Friday, December 4, 2015

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

Click here for Part One of the article.

Widukind (Wittekind) by Hans Mündelein

Widukind is presented by the Royal Frankish Annals as Charlemagne’s greatest opponent in the war. Previous Saxon leaders had been named in the annals, but only in defeat. Widukind is the one pagan Saxon given extensive treatment in the text. He is mentioned in multiple entries over the eight-year period from 777 through 785, a period spanning one-quarter of the duration of the Saxon war.


The RFA’s first mention of Widukind is linked to its first mention of Norsemen. The initial appearance of Widukind in the RFA declares that he was “in revolt along with a few others” and was the only Saxon not to attend the general assembly Charlemagne held at Paderborn in 777. The original entry states that Widukind had “fled with his companions into Nordmannia,” and the revised entry glosses this by saying that he “had fled to Sigifrid, king of the Danes.”

Widukind escaped the mass Saxon execution in 782 by again fleeing into “Nordmannia,” after he was once more the lone Saxon absent from Charlemagne’s assembly, this time “at the source of the River Lippe.” As in the 777 entry, Widukind is linked to the Danes; “Norse emissaries of King Sigifrid, Halptani with his companions, also appeared at this assembly.”

The Saxon-Danish connection continued. In 798, Saxons rebels killed Charlemagne’s envoy as he returned from a visit to Sigifrid, leading to Charlemagne becoming “savagely aroused.” It has been suggested that Charlemagne’s negotiations with the Danes specifically concerned their continued harboring of Saxon fugitives, and that the forced relocation of Saxons from Nordalbingia to closer to the Rhineland area was to prevent them from escaping into Denmark or being encouraged to further rebellion by the Danes. As late as 823, there seems to have been a dispute between Franks and Danes over the Norsemen harboring Saxon fugitives.

In The Deeds of Emperor Charles the Great by Notker Balbulus, the only non-Christian religious beliefs mentioned are those of the Saxons and the Norsemen. Of the latter, Notker tells the well-known story of the Norse elder who had “been washed here twenty times” (i.e., been baptized) in order to repeatedly receive the fine linen garments given to converts. Like the Saxons, the Norsemen are portrayed as mocking the sacrament of baptism by repeated apostasy.

The reports of Widukind being harbored by the Danes hint at a cross-cultural pagan consciousness in direct opposition to the would-be universality of the Church. Despite their differences of language and location, the Saxons and the Danes belonged to overlapping traditional socio-religious systems that were less hierarchical than that of the Christian Franks.

Widukind (Wittekind) fountain by Heinrich Wefing

This pagan network may have also extended to a Saxon-Frisian relationship. The two peoples had an adversarial history with Boniface in common; the future saint had been martyred in 754 during his attempts to convert the Frisians to Christianity. In 784, the RFA report that “[t]he Saxons rebelled again as usual and some Frisians along with them.” Of course, the absence of written records by pagans makes it impossible to prove the existence of any wider sense of pagan unity in the face of Christian conversion efforts.


In the RFA entry for 778, Widukind is portrayed as a leader in what seem to be religious terms: the Saxons “followed their detestable custom and again revolted, spurred on by Widukind and his companions.” The “detestable custom” may simply mean revolt itself, but it likely refers to the idea expressed in the 777 entry: “Many Saxons were baptized and according to their custom pledged to the king their whole freedom and property if they should change their minds again in that detestable manner of theirs and not keep the Christian faith and their fealty to the Lord King Charles, his sons, and the Franks.”

The “detestable custom” seems to refer to both religious apostasy and political disobedience. These concepts are regularly connected in the Carolingian sources, such as the revised RFA entry on the 778 rebellion, which states that the Saxons “destroyed in like fashion both the sacred and the profane.” The regular tendency of the Saxons to de-convert is denounced throughout the RFA, and Einhard laments that “they were quick to go right back to their old ways” after promising that “they would abandon the cult of demons and willingly submit to the Christian religion.”

