The Saxons were a Germanic people who migrated to Britain in the late fifth century A.D. They consisted of many little tribes that all formed one group. The Saxons, who lived near the Angles and migrated about the same time, became part of the Anglo-Saxons, the first group to unify all of Britain under one king.
The origins of the Saxons has been a topic of discussion for as long as the Saxons have been around. Early historians, such as Ptolemy in the 2nd century, put the Saxons north of the lower River Elbe in Germany. However, other sources state that the original area was near the Rhine. Complications also come into play when there’s mention of an “Old Saxony”, because the exact location seems to change.
What is known is that the territory of Saxony today was definitely populated in prehistoric times. It contains some of the largest ancient monumental temples, dating back thousands of years. Archaeological excavations in the area have also found evidence of settlement in the areas near Dresden, Eythra, and Zwenkau.
In the late 5th century, the Saxons came to Britain and began conquering there. There is some discussion as to whether the takeover was peaceful or forceful. One near-contemporary, Gildas Sapiens of Britain, writes that King Vortigern, who was fighting against the Scots and the Picts, asked the Saxons to come and help them. The Saxons, however, came with a different motive:
23. Then all the councilors, together with that proud tyrant Gurthrigern [Vortigern], the British king, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations. Nothing was ever so pernicious to our country, nothing was ever so unlucky. What palpable darkness must have enveloped their minds-darkness desperate and cruel!
Those very people whom, when absent, they dreaded more than death itself, were invited to reside, as one may say, under the selfsame roof. Foolish are the princes, as it is said, of Thafneos, giving counsel to unwise Pharaoh. A multitude of whelps came forth from the lair of this barbaric lioness, in three cyuls, as they call them, that is, in their ships of war, with their sails wafted by the wind and with omens and prophecies favorable, for it was foretold by a certain soothsayer among them, that they should occupy the country to which they were sailing three hundred years, and half of that time, a hundred and fifty years, should plunder and despoil the same.
They first landed on the eastern side of the island, by the invitation of the unlucky king, and there fixed their sharp talons, apparently to fight in favor of the island, but alas! more truly against it. Their mother-land, finding her first brood thus successful, sends forth a larger company of her wolfish offspring, which sailing over, join themselves to their bastard-born comrades.
From that time the germ of iniquity and the root of contention planted their poison amongst us, as we deserved, and shot forth into leaves and branches. the barbarians being thus introduced as soldiers into the island, to encounter, as they falsely said, any dangers in defense of their hospitable entertainers, obtain an allowance of provisions, which, for some time being plentifully bestowed, stopped their doggish mouths. Yet they complain that their monthly supplies are not furnished in sufficient abundance, and they industriously aggravate each occasion of quarrel, saying that unless more liberality is shown them, they will break the treaty and plunder the whole island. In a short time, they follow up their threats with deeds.
24. For the fire of vengeance, justly kindled by former crimes, spread from sea to sea, fed by the hands of our foes in the east, and did not cease, until, destroying the neighboring towns and lands, it reached the other side of the island, and dipped its red and savage tongue in the western ocean. In these assaults, therefore, not unlike that of the Assyrian upon Judea, was fulfilled in our case what the prophet describes in words of lamentation; "They have burned with fire the sanctuary; they have polluted on earth the tabernacle of thy name."
And again, "O God, the gentiles have come into thine inheritance; thy holy temple have they defiled," So that all the columns were leveled with the ground by the frequent strokes of the battering-ram, all the husbandmen routed, together with their bishops, priests, and people, whilst the sword gleamed, and the flames crackled around them on every side. Lamentable to behold, in the midst of the streets lay the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies, covered with livid clots of coagulated blood, looking as if they had been squeezed together in a press;* and with no chance of being buried, save in the ruins of the houses, or in the ravening bellies of wild beasts and birds; with reverence be it spoken for their blessed souls, if, indeed, there were many found who were carried, at that time, into the high heaven by the holy angels. So entirely had the vintage, once so fine, degenerated and become bitter, that, in the words of the prophet, there was hardly a grape or ear of corn to be seen where the husbandman had turned his back.
25. Some therefore, of the miserable remnant, being taken in the mountains, were murdered in great numbers; others, constrained by famine, came and yielded themselves to be slaves for ever to their foes, running the risk of being instantly slain, which truly was the greatest favor that could be offered them: some others passed beyond the seas with loud lamentations instead of the voice of exhortation. "Thou hast given us as sheep to be slaughtered, and among the Gentiles hast thou dispersed us." Others, committing the safeguard of their lives, which were in continual jeopardy, to the mountains, precipices, thickly wooded forests, and to the rocks of the seas (albeit with trembling hearts), remained still in their country. But in the meanwhile, an opportunity happening, when these most cruel robbers were returned home, the poor remnants of our nation (to whom flocked from divers places round about our miserable countrymen as fast as bees to their hives, for fear of an ensuing storm), being strengthened by God, calling upon him with all their hearts, as the poet says,—"With their unnumbered vows they burden heaven," that they might not be brought to utter destruction, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, had been slain in these same broils, and now his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory.
26. After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, to the end that our Lord might in this land try after his accustomed manner these his Israelites, whether they loved him or not, until the year of the siege of Bath-hill, when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity.
Whatever the real motive, the Saxons stayed in Britain. Four separate Saxon kingdoms were formed: Essex, Sussex, Wessex, and the province of Middlesex. Anglo-Saxon kings ruled over Britain from the late 5th/early 6th centuries until the Viking invasions and the Norman Kings.
According to early sources, the Saxon tribe was divided into a caste system with three levels (not including slaves). Roughly speaking, there were the nobles, the warriors, and the peasants. Once a year, the leaders met in council to confirm their laws.
They were of a pagan religion, and heavily resisted Christianity. On the continent, Charlemagne had a lot of trouble with Saxon rebels and false agreements to conversion, and in the end, he fought against them and forced them to convert or be killed. Even through the late 9th century, Saxon peasants rebelled against the Frankish overlords and their Christian ways.
In England, the Saxons remained pagan until the early 7th century, when Birinus began working through the Saxon kingdoms, starting with Wessex. The other kingdoms converted through other influences, including watching their Anglian cousins. The Eastern Saxons took the longest to convert. Even after their king Saeberht converted and a diocese was established in London, his heirs expelled the bishop and fought against the conversion until the late 7th century.
“On the Ruin of Britain” by Gildas. The Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1949/pg1949.html
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