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- This article is about the Saxons, a Germanic people. For other uses of the term, see Saxon (disambiguation).
The Saxons were a large and powerful Germanic people located in what is now northwestern Germany and a small section of the eastern Netherlands. It is important to note that the historic Saxons did not inhabit the modern German federal state called Saxony. They are first mentioned by the geographer Ptolemy as a people of southern Jutland and present-day Schleswig-Holstein, whence they appear subsequently to have expanded to the south and west. The word 'Saxon' derives from the word 'Sax', meaning a variety of one-edged sword.
Invasion of Britain
Some Saxons, along with Angles, Jutes, Franks and Frisians, invaded or migrated to the island of Great Britain in the early Middle Ages, giving their names to the kingdoms of Essex, Sussex and Wessex (the lands respectively of the East, South and West Saxons), which with the shorter-lived Middlesex eventually became part of the kingdom of England.
Collectively the Germanic settlers of Britain, mostly Saxons, Angles and Jutes, came to be called the Anglo-Saxons.
A majority of the Saxons remained in continental Europe, forming from the 8th century the Duchy of Saxony. They long avoided becoming Christians and being incorporated into the orbit of the Frankish kingdom, but were decisively conquered by Charlemagne in a long series of annual campaigns (772 - 804). With defeat came the enforced baptism and conversion of the Saxon leaders and their people. Even their sacred tree, Irminsul, was destroyed.
Under Carolingian rule, the Saxons were reduced to a tributary status. There is evidence that the Saxons, as well as Slavic tributaries like the Abodrites and the Wends, often provided troops to their Carolingian overlords. The dukes of Saxony became kings (Henry I, the Fowler, 919) and later the first Emperors (Henry's son, Otto I, the Great) of Germany during the 10th century, but lost this Position in 1024. The duchy was divided up in 1180 when Duke Henry the Lion, Emperor Otto's grandson, refused to follow Emperor Frederick Barbarossa into war in Italy.
The region in southeasten Germany known as the Kingdom of Saxony between 1806 to 1918 and the Free State of Saxony after 1990, was not a traditional homeland of the Saxon peoples. This regions acquired its name through political circumstances and was originally called the Margrave of Meissen, the rulers of this area acuquired control of the Duchy of Saxony in 1423 and eventually applied the name Saxony to the whole of their kingdom. Since then this section of southeastern Germany has been referred to as Saxony (German: Sachsen), a source of many misunderstandings about the original homeland of the Saxon, mostly in the present-day German state of Lower Saxony (German: Niedersachsen).
The label "Saxons" was generally applied to German settlers who migrated during the 13th century to south-eastern Transylvania in present-day Romania, where their descendants numbered a quarter of a million in the early decades of the 20th century. Most have left since World War II, many of them during the 1970s and 1980s due to the Romanianisation policies of the Ceauşescu regime.
Modern remnants of the Saxon name
Since reunification in 1990, three federal states of Germany derive their name from the Saxons: Niedersachsen or Lower Saxony, whose area corresponds roughly to the traditional Saxon lands between the Netherlands and the Elbe River; Sachsen-Anhalt, located around the city of Magdeburg; and the Free State of Sachsen or Saxony, which included the city of Dresden, in eastern Germany bordering the Czech Republic, the old kingdom (see above).
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