Saxons, Germanic people, first mentioned in the 2d cent. by Ptolemy as inhabiting the southern part of the Cimbric Peninsula (S Jutland). Holding the area at the mouth of the Elbe River and some of the nearby islands, they gradually extended their territory southward across the Weser River. A politically unified people, the Saxons were ruled by princes or chieftains. Their assemblies, in which all classes except slaves were represented, were consulted on all issues of war and peace. In the 3d and 4th cent. the Saxons were active in raiding expeditions along the coasts of the North Sea. The European coast from the Loire to the Scheldt rivers and the southeastern coast of Britain, where defenses were erected against their piratical raids, were known to the Romans as litora Saxonica [Saxon shores]. By the 5th cent. Saxons had established settlements along the north shore of Gaul, especially at the mouth of the Loire, and eventually these Saxons came under Frankish domination. As the Roman occupation of Britain weakened, the Saxons increased their marauding attacks and also began (c.450) to make settlements there, resisting all efforts to drive them off. By the end of the 6th cent. they and their neighbors the Angles were firmly established in the island, laying the foundations of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (see Anglo-Saxons). Wessex, the kingdom of the West Saxons, became dominant. After the migration to Britain, the Saxons on the Continent came to be identified by historians as the Old Saxons. By virtue of their conquest (531) of Thuringia, they occupied NW Germany. In 566 they were subjugated by the Franks and forced to pay tribute. The Old Saxons waged intermittent war with the Franks until the end of the 8th cent., when they were conquered by Charlemagne and absorbed into his empire. After this conquest they were forcibly converted to Christianity. In the division of the empire by the Treaty of Verdun (843), the lands of the Saxons were included in the section that formed the basis for modern Germany.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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