by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the March 2003, A.S. XXXVII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
When most people hear the word Saxon they think of barbarians invading England. This is not surprising for a culture with its roots in England. But there is more to the Saxons then that act, however momentous it was. Not all the Saxons moved to Britain, this is their story.
The conventional explaining for the word Saxon is that it comes from the word sax, which meant knife or sword. But this is more supposition then known fact. An older derivation relates it to a Teutonic war god by the name of Saxnote. It is not known if there was a distinct tribe, or if they called themselves Saxons. Like just about everything else we know about the Germanic tribes, what we know comes from the peoples they encountered rather then the tribes themselves. And those commentators tended to use the word Saxon generically, much in the same way later chroniclers used the word Dane to describe the Vikings.
The earliest known mention of the Saxons is in Ptolemy’s Geography written around 140 AD. He places them on the coast north of the Elba River at the base of the Denmark peninsula. A century earlier, Tacitus calls the tribe living there the Chauci. Whether this was the true name of the tribe that would later be known as the Saxons, or a different tribe, is unknowable. Wherever the Saxons came from, by the end of the third century they were expanding. More significantly, they had begun raiding the coasts of the English Channel. While the term ‘Saxon shores’ or litora Saxonica is usually used to refer to the southern coast of England, it also meant its continental counterpart.
In general the culture of the Saxons differed little from other Germanic tribes. The Geats in Beowulf could have as easily been the Saxons. Their religion was the older version of what we now know as the Norse myths. They never developed a sense of being a nation, but saw themselves as a people bonded together by ties of kinship. Thus each clan, numbering up to 70, was a power unto itself. There were three classes: the nobles, the free, and the half-free. As part of his effort to bring the Saxons into his empire, Charlemagne had their laws codified in the “Lex Saxonum” around 800.
The dominating factor in the history of the continental Saxons was their relationship to the Franks. The Franks were just another Germanic tribe, which just happened to successfully take on the role of the Romans in northern Gaul. The Saxons did not just attempt to move into Britain in the mid-fifth century. They also moved south into the area known as Thuringia and along the coast where they dominated the Frisians. Going west, they bumped into the Franks.
By 530 the Saxons were nominal subjects of the Franks. Yet over the next century the Saxon, in whole or in part, staged a number of revolts. Tributes from the Saxons were a major source of income for the Franks, though it is not clear how steady that income was. In the later half of the seventh century, the deterioration of the Merovingian power gained the Saxons a form of independence.
The reprieve ended in the 720’s as Charles Martel began a series of campaigns to bring they back under Frankish control. The effort continued under his sons Carloman and Pepin. It would reach its climax under his grandson Charlemagne. Over a period of thirty years ending in 804, Charlemagne lead no less then eighteen campaigns against the Saxons, before he crushed all resistance. This was the end of the Saxons as a separate people.
Among the changes that Charlemagne forced upon the Saxons was Christianity. But the effort to convert the Saxons first started under Charles Martel. In one of those ironic twists of fate, those initial missionaries came from England, Saxons who had been Christianized a century before. The most famous of these missionaries is St. Boniface, though most of his time was spend in the lands just south of the Saxons. None of the missions undertaken during the mid-8th century succeeded. And as the war with Charlemagne heated up, paganism became a political statement. Charlemagne responded with his “Capitulare de partibus Saxoniae” a harsh ban on pagan practices, which was brutally enforced, and probably extended the Saxon war.
While the Saxons as a people died, the name continues to live on as the name of the general region where they had lived. After the conquest, the land was incorporated into a duchy to act as a bulwark against the Danes and the Slavs. In 919, Duke Henry of Saxony was elected king of the Germans. This Saxon dynasty would rule Germany till 1024. The duchy revolted in 1073 against the Emperor Henry IV efforts to consolidate his holdings and power. Though it was put down, it helped lead the Investiture Struggle a few years later. In 1125 another duke of Saxon took the German throne. This opened the long running conflict of the Welfs and the Hohenstaufen (known as the Guelf and the Ghibelline in Italy). The duchy will be broken up in 1261, and reorganized again in the 17th century.
While the influence of the Saxons on the continent was not as far reaching as they had on Britain, they were still major players in the Merovingian and Carolingian histories. And while it is difficult to argue that these histories would be different had there been no Saxons, they still must given their due. They high valued their independence and their ways, and fought bitterly to preserve them. That they failed lies more in the tides of history then an imperfection on their part. That they left a lasting legacy in England is more then most achieve.
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Riche, Pierre. Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.
Shore, Thomas William. Origin of the Anglo-Saxon Race. 2nd ed. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1971.
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Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.