Duchy of Saxony
(and the Palatinate of Saxony)
Left: Arms of Ascanians (from around 1000), who ruled the Duchy of Saxony last
Right: Coat of arms of the Palatinate of Saxony (institutied in the southern part of the duchy)
Attributed arms of the Duchy of Saxony
Attributed arms of the Duchy of Saxony
The Saxon Steed[Note 1]
Saxony around 1000 CE, within the German Kingdom
Saxony around 1000 CE, within the German Kingdom
CapitalNone (ducal)
Allstedt (seat of the Palatinate)
Official languagesLatin
Common languagesOld Saxon
Middle Low German
Roman Catholic (official)
Germanic paganism
GovernmentFeudal Duchy
Historical eraMiddle Ages
• Conquest of Charlemagne
• Welf ascendancy
• Expanded by conquest
• Welfs deposed, Ascanians enfeoffed with severely belittled duchy
• John I and Albert II co-rulers
• Competences divided
1269, 1272 and 1282
• Definite partition into Saxe-Lauenburg and Saxe-Wittenberg
• Wittenberg Ascanian line extinct; reunification failed

Preceded by
Succeeded by
Old Saxony
Today part ofGermany

The Duchy of Saxony (Low German: Hartogdom Sassen, German: Herzogtum Sachsen) was originally the area settled by the Saxons in the late Early Middle Ages, when they were subdued by Charlemagne during the Saxon Wars from 772 and incorporated into the Carolingian Empire (Francia) by 804. Upon the 843 Treaty of Verdun, Saxony was one of the five German stem duchies of East Francia; Duke Henry the Fowler was elected German king in 919.

Upon the deposition of the Welf duke Henry the Lion in 1180, the ducal title fell to the House of Ascania, while numerous territories split from Saxony, such as the Principality of Anhalt in 1218 and the Welf Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg in 1235. In 1296, the remaining lands were divided between the Ascanian dukes of Saxe-Lauenburg and Saxe-Wittenberg, the latter obtaining the title of Electors of Saxony by the Golden Bull of 1356.


Map showing the location of the three states, Lower Saxony in the northwest, Saxony-Anhalt in the center, and the Free State of Saxony in the southeast, within today's Germany

The Saxon stem duchy covered the greater part of present-day Northern Germany, including the modern German states (Länder) of Lower Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt up to the Elbe and Saale rivers in the east, the city-states of Bremen and Hamburg, the Westphalian part of North Rhine-Westphalia, and the Holstein region (Nordalbingia) of Schleswig-Holstein. In the late 12th century, Duke Henry the Lion also occupied the adjacent area of Mecklenburg (the former Billung March).

The Saxons were one of the most robust groups in the late tribal culture of the times, and eventually bequeathed their tribe's name to a variety of more and more modern geopolitical territories, such as Old Saxony (Altsachsen), Upper Saxony, the Electorate, the Prussian Province of Saxony (in present-day Saxony-Anhalt), and the Kingdom of Saxony, the latter corresponding with the German Free State of Saxony, which bears the name today, despite its territory not having been part of the medieval duchy (see map on the right).


Older stem duchy

Main articles: Old Saxony and Saxon Wars

According to the Res gestae saxonicae by tenth century chronicler Widukind of Corvey, the Saxons had arrived from Britannia at the coast of Land Hadeln in the Elbe-Weser Triangle, called by the Merovingian rulers of Francia to support the conquest of Thuringian kingdom, a seeming reversal of the English origin myth where Saxon tribes from the region, under the leadership of legendary brothers Hengist and Horsa, invade post-Roman Britannia. (see Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain).

The Royal Frankish Annals mention a 743 Frankish campaign led by the Carolingian Mayor of the Palace Carloman against the Saxons, followed by a second expedition together with his brother Pepin the Short the next year. In 747 their rebellious brother Grifo allied with Saxon tribes and temporarily conquered the stem duchy of Bavaria. Pepin, Frankish king from 750, again invaded Saxony and subdued several Westphalian tribes until 758.

