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The Stem Duchy of Saxony
Regions with significant populations
Old Saxony, Frisia, England, Normandy
Old Saxon, Old English
Originally Germanic and Anglo-Saxon paganism, later Christianity
Related ethnic groups
Anglo-Saxons, Angles, Frisii, Jutes, Franks

The Saxons, sometimes called the Old Saxons, were the Germanic people of "Old" Saxony (Latin: Antiqua Saxonia) which became a Carolingian "stem duchy" in 804, in what is now northern Germany.[1] The political history of the inland Saxons, who were neighbours of the Franks, is unclear until the 8th century and the conflict between their semi-legendary hero Widukind and the Frankish emperor Charlemagne. They do not appear to have been politically united until about that time. Previous Frankish rulers of Austrasia, both Merovingian and Carolingian, fought numerous campaigns against Saxons, both in the west near the Lippe, Ems and Weser, and further east, neighbouring Thuringia and Bohemia. Later medieval sources referred to this eastern area as "North Swabia". Charlemagne conquered all the Saxons after winning the long Saxon Wars (772-804), and forced them to convert to Christianity, annexing Saxony into the Carolingian domain. Under the Carolingian Franks, Saxony became a single duchy, fitting it within the basic political structure of the later Holy Roman Empire. The early rulers of this early Duchy of Saxony expanded their territories, and therefore those of the Holy Roman empire, to the east, at the expense of Slavic-speaking Wends.

Long before any clear historical mention of Saxony as a country, a related but possibly distinct group of "Saxons" became important during the late Roman Empire, when the name was used to refer to coastal raiders who attacked from the north, in a similar sense to the much later term Viking.[2] These early raiders and settlers were believed by contemporaries to come from coastal regions north of the Rhine and the homeland of the Franks, including Frisians, Angles and Jutes, and possibly parts of the territory which came to be called Saxony. It has been proposed that these coastal Saxons should be seen as a distinct but related people with an etymologically equivalent name, such as the Dutch and Deutschen (Germans) today.[3] Significant numbers of these early Saxons settled in what later became northern France and England, and England was sometimes seen as their homeland. To avoid confusion, already in the 8th century authors such as Bede sometimes referred to the Saxons of Saxony in Germany as the old Saxons, and their country as old Saxony, and this differentiation is still often used by historians today when discussing this period. In contrast, the settlers once called Saxons in England became part of a new Old English-speaking nation, now commonly referred to as the Anglo Saxons, or simply "the English". This brought together local Romano-British populations, Saxons, and other migrants from the same North Sea region, including Frisians, Jutes, and Angles. The Angles are the source of the term English which became the more commonly-used collective term. The term Anglo-Saxon, combining the names of the Angles and the Saxons, came into use by the eighth century, initially in the work of Paul the Deacon, to distinguish the Germanic-speaking inhabitants of Britain from continental Saxons, but both the Saxons of Britain and those of Old Saxony in northern Germany long continued to be referred to as "Saxons" in an indiscriminate manner.

There is possibly a single classical reference to a smaller and still much earlier Saxon tribe, but the interpretation of this text ("Axones" in most surviving manuscripts) is disputed. According to this proposal, the original Saxon tribe lived north of the mouth of the Elbe, close to the probable homeland of the Angles.[4]

Today the Saxons of Germany no longer form a distinctive ethnic group or country, but their name lives on in the names of several regions and states of Germany, including Lower Saxony (German: Niedersachsen) which includes most of the original duchy. Their language evolved into Low German which was the lingua franca of the Hanseatic League, but has faced a long and gradual decline since the Late Medieval period as a literary, administrative and, to a significant extent, cultural language in favor of Dutch and German.

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The remains of a seax together with a reconstructed replica

The name of the Saxons has traditionally been said to derive from a kind of knife used in this period and called a seax in Old English, and sachs in Old High German.[5][6]

During the first centuries of its use the term Saxon was associated with raiders and not associated with any clearly defined homeland, apart from the settlements of Saxons in what are now England and Normandy. It is only much later that the medieval records of the Frankish empire began to refer to a largely inland nation of Saxons in what is now northern Germany. Although it became convenient to refer to the English Saxons as either English or as Anglo-Saxons after this point, the term Saxon was still used to refer to them for some time, and can be a source of potential confusion when interpreting contemporary records.

