( ) were a confederation
of Old Germanic tribes
. Their modern-day
descendants in Lower
Saxony and Westphalia and other
German states are considered ethnic Germans
(the state of Sachsen is not
inhabited by ethnic Saxons; the state of Sachsen-Anhalt though in its northern and western parts); those in
the eastern Netherlands are considered to be ethnic Dutch; those in north eastern Belgium are
considered to be ethnic Flemish;
those in northern France are
considered to be ethnic French; and
those in Southern England ethnic
English (see Anglo-Saxons).
Their earliest known area
of settlement is Northern
, an area approximately that of modern Holstein
participated in the Germanic settlement of
Britain during and
after the 5th century.
It is unknown how many migrated from
the continent to Britain though estimates for the total number of
Germanic settlers vary between 10,000 and 200,000. Since the 18th
century, many continental Saxons have settled other parts of the
world, especially in North America,
Africa, and in areas of the former Soviet Union, where some communities still maintain parts of
their cultural and linguistic heritage, often under the umbrella
categories "German", "Flemish", and "Dutch".
Because of international Hanseatic
trading routes and contingent migration during the Middle Ages
, Saxons mixed with and had strong
influences upon the languages and cultures of the Scandinavian
and Baltic peoples
, and also upon the Polabian Slavs
and Pomeranian West Slavic
mentioned by the Ancient Greek
geographer Ptolemy, the pre-Christian settlement of the Saxon
people originally covered an area a little more to the northwest,
with parts of the southern Jutland Peninsula, Old Saxony and small
sections of the eastern Low Countries
(Belgium and the
During the 5th century AD, the Saxons were
part of the people invading the Romano-British
province of Britannia
. One of the other tribes was the
, whose name, taken together
with that of the Saxons led to the formation of the modern term,
, written in the 2nd century
, is sometimes considered to contain
the first mentioning of the Saxons. Some copies of this text
mention a tribe called Saxones
in the area to the north of
the lower River Elbe
, thought to derive
from the word Sax
or stone knife. However, other copies
call the same tribe Axones
, and it is considered likely
that it is a misspelling of the tribe that Tacitus
in his Germania
The first undisputed mention of the Saxon name in its modern form
is from 356, when Julian
the Roman Emperor
, mentioned them in a
speech as allies of Magnentius
, a rival
emperor in Gaul
. All mentions of the Saxons
during the 4th and early 5th centuries referred to pirates and
warlords in Gaul
and Britain, rather than to a
specific tribe or inhabitants of a specific area. In order to defend
against Saxon raiders, the Roman
created a military district called the Litus Saxonicum ("Saxon Coast") on both
sides of the English
In 441/442, Saxons are mentioned for the
first time as inhabitants of Britain, when an unknown Gaulish
historian wrote: "Britain falls under the rule of the
Saxons as inhabitants of present-day Northern Germany
are first mentioned in
555, when Theudebald
, the Frankish king,
died and the Saxons used this opportunity for an uprising. The
uprising was suppressed by Chlothar I
Theudebald's successor. Some of their Frankish successors fought
against the Saxons, others were allied with them; Chlothar II
won a decisive victory against
Saxons. The Thuringians
appeared as allies of the Saxons.
The Saxons may have derived their name from seax
, a kind of knife for which they were known.
has a lasting symbolic impact in the English counties of
Essex and Middlesex, which both feature three seaxes in their
The Continental Saxons living in what was known as Old Saxony
appear to have consolidated
themselves by the end of the 8th century. After subjugation by the
a political entity
called the Duchy of Saxony
The Saxons long resisted both becoming Christians
and being incorporated into the
orbit of the Frankish kingdom
they were decisively conquered by Charlemagne
in a long series of annual
campaigns, the Saxon Wars
(772 – 804).
Charlemagne's campaign in Hispania (778),
the Saxons advanced to Deutz on the
Rhine and plundered along the river.
came the enforced baptism
of the Saxon leaders and
their people. Their sacred tree or pillar, a symbol of Irminsul
, was destroyed.
Under Carolingian rule
Saxons were reduced to tributary status. There is evidence that the
Saxons, as well as Slavic tributaries such as the Abodrites
and the Wends
often provided troops to their Carolingian overlords. The dukes of Saxony
became kings (Henry I, the Fowler,
919) and later the first emperors (Henry's son, Otto I, the Great) of Germany during the
10th century, but they lost this
position in 1024.
The duchy was divided up in 1180 when Duke
Henry the Lion
, Emperor Otto's
grandson, refused to follow his cousin, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa
war in Lombardy
During the High Middle Ages
emperors and, later, under
the Teutonic Knights
settlers moved east along the River Elbe
into the area of a western Slavic tribe, the Sorbs
. The Sorbs were gradually Germanised. This
region subsequently acquired the name Saxony through political
circumstances, though it was initially called the March of Meissen
. The rulers of Meissen acquired
control of the Duchy of Saxony in
1423 and eventually applied the name Saxony to the whole
of their kingdom. Since then, this part of eastern Germany has
been referred to as Saxony (German:
Sachsen), a source of some misunderstanding about the
original homeland of the Saxons, mostly in the present-day German
state of Lower
Saxony (German: Niedersachsen).
