Saxon Shore

The Saxon Shore (Latin: litus Saxonicum) was a military command of the late Roman Empire, consisting of a series of fortifications on both sides of the English channel. It was established in the late 3rd century and was led by the "Count of the Saxon Shore". In the late 4th century, his functions were limited to Britain, while the fortifications in Gaul were established as separate commands. Several Saxon Shore Forts survive still in east and south-east England.


During the latter half of the 3rd century, the Roman Empire faced a grave crisis. Internally, it was weakened by civil wars, the violent succession of brief emperors, and secession in the provinces, while externally it faced a new wave of attacks by "barbarian" tribes. Most of Britain had been a Roman province ("Britannia") since the mid-1st century. It was protected from raids in the north by the Hadrianic and Antonine Walls, while in the Channel, the "Classis Britannica" patrolled, keeping seaborne raiders at bay.

However, as the frontiers came under increasing external pressure, a massive fortification drive was undertaken throughout the Empire in order to protect cities and guard strategically important locations. It is in this context that the forts of the Saxon Shore were constructed. Already in the 230s, under Severus Alexander, several units had been withdrawn from the northern frontier and garrisoned at locations in the south, and built new forts at Brancaster, Caister-on-Sea and Reculver. Dover was already fortified since the early 2nd century, and when the other forts were constructed in the period between the 270s and 290s, the full chain of forts was completed.

Meaning of the term and role

The only contemporary reference we possess that mentions the name "Saxon Shore" comes is the late-4th century "Notitia Dignitatum", which lists its commander, the "Comes Litoris Saxonici per Britanniam" ("Count of the Saxon Shore in Britain"), and gives the names of the sites under his command and their respective complement of military personnel.Notitia Dignitatum, Pars Occ. XXVIII] However, due to the absence of further evidence, theories have varied between scholars as to the exact meaning of the name, and also the nature and purpose of the chain of forts it refers to.

Two interpretations were put forward as to the meaning of the adjective "Saxon": either a shore "attacked" by Saxons, or a shore "settled" by Saxons. The latter hypothesis receives at least partial support from archaeological finds, as Germanic-style artifacts have been found in burials, while the settlement of Saxons in large numbers in the area of SE England and the northern coasts of Gaul around Boulogne is clearly attested from the middle of the 5th century onwards. ["CBA Report 18: The Saxon Shore", pp. 63-67] Especially in the Gallic coast, the settlement of Germanic tribes is clearly attested. The chronicler Eutropius mentions that during the 280s, the sea along the coasts of Belgica and Armorica was "infested with Franks and Saxons", and that it was for this reason that Carausius was first appointed in charge of the "Classis Britannica". [Eutropius, "Breviarium", [ IX.21] ] In addition, the "Notitia" records the presence of numerous Germanic tribes (mainly Franks and Suevi) serving as "laeti" in the Roman army in the latter 4th century. [Notitia Dignitatum, Pars Occ. XLII]

The other interpretation, supported by Stephen Johnson, holds that the forts fulfilled a coastal defense role against seaborne invaders, mostly Saxons and Franks, [Aurelius Victor, "De Caesaribus" XXXIX.20-21] and acting as bases for the "Classis" operating against them. This view is reinforced by the existence of a parallel chain of fortifications across the Channel on the northern coasts of Gaul, which complemented the British forts, suggesting a unified defensive system. [Fields, pp. 39-42]

Other scholars like John Cotterill however, consider the threat posed by Germanic raiders, at least in the 3rd and early 4th centuries, to be exaggerated. The construction of the forts at Brancaster, Caister-on-Sea and Reculver in the early 3rd century and their location at the estuaries of navigable rivers is interpreted by them as an indication of a different role, that of fortified supply and transport points from and to Britain and Gaul, without any relation (at least at that time) to countering seaborne piracy. [Fields, pp. 43-45] This view is supported by contemporary references to the supplying of the army of Caesar Julian with grain from Britain during his campaign in Gaul in 359, [Ammianus Marcellinus, "Historia Romana", [ XVIII.2.3] ; Zosimus, "Historia Nova", [ III.5.2] ] and their use as secure landing places by Count Theodosius during the suppression o the Great Conspiracy a few years later. [Ammianus Marcellinus, "Historia Romana", [ XXVII.8.6-7] ]

