The Saxons is a common name for a people of whom a large portion moved to Britain along with Angles and Jutes. The name Saxon may derive from the seax, a particular sort of long knife they often used.

Within Britain, most of these “Saxons”, at least later, called themselves “English” and it may be that there was no great difference between Angles and Saxons, the name “Saxon” being mostly a slightly more formal and learned name.


Saxons may be first mentioned in surviving texts in Ptolemy’s Geographia, a work of the 2nd century. However, some manuscripts of this work read “Axones” instead, and it is possible that this is a misspelling of Aviones, a people mentioned as living in the same region by Tacitus, which some copyists had attempted to correct. But Julian, later to be emperor, does mention the Saxons as allies of the rival emperor Magnentius in 356.

From that point on, Saxons appear again and again as pirates and warlords battling the Romans. In the late 3rd century the Roman military command of the Saxon Shore was created, a series of forts on the eastern and southern coats of Britain and on the shores of Roman territory on the other sides of the Channel. In charge of this was the Count of the Saxon Shore. By the end of the 4th century this Count was in charge only of the British forts, those on the continent being controlled by the dux tractus Amoricani and dux Belgicae Secundae.

According to Bede (Ecclesiastical History, Bk. V, Ch. 10), in the continental Saxon lands of his time, the Saxons had no kings, but were ruled by ealdormen, one of them being chosen by lot to rule when war occurs but who loses all his power when it ends.

Saxon HomelandEdit

The earliest Saxon homeland corresponds approximately to modern Schleswig-Holstein or, more precisely, to the modern German states of Lower Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and the Westphalian part of North Rhine-Westphalia. The continental Saxon land was divided into three provinces: Westphalia, Eastphalia and Angria to the north.

Saxon Conquest of BritainEdit

Archaelogical evidence indicates some “Saxon” presence in Britain by the end of the 4th century. British and English legend ascribe the beginning of the actual Saxon conquest to the rebellion of the mercenary Hengist and increased immigration of Saxons and related people from the continent. For this legendary story see Hengist and Vortigern. Archaelogical evidence suggests that Frisians and Franks were also involved. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle may contain some true information, but scholars disagree radically about what of the early material is trustworthy and what is not. Gildas records a period of battles between Britons and Saxons going either way until the Battle of Mount Badon which he sees as a major British victory.

Bede relates in his Ecclesiastical History (Bk. I, Ch. 15):

From the Saxons, that is, the country which is now called Old Saxony, came the East Saxons, the South Saxons, and the West Saxons.

Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Brittaniae provides no specific details about Vortigern’s terms with Hengist, only stating that Hengist and his followers then conquered London, followed by York, Lincoln, and Winchester. Wace’s account is closer to Bede’s. Vortigern now bestows Sussex, Essex, and Middlesex, besides restoring to Hengist the earldom of Kent. Lawman relates that Hengist divided up the land given him by Vortigern, giving Kent to an earl, Essex to his steward with the nobler folk, Middlesex to his chamberlain with his knights, and giving Sussex to the folk of lesser rank.

Saxons Against ArthurEdit

The Historia Brittonum, after providing the story of Hengist’s first conquests, lists twelve battles of Arthur which would seem to be against the Saxons, ending with the battle of Mount Badon. The Annales Cambriae also mentions the Battle of Badon.

The medieval Welsh Dream of Rhonabwy refers to a dream version of the Battle of Badon in which Arthur will fight against an enemy named Osla Big-Knife, mentioned as Arthur’s enemy in no other source.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae has Arthur fight the Saxon leaders Cheldric, Colgrim, and Baldulf, foes mentioned only in this work and in later works obviously derived from it. Geoffrey later tells that Mordred has Saxon help when he rebels, allying himself with a Saxon leader named Chelric.

No other early Arthurian romance even mentions the Saxons. No Arthurian verse romance mentions the Saxons as Arthur’s foes.

Only in the later prose Arthurian romances is it remembered that Arthur was supposed to be a fighter against the Saxons. The Prose Lancelot introduces an attempted invasion by Saxons in Scotland in which a giant Saxon leader named Hargodobrant is killed.

The Vulgate Merlin has Arthur and the Kings of Britain undergo a massive attempted Saxon invasion in which one Aminaduc and hundreds of Saxon kings invade and besiege the cites of Clarence and Vandeberes. The Saxons raid and plunder to supply the troops at the sieges, resulting in many battles against individual British kings. Finally, in the second half of the romance, the Saxons withdraw from Vandeberes to concentrate their efforts on Clarence. But Arthur, aided by twelve other kings and duke, utterly defeats them in a very short account.

The Didot Perceval and the Vulgate Mort Artu also bring in Saxons to aid Mordred, following Geoffrey of Monmouth and the pseudo-historical Arthurian tales that follow Geoffrey.

In the Livre d’Artus, the Saxons do not withdraw from Vandeberes. Arthur and his allies first utterly put the Saxons to flight at Clarence in a long account of the battle, and then do the same at Vandeberes in another long account. This work also explains that Caradoc the Tall and his kin are of Saxon origin, though of the Christian faith and in this work, on Arthur’s side.

In the Post-Vulgate Quest, when the Knights of the Round Table are pursuing the quest of the Grail, King Mark of Cornwall plots with the Saxons to invade Logres during this time of weakness. The unnamed Saxon leaders land and join with King Mark. They besiege Camelot. But Arthur’s knights, who are not of the Round Table, prove sufficiently valiant to defeat the Saxons and King Mark, when aided by King Caradoc Stout-arm, Galahad, Arthur the Less, Palamedes, and Palamedes’ father Esclabor.

Yet another attempted Saxon invasion, with unnamed leaders, is told in some versions of the Prophecies of Merlin.

Some scholars see the tradition of Arthur as a fighter against the Saxon to be the result of the historicization of one who was earlier a fantasy, folklore hero.

Some Name VariationsEdit

LATIN: Saxones FRENCH: Saissons, Saisnes, Sesnes; ENGLISH: Saisnes; MALORY: Sessoynes; WELSH: Saxoneit, Ssaesson.

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