Possible mention in Ptolemy (2nd century AD)

Map of the Roman Empire and contemporary indigenous Europe in 125 AD, showing the location of the Saxons in Northern Germany, according to some copies of Ptolemy's work

Ptolemy's Geographia, written in the second century, is sometimes considered to contain the first mention of the Saxons. Some copies of this text mention a tribe called Saxones in the area to the north of the lower Elbe.[7] However, other versions refer to the same tribe as Axones. This may be a misspelling of the tribe that Tacitus in his Germania called Aviones. According to this theory, Saxones was the result of later scribes trying to correct a name that meant nothing to them.[8] On the other hand, Schütte, in his analysis of such problems in Ptolemy's Maps of Northern Europe, believed that Saxones is correct. He notes that the loss of first letters occurs in numerous places in various copies of Ptolemy's work, and also that the manuscripts without Saxones are generally inferior overall.[9]

Late Roman period (3rd-6th century AD)

The first undisputed mentions of the Saxon name come from the late 4th century, around the time of emperor Julian. By about 400 the Notitia Dignitatum shows that the Romans had created several military commands specifically to defend against Saxon raiders. The Litus Saxonicum ('Saxon Shore'), was composed of nine forts stretching around the south-eastern corner of England. On the other side of the English channel two coastal military commands were created, over the Tractus Armoricanus in what is now Brittany and Normandy, and the coast of Belgica Secunda in what later became Flanders and Picardy. The Notitia Dignitatum also lists the existence of a Saxon military unit (an Ala) in the Roman military, which was stationed in what is now Lebanon and northern Israel. This Ala primum Saxonum already existed by 363 when Julian used them in Arabia against the Persian empire. Roman military accessories are found in northern Germany in the 4th and 5th centuries apparently indicating the return of soldiers who had served the empire.[10] Several records mentioning the early Saxons can be dated:

  • Eutropius the historian, a contemporary and companion of Julian, claimed that Saxon and Frankish raiders had already attacked the North Sea coast near Boulogne-sur-Mer almost a century earlier in about 285, when Carausius was posted there to defend against them. Because the terms Saxon and Frank were well-known as the raiders of his time it is not certain whether the 3rd century raiders were also referred to this way.[11] Contemporary records mention only Franks in this period.
  • Julian himself mentioned the Saxons in a speech as close allies of Magnentius in 350 when he declared himself emperor in Gaul. Julian described the Saxons and Franks as kinsmen of Magnentius himself, living "beyond the Rhine and on the shores of the western sea".[12]
  • In 357/8 Julian clearly had contact with the Saxons himself when he campaigned in the Rhine region against Alemanni, Franks and Saxons. Franks and Saxons entered the Maas river area in what is now the Netherlands, and displaced the recently settled Salian Franks from Batavia, whereupon some of the Salians began to move south into the region of Texandria. This Frankish settlement within the empire eventually gained the acceptance from Julian, but according to the near contemporary Ammianus Marcellinus the Chamavi who had also entered the area were ejected.[13] Writing about this period more than a century later, it was Zosimus who mentioned the involvement of the Saxons and even mentioned a specific tribe, called the Kouadoi, which has been interpreted as a misunderstanding for the Chauci who had lived in this general region centuries earlier, or the Chamavi, mentioned by Amminanus, who were however sometimes considered to be Franks. This implies that the term "Saxon" was probably not a clear ethnic distinction at this time, but rather designated a type of behaviour.[14]
  • In 368, during the reign of Valentinian I, Ammianus (books 26 and 27) reported that Britain was troubled by the Scoti, two tribes of Picts (the Dicalydones and Verturiones), the Attacotti and the Saxons. Count Theodosius, the father of the future emperor Theodosius I led a successful campaign to recover control in Britain. In an inscription preserved in Stobi in North Macedonia Theodosius was described as the terror of Saxony, which is possibly the earliest reference to a country of the Saxons.[15]
  • In Gaul in 370 (Ammianus, books 28 and 30) the Saxons "overcoming the dangers of the Ocean advanced at rapid pace towards the Roman frontier" invading the maritime districts in Gaul. Valentinian's forces tricked and overwhelmed them "and stripped of their booty the robbers thus forcibly crushed had almost returned enriched with the spoils which they took", by a "device which was treacherous but expedient".
  • In 373 Saxons were defeated at a place called Deuso which was in Frankish, but not Roman territory. This was therefore probably an early mention of an inland force of Saxons.[16]
  • Not long before the usurper emperor Magnus Maximus died in 388, according to Bishop Ambrose of Milan, he was attacked by Franks and Saxons as divine retribution for his rebuilding of a synagogue burned down in Rome.[17]
  • In 393 Saxons died as gladiators in Rome.[17]
  • From 395 until 408 Stilicho was the most powerful military leader in the western Roman empire. Early in this period he is believed to have campaigned in Britain and northern Gaul, and to have reorganized the defences against the Saxons. Later in his career a series of crises in Italy, Gaul, Iberia and North Africa meant that military resources were not available for Britain.
  • According to the Chronica Gallica of 452, which was probably written in southern France, Britain was ravaged by Saxon invaders in 409 or 410. By this time, Constantine "III" was declared emperor in Britain and Gaul. He was killed in 411. The Romano-British citizens reportedly expelled their Roman officials during this period, and never again re-joined the Roman empire.[18] Writing in the mid-sixth century, Procopius states that after the overthrow of Constantine "III" in 411, "the Romans never succeeded in recovering Britain, but it remained from that time under tyrants."[19]