Another theory, proposed by D.A. White, was that the extended system of the large stone forts was disproportionate to any threat by seaborne Germanic raiders, and that it was actually conceived and constructed during the secession of Carausius and Allectus (the Carausian Revolt) in 289-296, and with an entirely different enemy in mind: they were to guard against an attempt at reconquest by the Empire. This view, although widely disputed, has found recent support by archaeological evidence at Pevensey, which dates the fort's construction to the early 290s. [Fields, pp. 42-43]

Whatever their original purpose, it can be regarded as certain that in the latter decades of the 4th century, the forts and their garrisons were employed in operations against Frankish and Saxon pirates. Roman control over the area was never fully restored after the Great Conspiracy, however, and Britain was abandoned by Rome in 407, with Armorica following soon after. The forts on both sides continued to be inhabited in the following centuries, and in Britain in particular several continued in use well into the Anglo-Saxon period.

The Forts

In Britain

The nine forts mentioned in the "Notitia Dignitatum" for Britain are listed here, from north to south, with their garrisons.
*"Branodunum" (Brancaster, Norfolk). One of the earliest forts, dated to the 230s. It was built to guard the Wash approaches and is of a typical rectangular "castrum" layout. ["CBA Report 18: The Saxon Shore", pp.3-5] It was garrisoned by the "Equites Dalmatae Brandodunenses", although evidence exists suggesting that its original garrison was the "cohors I Aquitanorum". ["CBA Report 18: The Saxon Shore", p. 8]
*"Gariannonum" (Burgh Castle, Norfolk). Established between 260 and the mid-270s to guard the River Yare ("Gariannus Fluvius"), it was garrisoned by the "Equites Stablesiani Gariannoneses".
*"Othona" (Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex). Garrisoned by the "Numerus Fortensium".
*"Regulbium" (Reculver, Kent). Together with Brancaster one of the earliest forts, built in the 210s to guard the Thames estuary, it is likewise a "castrum". [Attested by the only inscription found (see [ "Regulbium" at] )] It was garrisoned by the "cohors I Baetasiorum" since the 3rd century.
*"Rutupiae" (Richborough, Kent), garrisoned by parts of the "Legio II Augusta".
*"Dubris" (Dover Castle, Kent), garrisoned by the "Milites Tungrecani".
*"Portus Lemanis" (Lympne, Kent), garrisoned by the "Numerus Turnacensium".
*"Anderitum" (Pevensey Castle, East Sussex), garrisoned by the "Numerus Abulcorum".
*"Portus Adurni" (Portchester Castle, Hampshire), garrisoned by a "Numerus Exploratorum".

There are a few other sites that clearly belonged to the system of the British branch of the Saxon Shore (the so-called "Wash-Solent "limes"), although they are not included in the "Notitia", such as the forts at Walton, Suffolk, which has by now sunk into the sea due to erosion, and at Caister-on-Sea. In the south, Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight and "Clausentum" (Bitterne, in modern Southampton) are also regarded as westward extensions of the fortification chain. Other sites likely connected to the Saxon Shore system are the sunken fort at Skegness, and the remains of possible signal stations at Thornham, Corton and Hadleigh. [D. White (1961)]

Further north on the coast, the precautions took the form of central depots at "Lindum" (Lincoln) and Malton with roads radiating to coastal signal stations. When an alert was relayed to the base, troops could be dispatched along the road. Further up the coast in North Yorkshire, a series of coastal watchtowers (at Huntcliff, Filey, Ravenscar, Goldsborough, and Scarborough) was constructed, linking the southern defences to the northern military zone of the Wall. ["Roman Frontier Studies", pp. 124-147] Similar coastal fortifications are also found in Wales, at Cardiff and Caer Gybi.

In Gaul

As mentioned above, the "Notitia" also includes two separate commands for the northern coast of Gaul, both of which belonged to the Saxon Shore system. It must be noted, though, that when the list was compiled, in ca. 420 AD, Britain had been abandoned by Roman forces. The first command controlled the shores of the province Belgica Secunda (roughly between the estuaries of the Scheldt and the Somme), under the "dux Belgicae Secundae" with headquarters at Portus Aepatiaci:Notitia Dignitatum, Pars Occ. XXXVIII]
*"Marcae" (unidentified location near Calais, possibly Marquise or Marck), garrisoned by the "Equites Dalmatae". In the "Notitia", together with "Grannona", it is the only site on the Gallic shore to be explicitly referred to as lying "in litore Saxonico".
*"Locus Quartensis sive Hornensis" (likely at the mouth of the Somme), the port of the "classis Sambrica" ("Fleet of the Somme")
*"Portus Aepatiaci" (possibly Étaples), garrisoned by the "milites Nervii".Although not mentioned in the "Notitia", the port of "Gesoriacum" or "Bononia" (Boulogne-sur-Mer), which until 296 was the main base of the "Classis Britannica", would also have come under the "dux Belgicae Secundae".

