Charlemagne - George Upton

The First Eleven Tears of the Saxon War

We must now consider the longest and most desperate of Charlemagne's wars—that waged against the Saxons, which began before his campaign against Desiderius and lasted not less than thirty-three years.

A bitter race antagonism had long prevailed between the Franks and the Saxons. As already related, the latter had been subjugated by Charlemagne's predecessors and forced to pay tribute. Saxony extended along both sides of the Weser, westerly to the vicinity of the lower Rhine, southwesterly to the Harz and the Unstrut, and northerly to the ocean, except the country occupied by the Frisians. Four races inhabited Saxony—the Westphalians, living between the Weser and the Issel; the Eastphalians, on the right bank of the Weser to the Elbe; the Eugen, between both these; and the Northmen, or Nordalbingi, who lived on both sides of the Elbe. "Phalen" or "Falen" means a great plain, and one of these names (Westphalia) is in use to-day.

The Saxons were not far advanced in civilization. The hatred which they entertained against the Germans, who had been converted to Christianity by Boniface and other missionaries, had caused them to break off friendly intercourse with their ancestral associates. They worshipped Odin and other heathen divinities in their forests, as of old. Charlemagne conducted his campaign against them, not so much in the interest of religion as to overthrow the power of a dangerous neighbor, before he went to Italy to subjugate Desiderius. He invaded Saxony and occupied Eresburg, in the vicinity of which was Irminsul, the mystic idol revered by the Saxons. Its significance is still doubtful. Some maintain that it typified the world-ash tree Ygdrasil, whose trunk, the Germans believed, was rooted in the underworld and whose branches shadowed Oin'sd palace, Walhalla. Others contend that it was a memorial of Arminius who freed Germany from the Roman yoke. The Irminsul was demolished by the Franks. The Saxons at last sued; for peace, which Charlemagne granted after they had given him twelve hostages. Then he retired with his army.

After this opening success over the Saxons, Charlemagne began his campaign against Desiderius; but hardly had he deposed the Lombardian King before he received the news that the Saxons, in violation of their promise to remain peaceable, had invaded Hesse and were laying it waste. He appeared among them so suddenly and in such force that they were again easily overcome. Once more they submitted, sent him hostages, and were pardoned. It was not his good fortune, however, to enjoy the fruits of victory long. An uprising in Italy, led by Adalgis, son of Desiderius, who had previously escaped, as has been related, next confronted him. Adalgis betook himself to the court of the Greek Emperor to seek his assistance, and made an alliance with his brother-in-law Arighis, Duke of Benevento, who had married the rejected Desiderata. By this alliance he secured the help of the other Italian nobles, who had been left undisturbed upon condition of remaining loyal. The landing of Adalgis with his Greek auxiliaries was the signal for an uprising.

Upon receipt of the news of his enemy's designs from the Pope, Charlemagne hastened to Italy. Only one of the nobles, however, Duke Rotgund in Friaul, had ventured to take up arms, and he was quickly defeated, taken prisoner, and made to do penance the rest of his life. The remaining nobles were stripped of their possessions and the country was divided into earldoms, governed by Frankish nobles.

As soon as the Saxons learned that Charlemagne was engaged in Italy, throwing their promises to the winds, they rose again, destroyed a number of Christian churches, and advanced to lay siege to Eresburg, which was occupied by the Franks. Failing to capture the stronghold by assault, they resorted to trickery. By a pretended retreat they induced the Franks to make a sally, then turned upon them, slaughtered them, and demolished the fortress. A few of the garrison saved themselves by flight to Siegburg on the Ruhr, which was attacked by the Saxons without success. Charlemagne, in the meantime, having returned from Italy, suddenly appeared in Saxony and overcame all opposition. He once more pardoned those who implored mercy, restored Eresburg, and built the fortress of Lippestadt.

To appease the King, several of the nobles, among them Bruno, son-in-law of Wittekind, accepted Christian baptism and remained as hostages with the King. Charlemagne did not avenge this disloyalty upon his hostages, but continued his efforts to overcome opposition by mild measures which were not altogether satisfactory to his leaders. In his opinion the time had not yet come to undertake forcible conversions, for he was convinced that Christian belief and faith could not be imposed by violence. He was fully resolved to Christianize the Saxons, but he had other methods in view of bringing about that result. He was equally determined that the Saxons should become a political element in the great German nation, but he was cautious about taking any measures that were not absolutely necessary.

It was Charlemagne's custom to call an annual assembly of the leaders of his people upon the Champ de Mai to discuss affairs of state. He decided that year (777) to hold it in Saxony, and selected for its locality the district at the source of the Lippe near Paderborn He hoped the Saxons would regard this gathering as a peace measure.