In almost all of these cases the Saxons were associated with using boats for their raids, even within the Maas delta region. Special mentions of the fearful 4th-century Saxon surprise attacks were made not only by Ammianus, but also by the poet Claudian.[20] Some generations later a dramatic description of Saxon raiding was written by Sidonius Apollinaris writing to a friend who was assigned to a coastal defensive post in Saintonge near Bordeaux. A rough description of the homeland of these Saxons was given by Hilarion who says the Frankish homeland lay between the Saxons and Alemanni.[21]

In 441–442 AD, Saxons are mentioned in the Chronica Gallica of 452 which says that the "British provinces, which to this time had suffered various defeats and misfortunes, are reduced to Saxon rule".[22][23] Some generations later Gildas is generally seen as reporting what happened, although he gave no date. According to him, a Saxon force based in the east of Britain (Bede later believed in the Isle of Thanet) were invited as foederati to Britain, in order to help defend against raids by Picts and Scots. They revolted over their pay and plundered the whole country, initiating a long war. By the time of Gildas in the 6th century the Romano-British had recovered control of at least part of the country, but were now divided into corrupt "tyrannies". There are very few records of the period, but by the time of Bede in the 8th century most of England was ruled by Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.[24]

In the 460s, an apparent fragment of a chronicle preserved in the History of the Franks of Gregory of Tours, gives a confusing report about a number of battles involving one "Adovacrius" who led a group of Saxons based upon islands somewhere near the mouth of the Loire. He took hostages at Anger in France, but his force was subsequently retaken by Roman and Frankish forces led by Childeric I. A "great war was waged between the Saxons and the Romans but the Saxons, turning their backs, with the Romans pursuing, lost many of their men to the sword. Their islands were captured and ravaged by the Franks, many people being killed." Though there is no consensus, many historians believe that this Adovacrius may be the same person as Odoacer, the future king of Italy, who is mentioned in the same part of Gregory's text as a person who subsequently allied with Childeric to fight Alemanni in Italy.[25][26][27]

In 568/9, some Saxons were living in the Austrasian kingdom of Sigebert II, possibly in the Champagne region, and they accompanied the Lombards into Italy under the leadership of Alboin and settled there for some time. Sigebert in the meantime allowed a Suevian group to replace them in Austrasia. In 572, they raided south-eastern Gaul as far as Stablo, now Estoublon and were defeated by the Gallo-Roman general Mummolus. They were allowed to return to Italy, gather their families and belongings and return to pass through the region again to go north. After plundering the countryside, they were stopped at the Rhône by Mummolus and forced to pay compensation for what they had robbed.[28] Upon arrival at their original home they were furious and refused to negotiate against the Suebi. Gregory of Tours, our main source for these events, claims that there was divine intervention, allowing the much smaller Suebian group to utterly defeat the Saxons in two battles.[29]

There was also a Saxon population on the Normandy coast, near Bayeux. In 589, the Saxons from the Bessin region near Bayeux wore their hair in the Breton fashion at the orders of Fredegund and fought with them as allies against Guntram.[30] Beginning in 626, the Saxons of the Bessin were used by Dagobert I for his campaigns against the Basques. In 843 and 846 under king Charles the Bald, other official documents mention a pagus called Otlinga Saxonia in the Bessin region, but the meaning of Otlinga is unclear.

In southwestern France, in the late 6th century Chulderic the Saxon was became a Duke north of the Garonne for Childeric II, after having previously been a subject of King Guntram. A century later, Aeghyna, a Duke of Gascony, died in 638.[31] Both men are likely to have been Bayeux Saxons, although they may for example have come from Britain.[32]

Saxons in Germany during the Merovingian period

In comparison to mentions of the early Saxons raiders and settlers in Britain or Gaul, there are few mentions of the Saxons in Germany before the 8th century. Interpretation of the records is also complicated not only by the continuing references to the other Saxons, but also because the German Saxons possibly weren't originally unified within one Saxon political entity. It is therefore not clear whether some early continental "Saxons" could also sometimes have come under other designations such as Warini, Frisians or Thuringians. Nevertheless some records during Merovingian times are clearly about Saxons living within what is now Northern Germany, north of the Franks.