To this group also belongs the Roman fort at Oudenburg.

Further west, under the "dux tractus Armoricani et Nervicani", were the coasts of Normandy and Armorica, up to the mouth of the Loire. The "Notitia" lists the following sites:Notitia Dignitatum, Pars Occ. XXXVII]

*"Grannona" (disputed location, either at the mouths of the Seine or at Port-en-Bessin ["CBA Report 18: The Saxon Shore", p. 67] ), the seat of the "dux", garrisoned by the "cohors prima nova Armoricana". In the "Notitia", it is explicitly mentioned as lying "in litore Saxonico".
*"Rotomagus" (Rouen), garrisoned by the "milites Ursariensii"
*"Constantia" (Coutances), garrisoned by the "legio I Flavia Gallicana Constantia"
*"Abricantis" (Avranches), garrisoned by the "milites Dalmati"
*"Grannona" (uncertain whether this is a different location than the first "Grannona", perhaps Granville), garrisoned by the "milites Grannonensii"
*"Aleto" or "Aletum" (Aleth, near Saint-Malo), garrisoned by the "milites Martensii"
*"Osismis" (Brest), garrisoned by the "milites Mauri Osismiaci"
*"Blabia" (perhaps Hennebont), garrisoned by the "milites Carronensii"
*"Benetis" (possibly Vannes), garrisoned by the "milites Mauri Beneti"
*"Manatias" (Nantes), garrisoned by the "milites superventores"

In addition, there are several other sites where a Roman military presence has been suggested. At Alderney, the fort known as "The Nunnery" has been suggested as dating to Roman times, and the settlement at Longy Common has been cited as evidence of a Roman military establishment, though the archaeological evidence is, at best, scant. ["CBA Report 18: The Saxon Shore", pp. 31-34]

In popular culture

*In 1888, Alfred Church wrote a historical novel entitled "The Count of the Saxon Shore". It is available [ online] .
*The American band "Saxon Shore" takes its name from the region.
*"The Saxon Shore" is the fourth book in Jack Whyte's "Camulod Chronicles".
*Since 1980, the "Saxon Shore Way" exists, a coastal footpath in Kent which passes by many of the forts.



*cite book|last=Breeze |first=David J. |title=Roman Forts in Britain |year=1994 |publisher=Shire Publications |isbn=0-85263-654-7
*cite journal |last=Cotterill |first=John |year=1993 |title=Saxon Raiding and the Role of the Late Roman Coastal Forts of Britain |journal=Britannia |issue=XXIV |pages=227-239
*cite book|last=Fields |first=Nic |title=Rome's Saxon Shore - Coastal Defences of Roman Britain AD 250-500 (Fortress 56) |year=2006 |publisher=Osprey Publishing |isbn=978-1-84603-094-9
*cite book|last=Johnson |first=Stephen |title=The Roman Forts of the Saxon Shore |year=1979 |publisher=Elek |location=London |isbn=978-0236401659
*cite book|last=Maxfield |first=Valerie A. |title=The Saxon Shore, a Handbook |year=1989 |publisher=University of Exeter Press|isbn=0-85989-330-8
*cite book|last=Pearson |first=Andrew |title=The Roman Shore Forts: Coastal Defences of Southern Britain |year=2002 |publisher=Tempus Publishing|isbn=978-0752419497
*cite book |last=Ward |first=John |title=Romano-British Buildings and Earthworks |url= |year=1911
*cite book|last=White |first=Donald A. |title=Litus Saxonicum: the British Saxon Shore in Scholarship and History |year=1961 |publisher=University of Wisconsin Press |location=Madison, W
*cite journal |last=Johnston |first=David E. |coauthors= et als. |year=1977 |title=The Saxon Shore |journal=CBA Research Report |issue=18 |url= |accessdate= 2007-08-20
*cite book|last=Maxfield |first=Valerie A. |coauthors=Dobson, Michael J. (Eds.) |title=Roman Frontier Studies: Proceedings of the XVth International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies |year=1991 |publisher=Exeter University Press |location=Exeter |isbn=978-0859897105

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