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European Kingdoms

Germanic Tribes

 

Saxons (Germanics)

FeatureThe Germanic ethnic group began as a division of the western edge of late proto-Indo-European dialects around 3300 BC, splitting away from a general westwards migration to head towards the southern coastline of the Early Baltics and then enter southern Scandinavia (Sweden and Norway, with the Jutland area of northern Denmark, along with a very narrow strip of Baltic coastline, and see feature link for more detail).

By the time in which the early Germanic tribes were becoming key players in Western European politics in the last two centuries BC, the previously dominant Celts were on the verge of being conquered and dominated by Rome. Strabo says that the Romans introduced the name 'Germani' for these 'new' barbarians because their tribes were the 'authentic Celts', seeming to mean that they were what the Celts used to be - strong, aggressive, and bold.

By the late Roman empire period, many earlier tribes had accumulated and intermixed and were becoming known as Saxons. They could be found occupying a large swathe of territory around the North Sea coast of northern Germany, bordering on Frisia to the west, Angeln to the north, and what later became the eastern march counties, such as the North March.

It was from the North Sea coast that many Saxon groups emigrated to Britain in the fifth to early seventh centuries while a loose Saxon state began to form behind them, known generally as 'Old Saxony'. However, Saxons had been emigrating to Britain for some time, being settled by the Romano-British authorities as laeti. In some instances these groups later formed their own small kingdoms in Britain, or merged with newly arriving groups of Angles and Saxons.

The Franks under Charlemagne slowly conquered the pagan Saxon tribes of continental Europe between AD 782-804 (a period of Frankish-Saxon history known as the Saxon Wars). Initially they were subsumed within the Frankish empire, but they eventually emerged with a unified kingdom of their own during the Carolingian fragmentation which followed.

Subsequent centuries saw the territory divided or dispersed until the only piece which still bore the Saxon name was down in the south-eastern corner (modern Saxony in eastern Germany), far removed from the former heartland of Saxony at its height.

Germanics

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Oxford History of England: The English Settlements, J N L Meyers, from The Oxford History of England: Anglo-Saxon England, Sir Frank Stenton, from Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians 751-987, R McKitterick (1983), from The Anglo-Saxon Age c.400-1042, D J V Fisher, from The Ethnology of Germany Part 3: The Migration of the Saxons, Henry H Howorth (Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol 7, 1878), and from External Link: the Medieval Sourcebook: Gregory of Tours (539-594): History of the Franks: Books I-X (Fordham University).)

113 - 102 BC

A large-scale incursion of the sea into Jutland around the period between 120-114 BC is known as the Cimbrian Flood. It permanently alters the shape of the coastline and drastically affects the way people live in the region. It is probably this event which affects the Cimbri and Teutones.

These two peoples migrate en mass from their homeland, heading southwards towards Italy. Along the way they pick up the Celto-Germanic Helvetii peoples (in territory which later becomes Franconia), and possibly spark a secondary migration of Belgic peoples from the Netherlands and northern Gaul into south-eastern Britain.

Along their way they also drop off fragments such as the Atuatuci. Their passage sparks a partial tribal movement by elements of the Boii who invade the Norican region south of the Danube, and it is either the Cimbri or the Boii who attack the Scordisci Celts in the Balkans.

The Teutones wandering in Gaul
An illustration depicting the Teutones wandering in Gaul, part of a large-scale migration from modern Denmark into northern Italy in the second century BC

As shocking as this invasion is to the Romans, according to the later writings of Julius Caesar, the 'Germani' tribes of the Caerosi, Condrusi, Eburones, and Paemani (and perhaps also the unmentioned Segni) have already settled in Gaul, along the eastern edges of Gaulish and Belgae territory around the modern Belgian and Dutch borders.

This suggests that Germanic tribes are already pushing outwards from their Northern European core lands around the Jutish peninsula of today's Denmark and the southern shores of the Baltic Sea.

