Season Three, Episode Eight: Baptism or Death
Updated: Mar 11
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“Are all of them here?”
“Yes, Lord, all save one. And we do not expect that one to arrive.”
“Who is it? Who would dare to disobey my order to come to the diet?”
“It is Widukind, my Lord. From what I have learned from the other leaders, he has taken to hiding rather than coming here to listen to your generous offerings.”
Charles was quiet for a moment, deep in thought. In fighting the Saxons on and off for the past five years, he knew that dissension - any dissension - was liable to run wild through the pagan ranks.
We have introduced them to the True Faith and done everything in our power to compel them to leave their backward gods and idols the King thought. But yet they persist. Perhaps today’s offerings will be enough.
This thought, Charles realized, was based more on hope than on history. Offers had already been made to the Saxons. Threats had been carried out. Despite this, every time, some of their tribe would accept baptism, while others would take to the woods. And those who escaped always seemed to seep back and bring those who had promised their souls to God back to the gods of trees. Today was supposed to be the day when all the Saxon leaders finally met in one place and offered to Charlemagne submission both to him and the Church. One of these leaders having gone missing would not have sounded so dire to him just a few years back, but now, in 777, Charles felt that missing one was tantamount to making the whole diet worthless.
“My Lord, shall we begin soon? The assembly is growing restless.”
Charles was wrenched from his thoughts by this. “Yes, tell them we will begin momentarily. When we do, however, I need you to leave and see if you can find this recalcitrant chieftain, this Widukind. I don’t need him to unravel everything else we have accomplished...
Miles to the north in the land known as Nordmannia, Widukind waited for word from his fellow chieftains to arrive. After weeks of waiting, a courier finally showed up. Surprisingly, rather than sending a servant, the courier was one of Widukind’s fellow nobles. Widukind hurried to the man and was upon him with questions before he even had the chance to alight from his horse.
“What did Charles say?” Widukind asked. “What did the Frank offer, and how much did the other chiefs give up?”
“Widukind, just because you could not be bothered to ride to the diet in person, please do not begin this conversation with accusations. Yes, I was in attendance at Paderborn, and yes, I listened to what was said. The Frank offered much.”
“The most important thing to the Frank was for us to give our promise to give up the old ways and follow his new religion. He wants all of us to believe that there is only one God, not many. He and his priests are obsessed with one man in particular, this “Jesus,” and claim he is the son of this one God.”
“So Jesus is a God?”
“No, he’s a part of the God... honestly, the whole thing is quite confusing. All I know for sure is that the Frank and his priests are adamant about Jesus. They say his name all the time and they desperately want us to believe in him as well.”
“And do you?”
“Of course not! Come now, Widukind, do you really expect me to believe that some Roman carpenter was the son of God? Let’s not be silly. It’s because I don’t believe that I had no problem with telling the Frank that I do. He offered us land and gifts. He took some of our sons into his service, and he seemed quite pleased to have some of our leaders dunked in a river and the rest splashed with water.”
“He drowned our chieftains?” Widukind asked.
“No, he didn’t drown them. He just put their heads under water for a moment and then told them they are now Christians. The Franks were very concerned with this display. It was all so silly that most of us tried not to laugh, but if that’s what he wants to leave us in peace, then so be it.”
“Do you believe he will? Leave us in peace?”
“We will see. Only time will tell. But I am with you, I find it hard to believe this is all the Frank will want. Which is why we left him only our weakest sons as hostages. I’m certain we have purchased ourselves some time to prepare, but prepare we must.”
“I agree,” Widukind said. “And that’s what we have been doing while you traveled back and forth to swim with the Franks and hear about their magic carpenter. I have travelled from group to group, and I have received many pledges that, when the time is right, all of us will come together as one. The threat to the Saxons is not just to the Thuringi, or the Hessi, or the Borthari, or the Nistresi. It is to all of us, and when the time is right, we will fall upon the Franks, united. It is just a matter of time before they come looking for more than pledges and shows of faith, before they realize that none of their actions will ever get us to stop believing in our gods.”
