Saxon Wars of Charlemagne

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Equestrian statuette of Charlemagne (9th century), today in the Louvre , a stately setting based on the equestrian statues of ancient Roman emperors.

The Saxon Wars of Charlemagne lasted from 772 to around 804. They began in the summer of 772 with the destruction of the Irminsul and a campaign by the Frankish King Charlemagne against the Saxons and ended in 804 with the submission of the Saxon northern Albingians and the appointment of the missionary Liudger became the first bishop of Münster in 805.

The Saxons, who settled in the area between the North Sea and the Harz Mountains or the Rhine and the Elbe , had already been partly tribute to the Merovingians , but never their subjects. They also stuck to Germanic traditions, which included not only religion and a rather loose tribal association, but also regular raids on Franconian territory. It is not historically certain whether Karl initially only wanted to prevent these raids or whether he had planned from the beginning a submission, Christianization and integration of the Saxons into the Frankish Empire .

While historical sources, in particular the Annales regni Francorum and the Vita Karoli Magni Einhard , provide very good information about the course of the Saxon Wars, there is little evidence of them in the archaeological evidence; the traces are marginal, there are no signs of depopulation in the area, and the deportations mentioned in the sources can not be proven archaeologically .


It was not only Charlemagne (747 / 748–814) who waged wars against the Saxons. In the first half of the 8th century, the Frankish caretaker Karl Martell and his sons marched against the Saxons more than ten times. In the course of the 7th century, the Saxons took possession of Westphalia - Radbod (Radboudus) should be mentioned here - without forming a state association like the Franks. Shortly after 700 the Franconian monarchy built large castles on its borders, of which the Büraburg near Fritzlar , from 742 the seat of a bishopric, and the Christenberg near Marburg are the most prominent. The Thuringian-Saxon border was secured in the same way. As early as the 7th century, castles were built in Hesse that are associated with the Franconian rule.

The castles of the 8th century in Saxon ownership are mainly known from Franconian written sources, for example the Hoohseoburg , which was conquered by the Franks in 743 in the Saxon-Thuringian border area, which was under the command of the Saxon Theodoric. The constant disputes between Christian Franks and pagan Saxons, which opened up to Christianity only reluctantly and with resistance, ultimately led to the great Saxon Wars of 772 to 804.


Destruction of the Irminsul

The destruction of the Irminsul on the most important meeting place of the Saxons led to an open uprising against the Franks in 772. Some researchers suspect that the Irminsul was a tall tree or wooden trunk and was seen as a symbol for the world pillar that supported the heavens. This does not correspond to the Nordic world ash Yggdrasil , which is to be understood as a world tree and not as a world pillar. One reason for the destruction of the Irminsul could be seen in a religious motif , similar to the felling of the Donar kingdom by the missionary Bonifatius . According to another assumption, the Irminsul was mainly the symbol of a central Thingplatz of the Saxons. Their destruction was therefore primarily an attack on the North Germanic " constitution " of the Saxons, which did not provide for a kingdom like the Franks. In this sense, the destruction of the Irminsul would be tantamount to the dissolution of the Saxon “ parliament ”. We can assume a mixture of both, i.e. religious and political motives.

Franconian successes and Saxon counterstrikes

The Franconian summer campaign in the same year was initially successful: Karl's armies advanced from bases on the left bank of the Rhine into Saxon territory and conquered, among other things, the Syburg (near Dortmund) and the Eresburg (today: Marsberg ), where the Irminsul is said to have stood, and pushed up to the Weser , behind which the Saxon settlement centers were ( Weser fortress ). Based on the first successes, Karl conducted negotiations with cooperative Saxon nobles and received hostages from them as pledge. During Karl's campaign in Italy against the Lombards , part of the Saxons, especially peasant groups led by Widukind , a Westphalian nobleman , continued the resistance and destroyed and plundered Frankish settlements, monasteries and churches, mainly in what is now the Rhineland .

Charles' campaign against the Saxons in 775 led the Frankish army via Syburg, Eresburg and Brunsberg near Höxter into the East Westphalian area to the Oker , where Hessi and other Saxons submitted to the Frankish king. The army march back under Karl took place via Hildesheim and Nordstemmen in the Bukkigau around Bückeburg, where the Saxon sub-tribe of the Engern had taken hostages to the Frankish king. From there, Karl moved to Hlitbeki ( Lübbecke ) to provide military support to his own people.