  • In about 531 the Franks, led by the eldest son of Clovis I, Theuderic I conquered the still independent kingdom of Thuringia, which henceforth became a kingdom under Frankish overlordship. Centuries later, medieval writers claimed that the early Saxons had assisted the Franks, and even that they had been brought from England for this purpose, but no contemporary sources mention this, and historians doubt that there was any conflict between the Saxons and the Thuringian kingdom.[33]
  • In 555, after the death of Theuderic's grandson Theudebald, Theuderic's younger half-brother Clothar I (also spelled Lothar) inherited rule over the Rhine regions. It is reported by Gregory of Tours (IV.10) and Marius of Avenches that Saxons "revolted", and the new ruler Clothar led an army in 556 to ravage Saxony and Thuringia. Thuringia, both authors mention, had supported the Saxons.[34] In a possibly separate incident Gregory reports that Chlothar fought Saxons in 556 or 557 who had been stirred up by his own brother Childebert I to attack his territory, going as far as Deutz on the Rhine. (Springer argues against assuming that this was one incident, or involved one single group of Saxons, because Thuringia is quite far from Deutz.)[34] Gregory of Tours (IV.14), pursuing an ethical topic which he is known for, reported that Chlothar was forced to fight by the Franks who did not want to negotiate, and that the Franks were subsequently beaten. However, later records indicate that a group of Saxons began paying tribute to the kings of Austrasia during Chlothar's reign.[35]
  • Sigebert I, the son of Clothar I who ruled Austrasia until 575, was praised by the poet Venantius Fortunatus for defeating the "Thuringian Saxons". (Springer suggests that this was his way of distinguishing the mainland Saxons from the Anglo-Saxons of Britain.)[36]
  • In 612, Sigebert's grandson Theuderic II attacked his own brother Theudebert II at Zülpich, with a force of Saxons, Thuringians, and other people from east of the Rhine.[32]
  • Heroic stories set in the 620s were written centuries later about Sigbert's nephew and eventual successor in Austrasia, Chlothar II and his defeat of Saxons lead by Berthoald near the Weser, together with son Dagobert I.[37]
  • In 632, Dagobert I, son of Clothar II, and the most powerful king of the Franks at that time, was met by Saxon messengers in Mainz in a period of war with the Wends under Samo, who were attacking Thuringia. These Saxons negotiated, or attempted to negotiate, the end of a tribute of 500 cows per year which they had been paying, in return for a promise to defend against the Wends at their own expense.[38]

The Saxons and the Arnulfings

The later stem duchy of Saxony (c. 1000 AD), which was based in the Saxons' traditional homeland bounded by the rivers Ems, Eider and Elbe

The continental Saxons appear to have become consolidated by the end of the eighth century, partly as a result of interaction with the powerful Frankish kingdoms. The ancestors of Charlemagne, the Arnulfings, took control of the neighbouring Austrasian kingdom of the Franks and sought to assert power over the peoples to the east including not only the Bavarians, Swabians and Thuringians, which were long under Frankish rule, but also the Saxons and Frisians. They also pressured the Saxons and Frisians to convert to Christianity. In 804 the emperor Charlemagne conquered the Saxons, and incorporated the Saxons into the Frankish empire as a Stem Duchy, similar to the older ones although there is no evidence that it had previously been a single kingdom. The Duchy of Saxony (804–1296) covered Westphalia, Eastphalia, Angria and Nordalbingia, which is roughly equivalent to Holstein, the southern part of modern-day Schleswig-Holstein state, now bordering on Denmark.

  • In the 690s, Bede reported that a people known as the Boructuarii were invaded by the pagan Saxons during a period when the Saint Suibert, an Anglo-Saxon missionary bishop assigned to Frisia at that time, who was doing missionary work in the area. This was probably near Frisia, and the area is widely believed to correspond to the Roman-era Bructeri, who lived had once lived near the Lippe river.
  • From the same report of Bede about English missionaries in the 690s the Two Ewalds were killed somewhere in Saxony while trying to convert one of the "satraps" of Saxony. The Ewalds apparently had the support of this local ruler, and also Pepin of Herstal who was the effective ruler of Frankish Austrasia at this time.[39]
  • In 715, not long after the death of Pepin of Herstal, Frankish annals report that Saxons took control of "Hattuaria". In later centuries this name was given to the Frankish country near Cleves and Xanten, between Rhine and Maas, but the area involved in this takeover may have been on opposite side of the Rhine.[40] It is named after a Roman era Frankish tribe, the Chattuarii, who had once been the eastern neighbours of the Bructeri. Ammianus Marcellinus reported them to be living north of the Rhine in the 4th century.
  • In 718, Charles Martel, the son of Pepin, invaded Saxony as far as the Weser. He campaigned there again in 720, 724, 738, and possibly also in 722 and 728.[41]
  • In the 730s, Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which mentions, for example, that the land of the Angles was once between those of the Saxons and Jutes, but was now empty.
  • Also in about this period the Ravenna Cosmography was written which uses the same term "Old Saxony" to refer to the apparent continental homeland of the British Saxons who the writer understood to have came from this Old Saxony with their leader named Ansehis. It describes the lands of the Saxons as lying on the Ocean coast between Frisia and the Danes. It also borders on Thuringia and contains the rivers "Lamizon", "Ipada", "Lippa" and "Limac" (generally interpreted as the Ems, Pader, Lippe and Leine). This work names its source as a Gothic geographer named Marcomir, who had written an earlier study of Saxony.
  • In 743 two of the sons of Charles, Pepin the Short and Carloman, marched against Odilo of Bavaria, who was nominally a Frankish subject. Carloman then turned north towards Saxony, or a part of it, which had sent troops to support Bavaria. After conquering the castrum of Ho(o)hseoburg forced the Saxon duke Theoderic to surrender at a placitum held at that same place.[42] The brothers invaded Saxony again the next year (744) and Theoderic was captured.[43]
  • In 748 Pepin the Short marched through Thuringia to Saxony, during a period when his half brother Grifo was attempting seize power in Bavaria. The part of Saxony beyond Thuringia where he went is referred to in the Annals of Metz as "North Swabia" and many of the Saxons there converted to Christianity at this time. The continuation of the Chronicle of Fredegar claims that they accepted to return to go back to paying a tribute of 500 cows.[44]
  • In 751 Pepin was crowned as king, and in 753 he attacked the Saxons northeast of the Rhine in the area of Bad Iburg and Bad Oeynhausen.[45]
  • In 758 Pepin attacked Saxony once more and agreed to a tribute of 330 horses per year from the defeated Saxons.[46]