Old Saxony (Saxons)
Incorporating the Euthiones

The Saxons formed a loose state in Central Europe following the collapse of the Roman empire, and were relatively important in northern Germany during the subsequent period. They seem to have been centred on the area between the North Sea coastline and Hannover, and then stretching southwards to an undetermined degree.

Their tribal collective (and territory) was probably swelled by the absorption of other tribes, such as the Germanic Chauci, the Cherusci who were so important in AD 9, and lesser tribes such as the Angrivarii, Dulgubnii, and Warini. Together they formed a large coalition in the territory between modern Berlin and the northern Frisian coast, and were bordered to the north by the Angles.

The Saxons, Angles, and Jutes formed the bulk of the emigrants to Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries, although sizable numbers of Saxons remained behind (such as the otherwise completely unknown Euthiones - see AD 536, below). This broad sweep of what is now northern Germany became known by the migrants in post-Roman Britain as Old Saxony.

The name 'Saxon' itself was formed by combining a word for a type of knife - a seaxe, or sax - plus the common Germanic plural suffix which was often used after the name of a tribe, this being '-on' (whereas today English speakers would use an 's'). A 'sax' is a single-edged, drop-point knife, something which in North America is called a Bowie knife. Adding the plural suffix '-on' produces 'Saxon'.

FeatureIts origins lay in an Indo-European word root which is pretty widespread in the form of 'skei-', meaning 'to cut, separate'. This can be seen in the Latin 'scio' and 'scire', and in the Cymric 'ysgïen', meaning 'knife, sword'. It's also available in Old Indian as 'chidira', meaning 'sword, axe' (see feature link, right, for further examination of the word source).

Germanics

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Oxford History of England: The English Settlements, J N L Meyers, from The Oxford History of England: Anglo-Saxon England, Sir Frank Stenton, from Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians 751-987, R McKitterick (1983), from The Anglo-Saxon Age c.400-1042, D J V Fisher, from The Ethnology of Germany Part 3: The Migration of the Saxons, Henry H Howorth (Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol 7, 1878), from The History of the Franks, Volume II, Gregory of Tours (O M Dalton, Trans, 1967), from Wulf and Eadwacer, from From Roman Provinces to Medieval Kingdoms, Thomas F X Noble, from the Codex Gothanus, Lupus Servatus (commissioned by Eberhard of Friuli), from Res Gestae, Ammianus Marcellinus, and from External Links: The Latin Library, and the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, and the Medieval Sourcebook: Gregory of Tours (539-594): History of the Franks: Books I-X (Fordham University).)

1st century AD?

Vegdegg Odinson

Clearly a later Norse name. Randomly added to a modern list.

AD 98

In his work on 'Greater Germania', the Roman writer Tacitus omits to mention the Saxons, although it is known that they occupy territory in upper western Central Europe, in modern Schleswig-Holstein and north-west Germany, with the Frisians on their western flank and the Langobards to their immediate south.

Mandø Island
The islands between modern Denmark and Sweden were part of a little-known habitat for the early Suebic tribes of the western Baltic Sea, including Mandø seen here, one of the islands in the Danish Wadden Sea off the south-west coast of Jutland

Instead, the Saxons of this period should be accounted as part of 'the seven tribes of Jutland and Holstein', which include the Angles, Aviones, Eudoses, Nuitones, Reudigni, Suardones, and Warini, all of whom are part of the Suebic confederation. Their omission is startling, but the Suardones may supply the answer, thanks to similarities between the names (this is discussed in more detail on the Suardones page).

270s

The division of the Goths into two branches causes population movements which, among other things, sees the Germanic Chauci gradually overrun by the Saxons in their homeland against the north-western coast of Germany.

The absorption of this group is probably only partially voluntary, and could also include the absorption of some of the 'seven tribes' mentioned in AD 98. This would appear to be an event which is caused by Saxon migration and expansion from their earlier homeland in Schleswig-Holstein.

