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History of Saxony

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Title: History of Saxony  
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Subject: Saxony, Saxe-Weimar, History of Saxony, Jessen (Elster), History of the States of Germany
Collection: History of Lower Saxony, History of Saxony, History of Saxony-Anhalt
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History of Saxony

The history of Saxony concerns what was originally a small tribe living on the North Sea between the Elbe and Eider River in the present Holstein. The name of this tribe, the Saxons (Lat..., Saxones), was first mentioned by the Roman author Ptolemy. The name Saxons is derived from the Seax, a knife used by the tribe as a weapon.

In 3rd and 4th century Germany, great tribal confederations of the Alamanni, Bavarians, Thuringians, Franks, Frisii, and Saxons arose. These took the place of the numerous petty tribes with their popular tribal form of government. With the exceptions of the Saxons all these confederations were ruled by kings; the Saxons were divided into a number of independent bodies under different chiefs, and in time of war these chieftains drew lots. The selected leader was followed by the other chiefs until the war ended.[1]

In the 3rd and 4th centuries, the Saxons fought their way victoriously towards the west, and their name was given to the great tribal confederation that stretched towards the west exactly to the former boundary of the Roman Empire, consequently almost to the Rhine. Only a small strip of land on the right bank of the Rhine remained to the Frankish tribe. Towards the south the Saxons pushed as far as the Harz Mountains and the Eichsfeld, and in the succeeding centuries absorbed the greater part of Thuringia. In the east their power extended at first as far as the Elbe and Saale Rivers; in the later centuries it certainly extended much farther. All the coast of the German Ocean belonged to the Saxons except that west of the Weser, which the Frisians retained.


  • Saxons and Christianity 1
  • The Medieval Duchy of Saxony (880–1356) 2
  • Electorate of Saxony (1356–1806) 3
  • The Kingdom of Saxony (1806–1918) 4
  • After 1918 5
  • The Prussian province of Saxony 6
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9

Saxons and Christianity

The history of the powerful Saxon tribe is also the history of the conversion to Christianity of that part of Germany which lies between the Rhine and the Oder, that is of almost the whole of the present Northern Germany. From the 8th century, the Saxons were divided into the four subdivisions (gau): Westphalians, between the Rhine and Weser; the Engern or Angrians, on both sides of the Weser; the Eastphalians, between the Weser and Elbe; the Transalbingians, in the present Holstein. The only one of these names that has been preserved is Westphalians, given to the inhabitants of the Prussian Province of Westphalia.

In company with the tribe of Angles from Schleswig, a part of the Saxons settled on the island of Great Britain from which the Romans had withdrawn, where, as Anglo-Saxons, after having accepted Christianity about 600, they laid the foundation of Anglo-Saxon civilization and the present Great Britain. In attempting to reach Gaul by land the Saxons came into violent conflict with the Franks living on the Rhine.

The Frankish king Clovis I (481-511) united the various Frankish tribes, conquered Roman Gaul, and with his people accepted Christianity. The new Frankish kingdom was able to bring all German tribes except the Saxons under its authority and to make them Christian. For more than a hundred years there was almost uninterrupted warfare between Frank and Saxon. Many Anglo-Saxon Christian missionaries sought to convert the Saxons, some were killed, some driven away; the names of only a few of these men have been preserved, as St. Suitbert, St. Egnert, the saint called Brother Ewald, St. Lebuin, etc. St. Boniface also preached without success among the Saxons.

870 Saxony.

After a bloody struggle that lasted thirty years (772-804), the Saxons were finally brought under Frankish supremacy by the great Frankish ruler, Charlemagne. The earliest date at which it can be proved that Charlemagne had the conquest of the Saxon districts in view is 776. Charlemagne was also able to win them to Christianity, the Saxons being the last German tribe that still held persistently to belief in the Germanic gods. At different times the Saxon wars of Charlemagne have been called "religious wars." The assertion, which cannot be proved, has been made that Pope Adrian I had called upon Charlemagne to convert the Saxons by force. Charlemagne's campaigns were intended mainly to punish the Saxons for their annual marauding expeditions to the Rhine, in which they burned churches and monasteries, killed the priests, and sacrificed their prisoners of war to the gods. At the same time it is true that various measures taken by Charlemagne, as the execution of 4500 Saxons at Verden in 782 and the hard laws issued to the subjugated, were shortsighted and cruel.