“In this, you are correct Widukind. And we are ready to follow you to war, if war it must be.”
“Good,” Widukind said, his eyes turned toward the south. “Because I have a plan, and when we put it into action, we will need your support. We can resist. Perhaps if we resist hard enough, we can get the Franks to turn their attention to easier prey. It’s all going to come down to who can withstand the most pain.”
This is Thugs and Miracles.
Season 3, Episode 8: Baptism or Death
Alright, welcome back! As always, I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week we’re going to take a look at one of the great resistance leaders from the age of Charlemagne: Widukind. Because, news flash, lots of people did not like Charlemagne. Before we get into that, however, I want to take just one more moment to thank Shelly Puhak for having joined us for a conversation about Fredegunda and Brunhilda in our last episode. Her book, The Dark Queens is out now, so if you are looking for something new and interesting to read, check it out. Links, as always, are in the show notes and on the web site, and in the transcripts.
Returning to our current story, there is one more thing we should clarify to help keep us straight on where we are in the chronology: The majority of today’s episode is set between 777-785. This is a pretty big leap, time-wise, considering that it took us several episodes just to get through the first three years of Charlemagne’s rivalry with his brother, and then another full episode to discuss the Lombard campaign and the taking of the Iron Crown in 774. We are also five years removed from our last regular episode of T+M wherein Charles cut down the Irminsul and took the religious site’s attendant treasures. In those five years, Charles inflicted defeats and mass baptisms on the Saxons at least three times, in 772, 775, and 777. And this was just the start; according to historian Dr. Carole Cusack. Between Charles and his armies:
“Fifteen seperate military actions were conducted between 777 CE and 810 CE, some of which were extremely savage.”
Professor Cusack also lets us know that these setbacks were not passively accepted by the pagans:
“The Saxons rebelled... all in all seven times in Charlemagne’s lifetime.”
With all of that as caveat, we head back to Paderborn, 777, and the start of today’s episode. According to Dr. Charles Wells, writing in 1898, it was here that:
“Partly by force, partly by persuasion, and partly by offers of gifts and rewards, they the Saxons were induced to accept Christianity and to be baptized. On the banks of the Lippe, in the presence of the king, the Frankish clergy and all the Frankish army, the whole Saxon nation was baptized. It was an impressive and significant sight, but it was of prophetic rather than of actual significance. The hostages were put in charge of the bishops and counts of the realm, and Saxon noblemen were won over to the Frankish service. The conquered district was divided and assigned to bishops, priests, and abbots, who established monasteries, preached and baptized. An army was assembled and Saxon nobles put in command, and counties were established with Saxon counts.”
Basically, Charles was using a two-pronged administrative approach to the Saxons, both secular and religious. He would divide Saxon lands into episcopal dioceses for the Church, giving missionaries, priests, and bishops areas to focus on in the work of Christian conversion. At nearly the same time, he would divide the lands up into counties, similar to how he administered lands in Francia. In these he would offer the old Saxon leaders Frankish titles, as well as money and gifts (a.k.a. bribes), if only they would administer the lands in his name. In theory this was a sound and methodical approach, albeit a slow one. It took years for Charles to push his new borders out even 100 miles, and he and his forces had to deal with a persistent guerilla campaign the entire time. Additionally, Saxon nobles and “converts” had a nasty habit of backsliding into their old ways, making the Franks question their loyalty and sincerity every step of the way. One particularly nasty incident, brought to us courtesy of the Royal Frankish Annals, serves to display this vicious back and forth:
“In the meantime the part of the army which he Charles had sent to the Weser pitched camp at the place called Liibbecke. But the men acted carelessly, and were tricked by Saxon guile. When the Frankish foragers returned to the camp about the ninth hour of the day, Saxons mixed with them as if they belonged to them and thus entered the camp of the Franks. They attacked the sleeping or half-awake soldiers and are said to have caused quite a slaughter among the multitude who were off guard. But they were repulsed by the valor of those who were awake and resisted bravely. They left the Frankish camp after agreeing to the best terms they could get in their distress. Hearing this, the Lord King Charles once more fell upon the Saxons with his army, inflicted on them an equally grave defeat, and carried away considerable booty from the Westphalians. They gave hostages as the other Saxons had done. When he had obtained the hostages, taken much booty, and three times caused much slaughter among the Saxons, the Lord King Charles with God's help returned home to Francia.”
