The Saxon people or Saxons were a large Germanic people located in what is now northwestern Germany and a small section of the eastern Netherlands. It is important to note that the historical Saxons did not inhabit the modern German federal state called Saxony. They are first mentioned by the geographer Ptolemy as a people of southern Jutland and present-day Schleswig-Holstein, hence they appear subsequently to have expanded to the south and west. The word 'Saxon' is believed to be derived from the word seax, meaning a variety of single-edged knife. The Saxons were considered by Charlemagne, and some historians, to be especially war-like and ferocious.
A majority of the Saxons remained in continental Europe dwelling in a territory known as Old Saxony. The Anglo-Saxon historian Bede writing around the year 730 remarks that "the old Saxons have no king, but they are governed by several eorldermen (satrapas) who during war cast lots for leadership, but who in time of peace are equal in power". However, the territory appears to have consolidated itself and by the end of the 8th century there was a political entity called the Duchy of Saxony.
The Saxons long avoided becoming Christians (see wikipedia:Ewald the Black) and being incorporated into the orbit of the Frankish kingdom, but were decisively conquered by Charlemagne in a long series of annual campaigns (772-804). With defeat came the enforced baptism and conversion of the Saxon leaders and their people. Even their sacred tree, Irminsul, was destroyed.
Under Carolingian rule, the Saxons were reduced to a tributary status. There is evidence that the Saxons, as well as Slavic tributaries like 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 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, into war in Italy.
The region in southeastern Germany known as the Kingdom of Saxony between 1806 to 1918 and the Free State of Saxony after 1990, was not a traditional homeland of the Saxon peoples. This region acquired its name through political circumstances and was originally called the Margrave of Meissen. The rulers of this area acquired control of the Duchy of Saxony in 1423 and eventually applied the name Saxony to the whole of their kingdom. Since then this section of southeastern Germany has been referred to as Saxony (German: "Sachsen"), a source of many misunderstandings about the original homeland of the Saxons, mostly in the present-day German state of Lower Saxony (German: "Niedersachsen").
The label "Saxons" was generally applied to German settlers who migrated during the 13th century to south-eastern Transylvania in present-day Romania, where their descendants numbered a quarter of a million in the early decades of the 20th century.
Invasion of Britain
A number of Saxons, along with Angles, Jutes, Franks and Frisians, invaded or migrated to the island of Great Britain (Britannia) around the time of the collapse of Roman authority in the west. Saxon "pirates" 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. However, in 449 following a particularly devastating raid in the north from the Picts and their allies the Romano-British administration invited two Jutish warlords - namely Hengist and Horsa - to occupy the island of Thanet in north Kent and act as mercenaries against the Picts at sea. After the Jutes had executed this mission and defeated the Picts they returned with demands for more lands. When this was rejected they rose in revolt and provoked an insurrection amongst all the settled farming folk of Germanic stock with them.
Three separate Saxon Kingdoms emerged
1. The East Saxons: Settled around Colchester, creating the area of Essex.
2. The South Saxons: led by Aelle, created the area of Sussex
3. The West Saxons: led by Cerdic, ruled the Kingdom of Wessex from their capital Winchester.
During the period of Ecbert to Alfred the kings of Wessex emerged as Bretwalda, unifying the country, with the shorter-lived Middlesex eventually became part of the kingdom of England in the face of Danish Viking invasions.
Historians are divided about what followed. Some argue that the takeover of lowland Britain by the Anglo-Saxons was peaceful. However, there is only one known account from a native Briton who lived at this time (Gildas) and his description is anything but:
"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 ocean. 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 country."
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanni� c.560AD
Wars between the native Romano-Britons and the invading Jutes, Saxons and Angles continued for over 400 years with the Britons being gradually driven to and contained in the mountain strongholds of Wales and Scotland.
Collectively the Germanic settlers of Britain, mostly Saxons, Angles and Jutes, came to be called the Anglo-Saxons.
Modern remnants of the Saxon name
Since reunification in 1990, three federal states of Germany derive their name from the Saxons: Niedersachsen, or Lower Saxony, whose area corresponds roughly to the traditional Saxon lands between the Netherlands and the Elbe River; Sachsen-Anhalt, or Saxony-Anhalt, located around the city of Magdeburg; and the Free State of Sachsen, or Saxony, which includes the city of Dresden.
In the Finnish and Estonian languages the words that historically applied to ancient Saxons have changed their meaning over the centuries to denote the whole country of Germany (Saksa in both) and the Germans (saksalaiset and sakslased, respectively) now. In some Celtic languages the word for the English nationality is derived from Saxon, e.g. the Scottish term Sassenach, and the Welsh term Sais.
The German-speaking minority in Romania is still referred to as Transylvanian Saxons as well.
- Saxon fighting kit
- Fire and Steel - a re-enactment group featuring Saxons
- The Huscarls - re-enactment group featuring Saxons
- Duchy of Saxony
- [http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/britannia/saxonadvent/saxonadvent.html James Grout: Saxon Advent, part of the Encyclop�dia Romana]