It was believed that if peace was to be permanent the overthrow of the Saxons must be accompanied by their conversion to Christianity. The work of converting Saxony was given to St. Sturmi, who was on terms of friendship with Charlemagne, and the monks of the monastery of Fulda founded by Sturmi. Among the successful missionaries were also St. Willehad, the first Bishop of Bremen, and his Anglo-Saxon companions. After St. Sturmi's death (779) the country of the Saxons was divided into missionary districts, and each of these placed under a Frankish bishop. Parishes were established within the old judicial districts. With the generous aid of Charlemagne and his nobles large numbers of churches and monasteries were founded, and as soon as peace and quiet had been re-established in the different districts, permanent dioceses were founded.

Although the opposition in Saxon territories to Christian teaching had been obstinate only a few decades before, the Saxons grew accustomed to the new system.

The Medieval Duchy of Saxony (880–1356)

When the Frankish kingdom was divided by the Treaty of Verdun (843) the territory east of the Rhine became the East Frankish Kingdom, from which the present Germany has developed. A strong central authority was lacking during the reigns of the weak East Frankish kings of the Carolingian dynasty. Each German tribe was forced to rely upon itself for defence against the incursions of the Norsemen from the north and of the Slavs from the east, consequently the tribes once more chose dukes as rulers. The first Saxon duke was Otto the Illustrious (880-912) of the Liudolfinger line (descendants of Liudolf); Otto was able to extend his power over Thuringia. Otto's son Henry was elected King of Germany (919-936); Henry is justly called the real founder of the German Empire. His son Otto I (936-973) was the first German king to receive from the pope the imperial Roman crown (962). Otto I was followed as king and emperor by his son Otto II (973-983), who was succeeded by his son Otto III (983-1002); both the kings last mentioned vainly endeavoured to establish German authority in Italy. The line of Saxon emperors expired with Henry II (1002–1024), who was canonized in 1146. Henry I had been both King of Germany and Duke of Saxony at the same time. Mainly for the sake of his ducal possessions he had carried on a long and difficult struggle with the Slavs on the eastern boundary of his country. The Emperor Otto I was also for the greater part of his reign Duke of Saxony. Otto I brought the Slavonic territory on the right bank of the Elbe and Saale under German supremacy and Christian civilization. He divided the region he had acquired into several margravates, the most important being: the North Mark, out of which in the course of time the Kingdom of Prussia developed, and the Margraviate of Meissen, from which sprang the Kingdom of Saxony. Each mark was divided into districts, not only for military and political purposes but also for ecclesiastical: the central point of each district was a fortified castle. The first churches built near these castles were plain buildings of wood or rubble-stone.

Otto I laid the basis of the organization of the Church in this territory by making the chief fortified places which he established in the different marks the sees of dioceses. The Byzantine emperors also aided much in bringing to Christianity the great Slavonic people, the Poles, who lived on the right bank of the Oder, as for a time the Polish country was under German suzerainty. The beginnings of Christian civilization among the Slavs were largely destroyed by the Slavonic rebellions in the years 980 and 1060. In 960 Otto I had transferred the ducal authority over Saxony to a Count Hermann, who had distinguished himself in the struggle with the Slavs, and the ducal title became hereditary in Count Hermann's family. This old Duchy of Saxony, as it is called in distinction from the Duchy of Saxe-Wittenberg, became the centre of the opposition of the German princes to the imperial power during the era of the Franconian or Salian emperors. With the death of Duke Magnus in 1106 the Saxon ducal family, frequently called the Billung line, became extinct. The Emperor Henry V (1106–25) gave the Duchy of Saxony in fief to Count Lothair of Supplinburg, who in 1125 became King of Germany, and at his death (1137) transferred the Duchy of Saxony to his son-in-law, Duke Henry the Proud, of the princely family of the Welf (Guelph). The hundred years of war waged by the family of Guelph with the Hohenstaufen emperors is famous in history. The son of Henry the Proud (died 1139) was Henry the Lion (died 1195), who extended German authority and Christianity into the present Mecklenburg and Pomerania, and re-established Christianity in the territories devastated by the Slavonic revolts. Henry the Lion refused to aid the Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa in his campaign against the cities of Lombardy in 1176, consequently in 1180 the ban of the empire was proclaimed against Henry at Würzburg, and 1181 the old Duchy of Saxony was cut up at the Diet of Gelnhausen into many small portions. The greater share of its western portion was given, as the Duchy of Westphalia, to the Archbishop of Cologne. The Saxon bishops, who had before this possessed sovereign authority in their territories, though under the suzerainty of the Duke of Saxony, gained imperial immediacy subject only to the imperial government;[2] the case was the same with a large number of secular countships and cities.