One thing to bear in mind as we explore these sources is that the only people writing about wins and losses were the Franks. There are no contemporary Saxon sources, so one has to accept a certain amount of Frankish puffery. However, we also have to believe that incidents such as the Saxon’s guile at Liibbecke were much more consequential than the Annals are letting on. This one, at least, was significant enough that the writers felt the incident needed to be mentioned alongside all of the other great Frankish victories. It reads as if they felt that it was just too great a calamity, that they would get called out for failing to mention it. But, if they had to mention it, they must have figured the failure was softened somewhat by Charles’s returning “three times” to cause “much slaughter among the Saxons.”
Accepting this idea of the Annals as skewed, what then should we make of the entry for 777:
“The Lord King Charles for the first time held a general assembly at Paderborn. All the Franks gathered there and from every part of Saxony came the Saxons, with the exception of Widukind, who was in revolt along with a few others. He fled with his companions into Nordmannia.”
We guess that Widukind must not have been too big of a deal, what with him and only a few others sticking to revolt... Are you kidding me? Out of all the tribes and all the fighters, Widukind is one of the only Saxons actually referred to by name, to be given the distinction of being, well, a human being worthy of mention. His absence from Paderborn in 777 was most definitely noted, and we should take note of where he went to lie low: Nordmannia. Also known as the Land of the North Men, more readily known as: the Vikings. Widukind was not only avoiding baptism, but he was also getting tips from one of the soon-to-be baddest fighting forces ever. And while he was getting tips, we can be fairly sure that he would have been giving intel on his enemy, thus allowing the “Nordmen” insight on what the Franks believed, how they fought, and how their armies operated. This would not be critical quite yet, but wait... this information is going to come in handy to the Vikings in just a few years.
Now, besides this initial mention in 777, we really do not have much to go on as far as why Widukind was a big deal or, for that matter, much of a biography on the man at all. As Sidney Dean wrote of Widukind in the journal Medieval Warfare:
“Little is known about him except that he was a prominent landowner and evidently very influential among the populace. It is impossible to say whether he was the Westphalian war chief from the beginning of the conflict, but from this point onward he would be the primary leader of Saxon resistance.”
Now, to rise to this level, Widukind would have had to have been a strong fighter, but he also would have had to have been a very smart and charismatic leader. He was smart enough at any rate to track Charles’s military maneuvers, and saw an opening develop in 778 when Charles chose to focus his time and energy on a campaign in Spain. Just as they did in 773-74, when Charles chose to go to Italy rather than finishing what he had started to the north, the Saxons took advantage. Again from the RFA:
“When the Saxons heard that the Lord King Charles and the Franks were so far away in Spain, they followed their detestable custom and again revolted, spurred on by Widukind and his companions... These rebels advanced as far as the Rhine at Deutz, plundered along the river, and committed many atrocities, such as burning the churches of God in the monasteries and other acts too loathsome to enumerate.”
Again, the RFA does its best to try to put a positive spin on this event, saying that the Frankish forces eventually coalesced to give chase to the Saxons, with “those who escaped returned to Saxony in utter disgrace.” For some reason though, we just have a hard time believing the Saxons were feeling too bad for themselves - or too disgraced - after having given the Franks - who were by far the larger and much more powerful source - yet another black eye.
