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The Saxon Wars were the campaigns and insurrections of the more than thirty years from 772, when Charlemagne first entered Saxony with the intent to conquer, to 804, when the last rebellion of disaffected tribesmen was crushed. In all, eighteen battles were fought in what is now northwestern Germanymarker. They resulted in the incorporation of Saxony into the Frankish realm and their conversion from Germanic paganism to Germanic Christianity.

Despite repeated setbacks, the Saxons resisted steadfastly, forever returning to raid Charlemagne's domains as soon as he turned his attention elsewhere. Their main leader, Widukind, was a resilient and resourceful opponent, but eventually was defeated and baptized (in 785).

The Saxons were divided into four subgroups in four regions. Nearest to the ancient Frankish kingdom of Austrasia was Westphalia and farthest away was Eastphalia. In between these two kingdoms was that of Engriamarker (or Engern) and north of these three, at the base of the Jutland peninsula, was Nordalbingia.

First phase

The wars began with a Frankish invasion of Saxon territory and the subjugation of the Engrians and destruction of their sacred symbol Irminsul near Paderbornmarker in 772 or 773; at Eresburgmarker. Irminsul may have been a hollow tree trunk, presumably representing the pillar supporting the skies—similar to the Nordic tree Yggdrasil. Charlemagne's campaign led all the way to the Weser river and destroyed several major Saxon strongholds. After negotiating with some Saxon nobles and obtaining hostages, Charlemagne turned his attention to his war against the Lombards in northern Italymarker. But Saxon free peasants, led by Widukind, continued to resist and raided Frankish lands in the Rhinemarker region. Armed confrontations continued unabated for years.

His second campaign came in the year 775. Then he marched through Westphalia, conquering their fort of Sigiburg, and crossed Engria, where he defeated them again. Finally, in Eastphalia, he defeated them and their leader Hessi converted to Christianity. He returned through Westphalia, leaving encampments at Sigiburg and Eresburgmarker. All Saxony but Nordalbingia was under his control, but the recalcitrant Saxons would not submit for long.

After warring in Italy, he returned very rapidly to Saxony (making to Lippemarker before the Saxons knew he left Italy) for the third time in 776, when a rebellion destroyed his fortress at Eresburg. The Saxons were once again brought to heel, though Widukind fled to the Danes. Charlemagne built a new camp at Karlstadt. In 777, he called a national diet at Paderborn to integrate Saxony fully into the Frankish kingdom. Many Saxons were baptised.

Charlemagne and the Saxons, A. de Neuville, c.1869

The chief purpose of the diet was to bring Saxony closer to Christianity. Missionaries, mainly Anglo-Saxons from Englandmarker, were recruited to carry out this task. Charlemagne issued a number of decrees designed to break Saxon resistance and to inflict capital punishment on anyone observing heathen practices or disrespecting the king's peace. His severe and uncompromising position, which earned him the title butcher of Saxons, caused his close adviser Alcuin of York, later abbot of Saint Martinmarker's at Toursmarker, to urge leniency, as God's word should be spread not by the sword but by persuasion. But the wars continued, as the Saxons fought ferociously for their freedom.

In Summer 779, Charlemagne again went into Saxony and conquered Eastphalia, Engria, and Westphalia. At a diet near Lippspringemarker, he divided the land into missionary districts and Frankish countships. He himself assisted in several mass baptisms (780). He then returned to Italy and, surprisingly, there was no Saxon revolt. From 780 to 782, the land had peace.

Middle phase

Charlemagne returned in 782 to Saxony and instituted a code of law and appointed counts, both Saxon and Frank. The laws were Draconian on religious issues, and the native paganism was gravely threatened. This stirred a renewal of the old conflict. That year, in Autumn, Widukind returned and lead a revolt which resulted in many assaults on the church. The Saxons invaded the area of the Chatti, a Germanic tribe already converted by Saint Boniface and firmly in Charlemagne's empire. Widukind annihilated a Frankish army at the Süntelgebirge while Charles was campaigning against the Sorbs. It was in response to this setback that Charlemagne allegedly at the Blood court of Verden ordered the beheading of 4,500 Saxons who had been caught practising paganism after converting to Christianity, while Widukind escaped to Denmarkmarker again. Upon this Blutgericht, modern (ie archaeological) research has cast some doubt, as no archeological evidence of such a massacre has been found and the original source may mistakenly have said "beheading" (decollabat) when it should say "exiling" (delocabat). The massacre led to two straight years of constant warfare (783-785), with Charlemagne wintering in central Saxony, at Mindenmarker. In 783, battles in Saxony saw Saxon women throw themselves bare breasted into battle. One of them was Fastrada, daughter of a Saxon count, who, in 784, became Charlemagne's fourth wife. Gradually, the Franks gained the upper hand. The turning point came in 785, when Widukind had himself baptized and swore fealty to Charlemagne. It was with the conclusion of this war that Charlemagne can have claimed to have conquered Saxony, the land had peace for the next seven years, though revolts continued sporadically until 804.

Conversion of the Saxons, A. de Neuville, c.1869

Final phase

In 792, the Westphalians rose up against their masters in response to forcible recruitment for wars against the Avars. The Eastphalians and Nordalbingians joined them in 793, but the insurrection did not catch on as previous ones and was completely put down by 794.

An Engrian rebellion followed closely in 796, but Charlemagne's personal presence and the presence of loyal Christian Saxons and Slav immediately crushed it. The last insurrection of the independently-minded people occurred in 804, more than thirty years after Charlemagne's first campaign against them. This time, the most unruly tribe of them all, the Nordalbingians, found themselves effectively disempowered to rebel. Charlemagne deported 10,000 of them to Neustria and gave their now vacant lands to the loyal king of the Abotrites. It is constructive now to quote Einhard, Charlemagne's biographer, on the closing of such a grand conflict:
The war that had lasted so many years was at length ended by their acceding to the terms offered by the King; which were renunciation of their national religious customs and the worship of devils, acceptance of the sacraments of the Christian faith and religion, and union with the Franks to form one people.

Towards the end of the wars, Charlemagne had begun to place more emhasis on reconciliation. In 797, he eased the special laws that had been so incendiary, and in 802, Saxon common law was codified as the Lex Saxonum. This was accompanied by the establishment of ecclesiastic structures (including bishopric in Paderborn, Münstermarker, Bremenmarker, Mindenmarker, Verden and Osnabrückmarker) which secured the initially brutal conversion of the Saxon people. The last Saxon uprising was the Stellinga, which occurred between 841 and 845.

Religious nature of the war

The Saxon Wars can be considered religious, in that Charlemagne proclaimed it a war to convert the pagans of Saxonymarker to Christianity, reminiscent of the later crusades. Although it was never formally proclaimed a crusade, it has been suggested that the Saxon wars were the main inspiration for the later proclamation of crusades against Islam, and certainly against pagan states such as Lithuaniamarker. The Saxon Wars also led to a domino effect of pagan states in Central Europe, such as Polandmarker converting to Christianity


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