287 - 292

In the late third century, Heruli raid into Iberia along with Alemanni and Saxons, possibly as a result of the Lower Rhine incursions of this year. Roman Emperor Maximianus is involved in heavy fighting on the Lower Rhine and also on the Upper Danube.

Map of Barbarian Europe 52 BC
This vast map covers just about all possible tribes which were documented in the first centuries BC and AD, mostly by the Romans and Greeks, with the early Saxons shown just to the south of today's Denmark, prior to expansion and absorption of other tribes (click or tap on map to view full sized)

297

The Sali (otherwise known as Salian Franks), seek Roman protection on the Batavian island after being expelled from their own lands by Saxons. The Roman acceptance of their settlement there marks the beginning of the end for the Batavi as an identifiably separate people.

c.300 - c.375

According to the Codex Gothanus, the Langobards are subjugated by Saxons around AD 300, but it seems that they later rise up under their own king, Agelmund. The reason may be the poor harvests which they suffer in the late fourth century.

The Langobards begin to migrate southwards, but Ludo Moritz Hartmann suggests that they probably leave behind a sizable portion of their number, with these people being fully subsumed within the Saxon confederation and losing their name. The Angrivarii are also certainly subsumed within the confederation by this date, if not earlier.

Gelder

Saxon chief? Possibly a foundation name for Guelders.

364 - 367

According to Ammianus Marcellinus, the Picts, Scotti, Saxons, and Attacotti (possibly part of a Damnonian confederation) attack Roman Britain in what seems to be a serious incursion in 364. Saxons and Frisians are also part of the great 'Barbarian Conspiracy' of 367, with attacks falling on the Diocese of the Britains from all sides.

This would appear to be the culmination of seven years of large-scale trouble on behalf of the Picts, Scotti, Saxons, and the mysterious Attacotti. Initially, Rome is taken by surprise before rallying to restore order.

Venta Belgarum
The Roman city of Venta Belgarum was refortified in the fourth century and Germanic mercenaries were brought in to improve the defences, suggesting an increasing lack of Roman soldiery fitted to the task

fl c.370s

Freawine

Later added to list of kings of Angeln. Killed by the Myrging.

c.370s

While Freawine is included in later English royal genealogies as an ancestor figure, Wieg is shown as his son (see below). However, in the story of Offa (see the Myrging of Widsith) they are shown as contemporaries and enemies, suggesting that the genealogies subsequently arrange them in series, making them genealogically father and son in the manner of most genealogies.

fl 400s

Guictglis

Probably Wihtgils, father of Hengist of Wehta's Folk.

5th century

The Angrivarii remain in their homeland of the last five centuries, still part of the Saxon confederation. By now they are known by a variety of names, the Angarii, Aggeri, Aggerimenses, Angeri, Angerienses, or the Angri, but the name is also beginning to appear as that of their homeland, Engern (in the modern German states of Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia).

406 - 409

The bulk of the Suevi cross the Rhine at Mainz in 406 in association with the Vandali and Alani. Some of the tribes of the Suevi confederation elect to remain behind in Germania, including the Alemanni and Warini. After this point the Warini probably come to be dominated by the growing Saxon confederation which fills the vacuum left by the departure of the Suevi.

c.440 - 500

Saxons who have emigrated to Britain advance along the Thames Valley and head north into the Chilterns to encroach on British territories. Some groups break off to settle the region around Londinium and become known as the Middel Seaxe and the Suther-ge.

Lowbury Hill in Berkshire
Increasingly beleaguered British territories began turning civilian structures into military ones, such as the former Roman temple at the top of Lowbury Hill (near Compton in west Berkshire), which apparently became a look-out point which faced towards the River Thames

Other Saxon groups head southwards towards the Upper Thames Valley from the territory of the Middil Engle. The success of Hengist and Horsa in Kent encourages greater Saxon and Angle leaders to migrate to Britain as a way of escaping the increasing pressures of life in their native lands, squeezed between dominant Danes to the north and Frisians to the south.