This tit-for-tat continued year in and year out, with each year typically ending in the Franks returning to their homelands to rest, rearm, and refit over the winter months. Then came 782. In 782, Charles had had enough and he conducted more administrative divisions of Saxon land during an assembly at Lippspringe. To wash these divisions down, he also decided to introduce a new set of rules for the Saxons to follow, the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae, the Ordinances Concerning Saxony. These ordinances offered punishments for breaking Church rules and also imposed taxation on the Saxons to pay for the administrative divisions they never asked for. And when we say “punishments,” well, we mean capital punishment for all sorts of offenses, some of which were pretty minor, like failing to observe fasting days. And if a crafty Saxon may have thought they could circumvent these new rules by not becoming a Christian - and therefore not being a member of the Church - well, the Ordinances had them covered: failing to accept baptism was also a capital offense.
All of this led to large numbers of Saxons choosing to forego the appearance of submission to the Franks, and instead seek out Widukind and his forces for rebellion. They assembled in the Süntel Heights and prepared for battle, unaware they were on the cusp of one of the Saxon’s biggest victories. The Saxons actually outnumbered the Franks at this juncture, but the Franks were comprised of both infantry and cavalry forces, all well-trained and equipped. The Franks, as the heavy favorite in any open battle, probably suffered from more than their fair share of hubris, and in particular this seems to have been the case with their commanders, Count Theodoric (the King’s kinsman), Adalgis, and Gailo. We will now turn it over to the Revised Royal Frankish Annals for insight into what happened next:
“After Theodoric had pitched camp in this locality, the East Franks, as they had planned with the count, crossed the river, so as to be able to pass more easily around the mountains, and pitched camp on the river bank. When they discussed matters among themselves, they feared that the honor of victory might be Theodoric's alone if they should fight at his side. Therefore, they decided to engage the Saxons without him. They took up their arms and, as if he were chasing runaways and going after booty instead of facing an enemy lined up for battle, everybody dashed as fast as his horse would carry him for the place outside of the Saxon camp, where the Saxons were standing in battle array. The battle was as bad as the approach. As soon as the fighting began, they were surrounded by the Saxons and slain almost to a man. Those who were able to get away did not flee to their own camp but to Theodoric's on the other side of the mountain. The losses of the Franks were greater than the number might reveal since 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.”
Now, this is pretty bad, but as is usual for the RFA, it fails to give much credit to the Saxons. It preferred instead - with the line “The battle was as bad as the approach” - to lay the blame for the defeat on the Frank’s shortcomings rather than crediting the Saxon’s abilities. Sidney Dean, who we quoted earlier, had more insight into the Saxon battle plans:
“Unbeknownst to the Franks, Widukind had stationed a large number of archers in the forests along the right (unprotected) flank of the attacking cavalry. As the horsemen neared the Saxon shield-wall, the archers struck, killing and maiming the horses and injuring riders. Additional archers probably shot from the walls of the fort as well. Their momentum broken and for the most part unhorsed, the Frankish soldiers attempted to rally but were surrounded, separated into isolated contingents, and systematically cut down... Afterwards, a stream northeast of the Hohenstein became known as the Blutbach, or “Blood Stream.”
In all, Frankish losses were heavier than anything Charles would have been expecting. Dean claims that at least two-thirds of the deployed cavalry in this engagement were wiped out, which is a staggering number for almost any military engagement. Besides the fact that the remaining third almost certainly did not emerge completely unharmed, we also have to think of the sheer size of this calamity in a more time-based sense. Producing horses suitable for war, crafting armor, training both horses and riders, as well as all of the attendant support activities that play into this level of military development and training, would require lots of money, and more importantly, lots of time. Quite simply, Charles may very well have considered this loss to be unacceptable on various levels, and as such, this helps to inform us as regards the actions he is about to take. Once more from the RFA:
“When he heard of this, the Lord King Charles entered Saxony and questioned the primores of the Saxons, all of whom he had summoned to attend him, as to who was responsible for the rebellion that had taken place. And since they all declared that Widukind was the author of this wickedness but were unable to deliver him up... no fewer than 4,500 of the others, those who had fallen in with his promptings and committed such a gross outrage, were handed over and... at the king’s command, all beheaded in a single day.”