The Diet of Gelnhausen is of much importance in the history of Germany. The Emperor Frederick executed here a great legal act. Yet the splitting up of the extensive country of the Saxons into a large number of principalities subject only to the imperial government was one of the causes of the system of petty states which proved so disadvantageous to Germany in its later history. The territory of the old duchy never again bore the name of Saxony; the large western part acquired the name of Westphalia. However, as regards customs and peculiarities of speech, the designation Lower Saxony was still in existence for the districts on the lower Elbe, that is, the northern part of the Province of Saxony, Hanover, Hamburg, etc., in distinction from Upper Saxony, that is, the Kingdom of Saxony, and Thuringia. From the era of the conversion of the Saxons up to the revolt of the 16th century, a rich religious life was developed in the territory included in the medieval Duchy of Saxony. Art, learning, poetry, and the writing of history reached a high degree of perfection in the many monasteries. Among the most noted places of learning were the cathedral and monastery schools of Corvey, Hildesheim, Paderborn, and Münster. This era produced architecturally fine churches of the Romanesque style that are still in existence, as the cathedrals of Goslar, Soest, and Brunswick, the chapel of St. Bartholomew at Paderborn, the collegiate churches at Quedlinburg, Königslutter, Gernrode, etc. Hildesheim, which contains much Romanesque work, has especially fine churches of this style. The cathedrals at Naumburg, Paderborn, Münster, and Osnabrück are striking examples of the Transition period. Only a few of these buildings still belong to the Catholic Church.

Electorate of Saxony (1356–1806)

After the dissolution of the medieval Duchy of Saxony, the name Saxony was first applied to a small part of the duchy situated on the Elbe around the city of Wittenberg. When in 1356 the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV issued the Golden Bull, the fundamental law of the empire which settled the method of electing the emperor, the Duchy of Saxe-Wittenberg was made one of the seven electorates and promoted to become the Electorate of Saxony. This lent influence out of proportion to the small area of the state. In addition, electoral status required succession based on primogeniture, which precluded the division of the territory among several heirs and the consequent disintegration of the country.

August II in foreground, August III behind

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century began under the protection of the electors of Saxony — in 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses at the castle church of Wittenberg. The electorate remained a focal point of religious strife throughout the Reformation and to the subsequent Thirty Years' War.

Following the Thirty Years' War, Saxony's rulers and people were Lutheran and, although with ascension of Frederick Augustus II the rulers were once again Roman Catholic, the population remained Protestant.

In 1756, Saxony joined the coalition of Austria, France and Russia against Prussia. Frederick II of Prussia chose to attack preemptively and invaded Saxony in August 1756, precipitating the Seven Years' War. The Prussians quickly defeated Saxony and incorporated the Saxon army into the Prussian army. They made the mistake of keeping their units intact rather than mixing them up. Whole Saxon units deserted. At the end of the Seven Years' War, Saxony once again became an independent state.

When in 1806 Napoleon I's French Empire began a war with Prussia, Saxony at first allied itself to Prussia, but afterwards joined Napoleon and entered the Confederation of the Rhine and the electorate became the Kingdom of Saxony with Elector Frederick Augustus III becoming King Frederick Augustus I.

The Kingdom of Saxony (1806–1918)

Kingdom of Saxony in 1895

The new kingdom was an ally of France in all the Frederick Augustus III. Prince Maximilian (born 1870), a brother of the present king, became a priest in 1896, was engaged in parish work in London and Nuremberg, and since 1900 has been a professor of canon law and liturgy in the University of Freiburg in Switzerland. The Kingdom of Saxony is the fifth state of the German Empire in area and third in population; in 1905 the average population per square mile was 778.8. Saxony is the most densely peopled state of the empire, and indeed of all Europe; the reason is the very large immigration on account of the development of manufactures. In 1910 the population amounted to 5,302,485; of whom 218,033 were Catholics; 4,250,398 Evangelical Lutherans; 14,697 Jews; and a small proportion of other denominations. The Catholic population of Saxony owes its present numbers largely to immigration during the 19th century. Catholicism that can be traced back to the period before the Reformation is found only in one section, the governmental department of Bautzen. Even here there is no continuous Catholic district, but there are a number of villages where the population is almost entirely Catholic, and two cities (Ostritz and Schirgiswalde) where Catholics are in the majority. It should also be mentioned that about 1.5 of the inhabitants of Saxony consists of the remains of a Slavonic tribe called by the Germans Wends, and in their own language "Serbjo". These Wends, who number about 120,000 persons and live in Saxon and Prussian Lusatia, are entirely surrounded by a German population; consequently owing to German influence the Wendic language, manners, and customs are gradually disappearing. About 50,000 Wends live in the Kingdom of Saxony; of these about 12,000 belong to the Catholic Church; some fifty Wendic villages are entirely Catholic. There is also a large Wendic population in the city of Bautzen, where among 30,000 inhabitants 7,000 are Wends.

