What is Saxon about the Royal Saxon Way?

We have been delighted by the response to the launch of the Royal Saxon Way. We have had nothing but positive comments about the deep pleasure gained from walking the route and the varied sea, river and landscape to be enjoyed along the way. People have also responded well to the idea that a number of churches on the route were connected to powerful royal 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, was Kent not settled by the Jutes?

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, 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 or 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, but 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 descendants of these migrants became Christian and some as churchmen also learned to read and write. They too have left records, 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 pervaded 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 around 733, contains the often-quoted passage that describes the area of Kent being 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 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 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 this period were formed in Britain, 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 charters called themselves Rex Cantiae or Rex Cantuariorum (‘King of Kent’ or ‘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
  • The identity of the Kingdom of Kent as Jutish, if it existed at all, was not recognised in any documents that have survived from this period.


The 4th Century Command of the Count of the Saxon Shore from a manuscript of the Notitia Dignitatum

In the light of this very mixed picture in the 7th and 8th Centuries, we should now turn to consider when the term Saxon first came into use and where it was used.  The earliest contemporary mention of Saxones is in a work of the Roman Emperor Julian dating to 356.  This indicates that the name seemingly only came into use in the Roman world during the 4th Century.  There are indications of an actual people called Saxones living on the North Sea coast west of the River Elbe far beyond the Roman frontier, and 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 to describe raiders arriving by ship from outside the Roman Empire.  Use of the name Saxones as a universal short-hand for pirates or raiders is perhaps most dramatically reflected in the name for the line of Roman forts built along the British coast from Brancaster in North West Norfolk to Portchester near Portsmouth.  The forts were built from the end of the 3rd Century, but we know they were 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 forts as belonging to the command of the Count of the Saxon Shore.  There is debate whether this name 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 most easily understood as deriving from the Romans’ own generic use of Saxon, that they applied to any people coming by sea from beyond the frontier.  Saxon was a synonym for barbarian or non-Roman sea raider, in much the same way that Viking or Northman was used later 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. 

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 constituted as a political unit with the name Saxonia under Charlemagne around the end of the 8th Century that the name Anglisaxones had to be invented.  Today, we may think of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ as meaning ‘a mixture of Angles and Saxons’, but 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.  Bede records the Abbot of his own monastery at Jarrow describing his country as Saxonia, even though Bede’s own tripartite division of England places Jarrow in the land of the Angles.  

So 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 recognisably today a 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 we intend it to do.    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 and their achievements that contributed considerably at a particular point in history to the formation of the country we still live in today.

If you are interested in reading further about ideas of ethnicity and the identity of the people who migrated to Britain in the 5th and 6th Centuries, please follow the link.


2 thoughts on “What is Saxon about the Royal Saxon Way?

  1. Thanks again for this Rob, you do a fantastic job of writing all this up and keeping everyone so well informed. Keep up the good work 👍🏻!  Lyle 😊

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPad


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