Italy and Gaul
In 569, some Saxons accompanied the Lombards
into Italy under the leadership of
and settled there. In 572, they raided
Gaul as far as Stablo near
Divided, they were easily defeated by
. When the Saxons regrouped, a peace treaty
was negotiated whereby the Italian Saxons were allowed to settle
with their families in Austrasia
Gathering their families and belongings in Italy, they returned to
Gaul in two groups in 573. One group proceeded by way of Nice and another
via Embrun, joining up at Avignon, where they plundered the territory and were
consequently stopped from crossing the Rhone by Mummolus.
They were forced
to pay compensation for what they had robbed before they could
Some Saxons already lived in Gaul
Vron-Ponthieu, Sassetot-le-Mauconduit; Flanders up to Ile d'Aix) at that time. A Saxon king named
Eadwacer conquered Angers in 463 only
to be dislodged by Childeric I and the
Salian Franks, allies of the Roman Empire. It is possible that
Saxon settlement of Great Britain began only in response to
expanding Frankish control of the Channel coast.
unit of laeti had been settled at
Bayeux — the
Saxones Baiocassenses — since the time of the Notitia Dignitatum.
Saxons became subjects of Clovis I
the fifth century. The Saxons of Bayeux comprised a standing army
and were often called upon to serve alongside the local levy
of their region in Merovingian
military campaigns. They were
ineffective against Waroch
in this capacity
in 579. In 589, the Saxons wore their hair in the Breton
fashion at the orders of Fredegund
and fought with them as allies against
. Beginning in 626, the Saxons of the
were used by Dagobert I
for his campaigns against the Basques
. One of their own, Aeghyna
, was even created a dux
over the region of Vasconia
Saxons in Britain
along with Angles, Jutes, Frisians, and possibly
Franks, invaded or migrated to the island of
Britain (Britannia) around the
time of the collapse of Roman authority
in the west.
Saxon raiders had been harassing the eastern
and southern shores of Britannia for centuries before, prompting
the construction of a string of coastal forts called the litora
Saxonica or Saxon Shore
, and many
Saxons and other folk had been permitted to settle in these areas
as farmers long before the end of Roman rule in Britannia.
to tradition, however, the Saxons (and other tribes) first entered
Britain en masse as part of a deal to protect the Britons from the incursions of the
Picts, Irish, and
others. The story as reported in such sources as the
indicates that the British king Vortigern
allowed the Germanic warlords Hengist and
Horsa to settle their people on the Isle of
Thanet in exchange for their service as
Hengist manipulated Vortigern into granting
more land and allowing for more settlers to come in, paving the way
for the Germanic settlement of Britain.
Four separate Saxon realms emerged:
- East Saxons: created the Kingdom of
- Middle Saxons: created the province of
- South Saxons: led by Aelle,
created the Kingdom of Sussex
Saxons: created the Kingdom of Wessex
During the period of the reigns from Egbert to Alfred the Great
, the kings of Wessex
emerged as Bretwalda
, unifying the country
and eventually forging it into the kingdom of England in the face
Historians are divided about what followed: some argue that the
takeover of southern Great Britain by the Anglo-Saxons
was peaceful. There is, however,
only one known account from a native Briton who lived at this time
), and his description is of a forced
For the fire...spread from sea to sea, fed by the hands
of our foes in the east, and did not cease, until, destroying the
neighbouring towns and lands, it reached the other side of the
island, and dipped its red and savage tongue in the western
In these assaults...all the columns were levelled with
the ground by the frequent strokes of the battering-ram, all the
husbandmen routed, together with their bishops, priests, and
people, whilst the sword gleamed, and the flames crackled around
them on every side.
Lamentable to behold, in the midst of the streets lay
the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high
walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies, covered with livid
clots of coagulated blood, looking as if they had been squeezed
together in a press; and with no chance of being buried, save in
the ruins of the houses, or in the ravening bellies of wild beasts
and birds; with reverence be it spoken for their blessed souls, if,
indeed, there were many found who were carried, at that time, into
the high heaven by the holy angels...
