Westfalen was named after one of the three main Saxon tribes that ruled the area. In the early Middle Ages, the term was used for all of Saxony west of the River Weser. Despite this long tradition, it has never been a governing unit. The Kingdom of Westphalia was established by Napoleon for his brother; this consisted mostly of Hesse, and part of the historic province today has been transferred to Lower Saxony.

There are three distinct parts of Westfalen - Münsterland to the north, the rural Sauerland and Siegerland to the south, and the eastern area incorporating most of what was formerly known as The Principality of Lippe.

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