Widukind was not among those caught and beheaded, and is said to have again fled to Nordmannia. The fact that he fled likely speaks to just how large a defeat the Saxon rebels had just inflicted. Charles would have had no choice but to react. Pride certainly would have played into this, but more than that, the Frankish King would have been forced to show that no such deed could go unanswered. Throw into the mix the unveiling of the previously mentioned Saxon Capitulary and its arrangement of capital offenses, and the Battle of the Süntel Heights would have seemed an unspeakable transgression when something so minor as not observing a day of fasting could also result in death. Finally, as we noted that Widukind realized the scale of his success and chose to flee as a result, let’s consider how the Saxon nobles who were not a part of the rebellion must have felt at this moment. These were men who had accepted Charles’s land, money, and religion, and they had been unable to govern their people to the point where an entire army assembled under their noses. They too would know that punishment was coming, and they would have needed to have an offering ready if they did not want their heads to be the ones on offer. Hence the 4,500: Charles did not need to use his army to fight yet another battle. He simply needed to arrive at Verden and hold court. The 4,500 were a reminder to everyone of the penalty for revolt, and were also a sizable sacrifice on the side of the Saxon nobles.
But, did Charles really kill 4,500 unarmed men in a single day in 782? Was this feat even possible, from a logistical point of view? Forty-five hundred people is just a very large number. As a point of reference, the French Revolution, of which the modern remembrance is centered around the guillotine and the Reign of Terror, resulted in 2,639 people beheaded in Paris between January 1793 and the summer of 1794. So the idea of 4,500 in a single day seems extremely high, and more than likely, the authors of the RFA chose to enlarge the number for shock value. We were unable to find any reason for that particular number, but even if it was a simple enlargement by adding a zero to the end, 450 is still a large number of individuals being executed, without evidence, by a “Christian” ruler.
No matter what exactly happened at Verden, it is clear that from this point forward Charles had had enough. And his bad mood could have been derived from much more than just the Saxons. In 778, Charles incurred the most shocking loss of his career in Spain (and we’re going to talk about that in greater detail in the next episode), and in 783, his wife, Hildegard, died. Remember, this was Charles’s first great Queen, his third wife overall but the first he had chosen for himself. Finally, Charles’s mother, Bertrada, died in 783. This was an ascendant King, a man who had been used to winning easily and often. Here we see, in the space of five years, a humbling of sorts. Losses in Spain, deaths of beloved family members, and the ongoing rebellion in Saxony may have all served to change his outlook. If nothing else, we see a heavier approach taken to Saxony. According to Johannes Fried:
“Hostage taking and deportations were designed to break any last vestiges of resistance. Charlemagne himself, meanwhile, became more heavily involved in the campaign, donning his chain mail, taking up his sword, and launching himself into battle. Einhard reports that, in the course of 783, Charlemagne was twice impelled by his fury to personally engage in the fighting. Widukind at least managed to escape the bloody massacre at Verden unscathed. But the following year, even he was finally forced to capitulate in the face of overwhelming Frankish superiority after many years of brave and imaginative resistance and to surrender alongside his stepson, Abbi.”
Now, the capitulation of Widukind did not completely end the Saxon resistance. Pockets would go on for years, but this was still a pretty dramatic turning point in the fight. As a frame of reference for just how big this was, consider that the capitulation marks only the third event we have discussed in the past three seasons of this show that has risen to the level of getting a portrait in Versaille’s Gallery of Battles. The first was Clovis’s battlefield conversion at the Battle of Tolbiac in 496, and the second was Charles Martel’s 732 victory over the invading Islamic caliphate at the Battle of Tours. Additionally, for all of the military successes Charles had over the course of his nearly 50-year-long reign, this is the only image that found its way to such a high level of recognition. So yes, bringing Widukind under control and getting him to convert was a pretty big deal.