Charlemagne's Saxon Wars

The Saxons were conquered by Charlemagne after a long series of annual campaigns, the Saxon Wars (772–804). With defeat came enforced baptism and conversion as well as the union of the Saxons with the rest of the Germanic, Frankish empire. Their sacred tree or pillar, a symbol of Irminsul, was destroyed. Charlemagne deported 10,000 Nordalbingian Saxons to Neustria and gave their largely vacant lands in Wagria (approximately modern Plön and Ostholstein districts) to the loyal king of the Abotrites. Einhard, Charlemagne's biographer, says on the closing of this grand conflict:

The war that had lasted so many years was at length ended by their acceding to the terms offered by the king; which were renunciation of their national religious customs and the worship of devils, acceptance of the sacraments of the Christian faith and religion, and union with the Franks to form one people.

The Saxons long resisted becoming Christians[47] and being incorporated into the orbit of the Frankish kingdom.[48] In 776 the Saxons promised to convert to Christianity and vow loyalty to the king, but, during Charlemagne's campaign in Hispania (778), the Saxons advanced to Deutz on the Rhine and plundered along the river. This was an oft-repeated pattern when Charlemagne was distracted by other matters.[48]

The Duchy of Saxony

Under Carolingian rule, the 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 tenth century, but they lost this position in 1024. The duchy was divided in 1180 when Duke Henry the Lion refused to follow his cousin, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, into war in Lombardy.

During the High Middle Ages, under the Salian emperors and, later, under the Teutonic Knights, German settlers moved east of the Saale 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 Saxe-Wittenberg (only a remnant of the previous Duchy) in 1423; they 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, with a central part in the present-day German state of Lower Saxony (German: Niedersachsen).


Old English, associated with the Saxons in England, was closer to later recorded dialects of Old Frisian than the Old Saxon language. Old Frisian apparently once stretched along the North Sea coast from the northern Netherlands to southern Denmark, while Old Saxon originally didn't extend to the coast. Linguists have noted that Old Frisian and Old Saxon, although neighbouring and related, did not form part of the same dialect continuum. In contrast, the Saxon dialects became part of the much larger Continental West Germanic continuum which stretched to the Alps, and can all be considered to be types of German.

According to the historical linguist Elmar Seebold, this development can only be explained if continental Saxon society prior to the migration to Britain was effectively composed of two related, but different forms of West Germanic. In his view, the group of people who, in the 3rd century, first migrated southwards to what is now the northwestern portion of Lower Saxony spoke North Sea Germanic dialects closely related to Old Frisian and Old English. There, these migrants encountered an already present population whose language was significantly different from their own, i.e. belonging to the Weser–Rhine Germanic grouping, over whom they then formed an elite, lending their name to the subsequent tribal federation and region as a whole. Later, during the 5th century, as the Angles started migrating to Britain, the descendants of this elite joined them, while the descendants of the native inhabitants did not, or at least not significantly. As the languages of the Angles and this particular Saxon group were closely related, a continuum between Anglian and Saxon could form in Britain, which later became English. In the land of the Saxons itself, the departure of a large part of this former elite caused the sociopolitical landscape to change, and the original population, after the departure of the majority of the elite's descendants, became so predominant that their dialects (presumably the language of the Chauci, the language of the Thuringians, and possibly other ancient tribes) prevailed and ultimately formed the basis for the Low Saxon dialects known today, while their speakers retained the tribal name.[49]


Social structure

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 Gaue. Each Gau had its own satrap with enough military power to level whole villages that opposed him.[50]

In the mid-9th century, Nithard first described the social structure of the Saxons beneath their leaders. The caste structure was rigid; in the Saxon language the three castes, excluding slaves, were called the edhilingui (related to the term aetheling), frilingi and lazzi. These terms were subsequently Latinised as nobiles or nobiliores; ingenui, ingenuiles or liberi; and liberti, liti or serviles.[51] According to very early traditions that are presumed to contain a good deal of historical truth, the edhilingui were the descendants of the Saxons who led the tribe out of Holstein and during the migrations of the sixth century.[51] They were a conquering warrior elite. The frilingi represented the descendants of the amicii, auxiliarii and manumissi of that caste. 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 edhilingui.