Wieg / Wig

'Son' of Freawine. Later added to Baeldaeg's Folk.

Ket

Brother. Mentioned in Widsith.

c.450?

The Myrging are a Germanic clan which is descended from Saxons who occupy territory in modern Schleswig-Holstein, on the border with the Angles to the north. They become involved in a war with Offa, who kills two of the sons of Eadgils.

Eadgils himself is subsequently killed by Ket and Wig, the sons of the Saxon prince, Freawine, perhaps allowing the Myrging to overrun the border district between Saxons and Angles until they are completely conquered by Offa.

The Myrging are entirely absorbed into the Angle tribal collective, probably disappearing as a distinguishable people under the rule of Angeltheow of the Angles, who abolishes the title 'king of the Myrging'.

The Exeter Book
The Exeter Book was written around AD 970, the oldest of four surviving works containing Anglo-Saxon literature, which includes an edition of the Old English poem, Widsith

fl 463

Eadwacer / Adovacrius

'King of the Saxons'. Leader of warband attacking Angers.

463

Saxons are sailing along the English Channel, hunting for settlement locations along the Gaulish coast. Despite the official end of Roman interest in Britain, it seems that Gaul is still a more attractive (and richer) option.

Eadwacer leads a band of Saxons around the Gaulish coast to the River Loire. From there they sail up the river to capture Angers, only to be dislodged by Childerich of the Franks, acting as an ally of the Roman domain of Soissons.

The chances of being able to break through the increasing Frankish domination of northern Gaul are apparently fading, and Britain is perhaps becoming a more realistic proposition for invasion and settlement.

Eadwacer seems to be given as 'Odoacer' in at least one translation of Gregory of Tours. The names are certainly very similar - Eadwacer (ed/od-oo-acer) to Odoacer (od-oc-er) but the geographical areas of interest are completely different.

Eadwacer is a Saxon leader, operating in northern Germany and along the western coastline, while Odoacer is a Goth (most likely a Scirian), operating from Pannonia and then Italy. What is more, Odoacer is known as a commander of Heruli, Rugii, and Sciiri troops, not Saxons. Instead, this Eadwacer may be the character mentioned in the Old English poem, Wulf and Eadwacer.

Map of the Visigoth & Suevi kingdoms in AD 470
In AD 469/470 the Visigoths expanded their kingdom to its largest extent, reaching Nantes in the north on the border with the Roman sub-state of Soissons (click or tap on map to view full sized)

? - 477?

Ælle / Aelle

Important chieftain in Old Saxony? Founded Suth Seaxe.

c.475 - 495

Angles begin to arrive and take control of the lower east coast of Britain, where they intermingle with the Saxon descendants of Roman foederati. The late Roman history of this coastline is almost completely blank, which serves to underline the loss of lines of communication and probably also towns.

477

FeatureÆlle and his sons, Cymen, Wlencing, and Cissa, land at Cymens ora and beat off the Britons who oppose their landing. These Saxons quickly become known as the Suth Seaxe, although it is possible that they are soon wiped out in a major defeat at the siege of Mons Badonicus (see feature link).

486

Clovis of the Franks defeats, captures, and executes Syagrius, the last Roman commander of Soissons. The Franks are now completely dominant in northern Gaul and Roman control has been thrown off.

The death of Syagrius also sends a signal to the Saxons and other Germanic peoples that attempting to settle in Gaul is now hopeless. This would seem to be the single defining event which forces Saxons to turn their attention to invading Britain instead.

