC these rulers developed trading links with Rome. Around AD41 a British ruler named Verica actually fled to Rome to ask for help in dealing with his enemies. This was a crucial event, since in Rome Claudius had just become emperor and was looking for a military triumph to prove himself. The arrival of Verica, and his request for help, seems to have been the deciding factor in the choice of Britain for Claudius' attention. By 43AD preparations were complete and invading troops quickly overwhelmed British tribes hostile to them. With the British tribes defeated, the Romans needed a leader acceptable to native Britons and to Rome. Verica was probably elderly by now and wasn't chosen. Instead Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus took over, a man who dominated the Chichester area for over thirty years after the invasion. It is believed that the early history of Fishbourne Palace is closely associated with this man. Quite why Cogidubnus was selected for Rome's favour is not clear, but he seems to have been a native, who was granted Roman citizenship under Claudius, whose first names he adopted.
Excavations carried out by Barry Cunliffe and his team in the 1960s, indicate the story of Fishbourne Palace began with some large, utilitarian store houses. These held food and supplies for the military. It seems that Fishbourne harbour was used as a supply base for invading troops, the Romans taking advantage of help that friendly tribes in the area might give them. This supply base probably supported the invasion's second stage, a campaign in the south west led by Vespasian. It seems that after a period of about four years Fishbourne's military role was slowly wound down. Military storage buildings were demolished, and then replaced by a masonry structure in the early 60s AD. Then, some time between AD75 and 80 construction of a huge palace began. It is not known for certain who this palace was built for, but circumstantial evidence points strongly to Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus. There is no doubt that Cogidubnus was a very powerful figure. The idea that anyone else in the Chichester area could have built such a large palace is difficult to accept. In the words of Barry Cunliffe: "for anyone else to have lived in such style only a mile from his capital would have been a great insult to a loyal friend of Rome" (Fishbourne P166). We also know that in the 70s AD when Fishbourne was being extended from large house to huge palace, Cogidubnus was promoted to legatus augusti. This title is recorded in an inscription found in Chichester. It was very rare for client kings to reach the senatorial rank of legatus augusti. This unusual honour may have been granted after Cogidubnus lent his support to Vespasian, the eventual victor of a four way struggle for the position of emperor in AD69. Whatever the reason for Cogidubnus's rise, his new position needed a palace to match.
Fishbourne Palace took about five years to build, and was a sensational structure, built to impress. Each four hundred foot wing had suites of rooms, some with their own private gardens. The north wing, the outline of which is now exactly followed by the modern museum building, was thought to have been a lavish guest wing. The palace's owner may have lived in the south wing, lying beneath modern houses and the main road. In the centre was a huge formal garden. Remarkably this garden was rediscovered through excavation. Original Roman top soil was found, along with remains of bedding trenches, identified by the lime that had been added to counteract the slight acidity of local soil. These trenches were dug for a geometric design of box hedge, which has now been replanted in the original bedding trenches. Within the area defined by the box hedges was an expanse of mown grass. Only one solitary bedding pit was found in the central area, probably for a tree. In front of the east wing timber remains and a soil traditionally used for roses suggests a display of climbing roses on a wooden lattice. Grape vines were almost certainly grown as well. The grape variety known as Wrotham Pinot is descended from original Roman vines, and is the variety now growing at Fishbourne. The Wrotham Pinot gained its name after an unusual vine was discovered growing on a cottage wall in Wrotham, and investigations revealed its Roman heritage.
The garden was laid out in two halves, with a processional way forty foot wide leading from a spectacular entrance porch in the east wing over to an audience chamber in the west wing. Here Cogidubnus would hold court. Today only the garden's north side has been excavated, the south side lying below nearby houses. Walk along the path running parallel with the present museum building and you are walking down what was once the central processional way, used by guests of Cogidubnus. Cunliffe says of the garden: "it was meticulously contrived to fit into, and indeed enhance its surrounding palace. It was essentially a show piece, there to set off the building to the amazement of visitors. It was nothing less than a piece of window dressing to demonstrate to a second generation Roman province the sophistication of true Roman culture" (P142). This was a building which wished to dominate symbolically. This it did for over thirty years during the long lifetime of Cogidubnus. When he died, probably in the AD90s, it seems that Fishbourne ended its time as a place of public functions. The audience chamber seems to have been changed into a gym, with a small drinking fountain for refreshment. Fishbourne was now the house of a wealthy man rather than the palace of a king. Parts were demolished to make the building smaller and more manageable.
In the late third century AD there is evidence of building work and improvements. A new under floor heating system was in the process of being built. But before it could be completed a disastrous fire broke out and destroyed much of the palace. Coinage and pottery remains date the fire to the AD290s. This was a turbulent time for Britain. A man called Carausius had set up his own little empire in Britain, after Rome accused him of being in league with Channel pirates he was meant to be fighting. Carausius was murdered in AD293 by his former supporter Allectus, and only three years later Constantius Chlorus invaded Britain to bring the province back under Roman control. Fishbourne burnt down during these turbulent times. Perhaps Fishbourne was once again caught up in the drama of invasions. Or perhaps a workman engaged in rebuilding work was careless. Whatever happened the palace was not rebuilt. Anything considered valuable was carried away, and the rubble left to disappear into the ground. It wasn't until a chance find during the building of a water main that excavations in the 1960s revealed what was left of Fishbourne's grand palace.
Outlines of the building are visible on the satellite view - switch the map to satellite view and simply zoom in.
Opening Times: Please use contact details below.
Address: Fishbourne Roman Palace, Salthill Road, Fishbourne, Chichester, West Sussex PO19 3QR
Directions: The Roman Palace is just off the A259 in Fishbourne village, and is sign posted from the A27 and the A259. The Palace is a five minute walk from Fishbourne railway station. Buses 700, 56, and 11 stop nearby. Click here for an interactive road and satellite map centred on the Roman Palace of Fishbourne.
Access: For wheelchair users there are wide doors, and ramps. Two free wheelchairs are available, and there are adapted toilets. Tape guided tour and tactile objects are available. Staff are "deaf aware".
telephone: 01243 785859