The Saxon Conquest of Europe, and a Christian Conquest of Saxons
Anyone familiar with European history will have heard of the Saxons. Originally a Germanic tribe from the North Sea coast of the Netherlands, over the centuries they spread across Europe like wildfire. Due to their illiterate nature, tracing their journey through Europe isn’t always easy. Much of what we know about them comes from contemporary authors writing about the various troubles the Saxons caused, as well as some archaeological evidence they left behind. What we do know about them is fascinating. Much has been written about the Saxons who took England and became Anglo-Saxons. But what of the Saxons who remained in Europe? What happened to them?
Early History of the Saxons
It is often claimed the first mention of the Saxons comes from the Geographia by Ptolemy, a prominent Roman mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, and geographer. Whether this is accurate or not has been the topic of much debate. Some versions of this text make mention of a tribe called the Saxones, who lived in an area north of the lower Elbe (one of Europe’s main rivers).
Other versions of the text describe them as Axones, which may be a misspelling of a tribe that the Roman historian Tacitus had already written about in his Germania, the Aviones. Historians cannot agree whether the name Saxones is the result of later scribes trying to correct a name they believed had been misspelled, or whether the Saxons were truly separate from the tribes described by Tacitus.
The first undisputed mention of the Saxons dates back to 356 AD. This comes from Julian who mentioned the Saxons in a speech five years before he became emperor, describing them as allies of Magnentius, who was a rival emperor based in Gaul (modern-day France).
The Saxons described by the Romans were associated with raiding towns and villages through the use of boats. It is possible their name comes from a type of blade they used on these raids, the seax. Saxon raiders were enough of a problem for the Romans that they were forced to create a military district known as the Litus Saxonicum (Saxon shore) on both sides of the English Channel.
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The nine British Saxon Shore forts mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum, circa 390-420 AD (Public Domain)
The first mention of Saxons settling in Britain comes from around 440 AD. It is believed Saxons first inhabited present-day northern Germany in 555 AD. That year, Frankish King Theudebald died, and the Saxons used the ensuing chaos to carry out an uprising. The uprising was short-lived, however, and was soon squashed by Chlother I, the dead king’s successor.
Saxons in Italy and Provence
By the sixth century, the Saxons were busy spreading. In 569, Saxons traveled with a Germanic people called the Lombards into Italy, led by the Lombard king, Albion. They settled there and soon began raiding the neighboring regions. In 572, they raided the southeast of Gaul, getting as far as Stabilo (modern-day Estoublon).
Dividing their forces to carry out so many raids turned out to be a mistake. The Roman Empire sent in one of their generals, Mummolus, to put down the Saxons at Estoublon. It was an easy win for him. The Saxons learned their lesson. When they regrouped, they did so to sign a peace treaty with the Romans. The treaty allowed the Saxons and their families to settle in Austrasia, in the north-east of the Merovingian Kingdom of the Franks.
This peace didn’t last for long. In 573, the Saxons split into two groups and headed to Provence. One group traveled via Nice, the other via Embrun with the groups meeting up at Avignon in southeastern France. Upon arriving in Avignon, they raided the area for all it was worth, once again drawing the ire of the Romans.
Mummolus reappeared and stopped the Saxons from crossing the Rhine and reaching their ultimate goal, Austrasia. They were forced to pay compensation for what they had taken from Avignon before Mummolus would let them cross.
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Map of Anglo-Saxon homelands, based on Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (Mbartelsm / CC BY SA 3.0)
Saxons in Gaul
The Saxons had begun moving into Gaul long before they had split up and gone into Italy. In 463 AD, a Saxon king named Eadwacer conquered Angers, a city in what is today western France. This didn’t last long, and he was soon evicted by Childeric I and the Salian Franks, allies of the Romans.
It appears other Saxons settled in the area more peacefully. During the fifth century, a Saxon unit settled at Bayeux. Known as laeti by the Romans, these Saxons were allowed to settle there as long as they agreed to provide recruits to the Roman military. By the late fifth century, the Saxons of Bayeux had become subjects of Clovis, the first Frankish king to unite all the Frankish tribes.
The Saxons of Bayeux proved themselves to be good for the area. They acted as a standing army and were often called to fight alongside the local levy (Frankish conscripts) during the Merovingian military campaigns.
