Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Charlemagne's Saxon War: Religio-Cultural Elements, Part One

Charlemagne, king of the Franks and emperor of the Romans, fought a war of conquest and conversion against the pagan Saxons from 772 until 804. The thirty-two-year conflict ran through seventy percent of his reign; he was twenty-four when it began and fifty-six when it ended. This article will examine Charlemagne’s long-term efforts over this extended period to replace the pagan beliefs and social structures of the Saxons with Christian beliefs and Frankish rule.

Charlemagne by Albrecht Dürer

After brief surveys of primary sources used, early Carolingian-Saxon conflicts, material goals of the Frankish invasions, and Charlemagne’s religious motivation, this article provides a narrative of the Saxon war that focuses on religio-cultural elements. Emphasis is placed on five key events: the destruction of the Irminsul, the conflict with Widukind, the mass execution at Verden, the issue of the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniæ, and the forced relocation of the Saxon people.

The central argument proposed is that, over the long course of the war, Charlemagne increasingly sought a complete erasure of Saxon pagan identity.


The Royal Frankish Annals are arguably the prime primary source for the history of the Saxon war. They offer an official history covering the years 741 to 829, with events after around 790 written down contemporaneously. Additional material was added by a reviser between 814 and 817. Although plainly written in annual entries with no real reflection or meaningful commentary, the RFA provide a detailed account of the major events of the Saxon war from a Frankish perspective. It is unknown whether Charlemagne personally commissioned the annals, yet the encouragement of such a project fits with his promotion of historiography in general.

The annals were a source for Einhard, who wrote his Life of Charles the Emperor around 828. He was educated at the Fulda monastery founded by Saint Boniface, the martyred missionary who was of such symbolic importance to both the Christian Charlemagne and the pagan Saxons. Einhard became a member of Charlemagne’s court while in his early twenties. He served Charlemagne from the beginning of the 790s until the emperor’s death in 814, then remained in the court of Charlemagne’s son and successor Louis until the end of the 820s.

Like the RFA, Einhard’s Life provides a courtly and contemporary perspective on the age of the Saxon war. Einhard states that his work combines his own eyewitness testimony “along with the common reports of other writers.” Although Einhard is often inattentive to detail, muddles basic facts, mixes up individuals with similar names, and imports information from classical authors, he at least seems to have not simply fabricated material. His courtly audience included many survivors of Charlemagne’s day who would have recognized outright fantasy.

Notker Balbulus, author of The Deeds of Emperor Charles the Great, was born in 840 and given to the monastery of Saint Gall as a child oblate. He was neither a member of the royal court nor an eyewitness to the events he describes. However, the section of the Deeds dealing with Charlemagne’s military conquests is based on the oral testimony of one Adalbert, who served in the Saxon war with Gerold, brother of Charlemagne’s wife Hildegard.

Notker Balbulus in an 11th-century manuscript

The anonymous Corvey monk known as the Saxon Poet is yet farther removed from the events of the Saxon War. His Life of Charles the Great was written between 888 and 891. Although the poem is largely based on Einhard and the annals, the poet does add some additional details.

More than eighty years after the end of the conflict, the Saxon Poet is thankful to Charlemagne for conquering and converting his forefathers. However, some sense of Saxon self shows up when the poet departs from his Frankish sources; he places more emphasis on distinguishing between the various tribal subsets of Saxons, portrays some of Charlemagne’s incursions into Saxony as pre-emptive strikes that were not motivated by actual Saxon attacks, and elaborates on the effects Charlemagne’s post-795 scorched earth policy had on the Saxon people.


The Saxons appear in the third entry of the Royal Frankish Annals. Charlemagne’s uncle Carloman invaded Saxony and forced the submission of the Saxon leader Theodoric in 743 and (with the aid of Charlemagne’s father Pepin) in 744. Pepin himself led forces into Saxony in 747, 753 and 758.

The annals provide no explanation for the invasions and list no initial incendiary action by the Saxons, although material motivation is implied by the statement that, after the 758 Frankish incursion, the Saxons “promised Pepin to obey all his orders and to present as gifts at his assembly up to three hundred horses every year.” Throughout this period, a non-pacified Saxony provided a steady source of income in the form of raided plunder and large annual tribute payments. While reports of these early conflicts mention some religious elements (missionary work and baptism by the Franks, church burnings by the Saxons), their role is minute compared to what was to come under Charlemagne.

Pepin by Louis-Félix Amiel

Charlemagne’s unrelenting offensives against neighboring peoples have been explained as “a means to provide the king with sufficient funds to reward his vassals and to compensate for the meager resources and inadequate revenues of his kingdom.” In 774, two years after his first invasion of Saxon territory, one of Charlemagne’s four attacking detachments is said to have “returned home with much booty.” Later campaigns continued to siphon Saxon wealth into Frankish hands.

The Saxon Poet makes Charlemagne seem something of a pirate in a passage reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s description of the Viking raid on Lindisfarne: “he sent a threefold army into [the Saxons’] regions, and sorely afflicted the people by much slaughter and plundering. After devastating many places he withdrew as victor, laden with spoils.” Altogether, the Saxon lands he worked so hard to conquer were eighteen times larger than the Wessex that Alfred defended from the Vikings; through his conquests, Charlemagne nearly doubled the size of the lands inherited from his father.