Baptism of Clovis in Reims: http://www.museehistoiredefrance.fr/index.php?option=com_oeuvre&view=detail&cid=205
The baptism of Clovis in Reims in 496 made him the only barbarian Christian king and won him increased support from his former Roman subjects in Gaul. This romantic recreation of the event was by François-Louis Dejuinne (1786-1844), completed in 1837

c.500

Saxons move into British territory on the north bank of the Thames Estuary. They find that the Saxon descendants of Roman laeti have already been settled there for well over a century. Together these groups will eventually found the kingdom of the East Seaxe.

507

By this date, Saxon pressure from the north has slowly been forcing the Frankish peoples southwards from their original territory around Cologne and Cambrai, so that the northern border now lies along the Somme, giving them the same border as the former domain of Soissons.

The Old English poem Widsith seems not to mention the Suardones of Tacitus. The historian Johann Martin Lappenberg is the first modern scholar to connect the Suardones to the Sweodweras of Widsith, but if they are in fact the Saxons, then their fate is very much known as a major Northern European group which retains a recognisable identity for centuries, while their neighbouring tribes are eventually subsumed by the growing power and dominance of the Danes.

fl c.531

Hadugato

Acclaimed by Adam of Bremen as 'duke' of Saxons (a leader).

c.531 - 532

The Franks of Austrasia conquer the Thuringians to the immediate south-east of the Saxons (after which event Hadugato is mentioned as duke of the Saxons). Portions of Thuringian territory are subsequently lost to the Saxons on the north-west border.

The Education of the Children of Clovis by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Like their powerful father, the children of Clovis probably received the warrior's education they would have needed in the constant fighting both within and without the various Merovingian kingdoms, such as Austrasia

These Saxons are probably part of the main body of Saxons on the continental mainland of Europe, but there also seems to be a reverse migration of Germanics from the east coast of Britain, where the recent native victory at Mons Badonicus has cut them off from the acquisition of new lands.

These returning Angles and Saxons appear to be given land in Thuringia by King Theuderich of Austrasia. Warrior groups of Thuringians are soon to be found in another Frankish conquest, that of Alemannia, where they act as part of the governing Frankish authority.

536

The Eucii, or Saxones Eucii, are associated with the Saxons by this point, which is when they become dependants of the Franks. Some scholars identify these people with Jutes, a group which has been settled in Britain for almost a century.

Instead, these Eucii may be an obscure tribe which is known as the Euthiones. They are also associated with the Saxons in a poem by Venantius Fortunatus (which is written in 583).

Map of Western Europe at the death of Clovis in AD 511
This map shows the state of the Frankish kingdom at Clovis' death in 511, plus the general location of the Saxon lands (click or tap on map to view full sized)

fl c.550s

Hulderic

fl c.550s

Alof 'the Great'

Female leader. Mother-in-law to Halga of the Danes (c.520s).

578

Chilperic, king of the Franks, sends an army to fight Waroch of Bro Erech along the Vilaine. The Frankish army consists of units from Anjou, Bayeux, Maine, Poitou, and Touraine. The Baiocassenses, the 'men from Bayeux', are Saxons.

They in particular are routed by the Bretons over the course of three days of fighting. Waroch is forced to submit in the end, and pays homage by sending his son as a hostage and agreeing to pay an annual tribute.

He subsequently breaks the latter promise, but Chilperic's dominion over the Bretons (or at least their eastern borders) is relatively secure as evidenced by Venantius Fortunatus' celebration of it in a poem.

587 - 590

Gunthchramn of Burgundy compels Waroch of Bro Erech to renew his oath in writing and demands a thousand solidi in compensation for raiding Nantes within the Breton March. That compensation has not been paid by 588, even though Waroch has promised it both to Gunthchramn and Chlothar II of the Franks.

Gunthchramn and Childebert II
Gunthchramn of Burgundy is shown here (with dark hair) seated next to Childebert II of Austrasia, in a beautifully-coloured plate from the Grandes Chroniques de France

In 589 or 590, Gunthchramn sends an expedition against Waroch under the command of Beppolem and Ebrachain. Ebrachain is an enemy of Fredegund, queen consort to the late King Chilperic, and it is she who sends the Saxons of Bayeux to aid Waroch.

