The Saxons were a Germanic tribe that originally occupied the region which today is the North Sea coast of the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark. Their name is derived from the seax, a distinct knife popularly used by the tribe. One of the earliest historical records of this group that we know of comes from Roman writers dealing with the many troubles that affected the northern frontier of the Roman Empire during the second and third century CE. It is possible that under the "Saxons" label, these early Roman accounts also included other neighbouring Germanic groups in the regions such as the Angles, the Frisians, and the Jutes; all these groups spoke closely related West Germanic languages that in time would evolve into Old English.
Since the Saxons were illiterate, most of what we know about them comes from reports of a handful of writers (mostly bishops and monks) and also from archaeological research. The Saxons were among the "barbarian" nations that would engage against Rome during late antiquity, putting an end to the dying imperial order in the western realm of Rome, reshaping the map, and renaming the nations of Europe.
South of the territory where the Saxons lived on the continent were the Franks, a strong Germanic confederacy that had a solid presence occupying a territory between the Saxons and the Roman frontier. For this reason, expanding southwards was a problematic option for the Saxons, and a sea expansion was a more suitable alternative. Late in the third century CE, Frankish raiders joined the Saxons in the southern part of the North Sea and the English Channel. They preyed on shipping lanes and also raided the coast of Britain and Gaul. These attacks on Roman Britain during the late third century CE forced the authorities to build a network of forts with thick stone walls at coastal locations to repel these attacks, and the south coast of England became known as the Saxon Shore frontier. Generally located next to important harbours and river mouths, these forts not only served as strategic defences against the raiders, but also as a means of securing the collection and distribution of state supplies.
Carausius, a Menapian commander of Roman legions under the future emperor Maximian, was given the task of eliminating the Frankish and Saxon pirates in 285 CE. His mission was very successful and, by 286 CE, he had broken the pirate's power at sea. He was accused, however, of being in league with the pirates and keeping their plunder for himself and so was condemned to death by order of Maximian (who was then emperor of Rome). Rather than submit to what he saw as unjust charges, he declared himself emperor of an independent Britain and reigned until 293 CE, when he was killed in battle and rule from Rome was restored.
On the continent, meanwhile, the Saxon confederacy started to break up during the 4th century CE with an increasing number of Saxons (along with other Germanic groups such as the Angles) moving into Britain, while others remained in continental Europe. Around this time, we have official Roman records attesting to more Saxon raids in southeast Britain (Ammianus Marcellinus: 26, 4). Saxon soldiers had previously been employed by the Romans as legionaires in Britain, and the conflict between Carausius and Maximian may have encouraged those who had served to leave the area around the Elbe and relocate to an independent Britain under Carausius' reign. Even after Carausius' death, however, Saxon migration to Britain continued (often characterized by writers of that time as an invasion).
The southeast coast of Britain was not the only place affected by Saxon incursions. Not long after the death of Emperor Constantine (337 CE), the northern frontiers of Rome in continental Europe were also suffering the incursion of several “barbarian” groups, including the Saxons. The Roman historian Zosimus offers a summary of the challenges that Constantius, the Roman emperor who came after Constantine, had to face during the 350s CE, in which the Saxons are mentioned as one of the many military threats hanging upon Rome.
But perceiving [Constantius] all the Roman territories to be infested by the incursions of the Barbarians, and that the Franks, the Alemanni, and the Saxons had not only possessed themselves of forty cities near the Rhine, but had likewise ruined and destroyed them, by carrying off an immense number of the inhabitants, and a proportionate quantity of spoils; [...] he scarcely thought himself capable of managing affairs at this critical period (Zosimus: Book 3, 1).
Ancient Accounts on the Saxon Migrations
Early in the 5th century CE, Roman control in Britain was waning, and most of Rome's military resources were allocated to the struggles in continental Europe. The Roman army withdrew from Britain completely in 410 CE, and the occupied land was left in the hands of the Romanized Britons. The territory was divided into several small warring groups, both indigenous and invaders, fighting for political control. In the midst of this social and political strife, more Saxons migrated into Britain, expanding their territory and establishing a number of kingdoms which can be identified by the fact that most of their names contain the suffix "sex" (e.g. Sussex, Wessex).