Some, therefore, of the miserable remnant, being taken
in the mountains, were murdered in great numbers; others,
constrained by famine, came and yielded themselves to be slaves for
ever to their foes, running the risk of being instantly slain,
which truly was the greatest favour that could be offered them:
some others passed beyond the seas with loud lamentations instead
of the voice of exhortation...Others, committing the safeguard of
their lives, which were in continual jeopardy, to the mountains,
precipices, thickly wooded forests, and to the rocks of the seas
(albeit with trembling hearts), remained still in their
Bede, a Northumbrian, writing around the year 730, remarks that "the old
(that is, the continental) Saxons have no king, but they are
governed by several ealdormen (or
satrapa) who, during war, cast lots
for leadership but who, in time of peace, are equal in
power." The regnum Saxonum was divided into
three provinces — Westphalia, Eastphalia and Angria — which
comprised about one hundred pagi or Gau.
had its own satrap with enough military power to level whole
villages which opposed him.
In the mid 9th century
first described the social structure of the
Saxons beneath their leaders. The caste structure was rigid; in the
the three castes, excluding
slaves, were called the edhilingui
(related to the term
. These terms were subsequently Latinised
, or liberi
; and liberti
, or serviles
. According to very early
traditions which probably contain a good deal of historical truth,
were the descendants of the Saxons who led
the tribe out of Holstein
and during the
migrations of the sixth century. They were a conquering, warrior
elite. The frilingi
represented the descendants of the
, and manumissi
that caste, while the lazzi
represented the descendants of
the original inhabitants of the conquered territories, who were
forced to make oaths of submission and pay tribute to the
The Lex Saxonum
Saxons' unusual society. Intermarriage between the castes was
forbidden by the Lex
were set based upon caste membership. The edhilingui
worth 1,440 solidi
, or about 700 head of
cattle, the highest wergild on the continent; the price of a bride
was also very high. This was six times as much as that of the
and eight times as much as the lazzi
The gulf between noble and ignoble was very large, but the
difference between a freeman and an indentured labourer was
According to the Vita Lebuini
, an important source for early Saxon history, the
Saxons held an annual council at Marklo
they "confirmed their laws, gave judgment on outstanding cases, and
determined by common counsel whether they would go to war or be in
peace that year." All three castes participated in the general
council; twelve representatives from each caste were sent from each
. In 782, Charlemagne abolished the system of
and replaced it with the
, the system of counties
typical of Francia
Charlemagne outlawed the Marklo councils and thus pushed the
out of political power. The
old Saxon system of Abgabengrundherrschaft
, lordship based
on dues and taxes, was replaced by a form of feudalism
based on service and labour, personal
relationships, and oaths.
Paganism and politics
Saxon pagan practices were closely related to Saxon political
practices. The annual councils of the entire tribe began with
invocations of the gods, and the procedure by which dukes were
elected in wartime, by drawing lots, probably had pagan
significance, that is, giving trust to divine providence to guide
the seemingly random decision making. There were also sacred
rituals and objects, such as the pillars called Irminsul
, which were believed to connect heaven and
had one such pillar
chopped down in 772.
Something of pagan Saxon practice in Britain can be gleaned from
place names. The Germanic gods Woden
, and Thunor
, who are attested
to in every Germanic pagan tradition, were worshipped in Wessex,
Sussex, and Essex, and they are the only ones directly attested to,
though the names of the third and fourth months (March and April)
of the Old English calendar bear the names Hrethmonath
, meaning "month of Hretha
" and "month of Ēostre
", apparently from the names of two
goddesses who were worshipped around that season. The pagan Saxons
offered cakes to their gods in February (Solmonath
there was a religious festival associated with the harvest,
("holy month" or month of offerings",
September). The pagan calendar began on 25
, and the months of December and January were called
) and contained a
or "night of the mothers", another religious
festival of unknown content.
The Saxon freemen and servile class remained practising pagans long
after their nominal conversion to Christianity. Nursing a hatred of
the upper class which, with Frankish assistance, had marginalised
them from political power, the lower classes (the plebeium
) were still a problem for Christian
authorities as late as 836, when the Translatio S.
remarks on their obstinacy in pagan ritus et
(usage and superstition).
Conversion and resistance
The conversion of the Saxons in England from their original
occurred in the early to late
seventh century under the influence of the already converted
630s, Birinus became the "apostle to the
West Saxons" and converted Wessex, whose first
Christian king was Cynegils.
West Saxons begin to emerge from obscurity only with their
conversion to Christianity
keeping of written records. The Gewisse
West Saxon people, were especially resistant to Christianity; but
Birinus merely exercised more efforts against them. In Wessex, a bishopric was founded at
Dorchester. The South Saxons were first evangelised
extensively under Anglian influence;
Aethelwalh of Sussex was
converted by Wulfhere, King of Mercia, and allowed Wilfrid, Archbishop of
York, to evangelise his people beginning in 681.
chief South Saxon bishopric was that of
. The East Saxons
more pagan than the southern or western Saxons; their territory had
a superabundance of pagan sites. Their king, Saeberht, was converted early and a diocese
was established at London, but its first bishop, Mellitus, was expelled by Saeberth's heirs.
