Friday, July 30, 2010

Saxon Shore Forts -- Proof of Invasion?

In my last blog I talked about what I’d learned about Saxon longboats from the fifth and sixth centuries. Rowed and not particularly seaworthy, they were incapable of making the rough crossing over the North Sea. As a result, invaders of Britain would have had to follow Europe’s coast and row across where the Channel narrowed. I also noted that each longboat could carry at maximum 50-60 men, and that the numbers of boats recorded don’t seem the equivalent to invading armies. Only 700-900 men spread out over fifty years!

My memory drifts to Jack Whyte’s wonderful Arthurian novels, one of which is titled The Saxon Shore. If there weren’t invaders, what about the forts along the Saxon Shore? Popular wisdom has that these forts were built by the Romans during the 3rd century to ward off Saxon invaders.

The nine Saxon Shore forts curve around southestern Britain, running from Brancaster in Norfolk to Portchester in Hampshire. The other seven are Burgh,Norfolk; Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex; Reculver, Richborough, Dover and Lympne, all in Kent; and Pevensey, Sussex.

The name given to the forts collectively refers to their supposed supreme commander, the Count of the Saxon Shore. The first (and only) reference we have of him comes from a late 4th century Roman military document known as the Notitia Dignitatum. This is one of the few surviving documents that show how Roman forces were actually disposed. It lists a Comes Litoris Saxonici per Britanniam – a Count of the Saxon Shore in Britain – as well as the officers and troops serving in each of the forts.

This certainly sounds like a defensive line, until you look at the other entries in Notitia Dignitatum. There are two similar strings of forts running around Brittany and Normandy and along the Belgian Coast. The officers in charge there are the Dux tractus Amoricani et Nervicani and the Dux Belgicae Secundae – the Duke/Leader of Amorica and Nervica and the Duke/Leader of Second(ary) Belgica. (Belgium)

Plus there are similar forts in Yorkshire and along the Devonshire and Cornwell shores.

If the purpose of the forts on the Saxon Shore were to keep out Saxon invaders, what are the forts doing on the other side of the Channel? We don’t hear about Saxon invaders there. While Yorkshire is a possible landing place, the approach Yorkshire is through the North Sea. As we’ve seen, Saxon ships would not survive a crossing there. Devonshire and Cornwall, on the other hand, are close enough for Saxon longboats to cross. So why wouldn’t they be included in “the Saxon Shore” if this were a defensive appellation?

Even weirder, some of the maps I have show the source of the Saxon invaders/migrants as the area included in Belgicae Secundae. If these are forts built to keep out invaders, what are they doing with the invaders at their backs?

Doing a bit of digging (metaphorically), I’ve uncovered some interesting stuff.

First, the Latin word “Saxonici” is ambiguous. It can mean either Saxon invaders or Saxon settlers. Hmm. Could there have been Saxon settlers in Southeastern Britain as early as the third century? The army of the late Roman Empire consisted of a lot of soldiers recruited from Germanic areas. When their term of service was finished, it was customary to pension them off with their own lands. Lands in Italy were pretty much gone. Is it possible that they were given lands in Britain?

Second, scholars have put forth a couple of alternative explanations regarding the purpose of these forts. I’ll talk about that next blog.


  1. Fascinating, as usual! Is this likely to change your story?

  2. No. First of all, I think the value of the Arthurian legend is in its story elements, not in its historical veracity. We love the King Arthur story because of what it tells us about ourselves (more on that in another blog I'm planning.)

    And after 20 years of working on the darn thing, do you think I'm going to change it? But I do think there's the germ here for an entirely different story.