The Saxons were a key part of the history of Great Britain, establishing themselves in the 5th Century. Did the Saxons and the Romans ever fight?
There was no significant military conflict between the Saxons and Romans in Britain. The Saxons often raided the coast of Roman Britain, but some were allowed to settle peacefully. There was a battle between Italian Saxons and Gallo-Romans in Gaul, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
For more on the history of the Saxons and their relationship with Rome, read on.
The group that came to be known as the Saxons were once members of various tribes in what became northern Germany. They were known to the Romans, who were frequently raided by Saxon tribes.
Their greatest impact would be felt in Great Britain. The island, particularly England, had been under Roman control for centuries, occasionally falling to invasion but usually quickly recovered.
As the Western Roman Empire declined throughout the centuries, Britain became largely separated from the rest of Roman society. Its leaders remained Roman, however, resulting in a period known as “Sub-Roman Britain”, owing to its heavy influence from Rome.
Saxon raiders had been raiding Britain’s coast for centuries, sailing from continental Europe to take from the eastern and southern shores. In response, the Romans constructed a number of forts along the coast, which they called the “Litora Saxonica” or “Saxon Shore”.
Conflict between Saxons and Romans in Britain was limited to these small skirmishes but the Roman response showed that they considered Saxon raids to be a significant problem. However, not all interaction between the Romans and Saxons was aggressive.
By the time the Romans left Britain permenently, they had allowed a number of people to settle on coastal farmland. This included Saxons, who had sailed from the continent.
The Western Roman Empire collapsed entirely in the 5th Century and Britannia was isolated from what was once a mighty and protective civilization. The Romans eventually left the island and never returned.
What happened next during the “Dark Ages” has largely been passed down through oral tradition. The absence of the Romans had left England vulnerable to conquest by a number of bordering powers, including the Gaels in Ireland and Western Scotland, and the Picts in Northern Scotland.
Vortigern, a British warlord whose mere existence is hotly debated by scholars, is supposed to have granted land to the Saxons if they agreed to defend England as mercenaries. Over time, their territory and numbers grew until Germanic migrants became the dominant group in England.
Whatever the truth, the Saxons, many of whom had already migrated to Britain from the continent, quickly spread across the island. This created a group of people known as the Anglo-Saxons, a group descended from the Germanic tribesmen who initially crossed the channel to populate Britain.
The Anglo-Saxons embraced Christianity and, as numbers grew, regions gradually turned into formal kingdoms. There were four major Saxon realms in England in the middle ages: Wessex, Sussex, Essex and Middlesex; their names corresponded to the regions in which they were located.
King Alfred of Wessex declared himself “King of the Anglo-Saxons” and unified much of what is now England. His territory spread across Mercia, then Danelaw and Northumbria, arguably making him the first King of England. For his efforts, he became known as “Alfred the Great”, the only ruler of Britain granted this name.
Conflict in Gaul
The most significant military conflict between the Saxons and Romans came after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. A number of Saxons were allied with the Lombards, another Germanic group, and settled in northern Italy.
When these Italian Saxons raised Gaul, now France, they were repelled by Mummolus, a Gallo-Roman general. While Mummolus and his soldiers represented a remnant of the Romans, not the great power they had once been, they displayed the military effectiveness that had been associated with Rome for centuries.
Mummolus agreed to let the Saxons settle in a region then called Austrasia. They returned to Italy to gather their belongings and family but looted the territory before leaving. In response, Mummolus made the raiders pay compensation before allowing them to continue to their new territory.
Though the Saxons replaced the Romans as the most powerful group in Britain, influence from Rome did not end. In the 9th Century, Frankish kings kings converted many Anglo-Saxons to Roman Catholicism, leading to it becoming the main religion in Britain for centuries.