29 October 2014

The Battlefield and Beyond: The Destruction of the Irminsul

The Franks and Continental Saxons had been battling each other for a long, long time, but the war of 772 was different. It was a fight both for territory and for souls.

It was also Charlemagne’s first war in Saxony. He was merely King Charles then and relatively new to the throne. He and his brother, Carloman, each inherited half the kingdom four years earlier, when his dying father split the realm. After Carloman’s death in December 771, Charles seized his late brother’s lands, assuming sole rule of Francia.

When he decided to invade Saxony, Charles was no stranger to war. He was age 24 and had ruled some Frankish territory for less than a year.

The reason for the attack on Eresburg is open to speculation. Perhaps, the Saxons had stopped paying yearly tribute won from the previous war 14 years ago, while Pepin and then Charles were distracted with the wars in Aquitaine. Charles might have thought to let such insolence go unanswered would weaken him. Perhaps, Charles was trying to protect Church interests in pagan lands, or he saw the Saxons as a threat with the fortress of Eresburg so close to the Frankish border.

The Frankish annals don’t give us a play by play of the battles, and the Continental Saxons didn’t have a written language as we know it. However, Charles’s army marched to Eresburg after an assembly at Worms and captured a hilltop fortress in a strategic location. Then the Frankish king ordered the destruction of the Irminsul, a pillar sacred to the Saxon peoples.

We don’t know the Irminsul’s location, what it was made of, and even if there was only one. But one thing is certain: Charles was trying to prove something, just as Saints Boniface and Willibrord did decades ago when they violated pagan sites. The message to the pagans: Our God is stronger than those devils you worship.

The Royal Frankish Annals report that the Christians got divine assistance in demolishing the pillar. Because of a drought, the army did not have enough water to stay an extra day or two and complete their work. Suddenly around noon, a stream appeared and the men could finish the destruction and take the shrine’s gold and silver.

With that part of the mission accomplished, Charles’s army advanced to the Weser River, where they parleyed with the Saxons and got 12 hostages, sons from important families and a medieval form of insurance. If the vanquished behaved themselves, the hostages were guests. If they reneged on their promises, the hostages could be killed or sold into slavery.

But maybe Charles wanted another type of insurance, one with higher stakes than the hostages’ lives. When two parties made an agreement, they swore oaths and invoked the divine, but to Charles, only one deity was valid. So it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that a Saxon leader was baptized and then made his vow, putting his soul on the line.

Threats to body and soul did not keep the peace. The 772 war was only the beginning of what would be a decades-long, bitter struggle with burned churches, forced conversions, mass murder, mass executions, deportation, and other brutality on both sides.


Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by
Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

Charlemagne, Roger Collins

Kim Rendfeld learned about the destruction of the Irminsul while researching her first novel, The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press). That historic event so intrigued her, she had to write a second book from the Saxon perspective, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (2014, Fireship Press), in which a mother will go to great lengths to protect her children. To read the first chapters of either novel or learn more about Kim, visit kimrendfeld.com. You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.