However, treasure and land were not the sole motivation for the conquering king who wore a sword with a “cross-shaped hilt at the ready for attacking pagans.” The Saxon Poet calls him “a teacher of faith” who came to the Saxons “to save them against their will.”

A text on the life of Saint Liborius written between 887 and 909 states that Charlemagne “preached to the Saxons with an iron tongue,” perhaps echoing Notker’s striking image of the conquering “iron Charles” riding down his enemies: “helmeted in iron, armed with iron gloves, his iron chest and broad shoulders safe in an iron breastplate… ‘Oh, the iron; alas the iron’: the bewildered wail of the citizens sounded forth.”

Charlemagne by D.J. Pound

In 775, the original RFA entry simply describes another Saxon raid by Charlemagne with no motivation given. The revised RFA, however, states that he “decided to attack the treacherous and treaty-breaking tribe of the Saxons and to persist in this war until they were either defeated and forced to accept the Christian religion or entirely exterminated.” This determination is something quite different from territorial expansionism and gathering of wealth.

The religious nature of the Saxon war goes beyond the “with God’s help” trope repeated to the point of banality in the RFA. Charlemagne saw himself as a new Constantine, emulating the first Christian emperor by naming a Frankish stronghold Karlsburg after himself, as the earlier emperor had done with Constantinople. To his consternation, the eponymous stronghold was destroyed by the pagan Saxons rebelling under the leadership of Widukind.

In Einhard’s Life, the Saxons are the only non-Christian people whose religious beliefs are discussed. The biographer introduces them by stating that the Saxons, “like almost all the peoples who live in Germany, were ferocious by nature, devoted to the cult of demons, hostile to our religion, and did not consider it shameful to transgress divine or human laws.” Einhard’s assertion that the Saxons were demon-worshipers parallels the eight-century Old Saxon baptismal vow used by those who converted to Christianity: “I renounce all the words and works of the devil, Thunaer, Woden and Saxnot, and all those demons who are their companions.”

Along with this demonization of Saxon religion, Einhard sets out the trope of Saxon dual disobedience of sacred and secular law, an idea that pervades contemporary portrayal of the Saxon war. Unlike the RFA, Einhard gives Charlemagne a clear motive for his first offensive against the Saxons by asserting that the Saxons provoked the war: “Murder, robbery, and arson never ceased on either side [of the Frank-Saxon border]. The Franks were so irritated by these incidents that they decided the time had come to stop responding to individual incidents and to open a full-scale war against the Saxons.”

Despite Einhard’s description of a reasonable defensive action taken by the Franks, the first action against the Saxons was of an overtly religious nature.


In 772, Charlemagne’s destruction of a major sacred space of the Saxons was the opening sortie of the Saxon war. The RFA report his actions:
Capturing the castle of Eresburg, he proceeded as far as the Irminsul, destroyed this idol and carried away the gold and silver which he found. A great drought occurred so that there was no water in the place where the Irminsul stood. The glorious king wished to remain there two or three days in order to destroy the temple completely, but they had no water. Suddenly at noon, through the grace of God, while the army rested and nobody knew what was happening, so much water poured forth in a stream that the whole army had enough.
The destruction of the Saxon sanctuary was enough of an event for news of it to fairly quickly travel as far as England. In 783, the Anglo-Saxon abbot Eanwulf sent Charlemagne a letter congratulating him for his victory over the pagans and his demolition of the religious site.

"Charlemagne Destroys the Irminsul" by Hermann Wislicenus

The name Irminsûl means “gigantic pillar” in Old Saxon. Rudolf of Fulda described the Irminsul as “universis columna, quasi sustinens omnia” (“pillar of the universe which, as it were, supports all things”), but he was writing in 860, eighty-eight years after the event. He was also prone to cribbing descriptions of Saxon religion from the first-century Roman writer Tacitus.

The Saxon Poet writes that the Irminsul “was fashioned in the form of a huge column and contained a corresponding wealth of adornment,” but his account was written nearly 120 years after the destruction of the site. Such later sources must be treated with caution; sources contemporary with the Saxon war do not clarify whether the Irminsul was a carved column or a natural tree.

As in the entries on Carloman and Pepin’s incursions into Saxony, no initial Saxon strike is mentioned; Charlemagne simply initiates the decades-long war by invading Saxon territory to destroy and plunder a religious sanctuary. The wealth benefit incurred by stealing the site’s votive treasures seems secondary. The reason given for Charlemagne’s extended stay at the site is to completely demolish what must have been a substantial pagan temple, not to search for more treasure.

The destruction of the Irminsul and the plundering of the temple treasure represent a radical break with past Carolingian policy. The wealth of the site was likely well known, and the shrine’s location near Eresburg would have been easily accessible by Charlemagne’s predecessors during their raids on Saxon lands. However, neither Carloman nor Pepin had sent troops to plunder it. The fact that Charlemagne destroyed the religious site left intact by earlier Frankish leaders marks the beginning a new strategy of engagement with the Saxons.

