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 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 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 part of the empire since the mid-1st century. It was protected from raids in the north by the Hadrianic and Antonine Walls, while a fleet of some size 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 Already in the 230s, under Severus Alexander, several units had been withdrawn from the northern frontier and garrisoned at locations in the south, and had built new forts at Brancaster and Caister-on-Sea in Norfolk and Reculver in Kent. 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.
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. However, due to the absence of further evidence, theories have varied among 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. Some argue that the latter hypothesis 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. However, Eutropius refers to Franks and Saxons as seaborne invaders. 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 (mostly laeti Roman army recruits though) in some numbers in SE England and the northern coasts of Gaul around Boulogne-sur-Mer and Bayeux from the middle of the 5th century onwards. This, in turn, mirrors a well documented practice of deliberately settling Germanic tribes (Franks became foederati in 358 AD under Emperor Julian) to strengthen Roman defences. Nevertheless, the earliest evidence for widespread Saxon settlement in Britain typically dates to the 5th century, significantly later than the channel defenses of the late 3rd and 4th century associated with the Saxon Shore.
The other interpretation, supported by Stephen Johnson, holds that the forts fulfilled a coastal defence role against seaborne invaders, mostly Saxons and Franks, 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.
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. They 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. This view is supported by contemporary references to the supplying of the army of Julian the Apostate by Caesar with grain from Britain during his campaign in Gaul in 359, and their use as secure landing places by Count Theodosius during the suppression of the Great Conspiracy a few years later.
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.
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 410, 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 nine forts mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum for Britain are listed here, from north to south, with their garrisons.
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 probably connected to the Saxon Shore system are the sunken fort at Skegness, and the remains of possible signal stations at Thornham in Norfolk, Corton in Suffolk and Hadleigh in Essex.
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. Similar coastal fortifications are also found in Wales, at Cardiff and Caer Gybi. The only fort in this style in the northern military zone is Lancaster, Lancashire, built sometime 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 c. 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:
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 mainly the coasts of Armorica, nowadays Normandy and Brittany. The Notitia lists the following sites:
In addition, 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, 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.
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