Beppolem fights Waroch alone for three days before dying, at which point Waroch attempts to flee to the Channel Islands (suggesting a Breton defeat). Ebrachain destroys his ships and forces him to accept renewed peace, the renewal of his oath, and surrendering a nephew as a hostage. Despite all of this, the Bretons retain their spirit of independence and refuse to be cowed by the powerful Franks.

early 600s

Boddic

? - 627

Berthoald / Berthoala / Berthold

'Duke of the Saxons'. Killed in battle.

622

King of the Franks, Chlothar II, gives Austrasia to his son, Dagobert I, effectively granting the kingdom semi-autonomy in repayment for the support of its nobles, most notably Pepin I, mayor of the palace of Austrasia.

The Saxons have been paying tribute to the Franks at the rate of four hundred cows a year until this year (alternatively shown as 631). The Liber Historiae Francorum (of AD 727) and the Gesta Dagoberti (of the 830s) both describe Berthoald's revolt against Frankish authority, beginning with the defeat of Dagobert.

Saxon warriors
The average Saxon warrior of the seventh century would have looked very familiar to anyone coming from Saxon Britain, despite changes to dress there brought about by influences from the Romano-British

Clothar is forced to intervene and Berthoald is slain in battle. The Saxons pay a heavy price for their revolt, with many being killed in retaliation.

fl c.660s - 690s

Sighard

Son of Berthoald? Father of Theoderic?

Dietrich

Saxon leader.

678 - 690

The English Bishop Wilfred arrives in Frisia and the Anglo-Saxon Christianisation of the Germanic lands begins, although the first mission is quickly aborted. A second attempt in 690 proves much more successful.

For the best part of a century churchmen and monks crisscross the English Channel or North Sea, intent on spreading the Christian faith amongst their Germanic cousins who border the Merovingian Frankish kingdom. There is special interest in the conversion of the Saxons, whom the English consider their kinsfolk.

fl c.743 - 744

Theoderic / Theodoric

Captured in 744.

The Carolingian mayors of the Merovingian palace, Pepin 'the Short' and Carloman, march first against the Bavarians and then against the Saxon leader, Theoderic, for his non-payment of the supposedly-restored annual tribute.

Bavarian countryside
Bavaria's mixed terrain varies from dark forests to alpine mountains in the far south, with an equally mixed population of Celts, Germanics, and Romans forming this new tribal grouping in the fifth century AD

Despite the loss to the Saxons of the castrum of Hohseoburg a repeat invasion has to be mounted in 744. This time Theoderic is captured. Wernicke, his possible replacement, is the father of Widukind, the great Saxon leader against Frankish repression following the creation of the Saxon March.

? - 768

Wernicke

Related to Theoderic? Died.

772

An opening skirmish in a fresh series of conflicts is struck when Charlemagne's Frankish empire destroys the Saxon sanctuary of Irminsul. Apparently the sanctuary takes the form of a sacred pillar - probably a tree, and specifically an oak - but its exact nature has been the subject of somewhat intense scholarly debate.

775

According to the Royal Frankish Annals, the lands of the Angrivarii are conquered in this year by Charlemagne after they have besieged the Frankish court at Fritzlar. The Angrian commanders conclude a separate peace agreement with the Carolingian empire near Bückeburg, removing themselves from the destructive Carolingian-Saxon wars which are to follow.

Charlemagne
Charlemagne unified all the Frankish states under one ruler and created an empire which stretched deep into modern Germany, something the Romans had never managed - but this vast domain was too big to endure long as a single entity after his death

The Saxons themselves are forced to accept incorporation as a Frankish Saxon March (border territory). All that does is enforce a degree of Saxon unity and rally resistance against the Franks under a single leadership which will lead to some brutal wars later in the century.

 
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