In 589, the Saxons fought with the Merovingians against Guntram, the King of Orleans. From 626, the Saxons were used by another Frankish king, Dagobert I, in his fight against the Basques. As a reward for their repeated loyalty, one of the Saxons, Aeghyna, was made dux (duke) over the region of Vasconia.
Official documents from the court of Frankish King Charles II (also known as King Charles the Bald) show that he granted the Saxons a region called Otlinga Saxonia in the Bessinr region of Gaul. From this point onwards, the names of various areas of Gaul show a distinctly Saxon influence, indicating widespread Saxon settlements.
The oldest Saxon site found in France so far is Vron, in Picardy in northern France. Archaeologists have uncovered a large cemetery with tombs from the Roman Empire until the sixth century AD. Inside these later tombs, human remains, as well as various pieces of furniture and artifacts, were found.
Those buried in the cemetery during the fourth and fifth centuries are physically distinct from the bodies of other local inhabitants found before this period, resembling the Germanic people of the north. From around 375 AD onwards, the burials were carried out in an area known as the Saxon Shores.
Charles II granted the Saxons a foothold in Gaul. 19th century lithograph of Charles the Bald (Public Domain)
Saxons in Germany
As time went on, the Saxons fought to maintain their individuality. This meant resisting becoming Christians and resisting being completely ruled by the Frankish Kingdom. This led to a game where the Saxons repeatedly swore loyalty to the Franks, while disobeying them every chance they got.
In 776, the Saxons promised to convert to Christianity and vowed their loyalty to the Frankish king Charlemagne. This didn’t last for long, however. While Charlemagne was busy fighting in Hispania in 778, the Saxons took their chance and advanced along the Rhine to Deutz (Cologne in Germany), plundering as they went.
This became somewhat of a habit of the Saxons. Every time Charlemagne was distracted by some unrest or foreign war, the Saxons would take the opportunity to start plundering.
This constant disobedience led to a series of campaigns called the Saxon Wars between 772 and 804. The Saxon Wars ended with the Saxons ultimately being defeated by Charlemagne’s more organized forces. Defeat meant the Saxons were forcefully baptized and converted to Christianity as well as completely integrated into the Frankish Empire.
It was a humiliation. Traces of the Saxon’s pagan religion, such as the Irminsul, a sacred tree or pillar, were all destroyed. Seeking to break up the Saxons, Charlemagne deported over 10,000 of them to Neustria in the west. Their then-vacant lands were gifted to the loyal king of the Abotrites, a Slavic people, whom Charlemagne wished to reward.
Under Frankish rule in Germany, the once proudly independent Saxons were reduced to tributary status, forced to pay tribute to their overlords. Evidence points to the Saxons being forced to provide their Frankish rulers with troops.
The Saxons and Religion
Saxon religion and politics were closely connected. The Saxons held annual councils, which always began with invocations to their pagan gods. When dukes were elected during wartime, they were not elected but chosen by lots. Rather than random decision-making, it is believed the Saxons used lots because they trusted the gods to decide who should lead their troops.
They also used various sacred rituals and objects. Most well-known are their holy pillars, called Irminsul. The Saxons believed these pillars connected heaven and earth and offered a path to heaven. When Charlemagne decided to punish the Saxons at the end of the Saxons Wars, he did so by chopping down their prized Irminsul outside the Saxon Eresburg stronghold.
Fresco at the Gothic Aachen Rathaus, Interior of Coronation Hall. Titled: "Demolition of Irminsul, the old Saxon great pillar" (HOWI / CC BY SA 3.0)
As pagans, the Saxons worshiped various old Germanic gods such as Woden, Frigg, Tiw, and Thunor. Their worship included various traditions and festivals. For example, in February, the Saxons offered cakes to the gods and in the autumn they carried out a harvest festival called Halegmonath.
As mentioned above, eventually the Saxons were forcefully converted to Christianity by Charlemagne, but some Saxons had already converted before this. The process began in the 630s when a Frankish Benedictine monk named Birinus became the “apostle to the West Saxons” of England and converted the kingdom of Wessex and its king, Cynegils.