Ancient sources provide different versions of how exactly the Saxons arrived in Britain and how they expanded. Three major works concerned with the Saxons in Britain have survived to the present day: the De Excidio Britanniae, written by Gildas; the Historia Ecclesiastica, by Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a narrative with multiple authors. According to Bede, the famous British monk who lived in the early Middle Ages, the Britons were suffering attacks from the Scots and the Picts, so they decided to hire some of the Saxons as mercenaries to fight their enemies. After completing their task, the Saxons turned against the Britons. Gildas, a 6th century CE British monk, describes the Saxons as savages similar to dogs and lions, and he adds that "nothing more destructive, nothing more bitter has ever befallen the land". Gildas saw the destructive advance of the Saxons as a form of punishment inflicted by God for the sins of the British, whom he compares with the Israelites of the Bible:
The people of the Angles or Saxons were conveyed to Britain in three long-ships. When their voyage proved a success, news of them was carried back home. A stronger army set out which, joined to the earlier ones, first of all drove away the enemy they were seeking [the Picts and Scots]. Then they turned their arms on their allies [the Britons], and subjugated almost the whole island by fire or sword, from the eastern shore as far as the western one on the trumped-up excuse that the Britons had given them a less than adequate stipend for their military services (The Greater Chronicle, cited by Higham and Ryan).
In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle we read about the Saxons moving into Britain as successive "arrivals" by sea, under different leaders, and establishing small kingdoms in different areas of Britain: Hengest in 449 CE, leading a force of three ships, ruling over Kent; Ælle in 477 CE, leading a force of three ships, ruling over Sussex; and Cerdic, the founding figure of the West Saxon dynasty, leading a squadron of five ships and arriving in Britain in 495 CE.
Cerdic is the most famous of the Saxon kings, reigning from 519-534 CE. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's entry for 519 CE states: "In this year Cerdic and Cynric obtained the kingdom of the West Saxons, and the same year they fought against the Britons at a place now called Cerdices-ford. And from that day on the princes of the West Saxons have reigned." He is said to have fought "the renowned King Arthur" in 520 CE, but that date may actually be off by one year, and the battle with Arthur took place in 519 CE. Historian Robert J. Sewell notes that, "Cerdic met great resistance from the last of the Romano-Britons under a shadowy leader who lays as good a claim as any to having been the 'real' King Arthur" (3). Cerdic either won the battle or declared a truce and was given the land by the Briton king identified with Arthur but, either way, he founded the kingdom of the West Saxons, Wessex, in Britain. While the date of 519 CE is cited in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles for the beginning of his reign, a date as late as 532 CE is suggested by other sources. In 530 CE, Cerdic conquered the Isle of Wight, employing his already established army and navy; he died two years later in 534 CE. The earlier date, then, makes more sense than the later one in the narrative of Cerdic's life. The chaotic nature of the time, and conflicting accounts from different sources, quite often create very different narratives which have been followed, or combined, by later writers.
Interpretation of the Ancient Sources
In the past, these traditional accounts were taken at face value, with writers rejecting one narrative in favor of another or combining two or more. Victorian writers accepted the "arrival" stories reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as historical truth, which they then modified to fit their own narrative ends. Because these older narratives often contradicted each other, later writers tried to blend them into seamless stories which provided them with a linear history of their past. This is how one may today read two very different accounts of the history of Britain which both claim to be the truth and both of which can point to older narratives for support of that claim. One must keep in mind the different versions and interpretations of the so-called "Saxon Invasions" when reading these various sources.
