Lower Saxony (German: Niedersachsen [ˈniːdɐzaksn̩] (listen); Low German: Neddersassen) is a German state (Land) situated in northwestern Germany. It is the second-largest state by land area, with 47,624 km2 (18,388 sq mi), and fourth-largest in population (7.9 million) among the 16 Länder federated as the Federal Republic of Germany. In rural areas, Northern Low Saxon (a dialect of Low German) and Saterland Frisian (a variety of the Frisian language) are still spoken, but the number of speakers is declining.
Lower Saxony borders on (from north and clockwise) the North Sea, the states of Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia, Hesse and North Rhine-Westphalia, and the Netherlands (Drenthe, Groningen and Overijssel). Furthermore, the state of Bremen forms two enclaves within Lower Saxony, one being the city of Bremen, the other, its seaport city of Bremerhaven. In fact, Lower Saxony borders more neighbours than any other single Bundesland. The state’s principal cities include the state capital Hanover, Braunschweig (Brunswick), Lüneburg, Osnabrück, Oldenburg, Hildesheim, Wolfenbüttel, Wolfsburg, and Göttingen.
The northwestern area of Lower Saxony, which lies on the coast of the North Sea, is called East Frisia and the seven East Frisian Islands offshore are popular with tourists. In the extreme west of Lower Saxony is the Emsland, a traditionally poor and sparsely populated area, once dominated by inaccessible swamps. The northern half of Lower Saxony, also known as the North German Plains, is almost invariably flat except for the gentle hills around the Bremen geestland. Towards the south and southwest lie the northern parts of the German Central Uplands: the Weser Uplands and the Harz mountains. Between these two lie the Lower Saxon Hills, a range of low ridges. Thus, Lower Saxony is the only Bundesland that encompasses both maritime and mountainous areas.
Lower Saxony’s major cities and economic centres are mainly situated in its central and southern parts, namely Hanover, Braunschweig, Osnabrück, Wolfsburg, Salzgitter, Hildesheim, and Göttingen. Oldenburg, near the northwestern coastline, is another economic centre. The region in the northeast is called the Lüneburg Heath (Lüneburger Heide), the largest heathland area of Germany and in medieval times wealthy due to salt mining and salt trade, as well as to a lesser degree the exploitation of its peat bogs until about the 1960s. To the north, the Elbe River separates Lower Saxony from Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Brandenburg. The banks just south of the Elbe are known as Altes Land (Old Country). Due to its gentle local climate and fertile soil, it is the state’s largest area of fruit farming, its chief produce being apples.
Most of the state’s territory was part of the historic Kingdom of Hanover; the state of Lower Saxony has adopted the coat of arms and other symbols of the former kingdom. It was created by the merger of the State of Hanover with three smaller states on 1 November 1946.
The name of Saxony derives from that of the Germanic tribe of the Saxons. Before the late medieval period, there was a single Duchy of Saxony. The term “Lower Saxony” was used after the dissolution of the stem duchy in the late 13th century to disambiguate the parts of the former duchy ruled by the House of Welf from the Electorate of Saxony on one hand, and from the Duchy of Westphalia on the other.
The Duchy of Saxony around 1000
The name and coat of arms of the present state go back to the Germanic tribe of Saxons. During the Migration Period some of the Saxon peoples left their homeland in Holstein about the 3rd century and pushed southwards over the Elbe, where they expanded into the sparsely populated regions in the rest of the lowlands, in the present-day Northwest Germany and the northeastern part of what is now the Netherlands. From about the 7th century the Saxons had occupied a settlement area that roughly corresponds to the present state of Lower Saxony, of Westphalia and a number of areas to the east, for example, in what is now west and north Saxony-Anhalt. The land of the Saxons was divided into about 60 Gaue. The Frisians had not moved into this region; for centuries they preserved their independence in the most northwesterly region of the present-day Lower Saxon territory. The original language of the folk in the area of Old Saxony was West Low German, one of the varieties of language in the Low German dialect group.
Imperial circles at the start of the 16th century. Red: the Lower Saxon Circle, light brown: the Lower Rhenish-Westphalian Circle
The establishment of permanent boundaries between what later became Lower Saxony and Westphalia began in the 12th century. In 1260, in a treaty between the Archbishopric of Cologne and the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg the lands claimed by the two territories were separated from each other. The border ran along the Weser to a point north of Nienburg. The northern part of the Weser-Ems region was placed under the rule of Brunswick-Lüneburg.
The word Niedersachsen was first used before 1300 in a Dutch rhyming chronicle (Reimchronik). From the 14th century it referred to the Duchy of Saxe-Lauenburg (as opposed to Saxe-Wittenberg). On the creation of the imperial circles in 1500, a Lower Saxon Circle was distinguished from a Lower Rhenish–Westphalian Circle. The latter included the following territories that, in whole or in part, belong today to the state of Lower Saxony: the Bishopric of Osnabrück, the Bishopric of Münster, the County of Bentheim, the County of Hoya, the Principality of East Frisia, the Principality of Verden, the County of Diepholz, the County of Oldenburg, the County of Schaumburg and the County of Spiegelberg. At the same time a distinction was made with the eastern part of the old Saxon lands from the central German principalities later called Upper Saxony for dynastic reasons. (see also → Electorate of Saxony, History of Saxony).
The close historical links between the domains of the Lower Saxon Circle now in modern Lower Saxony survived for centuries especially from a dynastic point of view. The majority of historic territories whose land now lies within Lower Saxony were sub-principalities of the medieval, Welf estates of the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg. All the Welf princes called themselves dukes “of Brunswick and Lüneburg” despite often ruling parts of a duchy that was forever being divided and reunited as various Welf lines multiplied or died out.