French: Saisne, Saisnes
The Saxons were a Germanic people who played a significant role in the history of Europe during the early medieval period. Originating from the region of modern-day Germany and Denmark, the Saxons were one of the many Germanic tribes that emerged in the Migration Period (fourth to sixth centuries).
The Saxons’ history can be traced back to the Roman era when they lived in the area between the Rhine and Elbe rivers. They were known for their agricultural practices and their warrior culture. The Saxons had a decentralized political structure, with individual tribes or clans led by chieftains.
During the late Roman Empire, the Saxons frequently raided Roman territories and became one of the primary external threats to the Roman frontiers. As the Western Roman Empire declined, the Saxons, along with other Germanic tribes, took advantage of the power vacuum and expanded their territories.
Their own history (in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), as well as archaeological evidence, shows their encroachments beginning in the south and east of Britain, shortly after the Roman withdrawal from Britain in the early fifth century, which had left Britain near defenseless.
The first conquests of these Germanic invaders included Kent, the Isle of Wight, Wessex (West Saxons), Sussex (South Saxons), Essex (East Saxons), Suffolk, Norfolk, and Northumberland. From these settlements, they led incursions into the territories of the British, Scottish, Cornish, and Welsh, effectively conquering the entire island within 200 years.
The Saxons’ presence in Britain was marked by conflicts with the native Britons and other invading groups, such as the Angles and the Jutes. Over time, the Saxons gradually assimilated with the local population, and their language and culture merged with those of the Angles and Jutes, giving rise to the Anglo-Saxon culture.
In the eigth century, Charlemagne, the Frankish king and later Emperor, launced military campaigns against the Saxons on the continent. The Saxons fiercely resisted Charlemagne’s efforts to Christianize them and incorporate them into the Frankish Empire. These conflicts, known as the Saxon Wars, lasted for several decades and resulted in the defeat of the Saxons and their eventual conversion to Christianity.
The Norman Conquest of England took place in 1066 when Duke William of Normandy, known as William the Conqueror, invaded England and defeated King Harold II of England in the Battle of Hengist. This ended the Anglo-Saxon rule. The term “Saxon” continued to be used to refer to the people of the region, but it evolved over time. Today, the descendants of the historical Saxons primarily reside in Germany and are part of the wider German population.
In Arthurian legends
In Arthurian legends, the Saxons are often depicted as one of the primary adversaries of King Arthur and his knights. According to these legends, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Britain was left vulnerable to invasions from various barbarian tribes, including the Saxons.
In the Arthurian narrative, the Saxons are portrayed as a fierce and warlike group of warriors led by their king, often named King Hengist the Saxon or King Ælle of Sussex. They are depicted as enemies of King Arthur and the native Britons, engaging in frequent battles and conflicts with them.
One of the most famous episodes involving the Saxons in Arthurian lore is the story of the “Sword in the Stone.” In some versions of the legend, Arthur pulls the sword Excalibur from the stone, symbolizing his rightful claim to the throne of Britain and his ability to defend the land against the Saxon invaders.
The Arthurian legends often depict the Saxons as representing chaos, paganism, and the forces of darkness, while King Arthur and his knights embody order, Christianity, and the forces of light. The conflicts between Arthur and the Saxons symbolize the struggle between good and evil, with Arthur striving to unite Britain and drive out the invaders. In the early legends, Arthur’s fame is founded upon his successes in the struggle against the Saxons.
Multiple early sources, including Gildas, Bede, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle assert that the Saxons’ relentless aggression was stopped for a few decades when the disparate British kings united under a succession of war-leaders and enjoyed a series of military victories against the invaders. Ambrosius seems to have been the first of these generals, and Arthur is given by Nennius as another. In any event, the British were unable to remain united long enough. The Saxon invasions soon resumed and were largely completed by the close of the sixth century.
By the time of Nennius’s writing, the history of the Saxon invasion was already becoming tainted with fantastic elements. According to the chronicles, the original Saxon invaders were led by Hengist and his brother Horsa, two characters who appear in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and are probably based on historical figures, though they would have only been leaders of a particular tribe of Saxons; there was no “Saxon nation”. Vortigern, who was the king of Britain two generations before Arthur, befriended the Saxons and employed them as mercenaries in order to defend Britain against the Picts from the north and against Ambrosius in Brittany.
This practice of hiring one barbarian race to defend against another is in keeping with Roman tradition and it is not impossible that a historical British ruler called Vortigern did exactly that, probably in the 440s (Alcock, 108). Sources disagree as to whether Vortigern invited the first Saxons to Britain, or whether they already had encampments on the eastern shore; archaeology seems to favor the latter hypothesis. If, as some historians speculate, Vortigern was anti-Roman, the his plan for the Saxons may have included prevention against a Roman re-occupation (Lindsay, 190).
Continuing with the chronicles’ stories, Hengist married his daughter Rowena to Vortigern and was granted the country of Kent. Capitalizing on Vortigern’s fear of attack, Hengist brought thousands of Saxon warriors to Britain, covertly plotting to take over the island. When Hengist’s plot became clear, Vortimer, Vortigern’s son, broke from his father and led an army of Britons against the Saxons, killing Horsa and driving them off the island. When Vortimer died, however, the Saxons returned and reoccupied areas of Kent, Middlesex, Sussex, and Essex. They were driven out again by Ambrosius, only to return to plague Uther Pendragon.
Arthur won a final victory against them through a series of seven or twelve battles, culminating in the battle of Badon Hill. A final Briton golden age flourished under Arthur, and the Saxons returned upon his death. Leaders of the Saxon warriors who plagued Ambrosius, Uther, and Arthur are given variously as Octa, Eosa, Colgrim, Baldulph (Baldulf), and Cheldric of Germany.
A large portion of the Vulgate Merlin expands upon the Saxon invasion, listing a multitude of Saxon kings from Ireland, Denmark, and Germany who entered Britain and besieged its greatest cities at the beginning of Arthur’s reign. The more notable among these dozens of rulers include Aminaduc, Bramangue, Clarion, Galahad of the Land of the Grazing Grounds, Hargadabran (Hargodabrans), Maragond, Oriel, Pignoras, Rions, Salebrun, and Sapharin.
Gawain, Yvain, Sagremor (Sagramore), and a number of other young heroes first distinguished themselves in the Saxon wars.
Arthur allied with a collection of kings who had been in rebellion against him and, after a number of assorted battles, crushed the Saxons at the battle of Clarence (here replacing Badon). Arthour and Merlin and Malory replace this Saxon invasion with an attack by Saracens. The Vulgate Lancelot tells how they again invaded Scotland some twenty years later, but Arthur and Lancelot defeated them at Saxon Rock and drove them away. Mordred was said to have allied with the Saxons when he usurped Arthur’s throne, and several Saxon armies participated in the battle of Salisbury, in which Arthur was killed.
Saxon rulers | The Legend of King Arthur
Historia Brittonum | Probably Nennius, early 9th century
Historia Regum Britanniae | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1138
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle | 9th century
Lancelot do Lac | 1215-1220
Vulgate Lancelot | 1215-1230
Vulgate Mort Artu | 1215-1230
Vulgate Merlin | 1220-1235
Le Livre d’Artus | Early 13th century
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470