Discovery of a Roman Fort in Netherlands used during the British Conquest

The conquests of empires often shape history in ways that resonate through the ages. One such tale comes to us from the period between 43 AD and 410 AD when substantial portions of Britain were under the dominion of the Roman Empire. The eastward expansion of the empire marked the annexation of these lands, conferring upon them the status of Roman provinces. In a recent revelation reported by The Guardian, a profound discovery has been made by archaeologists – the remnants of a substantial Roman fort in Velsen, situated in the Netherlands. This stronghold is believed to have played a pivotal role in the triumphant assault on Britannia, masterminded by Emperor Claudius in 43 AD.

A Tale of Two Fortresses

Velsen, nestled along the coastline of northern Holland, bears witness to a historical duality. The locale harbors the vestiges of an earlier Roman bastion known as Velsen 1, a site unveiled in 1972 and speculated to have been active between 14 and 30 AD. This installation has tentatively been linked to the fort Flevum, chronicled by the Roman historian Tacitus, as outlined by Tacitus recounts that Flevum barely withstood the Frisians’ revolt – a Germanic tribe inhabiting the Dutch coastal regions – in 28 AD. Only intervention by the V Alaudae troops from Xanten saved it.

A Tale of Two Fortresses - Roman Fort

While Velsen 1 emerges as the likeliest candidate for Tacitus’ referenced fort, the definitive connection between the two remains elusive. Despite this ambiguity, extensive digs at the site have unveiled the truth that it was abandoned around 30 AD, following assaults by the Frisians. This abandonment is supported by the discovery of human remains in wells, a method often employed by retreating Romans to contaminate water sources.

The Oer-IJ Stronghold

Perched on the banks of the Oer-IJ, a tributary of the Rhine, lies the subsequent Roman fort – a geographical distance of 20 miles (32 km) from Amsterdam. This stronghold’s operational span is estimated between 39 and 47 AD. Traces of its existence date back to 1945 when fragments of pottery were stumbled upon by schoolchildren in a discarded World War II anti-tank trench. The 1950s witnessed exploratory research during the construction of the Velsertunnel beneath the North Sea Canal, followed by comprehensive archaeological excavations in the subsequent decades.

Roman Fort

The year 1997 marked a pivotal moment when archaeologist Arjen Bosman uncovered Roman ditches, walls, and gates at multiple locations within the site. This discovery led to the designation of the site as a state-protected monument. Initial assumptions portrayed the fort as diminutive, akin in size to Velsen 1. Yet, the proximity of the two forts – a mere few hundred meters apart – suggests that both potentially served as castellum, modest military encampments spanning 1 to 2 hectares (2.5 to 4.9 acres).

Unveiling the Enigma of Velsen Roman Fort

In November of 2021, Bosman’s cumulative research spanning decades converged with findings from the 1960s and 1970s, which had not been recognized as Roman relics during their discovery. This convergence yielded an astonishing revelation. Velsen 2 was not limited to one or two hectares, as previously believed for Velsen 1, but instead sprawled across a whopping 11 hectares (27 acres). As Bosman articulated, “It was a legionary fortress, and that’s something completely different,” underscoring its distinction from its smaller predecessor.

The fortress was conceived to house a legion comprising several thousand soldiers, serving as the northernmost bastion (castra) of the Roman Empire. Its purpose was to check the Chauci, a Germanic tribe, as the Romans readied themselves to journey from Boulogne in France to the southern shores of England.

A Renaissance painting of Caligula.
A Renaissance painting of Caligula

Historical threads suggest that Roman Emperor Caligula (12 to 41 AD) laid the foundation for this fortress, intended to support his ill-fated attempt to conquer Britannia around 40 AD. However, Emperor Claudius inherited this endeavor upon Caligula’s demise, subsequently orchestrating a triumphant incursion onto the island in 43 AD. Markers on wooden wine barrels with the emperor’s initials etched in confirmed Caligula’s presence in the Netherlands, likely sourced from the imperial court.

Crucible of Britannia’s Conquest

Velsen 2, as Bosman elucidates, served as the crucible for Caligula’s preliminary preparations for the invasion of England – an ambition rivaling Julius Caesar’s military feats – albeit with the objective of lasting occupation. Caligula’s plans were tragically cut short with his assassination in 41 AD. Claudius, however, seized the reins and forged ahead, culminating in the conquest of Britain.

Bust of Caligula, 1st century.
Bust of Caligula, 1st century.

The saga unfolds with Claudius’ legions fending off Germanic tribes, culminating in their successful landing in Kent. By the summer of 43 AD, Claudius himself set foot on British soil, making his entrance into Camulodunum (Colchester) to preside over the surrender of a dozen chieftains.

In the span of three years, the Romans solidified their dominion over the majority of Britain, encompassing it within their empire’s embrace. This epoch of Roman occupation endured until 410 AD, when internal dissension coupled with ceaseless attacks by the Germanic tribes set the stage for the empire’s decline. The echoes of this history resonate through the ruins of the Velsen 2 Roman fort, which after 47 AD, yielded to Claudius’ command to retreat behind the protective barriers of the Rhine.

A Legacy Resurrected

The archaeological revelation at Velsen marks a resurrection of a chapter in history that shaped the fate of empires. These Roman forts, bearers of conquest and empire, have unveiled secrets that stood veiled by the sands of time. The tale of their existence transcends borders, weaving a narrative that unites distant lands and epochs.


What is the significance of the Roman fort in Velsen?

The Roman fort in Velsen holds immense historical significance as it played a pivotal role in the conquest of Britain by Emperor Claudius in 43 AD.

Were the two Roman forts in Velsen of similar sizes?

Contrary to earlier assumptions, recent discoveries indicate that the second Roman fort, Velsen 2, was far larger than its predecessor, spanning approximately 11 hectares.

Who was responsible for the construction of the Velsen Roman fort?

The initial groundwork for the fortress was likely laid by Roman Emperor Caligula, with Emperor Claudius taking charge after Caligula’s assassination.

What marked the end of the Roman occupation of Britain?

The Roman occupation of Britain lasted until 410 AD, when a combination of internal conflicts and relentless attacks by Germanic tribes led to its decline.

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