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The Saxons

Some historians believe that the character of King Arthur is loosely based on a Roman (and/or Welsh) affiliated military leader who successfully fought off a Saxon invasion during the 5th or 6th century.

The first attributed author to this theory is a man named Nennuis in the year 830.

He described Arthur as a heroic British general and Christian warrior during the 5th century. He wrote, “Then in those days Arthur fought against them with the kings of Britons, but he was Commander in those days.”

Nennius attributes twelve battels to Arthur stretched over a period of time and distance too wide for one man to have fought in them all. This was the first indication that Arthur was, in fact, a legend and not a real man.

But who are the Saxons?

The Saxons began as three separate groups of people of Germanic descent in the middle ages. They were known originally as the Angles, Jutes and Saxons. They lived near the North seacoast of what is now Germany as well as Denmark and the Netherlands. Before that, the name was used to refer to Germanic inhabitants of what is now England. It was also used to describe raiders in the same way as the word Vikings.

The Saxons were typically tall, fair-haired men who carried swords, spears and round shields. They were farmers and warriors.

The first mention of the Saxons in their modern form, was in AD 356 when the future Roman emperor, Julian, mentioned them in a speech. He declared the Saxons allies of Magnentius, a rival emperor in Gaul.

Saxon History

Britain Anglo SaxonIn the early 400s, Britain was a peripheral part of the Roman Empire that was sometimes lost to rebellion or invasion but always recaptured.  Around 410 Britain fell out of Imperial control after the Roman emperor, Honorius, told the Britons to take care of their own battles because Rome was under attack by barbarians and could no longer defend Britain as well. This led to a phase generally known as “sub-Roman.”

The first recorded use of the word Saxon was in The Chronica Gallica of 452 from the year 441. “The British provinces, which to this time had suffered various defeats and misfortunes, are reduced the Saxon rule.”

Though Saxons had been raiding the shores of Britain for centuries, leading to the construction of a string of forts along the coast called Litora Saxonica or Saxon Shore, it wasn’t until the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in approximately 476 that Saxons along with Angles, Frisians and Jutes invaded or migrated to the island of Great Britain.

They rowed across the North Sea in long, wooden ships which had one sail and many ores.

Some Saxons were first allowed into Britain under an agreement to protect the Britons from the Picts and Gaels. As reported in Historia Brittonum, the British King, Vortigern, allowed the Germanic warlords, later named Hengist and Horsa, to settle on the Isle of Thanet in exchange for their service as mercenaries. They then manipulated the king into allowing them more land making way for the Germanic settlement of Britain.

This fact has been proven by the discovery of ancient burial sites of Saxons wearing military equipment in the style of late Roman soldiers.

Eventually, the Germanic invaders took over much of the south, east and Northeast of England, though they never conquered Scotland, Wales, or Cornwall.

By the eighth century, the term Anglo-Saxon was in use to describe English Saxons as opposed to continental Saxons.

Modern Influence

Most of our language, traditions and physical appearance are thanks to these “Anglo-Saxons.” They came on mass, forcing the Romanized Celts in Britain into the hills of Wales and Cornwall, creating pockets of Celtic culture and language.

The Saxons ruled Britain for about 500 years, and many people living in Britain today can trace their heritage to Anglo-Saxons. The name England even comes from the Saxon word “Angle-land”. They divided England into kingdoms, each with its own royal family. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, Kent, and Anglia.

These seven kingdoms didn’t live in harmony, though. They fought to dominate each other and expand their individual territories. Part of the reason for this was that each king took a tribute from the people who lived under their rule. Typically, these ‘taxes’ were gold and silver bullion, gemstones, cattle, horses or weapons as money didn’t exist yet.

Many place names still bear the mark of the Saxons who claimed it. The names of villages are typically the chieftains name plus a descriptor at the end of the word to indicate it was a tribe like “ing” or “folk.” For example, the village of Hastings was “Haesta’s people.”

In other cases, they used a name to describe the location. For instance, the Anglo-Saxon word ‘bury’ means a fortified place. You can see this in place names such as Banbury and Shaftsbury.

Cultural Attributes

saxon fightersThe Saxons were pagans when they came to Britain but eventually converted to Christianity. Much of their original pagan holidays remained, however, and some still remain today.

The days of the week we use today are a tribute to many of the pagan gods the Saxons believed in. For example, the Saxon word Wodnesdeg, now Wednesday, was Woden’s day. This day celebrated Woden, the god of war, learning, poetry and magic.

The Anglo-Saxons enjoyed a long reign over Britain until the 9th century when the country came under attack by Viking raiders from Norway and Denmark. For 200 years, the Vikings picked off the rulers of each area of Britain until the year 1066 when the last Anglo-Saxon king died in battle in Hastings.

William from Normandy became the new king and replaced all the Anglo-Saxon lords with Norman ones, bringing an end to the Anglo-Saxon times.

Although the Vikings took control of the country, no other group had as significant an impact on our modern world as that of the Saxons. We can thank them for everything from our holidays to our current English language. Their time in power may have been but a blink in history, but the effect of their influence was lasting.