The Lex Saxonum regulated the Saxons' different society. Intermarriage between the castes was forbidden by the Lex Saxonum, and wergilds were set based upon caste membership. The edhilingui were 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 frilingi 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 small.[52]

According to the Vita Lebuini antiqua, an important source for early Saxon history, the Saxons held an annual council at Marklo (Westphalia) where 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."[50] All three castes participated in the general council; twelve representatives from each caste were sent from each Gau. In 782, Charlemagne abolished the system of Gaue and replaced it with the Grafschaftsverfassung, the system of counties typical of Francia.[53] By prohibiting the Marklo councils, Charlemagne pushed the frilingi and lazzi 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.[54]


Germanic religion

Saxon religious practices were closely related to their political practices. The annual councils of the entire tribe began with invocations of the gods. The procedure by which dukes were elected in wartime, by drawing lots, is presumed to have had religious significance, i.e. in giving trust to divine providence – it seems – to guide the random decision-making.[55] There were also sacred rituals and objects, such as the pillars called Irminsul; these were believed to connect heaven and earth, as with other examples of trees or ladders to heaven in numerous religions. Charlemagne had one such pillar chopped down in 772 close to the Eresburg stronghold.

Early Saxon religious practices in Britain can be gleaned from place names and the Germanic calendar in use at that time. The Germanic gods Woden, Frigg, Tiw and Thunor, who are attested to in every Germanic tradition, were worshipped in Wessex, Sussex and Essex. 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 Hrēþmōnaþ and Ēosturmōnaþ, meaning 'month of Hretha' and 'month of Ēostre'. It is presumed that these are the names of two goddesses who were worshipped around that season.[56] The Saxons offered cakes to their gods in February (Solmōnaþ). There was a religious festival associated with the harvest, Halegmōnaþ ('holy month' or 'month of offerings', September).[57][page needed] The Saxon calendar began on 25 December, and the months of December and January were called Yule (or Giuli). They contained a Modra niht or 'night of the mothers', another religious festival of unknown content.

The Saxon freemen and servile class remained faithful to their original beliefs 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 vulgus or cives) were a problem for Christian authorities as late as 836. The Translatio S. Liborii remarks on their obstinacy in pagan ritus et superstitio ('usage and superstition').[58]


1868 illustration of Augustine addressing the Saxons

The conversion of the Saxons in England from their original Germanic religion to Christianity occurred in the early to late seventh century under the influence of the already converted Jutes of Kent. In the 630s, Birinus became the "apostle to the West Saxons" and converted Wessex, whose first Christian king was Cynegils. The West Saxons begin to emerge from obscurity only with their conversion to Christianity and keeping written records. The Gewisse, a West Saxon people, were especially resistant to Christianity; Birinus exercised more efforts against them and ultimately succeeded in conversion.[56] 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, Bishop of York, to evangelise his people beginning in 681. The chief South Saxon bishopric was that of Selsey. The East Saxons were more pagan than the southern or western Saxons; their territory had a superabundance of pagan sites.[59] Their king, Saeberht, was converted early and a diocese was established at London. Its first bishop, Mellitus, was expelled by Saeberht's heirs. The conversion of the East Saxons was 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 vicani, that is, villagers.[55] Throughout the century that followed, villagers and other peasants proved to be the greatest opponents of Christianisation, while missionaries often received the support of the edhilingui and other noblemen. Saint Lebuin, an Englishman who between 745 and 770 preached to the Saxons, mainly in the eastern Netherlands, built a church and made many friends among the nobility. Some of them rallied to save him from an angry mob at the annual council at Marklo (near river Weser, Bremen). Social tensions arose between the Christianity-sympathetic noblemen and the pagan lower castes, who were staunchly faithful to their traditional religion.[60][page needed]

Under Charlemagne, the Saxon Wars had as 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 to his 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 baptismal vows.[61]

Charlemagne's successor, Louis the Pious, reportedly treated the Saxons more as Alcuin would have wished, and as a consequence they were faithful subjects.[62] 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 Catholic Church.[63] The Poeta Saxo, in his verse Annales of Charlemagne's reign (written between 888 and 891), laid an emphasis on his conquest of Saxony. He celebrated the Frankish monarch as on par with the Roman emperors and as the bringer of Christian salvation to people. References are made to periodic outbreaks of pagan worship, especially of Freya, among the Saxon peasantry as late as the 12th century.