In 772, Pepin's son Charlemagne started the final conquest of the Saxon lands. Though his ongoing campaigns were successful, he had to deal with the fragmentation of the Saxon territories in Westphalian, Eastphalian, Angrian, and Nordalbingian tribes, demanding the conclusion of specific peace agreements with single tribes, which soon were to be broken by other clans. The Saxons devastated the Frankish stronghold at Eresburg; their leader (Herzog) Widukind refused to appear at the 777 diet at Paderborn, retired to Nordalbingia and afterwards led several uprisings against the occupants, avenged by Charlemagne at the Massacre of Verden in 782. Widukind allegedly had to pledge allegiance in 785, having himself baptised and becoming a Frankish count. Saxon uprisings continued until 804, when the whole stem duchy had been incorporated into the Carolingian Empire.

Afterwards, Saxony was ruled by Carolingian officials, e.g. Wala of Corbie (d. 836), a grandson of Charles Martel and cousin of the emperor, who in 811 fixed the Treaty of Heiligen with King Hemming of Denmark, defining the northern border of the Empire along the Eider River. Among the installed dukes were already nobles of Saxon descent, like Wala's successor Count Ekbert, husband of Saint Ida of Herzfeld, a close relative of Charlemagne.

Younger stem duchy

Stem duchies of the German kingdom 919–1125, by William R. Shepherd: Saxony in yellow, Franconia in blue, Bavaria in green, Swabia in light orange, Lower Lotharingia in dark pink, Upper Lotharingia in light pink, Thuringia in dark orange and Frisia in light orange

Ida of Herzfeld may have been an ancestor of the Saxon count Liudolf (d. 866), who married Oda of Billung and ruled over a large territory along the Leine river in Eastphalia, where he and Bishop Altfrid of Hildesheim founded Gandersheim Abbey in 852. Liudolf became the progenitor of the Saxon ducal, royal and imperial Ottonian dynasty; nevertheless his descendance, especially his affiliation with late Duke Widukind, has not been conclusively established.

Subdued only a few decades earlier, the Saxons rose to one of the leading tribes in East Francia; it is however uncertain if the Ottonians already held the ducal title in the ninth century. Liudolf's elder son Bruno (Brun), progenitor of the Brunswick cadet branch of the Brunonen, was killed in a battle with invading Vikings under Godfrid in 880. He was succeeded by his younger brother Otto the Illustrious (d. 912), mentioned as dux in the contemporary annals of Hersfeld Abbey, which, however, seems to have been denied by the Frankish rulers. His position was strong enough to wed Hedwiga of the Babenberg, daughter of mighty Duke Henry of Franconia, princeps militiae of King Charles the Fat. As all of Hedwiga's brothers were killed in the Franconian Babenberg feud with the rivalling Conradines, Otto was able to adopt the strong position of his father-in-law and to evolve the united Saxon duchy under his rule.

In 911, the East Frankish Carolingian dynasty went extinct with the death of King Louis the Child, whereafter the dukes of Saxony, Swabia and Bavaria met at Forchheim to elect the Conradine duke Conrad I of Franconia king. One year later, Otto's son Henry the Fowler succeeded his father as Duke of Saxony. According to the medieval chronicler Widukind of Corvey, King Conrad designated Henry his heir, thereby denying the succession of his own brother Eberhard of Franconia, and in 919 the Saxon duke was elected King of East Francia by the assembled Saxon and Franconian princes at Fritzlar. Henry was able to integrate the Swabian, Bavarian and Lotharingian duchies into the imperial federation, vital to handle the continuous attacks by Hungarian forces, whereby the Saxon troops about 928/929 occupied large territories in the east settled by Polabian Slavs. Henry's eastern campaigns to Brandenburg and Meissen, the establishment of Saxon marches as well as the surrender of Duke Wenceslaus of Bohemia marked the beginning of the German eastward expansion (Ostsiedlung).

House of Billung

Henry the Lion

Coat of arms of the House of Welf

In 1142, King Conrad III of Germany granted the ducal title to the Welf scion Henry the Lion (as Duke Henry III). Henry gradually extended his rule over northeastern Germany, leading crusades against the pagan Wends. During his reign, Henry massively supported to the development of the cities in his dominion, such as Brunswick, Lüneburg and Lübeck, a policy ultimately contributing to the movement of the House of Welf from its homelands in southern Germany to the north.