An example of this problem is the claim that the Saxons were hired by the Romans to fight in Britain. Since Rome at the time lacked troops in Britain, the account of the Saxons employed as mercenaries seems plausible: the Romanised Britons decided to hire barbarians as mercenaries for security reasons, which was a common Roman practice. Rather than reflecting mass migration, archaeological evidence of Saxon presence before 450 CE is very weak, which is consistent with the military conquest stated in the ancient accounts: as field army of the Britons, the number of Saxons could not have been initially more than a few thousand. The Gallic Chronicle of 452 CE, talks about the Saxons ruling over a large part of Southern Britain, also consistent with the rise of the number of Saxon archaeological material after 450 CE.
The earliest Anglo-Saxon burial in Britain has been dated by archaeologists to no later than 425-450 CE. The burial practices of the Saxons (and the Germanic tribes in general) were markedly different from indigenous burials in Britain. North German cremation ritual was introduced into eastern England, but Germanic people gradually abandoned cremation in favour of inhumation, burying their dead with grave goods, a custom that was in place until about 700 CE; by the late 6th century CE, furnished inhumation dominates the Saxon disposal of the dead. Saxon burials did not develop from past indigenous practices; instead, they are connected to burials found on the other side of the North Sea. Late Roman burials in Britain had been largely unfurnished inhumations but, by the late 4th century CE, we see the emergence of inhumations accompanied by weapons and belt fittings, often interpreted as the burials of Germanic mercenary soldiers, resembling other burials found in northern Gaul and other areas occupied by Germanic tribes. These burials relate to the development of Angle and Saxon burial rites detected between the 5th and 7th centuries CE: inhumation burials where men were usually buried with weapons, while women were buried with combs, brooches, and necklaces.
It is clear both from historical sources and archaeological data that by the end of the 5th century CE, southeast Britain was under the control of various Saxon groups. The spread of Saxon burial practices over places where only indigenous burials were previously recorded reflects the spread of the Saxons displacing indigenous Roman and Celtic groups.
Frankish Absorption, Conquest of England, & Cultural Legacy
During the 5th century CE, there are recorded hostilities between the Franks and the Saxons in continental Europe. Under the leadership of Childeric, the Franks supported Roman forces and helped them defeat a number of enemies including an army of Saxons at Angers in 469 CE. The Franks began a gradual process of absorption of the continental Saxons and, while this process was still ongoing during the 8th century CE, those Saxons who migrated into Britain managed to build a solid presence. After several generations of conquest, alliances, and unstable successions, they established their rule over most of the indigenous groups. After the 9th century CE Viking invasions, the kings of Wessex (Alfred and his descendants) created the first strong West Saxon kingdom (south of the Thames) which, during the 10th century CE, managed to conquer the rest of England creating the late Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
Britain was the only place in Europe that saw the formation of new states that had little in common with Roman principles. All nascent states in continental Europe that emerged after the decline of the Roman order were created on Roman foundations, sometimes with a clear Roman involvement or even retaining key aspects of Roman life. This was not the case with the Saxons who entered Britain and who were less familiar with the Roman ways.
The movement of the Saxons and the Angles into Britain was a critical stage in the overall development of the English language. If these Germanic tribes did not move into Britain, the English language as we know it would not exist today, and the dialects of the Angles and Saxons would have been gradually dissolved in the continental Germanic languages, possibly blended into the Low German and Dutch dialects. As they expanded across Britain, these Germanic groups displaced the local Celtic speaking communities. Old English, the language born of the Angles and the Saxons who entered Britain, gradually displaced the Latin and Brittonic languages across lowland Britain, and from there it eventually gained ascendency over most of the British Isles.
About the Author
- Wessex and England by Robert J. Sewell with Sewell V. Sample
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285 CECarausius is given the task of eliminating the Frankish and Saxon pirates .
337 CEDeath of Emperor Constantine I.
450 CEAngels and Saxons settle Britain.
469 CEA Saxon army is defeated by the Franks at Angers.
495 CECerdic, the founding figure of the West Saxon dynasty, arrives to Britain leading a squadron of five ships according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
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