Fishbourne Roman Palace bigger than the Queen’s
“Now come on lads, we have to lay a new water main across this field. East peasy, type of job we’ve dug hundreds of times before, we’ll be finished by Friday and we can go home early.” So said the foreman for Portsmouth Water Board in 1960, little knowing that by the end of the day his team would damage the corner of a Roman mosaic floor, leading to the discovery of the most important palace north of Rome ever revealed, bigger even than Buckingham Palace.
There are twenty discovered mosaic floors, some built on top of others as the Romans decided that they wanted to replace without destroying what was there. Surprising is the way that they didn’t use the old mosaic floor as foundation in parts, just as the whole constructed on top. Most of the discovered floors are intact, there for modern day visitors to examine by almost standing on them.
Everything that has been discovered has a contemporary building on top, so the visitor may stand on glass floors to see what is under their feet, or pause on platforms very close by. No problems taking photos, no problems with Sussex Archaeological Society. charging £9.80 as at September 2019 for adult visitors, discount for seniors, groups, and children. The signage could be slightly better. You drive from east or west along the A27 to the Chichester by-pass, the roundabout exit is on the western side to the south. Initially it is well signposted, then you have to keep a wary eye out, because the side road on the right is suddenly there, indicate as you pull into the centre of the road, and you are in a housing estate.
The remains are then approached by side roads past a school so beware if you are at dropping off or collection time, then into the car park. Try to avoid the area designed for coaches, drivers can be a little antsy, then if your budget can cope have a snack before visiting. The three of us had sandwiches, one packet of crisps, bottled drinks, no change from £20. The toilets are free and clean, no cover if raining before walking into the main entrance of the remains.
You stand at the till to be told very nicely to come round the corner to the counter, pay over more money, before entering there is a free exhibition on the left with lots of enlarged wall photos, each accompanied by descriptive text. Walk through the doors, and there you are, where the Romans walked. You are standing on 2,000 years of documented history, as opposed to trudging through a farmer’s field that MIGHT have been walked on by ancient English man and woman – and child.
The Romans conquered England for almost four hundred years, and within thirty years of arriving in 43AD had built a huge palace complex close to now the city of Chichester. It was then accessible by river, unaffected by tides, and initially a grain storage depot for the troops.
The local tribe was the Atrebates, colonised very quickly into Roman ways. They didn’t stand much of a chance really, because the invasion conquered all. With the two 100ft granaries came housing, one large house of some stability. Timber framed with floors of clay and mortar, and plaster walls. After a few years these were replaced with stone walled villas, ultimately surrounding a large walled garden.
Within twenty years a full-sized palace was there, four-sided with a massive formal courtyard. As the whole site was on one level, it had to be smoothed out so some surrounding walls were five feet high. The site comprised over ten cultivated acres. Some of the floors didn’t have mosaic, but under floor heating instead. This was through a water piping system, hence the site was close to the natural river spring water, essential for contemporary habitation. There was also a very large bathhouse, almost essential in Roman times as a place to conduct business as well as eat, and repose.
It is generally acknowledged that for its early days it was owned by a local chieftain Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus, not a dignitary from Rome, but a local influential tribal chief. Various other important people have been suggested as subsequent owners. The north wing was destroyed in a fire c. 270 AD. The damage was too great to repair, and the palace was abandoned and later dismantled. It is not known whether the fire was accidental, set by coastal raiders or part of a more widespread period of disruption caused by the revolt of the ‘British’ emperor Carausius in the 280s AD. By this time the Roman empire was struggling to maintain its iron grip on Europe. Rome itself was under threat both internally from those wishing to become emperor, and large tribes requiring Roman troops be kept occupied defending. England became too difficult to defend.
Returning to the laying of the water main in 1960, some housing had already been constructed before the initial discovery, so what you see now is not the whole thing. Houses are on top. What I wonder is, if someone wants to add a conservatory, are they allowed to dig foundations very deep in case they damage anything else. Mind you, if I lived in one of those houses, I would dig up the whole of my back garden in the hope of discovering something of historic interest, then charge admission. Would pay the mortgage.