In 1152, Henry supported his cousin Frederick III of Swabia, to be elected King of Germany (as Frederick I Barbarossa), likely under the promise of granting the Duchy of Bavaria back to Henry. Henry's dominion now covered more than two thirds of Germany, from the Alps to the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, making him one of the mightiest rulers in central Europe, and thus also a potential threat for other German princes and even Barbarossa.

Welf possessions in the 12th century, showing the duchies of Saxony and Bavaria

To expand his rule, Henry continued to claim titles of lesser families, who left no legitimate heir. This policy caused unrest among many Saxon nobles and other German princes, first and foremost his father's old enemy, Albrecht the Bear. During Barbarossa's fourth Italian campaign in 1166, a league of German Nobles declared war on Henry. The war continued until 1170, despite several attempts of the Emperor to mediate. Ultimately, Henry's position remained unchallenged, due to Barbarossa's favourable rule.

In 1168, Henry married Matilda Plantagenêt, the daughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine and sister of Richard Lionheart.

The following years led to an estrangement between Barbarossa and Henry. Henry ceased to support the Emperor's Italy campaigns, which were all proven unsuccessful, as massively as he used to, and instead focused on his own possessions. In 1175 Barbarossa again asked for support against the Lombard League, which Henry is said to have refused bluntly, even though Barbarossa kneeled before him. Records of this event were not written until several years later, and sources are contradictory, depending on whom the author favoured. Nevertheless, lacking the support of the Saxons the following Battle of Legnano was a complete failure for the Emperor.

When the majority of the realm's princes had returned from Italy, Henry's refusal was instantly exploited to weaken his position. Views differ, whether Barbarossa initiated Henry's downfall or if it was orchestrated by the princes first and foremost.[1]

Between 1175 and 1181, Henry was charged with several accusations, such as violating the honour of the realm (honor imperii), breach of the peace, and treason. If he were to follow the summons to the Hoftag, Henry would've acknowledge the charges as rightful, and therefore refused all summons. In 1181, he was ultimately stripped of his titles. Unwilling to give up without a fight, Henry already had dealt the first blow in 1180 against the city of Goslar, which he had coveted for several years already. During the following war, Henry's domestic policy and the treatment of his vassals proved fatal, and his power quickly crumbled. In 1182, Henry the Lion ultimately went into Exile, joining the court of his father-in-law, Henry II of England. Following the death of his wife and also of the Emperor, the latter while participating in the Third Crusade, Henry returned to Brunswick in 1189 and briefly tried to regain the lost lands. After several setbacks, Henry made peace with Barbarossa's son and heir, King Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor.

The ancient stem duchy of Saxony was partitioned in some dozens of territories of imperial immediacy by Barbarossa, and ceased to exist. The western part was split amongsy several minor counties and bishoprics, as well as the newly formed Duchy of Westphalia. In the east, the Ascanians, the Welf's old rivals, finally gained a severely belittled Duchy of Saxony, occupying only the easternmost, comparably small, territories along the river Elbe around Lauenburg upon Elbe and around Wittenberg upon Elbe. Limiting the lands the Ascanians gained along with the ducal title to these eastern territories caused the migration of the name Saxony from north-western Germany to the location of the modern Free State of Saxony.

The deposed ducal House of Welf could maintain its allodial possessions, which did not remain as part of the Duchy of Saxony after the enfeoffment of the Ascanians. The Welf possessions were elevated to the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg (also Brunswick and Lunenburg) in 1235. This duchy continued to use the old Saxon coat-of-arms showing the Saxon Steed in argent on gules, while the Ascanians adopted for the younger Duchy of Saxony their family colours, a barry of ten, in sable and or, covered by a crancelin of rhombs bendwise in vert, symbolising the Saxon dukedom.

House of Ascania

Coat of arms of Ascanians, formerly Counts of Ballenstedt

In 1269, 1272, and 1282 the co-ruling brothers John I and Albert II gradually divided their governing competences within the then three territorially unconnected Saxon areas (Hadeln, Lauenburg, and Wittenberg), thus preparing a partition.