Cynegils of Wessex was one of the first Saxon kings to convert to Christianity. Portrait from John Speed's Saxon Heptarchy map, 1611 (Public Domain)
The South Saxons were next after their king, Aethelwalh of Sussex, was converted by the Mercian king Wulfhere. Once Aethelwalh was converted, he allowed the Bishop of York, Wilfrid to convert his people.
The most resistant Anglo-Saxons were the East Saxons. They were more devoutly pagan than their southern and western cousins, and the eastern territory had pagan sites to spare. Despite this, their king, Saeberht, actually converted relatively early on. He established a diocese in London, but it was short-lived, and its first bishop, Mellitus, was expelled by Saeberht’s heirs. The East Saxons were finally converted in the 650s and 660s.
The conversion of the Saxons in Europe came after that of the Anglo-Saxons. Their conversion was carried out in the late seventh and early eighth centuries by missionaries who came from England. Being a missionary, it turns out, was a dangerous job. Two of the first English missionaries to attempt converting the continental Saxons were Hewald the White and Hewald the Black. They were quickly martyred by Saxon villagers.
The Two Hewalds at the Church of Saint Kunibert, Cologne, circa 1400 (Public Domain)
Low-class Saxon villagers put up the biggest fight against conversion. They associated Christianity with the ruling class, who they hated. Throughout the eighth century, Saxon villagers refused to convert and would often attack missionaries. In response, the missionaries sought the protection of the noble class, who the villagers hated.
A classic example is Saint Lebuin, an English missionary, who preached to the Saxons of Europe between 745 and 770. He spent most of this time in the Netherlands and built a church there. He was a popular figure among the local nobles but unpopular among the peasants.
He was attacked by an angry mob at the annual council at Marklo one year, and the nobles were forced to come to his rescue. Interventions like this led to serious tensions between the noblemen, who were sympathetic to the Christians, and the lower-class pagan Saxons, who saw their religion as part of their Saxon identity.
Saint Lebuin, the missionary whose work provoked the local Saxon pagans (Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed / CC BY SA 4.0)
Things came to a head with the end of the above-mentioned Saxon Wars. Charlemagne's main aim had been to convert the Saxons and bring them into the Frankish Empire. When the war ended, many of the high-class Saxon nobles happily converted, eager to keep Charlemagne happy and win his favor. The lower class was a different story; they had to be forcefully baptized. These forced baptisms, and the fact they now had to pay tithes to their Frankish rulers, only alienated the lower order further.
Charlemagne’s successor, Louis the Pious, chose to use a different tactic. He stopped the forced baptisms and reduced the tithes. This pleased the Saxons, and many of them became his loyal subjects.
Louis the Pious, contemporary depiction from 826 as a miles Christi (soldier of Christ), with a poem of Rabanus Maurus overlaid (Public Domain)
The pagan Saxons put up one last fight between 841 and 843 after the death of Louis. The lower classes, led by the Stellinga (freemen and freedmen who were below nobles but higher up than the lowest class) revolted against their Saxon leaders, who had allied themselves with Louis the Pious’s son and successor emperor Lothair I. After this rebellion was put down, most continental Saxons ended up finally cooperating.
Many of the lower-class Saxons who officially converted still practiced their old pagan ways in secret. As late as the 12th century, there were reports of outbreaks of paganism across Europe. For many Saxons, their identity was tied to the old pagan ways. Whenever they felt marginalized or unhappy with their leadership, they were likely to revert to paganism as a form of protest.
After Lothair I quashed another Saxon rebellion, most continental Saxons became cooperative. (Public Domain)
Today, the Saxons are most often remembered for their conquest of England. It is true that England today would be an entirely different place without the Saxons. The same can also be said for the rest of Europe.
Wherever the Saxons went, they had a major impact on those around them. Often, this was a negative one. The Saxons had a nasty habit of pillaging wherever they went. But sometimes that presence was a positive one. Those kings who managed to win Saxon favor often gained themselves loyal warriors as a reward.
It’s hard not to respect the rebellious spirit of the Saxons, especially their peasants. Even after being forcefully converted and baptized, they continued to be a thorn in the side of noblemen and the church for centuries.
Top image: The Saxons spread across Europe from the 4th century, settling nearly every corner of the continent, here portrayed clashing with Vikings. Source: Justinas/Adobe Stock
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Mitchell, S. 2014. A History of the Later Roman Empire. Wiley-Blackwell
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