A sense of holy war hovers over the scene, as the annalist describes the miracle of water God sent to Charlemagne’s army. Given the continuing religious elements of Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Saxons, it is striking that the first mention of Saxon religion in the Royal Frankish Annals is a description of Charlemagne destroying their idol in “a symbolic statement of his intentions.”


While Charlemagne was in Rome in 773, the Saxons entered Frankish territory with a large army. After they burned houses outside the castle of Büraburg,
they came upon a church at Fritzlar which Boniface of saintly memory, the most recent martyr, had consecrated and which he had said prophetically would never be burnt by fire. The Saxons began to attack this church with great determination, trying one way or another to burn it. While this was going on, there appeared to some Christians in the castle and also to some heathens in the army two young men on white horses who protected the church from fire. Because of them the pagans could not set the church on fire or damage it, either inside or outside. Terror-stricken by the intervention of divine might they turned to flight, although nobody pursued them.
This passage in the RFA mirrors that describing Charlemagne’s destruction of the Irminsul. In the first event, Charlemagne succeeded in destroying a pagan holy place because God sent a miracle of water as help for the Christian Franks. In the second event, the Saxons failed to destroy a Christian holy place because God sent a miracle of fire-retardant horsemen as obstacle to the pagan Saxons. Symbolically, the waters of baptism are opposed to hellfire. The Christians are sent life-giving water when the sun is at its highest; the pagans bring destructive fire that loses its power in the face of God’s grace.

Adding to the literary and homiletic sense of these paired entries is the invocation of Boniface, the martyr (originally an Anglo-Saxon monk named Winfrid) associated with Charlemagne’s father in the RFA. In 750, “Pepin was elected king according to the custom of the Franks, anointed by the hand of Archbishop Boniface of saintly memory.” The saint is intimately tied to the Carolingians by his blessing of their first king, and this dynastic connection continues through the fulfillment of his prophecy during the reign of Pepin’s son. Charlemagne himself was dedicated enough to Boniface to task the Frisian cleric Liudger with constructing a church and large-scale memorial to martyred saint.

If the failed attack on the church consecrated by Boniface is to be taken as historical fact and not merely as a pious lesson on the Carolingian’s saintly connections and Christianity’s inevitable victory over paganism, the Saxon choice of target is noteworthy. In his missionary days, Boniface had (with the aid of “a divine blast from above”) felled “a certain oak of extraordinary size, which is called, by an old name of the pagans, the Oak of Jupiter” in front of “a great multitude of pagans, who in their souls were most earnestly cursing the enemy of their gods,” then used its wood to build an oratory dedicated to Saint Peter.

Boniface cuts down Thor's Oak
St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church, Crediton, England

“Jupiter” is usually taken to be an interpretatio romana of Thunaer, the Saxon equivalent of the Norse Thor who appears in the baptismal vow mentioned above. So, after the destruction of the Irminsul, the Saxons attempted to avenge the destruction of a pagan site centered on what may have been a “great pagan tree shrine” by destroying a Christian site dedicated by a man who had famously destroyed a sacred pagan tree in an earlier generation.

The Saxon Poet stresses that the church consecrated by Boniface was indeed the primary target of the Saxon incursion. The pagans continued to come after the saint; the saint’s relics eventually had to be evacuated by the monks of Fulda when the Saxons sought to destroy the monastery and kill its clerics, perhaps in an effort specifically designed to stop missionary efforts at conversion and destruction of sacred pagan sites. The RFA entry on the initial Saxon attack in 773 makes no mention of plundering, which supports the idea that it was a retaliatory act against a religiously significant object.


If this reading is correct, it suggests that the Saxons saw Charlemagne’s attack as an act of religious warfare in the context of a long-term campaign against their traditional religion. “Conscious and consistent policies of resistance” may have been driven by a pagan worldview that formed its own narrative of Christian actions across multiple generations.

Attacks on churches, including the Episcopal seat at Büraburg, continued through 774. The Saxon assault on church property put Charlemagne on the defensive as the royal protector of Christianity. His desire for revenge piled upon revenge continued to escalate over the following years in a self-perpetuating cycle reminiscent of the decade-spanning feuds of the Icelandic sagas.

Sturm by Johann Philipp Preuß (from a photo by Lothar Wiese)

After the mass baptism following the Saxon defeat in 777, Abbot Sturm and the four hundred monks of the Fulda monastery founded by Boniface were tasked with the religious education of the new converts. The monks made baptism their primary goal and destroyed as many heathen religious sites as they could. Sturm’s biographer Eigil writes that Charlemagne specifically entrusted the abbot with destruction of Saxon temples, razing of sacred groves and raising of new churches.

Many of these churches were in turn destroyed by pagan Saxons, belying the triumphalism of the poem De conversione Saxonum, composed at Charlemagne’s court in 777 to celebrate Saxon conversion and the seeming end of the conflict. The reaction of the Saxons to the ongoing anti-pagan activities of the Franks and their allied churchmen led to the rise to prominence of the major Saxon leader of the decades-long conflict.

Widukind will appear in Part Two.

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