In the year 777, which is said to have been bloodless, a Frankish imperial assembly took place on Saxon soil for the first time , in the newly founded Karlsburg , the later Palatinate Paderborn . It was supposed to promote the conversion of the Saxons, for which, among other things, Anglo-Saxon missionaries from England were used. B. from the abbeys of Hersfeld and Fulda. Charlemagne strove, as in other conquered areas, to use the church with its branches ( monasteries ), its educational institutions and its administrative tradition ( bookkeeping ) as an administrative instrument in Saxony.

Exacerbated argument

The Saxons, in Charles's opinion, unfaithful, rearranged themselves and repeatedly raided Chattic places and fortresses in what is now Hesse. Led by their duke, the Westphalian nobleman Widukind , the Saxons, in contrast to earlier, rather poorly organized campaigns of conquest, now fought in open field battles. In the Battle of Laisa and Battenfeld in 778 the Saxons were defeated by a Frankish army. In 782 the Saxon state was divided into Frankish counties at the Reichstag in Lippspringe . In addition, Karl had taxes collected, pagan customs suppressed and compulsory conversions to Christianity carried out, which led to renewed outrage in part of the Saxons, especially from the peasant classes - while the nobility were partly on the side of the Franks. In the battle at the Süntel destroyed Widukind on Süntelgebirge in 782 a Frankish army, while Karl is on a campaign against the Sorbs was.

Karl is said to have responded to the persistent uprisings of the Saxons with brutal repression, including the notorious blood court of Verden in the same year ( see also Verden (Aller) ), in which thousands of Saxons were allegedly beheaded. In analogy to the blood court at Cannstatt by his uncle Karlmann , in which the entire Alemannic ruling class was wiped out, this approach seems quite likely. The number of 4,500 victims cited in the sources is shown in research as an exaggeration. Archaeological traces of such a massacre have not yet been found. Some researchers also believe that the event was possibly caused by a typographical error, which made delocabat ( "moved to") a decollabat ( "headless") to have become. This contradicts the interpretation that decollabat refers to 4500 Saxon nobles who had handed themselves over to him as hostages, so it was not a matter of "resettlement". Widukind had previously escaped to Denmark .

Karl also passed a special law ( Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae ), which disregarded the Christian order of the empire - u. a. Denigration of a priest or a church that punished the pagan cremation or the eating of meat on fasting days with the death penalty. Karl is also said to have specifically used deportations as a means of submission and pacification. Even in the closest vicinity of Charles this rigor met with reservations: abbot Alcuin - Anglo-Saxon scholar, from 796 abbot of Saint-Martin de Tours and confidant of the king of the Franks - urged restraint in a letter: According to the teachings of Scripture and the Church Fathers should one spread the word of God with sermons and not with the sword. Karl's brutality and uncompromising attitude earned him the nickname Sachsenschlächter .

In Detmold and in the Battle of the Hase there were skirmishes in the summer of 783, in which Saxon women are said to have rushed barbustily on the surprised Franks. Fastrada , daughter of Count Radulf, who became Charles's new wife after his wife Hildegard's death in 783, is said to have thrown herself into battle just as bare-chested.

Give in to Widukind

Despite their combative attitude, the Saxons got more and more distressed as a result. The turning point only occurred when Widukind was baptized in 785 (presumably in the royal palace of Attigny ) and swore the oath of allegiance to Karl, who acted as godfather. In addition to Attigny, eleven other places where Widukind was baptized are named in later sources, such as Hohensyburg, Paderborn and Worms .

While the Franks incorporated the Saxon tribal area, they reached Slavic settlement areas on the Elbe and were involved in the disputes between Danes, North Elbian Saxons and Slavs in Ostholstein. In 789 the Franks built two castles made of wood and earth on bridges over the Elbe against the Slavic Wilzen . It is suspected that this is already the Höhbeck Fort , but it cannot be clearly proven.