CONCLUSION: War against the Saxons may very well have started out as a war of expansion, or even protection, that used religion as a minor reason for its justification. However, once the war became more bitter, protracted, and intense than it had originally been envisioned, religion became an increasingly strong justification to explain its length and conduct. In 2013, Alexander Scott Dessens noted that prior to 772:
“The Saxons had developed an affinity for raiding the eastern borderlands of the kingdom, even crossing the Rhine... The easily traversable plains of the borderlands saw “murder, robbery, and arson in turn” without cease, by which the Franks were “so greatly irritated... that the Saxons were judged worthwhile to undertake open war against.”
Once the Irminsul was destroyed, things started to escalate, religion-wise, and by 775 the RFA tell us that Charlemagne “resolved to wage war on the perfidious and treaty-breaking people of the Saxons... until they had either been overcome and subjected to the Christian religion or totally exterminated.” Even here in 775, however, it seems that religion had taken a larger role in the war justification, but much of the disdain for the Saxons was still decidedly secular: They were “perfidious and treaty-breaking people.”
Fast forward ten years, to 785. At this point, huge numbers of people have been killed, either for their refusal to be baptized or, worse, their lapsing back into the pagan faith after having received Christian baptism. The First Saxon Capitulary, commonly known as the “terror capitulary,” offered strict and severe punishments - meted out by government forces - for failing to conform to religious mandates. And then there was Widukind’s submission. But one has to ask: Was Widukind submitting to Christianity or to the Franks? The image in the Gallery of Battles does little to shed light on this question, as it shows Widukind kneeling next to his discarded armor and with his eyes cast down before Charlemagne. It’s the great King who is in turn is pointing toward the Church’s representatives and the Cross. In this sense, the picture does a wonderful job of capturing how everything was interrelated. By 785, the religious and the secular were, more and more, flowing together.
Of course, the use of religion to bolster the legitimacy and power of government far pre- dated Charles in the Frankish and Roman histories. Caesar Augustus, arguably the greatest Roman Emperor of all time, had crowned himself as pontifex maximus in 12 BC. Later, Emperor Constantine tied himself to Christianity in the 4th century. Constantine was revered by many, to include Charles, for his fight against the heathens; according to Linda Seidel:
“The selected use of monumental Constantinian architectural forms had already given visual expression to this idea of the Carolingian Charles as the Early Christian’s successor.”
And of course, amongst the Franks, we have seen Clovis I tie himself to the Church and receive honors from Rome. Later we saw Pépin I offering to directly help the Church; in return, the Pope anointed him and gave de facto approval of the transition from the Merovingians to the Carolingians. It would seem, with the history of this building tension between the Papacy and the Carolingians, that it would only be a matter of time before things were to progress to yet another level.
Charles was a King, but if he kept things going at their current pace and trajectory - if he could truly express himself as a new Constantine - he might just convince the Pope that he was ready to be an Emperor.
OUTRO: Alright, that is all for this episode. Thank you again for listening; if you enjoyed it and want to read the transcript or any of the transcripts for the now 50-plus episodes we’ve put out, we invite you to head on over to ThugsAndMiracles.com. There you’ll find those, our French Monarchy Tree, and a sign-up area for our newsletter. You can also look through past podcast episodes and special features, such as our interview with Shelley Puhak. If you haven’t had the chance to listen to our conversation with the author of The Dark Queens, please, do yourself a favor and check out what she had to say about Fredegunda and Brunhilda. The walk down memory lane was totally worth it.
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Alright, again, my name is Benjamin Bernier. When we come back in ten days, we will be looking at where else Charlemagne was getting into the business of expansion. We’ve looked at Germany and and we’ve looked at Italy, but what about Spain and the Muslim South? We’re sure nothing could possibly go to wrong in a conflict between 8th century Christians and Muslims, right? Well, we’ll find out whether that was the case or not in just ten days, on the next episode of Thugs and Miracles.