After John I had resigned in 1282 in favour of his three minor sons Eric I, John II and Albert III, followed by his death three years later, the three brothers and their uncle Albert II continued the joint rule in Saxony.

In 1288, Albert II applied to King Rudolph I for the enfeoffment of his son and heir Duke Rudolph I with the Palatinate of Saxony, which ensued a long lasting dispute with the eager clan of the House of Wettin. When the County of Brehna was reverted to the Empire after the extinction of its comital family, the king enfeoffed Duke Rudolph. In 1290, Albert II gained the County of Brehna and in 1295 the County of Gommern for Saxony. King Wenceslaus II of Bohemia succeeded in bringing Albert II in favour of electing Adolf of Germany, as new emperor (Albert II signed an elector pact on 29 November 1291 that he would vote the same as Wenceslaus). On April 27, 1292, Albert II, with his nephews still minor, wielded the Saxon electoral vote, electing Adolf of Germany.

The last document mentioning the joint government of Albert II with his nephews as Saxon fellow dukes dates back to 1295.[2] The definite partitioning of the Duchy of Saxony into Saxe-Lauenburg (German: Herzogtum Sachsen-Lauenburg), jointly ruled by the brothers Albert III, Eric I and John II, and Saxe-Wittenberg (German: Herzogtum Sachsen-Wittenberg), ruled by Albert II, took place before September 20, 1296. The Vierlande, Sadelbande (Land of Lauenburg), the Land of Ratzeburg, the Land of Darzing (today's Amt Neuhaus), and the Land of Hadeln are all mentioned as the separate territory of the brothers.[3] Albert II received Saxe-Wittenberg around the eponymous city and Belzig. Albert II thus became the founder of the Ascanian line of Saxe-Wittenberg.

Members of the Welf cadet branch House of Hanover later became prince-electors of the Hanover (as of 1692/1708), kings of Great Britain, Ireland (both 1714), the United Kingdom (1801), and the Hanover (1814).

Territories seceded from Saxony after 1180

A number of seceded territories even gained imperial immediacy, while others only changed their liege lord on the occasion. The following list includes states that existed in the territory of the former stem duchy in addition to the two legal successors of the stem duchy, the Ascanian Duchy of Saxony formed in 1296 centered around Wittenberg and Lauenburg, as well as the Duchy of Westphalia, held by the Archbishops of Cologne, that already split off in 1180.


Main article: Westphalia


Main article: Angria


Main article: Eastphalia


Main article: Nordalbingia

Dukes of Saxony

Main article: List of rulers of Saxony

See also


  1. ^ The horse as a heraldic charge associated with Saxony first appears in the late 14th century as an "old Saxon" motif. The horse motif was adopted by the House of Welf in 1361 and also been used in several provinces in Westphalia. Historian James Lloyd suggests that 'the Saxon Steed motif was invented in the 14th century… as a faux ancient symbol for the Saxons'. (see the whole article)


  1. ^ Knut Görich: Jäger des Löwen oder Getriebener der Fürsten? Friedrich Barbarossa und die Entmachtung Heinrichs des Löwen. In: Werner Hechberger, Florian Schuller (Hrsg.), Staufer & Welfen. Zwei rivalisierende Dynastien im Hochmittelalter. Regensburg 2009, S. 99–117.
  2. ^ Cordula Bornefeld, "Die Herzöge von Sachsen-Lauenburg", in: Die Fürsten des Landes: Herzöge und Grafen von Schleswig, Holstein und Lauenburg [De slevigske hertuger; German], Carsten Porskrog Rasmussen (ed.) on behalf of the Gesellschaft für Schleswig-Holsteinische Geschichte, Neumünster: Wachholtz, 2008, pp. 373-389, here p. 375. ISBN 978-3-529-02606-5
  3. ^ Cordula Bornefeld, "Die Herzöge von Sachsen-Lauenburg", in: Die Fürsten des Landes: Herzöge und Grafen von Schleswig, Holstein und Lauenburg [De slevigske hertuger; German], Carsten Porskrog Rasmussen (ed.) on behalf of the Gesellschaft für Schleswig-Holsteinische Geschichte, Neumünster: Wachholtz, 2008, pp. 373-389, here p. 375. ISBN 978-3-529-02606-5