Last Saxony uprising

In 792 the last major uprising against the Franks took place as a reaction to a forced conscription (recruiting for the Avar Wars ). Karl reacted with forced deportations and gave away Saxon land to Franconians and their Abodritic allies (Wagrien, Plön / Ostholstein). The places of exile of the Saxons can still be recognized today by place names, such as Sachsenhausen . A large part of the Saxons now submitted, but until 804 (war campaign of the Franks to northern Elbe ) there were repeated unrest.

In addition to the repression, Karl also relied on the reconciliation between Franconia and Saxony: both at a synod in Bavaria in 796 and by his most important advisor, Alcuin, he was instructed that conversion was not the work of man but the work of God. The Church was skeptical of mass baptisms and emphasized that baptism should be preceded by instruction. Charles's resettlement policy and the taxation of the Saxons were also criticized. The warnings were not without consequences: in 797 the Capitulare Saxonicum relaxed the special laws. In 802 the Saxon people's law ( Lex Saxonum ) was enshrined . Of course, everything was left out of the old customs that stood in the way of Christianization. The creation of a comprehensive ecclesiastical infrastructure (establishment of dioceses in Paderborn (see Archbishopric Paderborn ), Münster, Bremen, Minden (see Hochstift Minden ), Verden and Osnabrück) gradually secured the incorporation, which was initially carried out with great cruelty over 30 years Saxony into the Frankish Empire and the Christianization of the Saxon people. For north-west Germany, this phase of the 9th century, which ended in 804/05, is considered to be the greatest violent upheaval in history. The Stellinga uprising represented a final aftermath.

With the Saxon Wars, the migration period in the north-west of the empire was finally over. The war against the Saxons was the hardest that the Frankish people waged, judges Karl's biographer Einhard . In the 10th century, after two centuries of integration into the Franconian Empire, the Saxons with the Ottonian dynasty formed the kings of the East Franconian Empire, who since 962 (Otto I) also became emperor of the western empire renewed by Charlemagne - a Christian empire in the Succession to the Western Roman Empire - were.


The Saxon Wars already played a gloomy role for Charlemagne in the early medieval popular legend formation (in contrast to official, ecclesiastical and authoritarian historiography) (e.g. Widukind legend ). The Frankish scholar Einhard calls this war "the most protracted, cruel and most exhausting for the Franconian people".

This assessment was particularly strong in neo-ethnic circles since the First World War and in the 1920s and 1930s, leading representatives of the National Socialists such as Heinrich Himmler were admirers of the Saxon Duke Widukind and his supposed struggle to preserve the Nordic, pagan culture against the "Welsche “Christianity of the Franks, which can be seen in the erection of a memorial for the murdered Saxons in Verden (Aller) .

Under the influence of Adolf Hitler himself, Karl was again drawn as a figure of light from around the mid-1930s. Hitler himself is said to have praised Karl during one of his table discussions in the Führer Headquarters on February 4, 1942, as "one of the greatest people in world history" because he had managed to "bring the German cross skulls together". On March 31, 1942, Hitler stated that he had warned the chief ideologist of the NSDAP, Alfred Rosenberg, not to “call a hero like Charlemagne as Karl the Saxon butcher ”.


  • Einhard : Vita Karoli Magni - The life of Charlemagne. Reclam, Stuttgart 1995, ISBN 3-15-001996-6 .
  • Annales regni Francorum .
  • Widukind von Corvey : The Saxon history of Widukind von Corvey. In: Sources for the history of the Saxon imperial era (= selected sources for the German history of the Middle Ages. Freiherr vom Stein-Gedächtnisausgabe. Vol. 8). Translated by Albert Bauer, Reinhold Rau. 5th edition, extended by a supplement compared to the 4th. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 2002, ISBN 3-534-01416-2 , pp. 1–183.


Web links


  1. This is true at least for Westphalia : Christoph Grünewald: Archeology of the early Middle Ages from the 5th to the 9th century in Westphalia. An overview. In: Archeology in East Westphalia . 9 (2005), ISSN  1434-3398 , pp. 71–86, here: p. 80 ( ( memento of November 20, 2018 in the Internet Archive ) [PDF; 2.1 MB; accessed on January 5, 2020 ]).