Germany: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

Charlemagne and Christianity

While great leaders at the the head of strong German tribes were winning new kingdoms in Europe and Africa, the land of Germany itself was being slowly converted to Christianity. The old Germans were heathens. They worshipped a number of gods and goddesses, of whom the chief was Odin or Woden, the All-Wise, and next to him were his sons Thor, the god of Thunder, and Thiu, the god of War. The goddess Hertha was the great Earth mother, and the goddess of Love was Freya. The Germans did not build temples to their gods nor carve any images, but they reared altars to them in the depths of sacred groves, and sacrifices were offered by the priests. These priests foretold the will of the gods by signs and tokens, but there was also a class of wise women who were believed to be able to read the future, and to their sayings the Germans paid very deep regard. The old German heaven was named Valhalla, and it was thought that none could enter there save brave warriors who fell in fight. In Valhalla the departed hero was pictured as spending his day in battle or the chase, and his night in joyous feasting, being summoned to the banquet by the blowing of celestial horns.

To this faith the old Germans clung very closely, and many centuries passed before it was given up in favour of Christianity. The Goths were the first to become Christians, and the Gospels were translated into their tongue as early as the fourth century. Then the new faith slowly spread through South Germany, and some Irish monks were among the most able and successful missionaries. English teachers were found in the north of the land, but here progress was very slow, and the Saxons and Frisians of North Germany held most stubbornly to the faith of their fathers.

Chief among the English teachers was Winifred, called the Apostle of the Germans, and named Boniface by the Pope, because of his good work. Winifred found the affairs of the Church in great confusion, and he laboured hard to introduce order. He founded abbeys, monasteries, and convents. He arranged sees and set bishops over them. He sent his disciples to preach to the heathen, and set them a noble example in his own person. Scorning danger, he would push his way into a heathen district and assail with his own hands a rude altar of stone at which a crowd of pagans was about to offer some dreadful sacrifice. Seizing an axe, he would hew down some sacred tree, in which the wild tribesmen believed that a great deity had made his home. The people looked on with awe and wonder, expecting at every moment that the offended god would destroy the bold stranger. But when they saw the altar scattered or the tree felled, and there stood Winifred unhurt, they lost their confidence in Woden or Thor and listened to the new teaching which fell from his lips.

Yet in the end Winifred came to his death on a missionary journey. He went to preach to the Frisians of the north, and by them he was slain in the year 755, when he was in the seventieth year of his age. Thus at his death the Saxons and Frisians of North Germany were unconverted. But the religion which they had refused from a bishop was about to be forced upon them by the sword: Charles the Great, the mighty and famous Charlemagne, became Emperor of the Franks in 771.

The Franks had founded a powerful empire in France and had been ruled by kings for centuries. Now the greatest ruler of the Frankish line had come to the throne and he cherished a great aim: he wished to unite the countries of Western Europe under one ruler and under one religion. This aim could not be carried out as long as the Saxons and Frisians remained pagans, and in the year after he came to the throne Charlemagne proclaimed war against the Saxons, announcing his resolve to subdue and convert them.

It was a long and very difficult task. For thirty years the Saxons fought most stubbornly in defence of their freedom and the faith of their fathers. Time and again the powerful armies of the great king drove the Saxons before them in defeat, and inflicted terrible losses on the gallant tribesmen. But time and again the broken forces rallied and gathered in the depths of their gloomy woodlands, to swear undying enmity to the Franks on the altars of their ancient faith. Every time that Charlemagne had his hands full with wars in other lands the Saxons broke into revolt, and burst over their borders carrying fire and sword into their enemy's territory.

In 779 Charlemagne thought that he had beaten down the Saxon opposition, but they broke out again, and he now seized 4500 of their leading men and had their heads struck off in a single day. He next ordered the Saxons to become Christians, and issued a law by which all who continued to follow the worship of Odin and Thor were to be condemned to death. The Saxons replied by a furious revolt, and Charlemagne had to put forth his full strength to crush them. But now he took the work in hand himself, and marched to and fro in overpowering force until the last sign of resistance had been swept away.

While this struggle with the Saxons had been going on, the armies of the great monarch had been winning victories for him in other lands, and at length he arrived at the height of his ambition: he was the ruler of almost the whole of Western Europe. Now, under the Romans, Europe had been divided into two empires, the Empire of the West and the Empire of the East. There had been an Emperor of the West, whose capital was Rome, and an Emperor of the East, whose capital was Constantinople. Charlemagne had gathered into his hands the lands which had formed the Empire of the West, and he was given the old title. On New Year's Day, 800, he was crowned by the Pope in Rome, and was hailed as Emperor of the Romans. In the end this great title proved of little value to German rulers. It was hopeless to think of German and Latin races living in unity under one crown, and the German Emperors, divided between their subjects north and south of the Alps, were unable to rule either race properly.

For himself, Charlemagne was, above all, a German Emperor. He loved Germany and his native German tongue. He caused a German grammar to be written, he changed the Latin names of the months into German, he ordered the priests to preach in the language which the people understood. He brought skilled workers from other lands to build splendid palaces and churches in German towns, and he adorned his favourite city of Aix-la-Chapelle with magnificent buildings. In this city he died in 814, aged seventy-one. His body was laid in the noble cathedral he had raised, not placed in a coffin, but set upon a golden throne with crown on head and sword at side, wrapped in a gorgeous robe and a book of the Gospel upon the knees.

The mighty Charlemagne was followed by several kings of his house, the Carlovingian line, but not one of them showed a sign of the ability of their great ancestor, and the vast empire of Charlemagne fell to pieces and was shared among his descendants. In 843 the empire was divided into three kingdoms, and France and Germany became separate realms, each under its own ruler. In Germany the line of Charlemagne came to an end in 911; in France it lasted until 987.

When the last Carlovingian ruler of Germany died in 911, a powerful German prince, Conrad, Duke of Franconia, was chosen king. Conrad's great aim was to bring the whole country under his rule, for it seemed very likely that Germany would be split up into a number of small kingdoms. There were several powerful dukes, ruling over large duchies, and these men wished to be independent of the king, and become rulers in their own right. One man above all withstood Conrad, and this was Duke Henry of Saxony, a very strong and able man. In 918 Conrad died, and Duke Henry was chosen for the next ruler. He came to the German Crown as Henry I, and with him opens a long line of emperors, the first line of great importance in purely German history.