Thursday, July 25, 2013

Charlemagne vs. Widukind

History has left at least four names for Europe's greatest ruler: Charlemagne, Charles the Great, Carolus Magnus, and the name by which he was known in his own native language, Karl der Große. Born in 742 A.D., he and his brother shared the throne which came to them in 768 A.D. when their father, Pepin the Short, died. The two brothers co-reigned until the brother's death in 771 A.D., leaving Karl to rule along until his own death in 814 A.D.

Initially inheriting the Frankish territory which would include parts of modern-day Germany, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Holland, Karl gradually expanded his realm by marriage, by purchase, by diplomacy, and sometimes by war. As the territory grew, he was often on the move, moving from area to area, consulting with the "counts" and other local official whom he left to govern during his absences. Historian Manuel Komroff notes that

While Charles was traveling through his realm that winter of 774-775, he received distressing news concerning the Saxons. Those barbarian people to the north whom he had subdued before leaving on his conquest of Lombardy were again raiding his borders and burning churches.

Having already dealt with Saxons, as far back as 772 A.D., Karl knew what to expect. Fiercely pagan, they held to their ancient traditions of human sacrifice, blood-feuds, and the buying and selling of slaves and wives. They resisted the Christian faith which would pull them away from these practices. In vain had various missionaries entered Saxon territories to introduce the more humane ways of the Christianity. Such missionaries often paid with their lives. By the time Karl inherited the throne, much of Europe had either adopted the Christian faith, or at least given up human sacrifice and slavery under Christian influence. But northeastern Europe and the Germanic tribes which occupied it, still adhered to the polytheism of Norse mythology. By contrast, the Germanic tribes of western and southern Europe, like the Franks and the Goths, had embraced some form Christian civilization. Karl the Great - Charlemagne - was a Frank. He felt that it was his duty to protect southern and western Europe from the Saxons, and to be an advocate for his faith, a faith which treated human life as valuable and worthy of respect.

The Saxons saw the faith of the Franks and the Goths as a threat. They would fight rather than adopted the civilized lifestyle they saw on their western and southern borders. Churches and monasteries were easy targets - unarmed, staffed by priests, monks, and nuns, many of whom had taken vows of pacifism: they would not take up swords to fight, not even in self-defense. They were also tempting targets: monasteries contained books, which were extremely expensive at that time, and which could be sold back to the Franks by the Saxons.

Charles was angered by their behavior. Determined that he, as the King of the Franks, should serve as the champion of Christianity, he decided to wage a war against the pagan Saxons until the very last of them was converted to Christianity - converted or annihilated.

Karl decided that if the Church and its clergy would not fight, then he would. As noted above, he had already encountered the Saxons in battle. He understood the military tactics as well as their internal politics. Widukind, also known as Wittekind or Waldkind, was one of their leaders. Little is known about his life; the Saxons were barely literate, and left only a few written records.

Charles had a further reason for wanting to engage in an all-out war against the Saxons. These barbaric people had always lived in separate tribes choosing a national leader only in times of war, but now they were beginning to consolidate. A man named Widukind, one of their richest chiefs, a Westphalian related through marriage to the King of Denmark, was agitating for unity and winning great support among the common people.

Although the details of Widukind's life are lost to history, he had an inspirational effect on the Saxons, seeming able to organize and unify them against the Franks. Karl understood that it would require similar unity and organization on the part of the Franks to oppose Widukind. The Franks had several large gatherings each year: the "Field of March" or champ de mars was a national assembly of the Frank, held each year in March. A similar assembly was held in May. It was a sort of political and military convention, and gave Charlemagne a chance to present his plans to the assembly of those whom he had appointed to lead his territories and armies. In that year, the Field of March was held in Düren, near Karl's royal capital city of Aachen. Aachen was also known as Aix-la-Chapelle. The location was good because it was near the Rhein or Rhine River.

So at the Field of March, which was held in July that year at Duren, not far from Aachen and only twenty miles from the Rhine, Charles presented his plan for an all-out war.

The Saxons built their fortresses primarily from logs, not stones, in the form of stockades. Historians have identified the location of these, for example, the site of Sigiburg is now a historical landmark.

Winning the immediate support of the general assembly, Charles quickly gathered together his army and began his invasion. He crossed the Rhine so swiftly that the Saxons were again taken by surprise and unable to organize any defense. Within the first days the fortress of Sigiburg, a great Saxon stockade, fell after offering but little resistance.

The location of the fortress of Eresburg is now known to be the modern German town of Obermarsberg. Karl's tactic was to capture the fortresses one by one, leaving a portion of his army to hold each one as the main body of his army marched deeper into Saxon territory.

Leaving a garrison at Sigiburg, Charles and his army now swept eastward through the beautiful open farmlands to the fortress of Eresburg, which he had captured in his previous campaign and which the Saxons had recaptured and burned to the ground during his absence. Rebuilding this stockade and leaving it in control of a garrison, Charles plunged deep into Saxony, cutting a wide ribbon of devastation, trampling down the grain, burning settlements and slaughtering cattle.

The Weser River formed a significant boundary; the further east Charlemagne marched, the further he was from civilized Frankish lands, and the deeper he was in a very pagan and savage area. These regions were filled with barbarian mysteries. The inhabitants still wrote in runic alphabets.

He met no resistance until he had gone a hundred miles and reached the banks of the Weser River. There he was confronted by a small force of Saxons under a chief called Hessi; their lands lay to the east of the river.

Hessi's capitulation was crucial. Charlemagne was eager to find a group of Saxons who would swear to abandon the practice of human sacrifice. He calculated that once one group of Saxons had given up the practice, it would be more probable that other Saxon groups would do the same.

Charles quickly overcame this show of resistance. Hessi and his people submitted, giving hostages and promising to embrace Christianity. Seeing this, their neighbors to the west surrendered without battle. They also vowed allegiance to Charles and agreed to accept baptism.

While Hessi and Charlemagne were celebrating their newfound camaraderie, Widukind was preparing an insurgent resistance movement against Charlemagne's troops stationed at the various stockades. He would ensure that Charlemagne did not find peace too easily.

Charles was delighted with the goodwill shown by these people and ordered that the baptisms begin at once. Great wood tubs were brought forth and filled with water. Each Saxon in turn stripped and knelt in the tub and answered certain questions of a baptismal service which had been drawn up specially for the Saxons.

Hessi's Saxons took these special oaths, foreswearing human sacrifice and other pagan practices. But before all of Hessi's people could be baptized, messages arrived that Widukind's men were attacking one or more of the various stockades manned by Charlemagne's soldiers to west, behind the Weser line at which Charlemagne had met Hessi.

Widukind would hold out long after most of the Saxons had joined the Franks. In 777 A.D., Widukind joined the king of Denmark, returning in 778 A.D. to Saxony to renew his attacks on the Franks. Finally, in 785 A.D., Widukind surrendered Charlemagne. Despite the long years of battle, Charlemagne did not have Widukind executed.

Again the written records fail to give much detail about the rest of Widukind's life. He probably lived another ten or fifteen years, peacefully, perhaps in a monastery. He is probably buried in or near one of several German churches which are alleged to be his final resting place.

Despite the lack of detail in the historical record of his life, Widukind has remained popular in folklore, a symbol of resistance, defying Charlemagne longer than others and longer than anyone thought possible. He also was the last gasp of the pre-Christian Saxon culture: barbaric, pagan, mystical. After the time of Widukind, paganism retreated to the north, into the woods of Scandinavia, and to the east, into Slavic lands. In those places, polytheistic heathen would continue to practice human sacrifice for perhaps another century. But central Europe had finally been freed from the darkness of Norse paganism.