Their leaders were invited to participate and appeared in a body, with the exception of Wittekind, who bitterly hated the Franks. He had escaped after the defeat; and as Adalgis sought assistance from the Greek Emperor, so he appealed to his brother-in-law Siegfried, King of Denmark, to aid him.

The Saxon chiefs beheld Charlemagne for the first time in the majesty of peaceful surroundings. Heroes of the sword and dignitaries of the Church were gathered around his throne. Many of these chiefs willingly acknowledged such a master. ~It happened also that a Moorish Embassy from Spain was in Paderborn at this time. The Saxons beheld the newcomers with astonishment, so different was their splendid attire from that of the northern peoples. The Moorish leaders had come to seek the help of Charlemagne against Abderrahman, Caliph of Cordova, and promised to transfer their allegiance to him in case he freed them from his power. Charlemagne was glad of the opportunity to interpose in Spanish affairs. He promised to help the petitioners, and in the meantime decided to demand a district in northern Spain for himself as a defence, in case of emergency, against the Moors of the southern part. The Saxons for the first time realized the wide extent of his authority and fame. How could they longer withstand him, they asked themselves: Ozanam says:

"Many of them swore allegiance and promised to surrender their country and their freedom if they violated their word. Many renounced idol worship and were baptized. A multitude of men, women, and children went down to the river in white garments, accompanied by chanting priests, and came back Christians; at their head the priests and monks, who had thus laid the foundations of the Christian Saxon Church. The world rejoiced at the conversion."

No one was more delighted than Charlemagne. It heightened his hope and enthusiasm when he set out upon the Spanish expedition the following year. He crossed the Pyrenees, overcame Pampeluna and Barcelona, and made Navarre, Aragon, and Catalonia subject to his authority. Saragossa was next invested, and after a short resistance its people submitted to him and gave hostages and tribute. Thereupon he made northeastern Spain, as far as the Ebro, the limit of the Frankish kingdom in Spain, and established a barrier against the Moors, intending thereby to discourage pagan invasions and prevent the disturbance of the Christian world, as his grandfather had done before him.

Unfortunate news from home forced Charlemagne to leave Spain. While crossing the Pyrenees a part of his army met with serious disaster. The rear guard, led by Roland, was ambushed in a narrow valley near Roncesvalles by the Basques and slaughtered to the last man. It was impossible to offer resistance, for the enemy occupied an impregnable position on the heights, from which they rolled down huge rocks and hurled showers of missiles. The hero Roland and his brave comrades, the paladin Anschelm and the seneschal Eckart, who were slain, were celebrated at a later period in song and romance. Charlemagne undoubtedly would have turned back to avenge them had not a new Saxon uprising forced him to return as speedily as possible. He soon defeated the Saxons and laid waste their country to the Elbe. The usual result followed. Wittekind fled, the Saxons took the oath of allegiance and gave securities.

Charlemagne well knew that the roots of the Saxon animosity were grounded in their heathen religion. He determined to eradicate it by force. His scheme was to pardon only those who consented to be baptized and to remain faithful to the Christian faith. Death should be the penalty of participation in the heathen service. Forcible measures of this kind, imposed for the purpose of changing ideas and sentiments, are improper, it is true; but under existing circumstances it seemed the only preventive of their constant uprisings. It also promised to be of great advantage, as the younger generation would be influenced by the abandonment of the heathen religion to become loyal.

Charlemagne not only determined to introduce Christianity, but Frankish laws as well. Saxony was divided into districts to which Frankish chiefs were assigned. He deemed it of the highest importance that a people who had violated their obligations so frequently should be restrained by severe measures. The immediate outcome of this, however, was the almost complete destruction of a division of the Frankish army and the massacre of four princes and twenty distinguished nobles, by the Saxons, led by Wittekind and his brother Albion. Charlemagne's grief at their loss was as intense as his anger against the Saxons. His patience was exhausted. He determined that justice should be inexorable in dealing with these murderers and perjurers. If he overlooked their bloody deed it would only incite the Saxons to perpetrate fresh atrocities. He determined to execute a penalty severe enough to intimidate the Saxons ever after, and to protect those who might be exposed to danger if the guilty went free. Charlemagne acted upon the theory that a judge who releases a murderer is equally guilty if that murderer commits fresh crimes. He put down the uprising at once; and when the Saxons as usual implored mercy and charged Wittekind (who had again fled) with the blame, he demanded the surrender of the guilty persons. They were tried by a military court, found guilty, and beheaded. Four thousand five hundred in one day! This was the massacre at Verden! a gruesome deed!