Christian literature

In the ninth century, the Saxon nobility became vigorous supporters of monasticism and formed a bulwark of Christianity against the existing Slavic paganism to the east and the Nordic paganism of the Vikings to the north. Much Christian literature was produced in the vernacular Old Saxon, the notable ones being a result of the literary output and wide influence of Saxon monasteries such as Fulda, Corvey and Verden; and the theological controversy between the Augustinian, Gottschalk and Rabanus Maurus.[64]

From an early date, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious supported Christian vernacular works in order to evangelise the Saxons more efficiently. The Heliand, 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 Bible, 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.[65]

Saxon as a demonym

Celtic languages

In the Celtic languages, the words designating English nationality derive from the Latin word Saxones. The most prominent example, a loanword in English from Scottish Gaelic (older spelling: Sasunnach), is the word Sassenach, used by Scots-, Scottish English- and Gaelic-speakers in the 21st century[66] as a racially pejorative term for an English person and, traditionally, to the English-speaking lowlanders of Scotland.[67] The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives 1771 as the date of the earliest written use of the word in English. The Gaelic name for England is Sasann (older spelling: Sasunn, genitive: Sasainn), and Sasannach (formed with a common adjective suffix -ach[68]) means 'English' in reference to people and things, though not when naming the English language, which is Béarla.

Sasanach, the Irish word for an Englishman (with Sasana meaning England), has the same derivation, as do the words used in Welsh to describe the English people (Saeson, singular Sais) and the language and things English in general: Saesneg and Seisnig.

Cornish terms the English Sawsnek, from the same derivation. In the 16th century Cornish-speakers used the phrase Meea navidna cowza sawzneck to feign ignorance of the English language.[69] The Cornish words for the English people and England are Sowsnek and Pow Sows ('Land [Pays] of Saxons'). Similarly Breton, spoken in north-western France, has saoz(on) ('English'), saozneg ('the English language'), and Bro-saoz for 'England'.

Romance languages

The label Saxons (in Romanian: Sași) also became attached to German settlers who settled during the 12th century in southeastern Transylvania.[70] From Transylvania, some of these Saxons migrated to neighbouring Moldavia, as the name of the town Sascut, in present-day Romania, shows.

Non-Indo-European languages

The Finns and Estonians have changed their usage of the root Saxon over the centuries to apply now to the whole country of Germany (Saksa and Saksamaa respectively) and the Germans (saksalaiset and sakslased, respectively). The Finnish word sakset (scissors) reflects the name of the old Saxon single-edged sword – seax – from which the name Saxon supposedly derives.[71] In Estonian, saks means colloquially, 'a wealthy person'. As a result of the Northern Crusades, Estonia's upper class comprised mostly Baltic Germans, persons of supposedly Saxon origin until well into the 20th century.

Saxony as a later toponym

Following the downfall of Henry the Lion (1129–1195, Duke of Saxony 1142–1180), and the subsequent splitting of the Saxon tribal duchy into several territories, the name of the Saxon duchy was transferred to the lands of the Ascanian family. This led to the differentiation between Lower Saxony (lands settled by the Saxon tribe) and Upper Saxony (the lands belonging to the House of Wettin). Gradually, the latter region became known as Saxony, ultimately usurping the name's original geographical meaning. The area formerly known as Upper Saxony now lies in Central Germany – in the eastern part of the present-day Federal Republic of Germany: note the names of the federal states of Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.


