What is Saxon about the Royal Saxon Way?


Count of the Saxon Shore in the Notitia DignitatumThe page of the manuscript of the Notitia Dignitatum in the Bodleian Library, Oxford showing the command of the Count of the Saxon Shore.  The fort at Lympne (known as Portus Lemanis) near Lyminge is shown on the left of the middle row. (©Wikimedia Commons)




We have been delighted by the positive response to the launch of the Royal Saxon Way. Many people have already enjoyed walking the route, experiencing the varied sea, river and landscape to be enjoyed along the way. Many too have responded well to the idea that a number of churches on the route were connected to powerful women who founded them or served as abbesses in the 7th and 8th Centuries, and that these women should be celebrated. But what is Saxon about the route? After all, it is commonly said that in the period after the end of Roman rule, Kent was settled by the Jutes rather than by Saxons?


The reality is that we do not know precisely where the migrants who came to the southern and eastern parts of Britain in the 4th, 5th and 6th Centuries actually came from or what they called themselves. Recent DNA research is demonstrating that a substantial proportion of the population of this area at this time, perhaps as much as 40%, had its origins in the north west of Continental Europe. So we can readily accept that there were migrants to Britain who came from the area we now think of as Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Belgium, but as they had no written language the people of that time have left no written records of where exactly in this region they came from, nor what they called themselves. So all we do know about them was written by others. These were almost entirely churchmen because on the whole, these were the only people who could read and write. Some were contemporaries living in Continental Europe. We also have one book written in the 6th Century in the west of Britain, outside the area settled by these migrants, where literacy and church institutions had survived the fall of the Roman Empire. The final source is the descendants of these migrants, who became Christian, and some of whom, as churchmen, learned to read and write. They too have left records about this early period, but written from the viewpoint of a later date. As churchmen, all these authors viewed themselves as the heirs of Roman Latin culture, and this influenced how they thought and what they wrote.



One such native churchman was Bede, a monk living and working at Jarrow and Wearmouth in north east England from the end of the 7th Century. His Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples, completed in 733, contains the often-quoted passage that describes the area of Kent as settled by Jutes, the area to the west of Kent by Saxons and the area to the north by Angles. This implies groups of people, coming from distinct parts of what we now think of as Germany and Denmark, and maintaining their group identity when they arrived in Britain. This identity was then reflected in the kingdoms they founded: the kingdoms of the West Saxons, the South Saxons, the East Anglians, and so on. This is all very neat, but even Bede accepts this isn’t the whole picture. In another part of the same Ecclesiastical History, he says that there were:

‘very many peoples in Germany from whom the Angles and Saxons, who now live in Britain, derive their origin…and these people are the Frisians, Rugians, Danes, Huns, Old Saxons and Bructeri.’

So even Bede acknowledged that there was no simple correspondence between places of origin in Germany, Scandinavia and the Low Countries, and the kingdoms formed in Britain.  It seems rather that the West Saxon, the East Anglian and all the other political identities that we know from the 7th and later centuries were formed in Britain after the migrants had arrived, and may have owed little to the identities these people had in their land of origin. 


More than a hundred  years before Bede was writing, King Æthelberht of Kent, (the father of Queen Æthelburh who founded the church at Lyminge), was styled Rex Anglorum (‘King of the Angles’) by Pope Gregory writing from Rome.  While we don’t know what title he used himself, by contrast his successors in their own written documents called themselves Rex Cantiae (‘King of Kent’) or Rex Cantuariorum  (‘King of the Kentish people’) .  This tells us at least three different things: 

·         Any subtleties of ethnic identities and political entities in Britain were completely invisible in Rome and churchmen could use Angles as a shorthand for all the people in southern Britain;

·         The Kings of Kent identified themselves and their kingdom, not with a Germanic homeland but with the people who had been living there for at least the past 700 years.  The people encountered there by Julius Caesar in 55BC were known as the Cantii, and this name persisted in use through the Roman period, was adopted by the Germanic incomers, and as Kent remains the name of the area to this day; and

·         If the Kingdom of Kent was Jutish, this identity was not considered significant enough to be recorded in any documents that have survived from this early period.