Charlemagne had exclusively focused on taking oaths and hostages as a means of ending open conflict since his first Saxon campaign in 772, in which he had taken twelve hostages after a parley with the Saxons at the River Weser. In 776, his demands after victory in battle were expanded; at the head of the River Lippe, the Saxons “surrendered their land to the Franks, put up security, promised to become Christians, and submitted to the rule of the Lord King Charles and the Franks.” Later, “[t]he Saxons came there with wives and children, a countless number, and were baptized and gave as many hostages as the Lord King demanded.”

Charlemagne baptizes the Saxons – art by Émile Antoine Bayard

This is the first of several mentions of Saxon conversion and mass baptism in the RFA. The large-scale baptisms reflect the fact that the tribal structure of the Saxons precluded the top-down method of conversion used in England and Scandinavia; in the absence of courtly structures, missionaries were not able to use “the convenient and relatively comfortable procedure of converting the king and working downwards or outwards from there.”


The Frankish policy of oaths and hostages changed in 782. After Charlemagne returned to Francia, “the Saxons, persuaded by Widukind, promptly rebelled as usual.” The Saxons surrounded the Franks in the Süntel Mountains and slew them “almost to a man.” Charlemagne’s losses were considerable; “two of the envoys, Adalgis and Gailo, four counts, and up to twenty other distinguished nobles had been killed, not counting those who had followed them, preferring to perish at their side rather than survive them.”

Charlemagne’s reaction was fast and furious; he “rushed to the place with all the Franks that he could gather on short notice” and stopped “where the Aller flows into the Weser.” The Saxons submitted to his authority “and surrendered the evildoers who were chiefly responsible for this revolt to be put to death – four thousand five hundred of them. This sentence was carried out. Widukind was not among them since he had fled into Nordmannia.”

The Saxon Poet writes that the prisoners were killed by beheading and that “[t]he place is now called Verden.” The revised RFA entry adds that “[a]ll denounced Widukind as the instigator of this wicked rebellion.” There is no mention of oaths, hostages, or the possibility of baptism – only a mass execution of surrendered prisoners in a symbolic revenge for the Franks who fell in the Süntel Mountains.

1916 postcard of Verden an der Aller

The Verden executions seem to mark a turning point in Charlemagne’s attitudes (and perhaps those of the Frankish nobility). They were followed by a concerted effort to wipe out the Saxons; the option of surrender was no longer mentioned. The enormity of the killings may have been driven by Charlemagne’s attempt to emulate the kings of the Old Testament and their mass executions of Amalekites and Moabites, to visit the wrath of God upon his enemies and wipe them from the earth.

In 783 and 784, Charlemagne’s forces fought several battles against the rebels in which they killed “[a]n immense number of Saxons”; the only survivors were those who fled. There is no further mention of taking oaths or hostages for the next eleven years.


The fact that, in 785, Charlemagne wintered in Saxony for the first time is further evidence of his renewed determination to bring an end to the repeated rebellions. After a massive military push, he demanded that Widukind and his son-in-law Abbi be brought to him. At this point, the two rebels understandably “were reluctant to place themselves in the king’s trust,” and “asked for assurances that they would remain unharmed.”

Widukind surrenders to Charlemagne – painting by Ary Scheffer

For the first time in the RFA, Charlemagne delivered Frankish hostages to the Saxons, an act that underscores Widukind’s great importance as a Saxon leader. Widukind and Abbi accepted the hostages, met Charlemagne at Attigny and “were baptized with their companions.” Emphasizing the symbolic importance of the event, Charlemagne served as Widukind’s godfather for his baptism on Christmas Day.

On both sides of the Saxon conflict, the political and the religious were often blurred; Widukind himself may have been both a military leader of armed rebellion and a sacral prophetic figure. If he was, a baptized religious leader would have been much more useful to Charlemagne as a propaganda tool than a dead one.

Indeed, after Widukind’s baptism, all of Saxony “was then subjugated.” The Saxon leader is never mentioned again in the Royal Frankish Annals.

Charlemagne issues the “terror capitulary” in Part Three.


Apuleius Platonicus said...

This is an extremely important series of articles. I hope it will continue up through the Stellinga uprising!

Monk's Modern Medieval Cuisine said...

Again, an excellent read.

Wilhelm said...

Great reading. I have a son named "Karl" and another on the way named "Widukind". Hope they get along better! Ha ha.

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