The Saxon Shore Forts

Cartoon of centurion

There was no Count of the Saxon Shore
  To meet her hand to hand,
As she took the beach with a grind and a roar,
  And the pirates rushed inland!

Rudyard Kipling, The Pirates in England

Distributed along the south east coast of England is a set of military installations, built during the late Roman occupation, known to us as the 'Saxon Shore Forts'. Historians still argue about both the name and purpose of these forts because the documentary evidence is so thin. (Perhaps this is one reason why it marks the start of my favourite period of history - a Twilight Zone in which the only limits are of the imagination.)

Anyway, a 15th. century copy of a 5th. century source called the Notitia Dignitatum  lists nine garrisons under the command of an officer called the 'Comes Litoris Saxonici'  (translatable as the 'Count of the Saxon Shore'). The forts could have been used as naval bases to protect against raids by Pictish or Scotish pirates but are also likely to have housed 'rapid reaction' cavalry troops.

The Shore Forts taken in order from east to west.
Modern name Roman name Hectares
Brancaster Branodunum- 230 Cohors I Aquitanorum (France)
Burgh Castle Gariannonum2.4 280 Balkan cavalry
Walton Castle (?)- - -
Bradwell Othona -- Limen Fortenses (North Africa)
Reculver Regulbium 3.0230 Cohors I Baetasiorum
Richborough Rutupiae 2.7275 Legio II Augusta
Dover Dubris- - -
Lympne Lemannis- - -
Pevensey Anderida3.2 340 -
Portchester Portus Adurni(?)3.4 - -

Most had an approximately rectangular plan, the walls being up to about 4.5m thick and 8m high, with round towers projecting at intervals and at the corners. As originally built they will have stood on the shoreline but today the sea has advanced at some sites (e.g. Walton, Reculver) washing part or all of the remains away, or has retreated leaving them land-locked (at Richborough by 3.5km).

The Roman army was withdrawn early in the 5th century. Eventually, some of the sites aquired Anglo-Saxon churches, and then Norman castles. The best preserved example is Portchester in Hampshire.

Dead tree:

There has been no consensus amongst those who write about the transition from the Romans to the Anglo-Saxons. Although this is perhaps why I find the period interesting, it is worthy of serious study because during it, somehow, England began.

  1. Bassett, Steven - Ed., "The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms", Leicester University Press, 1989, ISBN 0-7185-1317-7
    A collection of 17 essays by leaders in the period, including Martin Welch, David Dumville and Martin Carver. Much "well, it could have been like this ..." style arguments but more definitive information as well.
  2. Breeze, David J., "Roman Forts in Britain", Shire Publications, 1994, ISBN 0 85263 654 7
    Accessible guide to all types of Roman fort in Britain.
  3. Dark, Ken, "Britain and the end of the Roman Empire", Tempus Publishing, 2000, ISBN 0 7524 1451 8
    A meticulous sieving of the archaeology for AD400-600 concluding that the period saw conditions akin to those of the continental 'Late Antique'.
  4. Elliot, Paul. "The Last Legionary: Life as a Roman soldier AD400.", Spellmount, 2007, ISBN-10: 1-86227-363-4
    Half history book, half conjectural biography. Very readable depiction of most military matters in the late Empire.
  5. Esmonde Cleary, A. Simon., "The Ending of Roman Britain", 1989, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-23898-6
    The years 300 to 500. OK, if Roman Britain packed up in the early fifth but the Saxons were no-show until the later fifth then who ...? You may well ask.
  6. Faulkner, Neil. , "The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain", 2000, Tempus Publishing Ltd., ISBN 0 7524 1458 5
    A caustic and outspoken riposte to romanitas: "robbery with violence", "Britain in the 390s already had little about it that was particularly Roman". "Romani ite domum".
  7. Higham, N. J., "The English Conquest : Gildas And Britain In The Fifth Century", 1994, Manchester University Press, ISBN 0719040809
    Interprets Gildas (born 440AD) to mean that Saxon control was early.
  8. Jones, Michael E., "The End of Roman Britain", 1996, Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-8014-8530-4
    A credible and wide ranging discussion of the history and archaeology of the post Roman era; it weren't the Saxons wot done it.
  9. Maxfield, Valerie A. - Ed., "The Saxon Shore, a Handbook", Exeter, 1989, ISBN 0 85989 330 8
    An essential introduction. Each shore fort's architecture, archaeology and present condition as well as a general background to the period.
  10. Snyder, Christopher A ,"An Age of Tyrants", 1998, Sutton Publishing, ISBN 0750919280,
    Another interpretation of Gildas (born 500AD) based upon his vocabulary - with some very different conclusions.
  11. Welch, Martin, "Anglo-Saxon England", Batsford Ltd., 1992, ISBN 0 7134 6566 2
    Concentrates on the archaeology of AD400-700. A hundred illustrations.

See also ...

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Last modified: 2010 October 9th.