Saxon Shore

From Wikishire
Jump to: navigation, search
The complete fortification system of the Saxon Shore extended on both sides of the Channel

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", or Comes Littoris Saxonic per Britanniam, whose functions at least from the late 4th century were limited to Britain, while the fortifications in Gaul were established as separate commands.

Several Saxon Shore forts survive still in eastern and south-eastern Great Britain.


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 part of the empire since the mid-1st century. It was protected from raids in the north by Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall further north, while a fleet of some size, the Classis Britannica was also available.

However, as the frontiers came under increasing external pressure, fortifications were built 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 Already in the 230s, under Severus Alexander, several units had been withdrawn from the northern frontier and garrisoned at locations in the south, and had built new forts at Brancaster, Caister-on-Sea and Reculver. Dover was already fortified in the early 2nd century, and the other forts in this group were constructed in the period between the 270s and 290s.

Meaning of the term and role

A mid-19th century illustration of the ruins of Gariannonum

The only contemporary reference we possess that mentions the name "Saxon Shore" comes in 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 complements of military personnel.[1] 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":

  1. a shore attacked by Saxons, or
  2. a shore settled by Saxons.

The usual interpretation is that the Saxon Shore was the coastline under attack by Saxon raiders, behaving much as the Vikings did in a later age. Historians supporting for the hypothesis of a shore inhabited by Saxons may argue that this is supported by Eutropius, who states that during the 280s the sea along the coasts of Belgica and Armorica was "infested with Franks and Saxons", and that this was why Carausius was first put in charge of the fleet there.[2] It also receives at least partial support from archaeological finds, as artefacts of a Germanic style have been found in burials, while there is evidence of the presence of Saxons in some numbers in south-eastern Britain and the northern coasts of Gaul around Boulogne-sur-Mer and Bayeux from the middle of the 5th century onwards,[3] albeit that by this late date Roman rule and defence had collapsed. The Roman practice of deliberately settling Germanic tribes as laeti to strengthen the Empire's defences was well established.

The first interpretation, supported by Stephen Johnson, holds that the forts fulfilled a coastal defence role against seaborne invaders, mostly Saxons and Franks,[4] and acted as bases for the naval units operating against them. This view is reinforced by the parallel chain of fortifications across the Channel on the northern coasts of Gaul, which complemented the British forts, suggesting a unified defensive system.[5]

A few scholars like John Cotterill consider the threat posed by Germanic raiders, at least in the 3rd and early 4th centuries, to be exaggerated, and they would interpret 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 as pointing to a different role: fortified points for transport and supply between Britain and Gaul, without any relation (at least at that time) to countering seaborne piracy.[5] However contemporary accounts are clear that there were widespread Germanic attacks on the Empire by land and by sea by this time. Rutupiae was used as secure landing places by Count Theodosius during the suppression of the Great Conspiracy of th barbarians in the year 368.[6]

Another theory, proposed by D.A. White, was that the extended system of 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 from archaeological evidence at Pevensey, which dates the fort's construction to the early 290s.[5]

Whatever their original purpose, it is virtually certain that in the late 4th century the forts and their garrisons were employed in operations against Frankish and Saxon pirates. 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 British Saxon Shore forts in the Notitia Dignitatum

The nine forts mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum for Britain are listed here, from north to south, with their garrisons.[1]

  • 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.[7] It was garrisoned by the Equites Dalmatae Brandodunenses, although evidence exists suggesting that its original garrison was the cohors I Aquitanorum.[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. Although there is some discussion as to whether this is actually the fort at Caister-on-Sea, and being on the opposite bank of the same estuary as Burgh Castle.
  • 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.[9] 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, 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 Castle, 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.[10]

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.[11]

Similar coastal fortifications are also found at Cardiff and Holyhead. The only fort in this style in the northern military zone is Lancaster, built at some time in the mid-late 3rd century replacing an earlier fort and extramural community, which may reflect the extent of coastal protection on the north-west coast from invading tribes from Ireland.

The Notitia also includes two separate commands for the northern coast of Gaul, both of which belonged to the Saxon Shore system. However, when the list was compiled, in AD 420, Britain had been abandoned by Roman forces.

Beyond the listed forts of Gaul, there are several other sites where a Roman military presence has been suggested. At Alderney, the fort known as "The Nunnery" is known to date to Roman times,[12] and the settlement at Longy Common has been cited as evidence of a Roman military establishment, though the archaeological evidence there is, at best, scant.[13]

In popular culture

  • In 1888, Alfred Church wrote a historical novel entitled The Count of the Saxon Shore.[14]
  • The Saxon Shore is the fourth book in Jack Whyte's Camulod Chronicles.
  • The "Saxon Shore Way" is a coastal footpath in Kent established in 1980 and which passes by many of the forts.
  • David Rudkin's play The Saxon Shore takes place near Hadrian's Wall as the Romans are withdrawing from Britain.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Saxon Shore)


  1. 1.0 1.1 Notitia Dignitatum, Pars Occ. XXVIII
  2. Eutropius, Breviarium, IX.21
  3. CBA Report 18: The Saxon Shore, pp. 63-67
  4. Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus XXXIX.20-21
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Fields, Nic (2006). Rome's Saxon Shore - Coastal Defences of Roman Britain AD 250-500 (Fortress 56). Osprey Publishing. pp. 39-42. ISBN 978-1-84603-094-9. 
  6. Ammianus Marcellinus, Historia Romana, XXVII.8.6-7 Ammianus Marcellinus, Historia Romana: 'It will be sufficient here to mention that at that time the Picts, who were divided into two nations, the Dicalidones and the Vecturiones, and likewise the Attacotti, a very warlike people, and the Scots were all roving over different parts of the country and committing great ravages. While the Franks and the Saxons who are on the frontiers of the Gauls were ravaging their country wherever they could effect an entrance by sea or land, plundering and burning, and murdering all the prisoners they could take.'
  7. CBA Report 18: The Saxon Shore, pp.3-5
  8. CBA Report 18: The Saxon Shore, p. 8
  9. Regulbium at
  10. D. White (1961)
  11. Roman Frontier Studies, pp. 124-147
  12. Alderney ruin found to be Roman fort, BBC News, 25 November 2011
  13. CBA Report 18: The Saxon Shore, pp. 31-34
  14. Alfred Church: The Count of the Saxon Shore


Saxon Shore forts

Branodunum  • Gariannonum (Burgh Castle  • Caister)  • Walton Castle  • Othona  • Regulbium  • Rutupiae  • Portus Lemanis  • Portus Dubris  • Anderitum  • Portus Adurni