  1. ^ Springer 2004, p. 12: "Unter dem alten Sachsen ist das Gebiet zu verstehen, das seit der Zeit Karls des Großen (reg. 768–814) bis zum Jahre 1180 also Saxonia '(das Land) Sachsen' bezeichnet wurde oder wenigstens so genannt werden konnte."
  2. ^ Springer 2004, p. 12: "Im Latein des späten Altertums konnte Saxones als Sammelbezeichnung von Küstenräubern gebraucht werden. Es spielte dieselbe Rolle wie viele Jahrhunderte später das Wort Wikinger."
  3. ^ Springer 2004b, p. 33: "Engl. the Dutch heißt nicht "die Deutschen"; und engl. the Germans heißt nicht "die Germanen". Franci im Latein des Hoch- und Spät-MAs meinte die Franzosen und nicht die Franken usw. So war das lat. Saxones während der Völkerwanderungszeit und des Früh-MAs keineswegs auf "die" Sachsen festgelegt." [Some abbreviations expanded.]
  4. ^ Springer 2004, pp. 27–31.
  5. ^ "Saxon | Definition of Saxon in English by Oxford Dictionaries". Oxford Dictionaries | English. Retrieved 10 March 2019.[dead link]
  6. ^ "sax". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  7. ^ Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Saxony" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  8. ^ Green, D. H.; Siegmund, F. (2003). The Continental Saxons from the Migration Period to the Tenth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective. Boydell Press. pp. 14–15. ISBN 978-1-84383-026-9.
  9. ^ Schütte 1917, pp. 22–23.
  10. ^ Springer 2004, p. 45.
  11. ^ Springer 2004, p. 33.
  12. ^ Springer 2004, p. 34.
  13. ^ Haywood, John (January 1991). Dark Age Naval Power: A Re-Assessment of Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Seafaring ... Routledge. p. 42. ISBN 9780415063746 – via Google Books.
  14. ^ Springer 2004, pp. 35–36.
  15. ^ Springer 2004, p. 36.
  16. ^ Springer 2004, pp. 39–41.
  17. ^ a b Springer 2004, p. 38.
  18. ^ Halsall 2013, p. 13.
  19. ^ Dewing, H B (1962). Procopius: History of the Wars Books VII and VIII with an English Translation (PDF). Harvard University Press. pp. 252–255. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 March 2020. Retrieved 1 March 2020.
  20. ^ Springer 2004, p. 37.
  21. ^ Springer 2004, p. 39.
  22. ^ Koch, John T. (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 59. ISBN 978-1-85109-440-0 – via Google Books.
  23. ^ Springer 2004, p. 48.
  24. ^ Halsall, Guy (2013). Worlds of Arthur: Facts & Fictions of the Dark Ages. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198700845.
  25. ^ Reynolds & Lopez 1946, p. 45.
  26. ^ Gregory of Tours (1974). History of the Franks. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books. ISBN 9780140442953.
  27. ^ (Springer 2004, p. 54) "In der Tat gewinnt seit zwanzig Jahren die Meinung an Boden, dass es sich um ein und deselbe Persönlichkeit gehandelt habe."
  28. ^ Bachrach 1971, p. 39.
  29. ^ Springer 2004, pp. 101–103.
  30. ^ Bachrach 1971, p. 63.
  31. ^ Fredegar 1960, p. 66.
  32. ^ a b Springer 2004, p. 111.
  33. ^ Springer 2004, pp. 60–96.
  34. ^ a b Springer 2004, pp. 97–98.
  35. ^ Springer 2004, pp. 98–99.
  36. ^ Springer 2004, p. 110.
  37. ^ Springer 2004, pp. 113–115.
  38. ^ Springer 2004, pp. 111–113.
  39. ^ Springer 2004, pp. 131–134.
  40. ^ Springer 2004, p. 118.
  41. ^ Springer 2004, p. 165.
  42. ^ Annales Einhardi 743, MGH SS I, p. 135.
  43. ^ RFA, 743 and 744, p. 38.
  44. ^ Springer 2004, pp. 171–173.
  45. ^ Springer 2004, pp. 173–174.
  46. ^ Springer 2004, p. 174.
  47. ^ "They are much given to devil worship," Einhard said, "and they are hostile to our religion," as when they martyred the Saints Ewald.
  48. ^ a b Lieberman, Benjamin (22 March 2013). Remaking Identities: God, Nation, and Race in World History. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 53. ISBN 978-1-4422-1395-1 – via Google Books.
  49. ^ a b Seebold, Elmar (2003). "Die Herkunft der Franken, Friesen und Sachsen". Essays on the Early Franks. Barkhuis. pp. 24–29. ISBN 9789080739031.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  50. ^ a b Goldberg 1995, p. 473.
  51. ^ a b Goldberg 1995, p. 471.
  52. ^ Goldberg 1995, p. 472.
  53. ^ Goldberg 1995, p. 476.
  54. ^ Goldberg 1995, p. 479.
  55. ^ a b Goldberg 1995, p. 474.
  56. ^ a b Stenton 1971, p. 97–98.
  57. ^ Stenton 1971.
  58. ^ Goldberg 1995, p. 480.
  59. ^ Stenton 1971, p. 102.
  60. ^ Goldberg 1995.
  61. ^ Goldberg 1995, p. 478.
  62. ^ Hummer 2005, p. 141, based on Astronomus.
  63. ^ Hummer 2005, p. 143.
  64. ^ Goldberg 1995, p. 477.
  65. ^ Hummer 2005, p. 138–139.
  66. ^ "Definition of SASSENACH". Merriam-Webster, Inc. Retrieved 16 January 2019.
  67. ^ Scott, Walter (1871). The Lady of the Lake. T. Nelson and Sons.
  68. ^ "Sassenach". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  69. ^ Richard Carew, Survey of Cornwall, 1602. N.B. in revived Cornish, this would be transcribed, My ny vynnaf cows sowsnek. The Cornish word Emit meaning 'ant' (and perversely derived from Old English) is more commonly used in Cornwall as of 2015 as slang to designate non-Cornish Englishmen.
  70. ^ Magazin Istoric (5 September 2013). "Saşii – Saxonii Transilvaniei". Politeia (in Romanian).
  71. ^ Suomen sanojen alkuperä. Etymologinen sanakirja (in Finnish). Vol. 3. R-Ö. Suomalaisen kirjallisuuden seura, Kotimaisten kielten tutkimuskeskus. 2012. p. 146.


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