The earliest use of the name Saxones to describe contemporary people is in a work written by the Roman Emperor Julian in 356.  This suggests the name only came into use in the Roman world during the 4th Century.  There are indications of an actual group of people called Saxones living on the North Sea coast west of the River Elbe some 300 miles beyond the Roman frontier. There was at least one regiment of Saxons in the Roman army.  But until the middle of the 6th Century, the term was most usually used as a generic term, rather than as an ethnic identity. Saxones was used as a universal short-hand for pirates or raiders from beyond the Roman frontier, and this is perhaps most dramatically reflected in the name for the line of forts built by the Romans along the British coast from Brancaster in North West Norfolk to Portchester near Portsmouth.  The forts were built at different times from around the end of the 3rd Century, but we know they became part of a single military command from a document known as the Notitia Dignitatum that dates probably to the late 4th Century.  It lists the military commands of the Roman Empire and identifies these particular forts in Britain as belonging to the command of the Count of the Saxon Shore

There is debate whether the name Saxon Shore derives from it being the coastline attacked by Saxon raiders, or the coast settled by Saxons who had been engaged as troops to defend the frontier zone, a practice common throughout the later Roman Empire.  However, whether it comes from those attacking or those settling on this length of coast, the name Saxon Shore is perhaps most easily understood as deriving from the Romans’ own generic use of the term Saxon. Saxon was a synonym for barbarian or non-Roman sea raider, in much the same way that Viking or Northman was used in later centuries to describe Scandinavian raiders in general.  Use of Saxon as a by-word for raider continued through the 5th and 6th Centuries, and is found both in Continental Europe and further west in Britain where literacy and Roman culture survived. There is no obvious reason why the Saxon Shore should have been so-named either because it was attacked or because it was settled by people who were ethnically Saxon. At the time the Saxon Shore received its name, to the people of Roman Britain, Saxons were simply pirates and raiders from beyond the frontier.

To the Franks of 6th, 7th and 8th Century France, Saxonia meant what we now call England.  It was only because the area west of the Elbe was formally annexed by the Emperor Charlemagne around the end of the 8th Century and constituted as a political unit with the name Saxonia that the name Anglisaxones had to be invented. It was first used at Charlemagne’s court to distinguish the Saxons of England from the Saxons of Continental Saxony west of the River Elbe.  Today, we may think of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ as meaning ‘a mixture of Angles and Saxons’, but in the 8th and 9th Centuries when the name was invented and first came into use, Anglisaxones may have had more the sense of ‘English Saxons’.  Alcuin, possibly the foremost scholar of his day, who lived and worked at the court of Charlemagne, was himself an Englishman.  He used the term Saxonia Anglorum (‘Saxony of the English’), which implies that Saxonia was a term applied to the whole country, while the people themselves were commonly known as the English.  This was not a new usage either.  In the early 8th Century, Bede notes that the Abbot of his own monastery at Jarrow described his country as Saxonia, even though Bede’s own tripartite division of England places Jarrow in the land of the Angles.

So coming back to the Royal Saxon Way, should we use Saxon as a term to describe a walking route that seeks to celebrate the legacy of women of the Kentish royal family of the 7th and 8th Centuries?  To be fair, they probably thought of themselves as Kentish, but so do people who live in Kent today.  A name like ‘Royal Kentish Way’ does not readily convey any connection with the past, particularly not with the 7th and 8th Centuries.  Saxon is a term that was used at the time, and Saxonia was certainly used by people then to describe the whole of the area that later was known as England.  It was not restricted to specific kingdoms like those of the West, South or East Saxons, and at the time, Kent would have been part of the area known as Saxonia.  Saxon is also recognisable today as an historical term that communicates a connection with the period that falls between the end of Roman rule in Britain, and the Norman Conquest.  As such, the name Royal Saxon Way conveys in a few words exactly the meaning intended.    We think it is the best name for the route, and we hope everyone can enjoy it for what it is: a strikingly beautiful walk through varied countryside that brings to mind some very remarkable women, whose achievements contributed considerably at a particular point in history to the formation of the country we still live in today.

This page is managed by Lyminge Parish Council Historic Environment Working Group