The conversion of the East Saxons was only completed under Cedd
in the 650s and 660s.
The continental Saxons were evangelised largely by English
missionaries in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. Around
695, two early English missionaries, Hewald the White
and Hewald the Black
were martyred by the
, that is, villagers. Throughout the century that
followed, it was the villagers and other peasants who were to prove
the greatest opponents of Christianisation
, while missionaries often
received the support of the edhilingui
and other noblemen.
, an Englishman who
preached to the Saxons between 745 and 770, built a church and made
many friends among the nobility, some of whom were compelled to
save him from an angry mob at the annual council at Marklo. Social
tensions arose between the Christianity-sympathetic noblemen and
the staunchly pagan lower castes.
Under Charlemagne, the Saxon Wars
their chief object the conversion and integration of the Saxons
into the Frankish empire. Though much of the highest caste
converted readily, forced baptisms and forced tithing made enemies
of the lower orders. Even some contemporaries found the methods
employed to win over the Saxons wanting, as this excerpt from a
letter of Alcuin of York
friend Meginfrid, written in 796, shows:
If the light yoke and sweet burden of Christ were to be
preached to the most obstinate people of the Saxons with as much
determination as the payment of tithes has been exacted, or as the
force of the legal decree has been applied for fault of the most
trifling sort imaginable, perhaps they would not be averse to their
Louis the Pious
successor, reportedly treated the Saxons more as Alcuin would have
wished, and consequently they were faithful subjects. The lower
classes, however, revolted against Frankish overlordship in favour
of their old paganism as late as the 840s, when the Stellinga
rose up against the Saxon
leadership, who were allied with the Frankish emperor Lothair I
. After the suppression of the
Stellinga, in 851 Louis the
German brought relics from Rome to Saxony
to foster a devotion to the Roman
When the Poeta
composed his verse Annales
of Charlemagne's reign
with an emphasis on his conquest of Saxony, the great emperor was
viewed on par with the Roman emperors as the bringer of Christian
salvation to a pagan people.
In the ninth century, the Saxon nobility became vigorous supporters
and formed a bulwark of
Christianity against the existing Slavic
to the east and the Nordic
of the Vikings
to the north.
Saxony, once so pagan, became the source of a bold and unique
Christianity, as evidenced by the Christian literature in the
vernacular Old Saxon; the literary output
and wide influence of Saxon monasteries such as Fulda, Corvey, and
Verden; and the theological
controversy between the Augustinian Gottschalk and the semipelagian Rabanus Maurus.
From an early date, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious
vernacular works in order to evangelise the Saxons more
efficiently. The Heiland
, a verse
epic of the life of Christ in a Germanic setting, and Genesis
, another epic retelling of the
events of the first book of the
, were commissioned in the early ninth century by Louis to
disseminate scriptural knowledge to the masses. A council of Tours in 813 and
then a synod of Mainz in 848 both
declared that homilies ought to be preached
in the vernacular.
The earliest preserved text in the Saxon
language is a baptismal vow from the late eighth or early ninth
century; the vernacular was used extensively in an effort to
Christianise the lowest castes of Saxon society.
Following the downfall of Henry the
and the subsequent split of the Saxon tribal duchy into
several territories, the name of the Saxon duchy was transferred to
the lands of the Ascanian
to the differentiation between Lower Saxony, lands settled by the Saxon tribe, and
Upper Saxony, as the duchy (finally a kingdom).
When the Upper
was dropped from Upper Saxony, a different
region had acquired the Saxon name, ultimately replacing the name's
Finns and Estonians
have changed their usage of the term Saxony over the
centuries to denote the whole country of Germany (Saksa and Saksamaa respectively)
and the Germans (saksalaiset and
sakslased, respectively) now.
In old Finnish the
, as in
the words voisaksa
(traveling salesman), in Estonian
"Saxons" (in Romanian 'Saşi') was also applied to German settlers from Saxony who
migrated during the 13th century to southeastern Transylvania (Kingdom of Hungary) in present-day
In the Celtic languages
, the word
for the English nationality is derived from the word
. The most prominent example, often used in English,
is the Gàidhlig
), often used
disparagingly in Scottish
(those Scots of
largely of Angle
in Gàidhlig, is Sasainn
(Saxony). Other examples are the
language), Irish Sasana
(England), Breton Saozneg
(the English language), and Cornish
(English people) and Sowsnek
language), as in the famous My ny vynnav kows Sowsnek!
(I will not speak English!
Georg Friederich Händel's
visit to Italy, much was made of his being from Saxony; in
particular, the Venetians greeted the 1709 performance of his opera Agrippina with the cry Viva
il caro Sassone, "Long live the beloved Saxon!"
also survives as the surnames Saß/Sass, Sachse and Sachs.
female first name "Saskia
" originally meant "A Saxon woman" (alteration
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