After 1918

Saxony in 1930

After 1918 Saxony was a state in the Weimar Republic and was the scene of Gustav Stresemann's overthrow of the KPD/SPD led government in 1923. It continued to exist during the Nazi era and under Soviet occupation. It was dissolved in 1952, and divided into three smaller 'Bezirke' based on Leipzig, Dresden and Karl-Marx-Stadt, but reestablished within slightly altered borders in 1990 upon German reunification. Today the Free State of Saxony also includes a small part of former prussian Silesia around the town of Görlitz which remained German after the war and which for obvious reasons of unviability as a separate state was incorporated into Saxony. This part had been part of Silesia only after 1815 and belonged as part of Upper Lusatia to Bohemia before 1623 and previously to Saxony between 1623 and 1815.

The Prussian province of Saxony

The province had an area of 9,746 square miles (25,240 km2), and in 1905 had 2,979,221 inhabitants. Of its population 230,860 (7.8%) were Catholic, 2,730,098 (91%) were Protestant; 9981 hold other forms of Christian faith, and 8050 were Jews. During the summer months about 15,000 to 20,000 Catholic labourers, called Sachsengänger, came into the country; they were Poles from the Prussian Province of Posen, from Russian Poland, or Galicia. The province was divided into the three government departments of Magdeburg, Merseburg, and Erfurt. The Prussian Province of Saxony was formed in 1815 from the territories, about 8,100 square miles (21,000 km2) in extent, ceded by the Kingdom of Saxony, with the addition of some districts already belonging to Prussia, the most important of which are the Altmark, from which the State of Prussia sprang; the former immediate principalities of the Archbishop of Magdeburg and of the Bishop of Halberstadt, which Prussia had received by the Peace of Westphalia (1648) at the close of the Thirty Years' War; and the Eichsfeld, with the city of Erfurt and its surroundings. Up to 1802 the Eichsfeld and Erfurt had belonged to the principality of the Archbishop of Mainz; a large of the population had, therefore, retained the Catholic Faith during the Reformation. As regards ecclesiastical affairs the Province of Saxony had been assigned to the Diocese of Paderborn by the papal bull De salute animarum of 16 July 1821. The province contained three ecclesiastical administrative divisions: the episcopal commissariat of Magdeburg that embraced the entire governmental department of Magdeburg and consisted of four deaneries and 25 parishes; the "ecclesiastical Court" of Erfurt, which included the governmental Department of Merseburg and the eastern half of the governmental Department of Erfurt; and consisted of 2 deaneries (Halle and Erfurt) and 28 parishes; the episcopal commissariat of Heiligenstadt, which embraceed the western half of the governmental department of Erfurt, that is called the Upper Eichsfeld, and consisted of 16 deaneries and 129 parishes.

In those parts of the governmental Department of Magdeburg which belonged originally to the former Archdiocese of Magdeburg and the Diocese of Halberstadt all Catholic life was not entirely destroyed during the Reformation. Besides fourteen monasteries that continued in existence, there were in Halberstadt a number of benefices in connexion with the cathedral and the collegiate Church of Sts. Peter and Paul. As the entire native population had become Protestant these monasteries were only maintained by the immigration of Catholics who, from the time of the Treaty of Westphalia, though in small numbers, steadily came into the country; thus there arose around the monasteries small Catholic communities. The monasteries were all suppressed during the great secularization of the beginning of the 19th century, and thirteen parishes were formed, for which the State provided a fund from a part of the property of the monasteries. The other parishes in the governmental Department of Magdeburg were created after the middle of the 19th century, when, in consequence of the development of the manufacture of sugar, increasing numbers of Catholics came into the country; the St. Boniface Association gave the money to found these parishes.

See also


  1. ^ See pages 182 and 183 of Turner (1852).
  2. ^ Thus the Saxon (arch)bishops turned into prince-(arch)bishops, such as the Prince-Archbishops of Bremen and Magdeburg, and the prince-bishops of Halberstadt, Lübeck, Ratzeburg, Schwerin as well as Verden etc.


  • Turner, Sharon: The History of the Anglo-Saxons, From the Earliest Period to the Norman Conquest, Vol. i. (London, 1852).
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