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Our ancestors

By September 9, 2014February 18th, 2021No Comments

BY THE LATER fourth century the Saxons were famed as fierce sea-raiders, whose name long continued to frighten people on the coast of the western seas. Sidonius Apollinaris, a bishop in Gaul, speaks of the ‘blue-eyed Saxon, Lord of the Seas’, and about AD 460 he writes to an admiral friend of his, saying that a courier had just come in, ‘who is very positive about your weighing anchor and coasting the western shores in your half-military half-naval duties, on the lookout for the curved ships of the Saxons, in every oarsman of which you think you detect an arch-pirate. Captains and crews alike, they all teach or learn the art of brigandage; so let me strongly caution you to be always on the watch. The Saxon is the most ferocious of foes. Without warning, he bears down; when you expect his attack, he sheers off. To fight only stirs his contempt; a rash opponent is soon down. If he chases, he catches you up; if he runs, you never catch him. Shipwrecks don’t scare him; they’re just so much training. His is no nodding acquaintance with sea-perils; he knows them as he knows himself. A storm puts his enemies off guard and prevents them from noting his preparations. The chance of a surprise makes him gladly face every hazard of wild waters and jagged rocks.’ On the homeward journey the Saxons cast lots among their prisoners and threw every tenth man overboard as a sacrifice, presumably to the sea.

They do not appear in the account of the Germans written by the Roman historian Tacitus in AD 98; but not long afterwards a geographer sets them in what is now Holstein, with Frisians to their west past the river Ems and along the shore to the Rhine mouths. The Saxons spread south and seem to have held the land between the Elbe and the Weser. To meet their piratical attacks, the Romans built up a Channel fleet and created a system of coastal defences all round south-east England, which they called the Saxon Shore. Excavations in the terpen, man made mounds, along the shores of north Holland have shown much Saxon intrusion among the Frisians in the first half of the fifth century. The Angles (Engle in Old English), who gave us the name of England, were known to Tacitus as a group of seven tribes worshipping a goddess on an island sanctuary; they seem to have inhabited the south of Jutland.

The Anglo-Saxon Bede in the early eighth century took great care in collecting his people’s traditions. He describes the invaders of Britain as Saxons, Angles, and Jutes: whom he calls the three most powerful nations of Germany.

‘From the Jutes are descended the people of Kent, and of the Isle of Wight, and those also in the province of the West-Saxons who are to this day called Jutes, seated opposite the Isle of Wight. From the Saxons – that is, from the country now called Old Saxony – came the East-Saxons, the South-Saxons, and the West-Saxons. From the Angles – that is, the country called Anglia, which is said to stay deserted from that time to this day, between the provinces of the Jutes and the Saxons – are descended the East-Angles, the Midland-Angles, Mercians, all the race of the Northumbrians (that is, of those nations that dwell on the north side of the Humber), and the other nations of the English.’

Lindsay J, Our Anglo-Saxon Heritage, 1965, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pp 1-3