10 October 2012

Executed: The Day the River Ran Red

Photos of where the Wesser and Aller Rivers meet in today’s Germany reveal a pastoral area, a far cry from the beheading of 4,500 men in 782. In one day. On the orders of King Charles, whom we now call Charlemagne.

Why would Charles do such a brutal act? Retribution.

The Franks and Continental Saxon peoples had been fighting for 10 years, off and on. Frankish sources say they would win the battles and the Saxons would give hostages and swear oaths of loyalty, only to make war again, destroying churches and killing indiscriminately.

“The Franks have never been involved in any struggle more prolonged, more bitter, or more laborious,” wrote Einhard, Charlemagne’s biographer. “For the Saxons—like almost all of the nations inhabiting Germania—are savage by nature, given to the cult of demons, and hostile to our religion. They do not find it dishonorable to violate or break divine or human laws.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have the Saxon side. At the time, they did not have a written language as we know it. What they might say, though, is an oath at knifepoint isn’t valid.

Not the First Fight

Widukind memorial in Herford, Germany,
rebuilt from an 1899 sculpture by
Heinrich Wefing, via Wikimedia Commons,
used under the terms of the GNU
Free Documentation License
The Franks blamed much of the trouble on Widukind. The Westphalian Saxon overlord had led the rebellion in 778, while Charles was busy in Spain (see my prior post on Unusual Historicals about the massacre atRoncevaux for more). The Royal Frankish Annals say the Saxons “committed many atrocities, such as burning the churches of God in the monasteries and other acts too loathsome to enumerate.”

Soldiers sent by Charles conquered the Saxons and another war followed in 779. A Frankish army advanced into Saxony in 780, but matters were settled.

So the spring of 782 held some promise for Charles. The Frankish king crossed the Rhine and held an assembly in Saxony at the source of the River Lippe. He received Norse and Avar dignitaries. All the Saxons were there, except Widukind.

Charles returned to Francia and sent an army to fight the Sorbs, a people between the Elbe and Salle, who were pillaging Saxon and Thuringian lands. But Widukind incited rebellion in Saxony. Instead of fighting the Sorbs, the Franks pursued Widukind and were joined by East Franks and a force led by Count Theodoric, Charles’s kinsman.

This combined force tracked the Saxon rebels to the Suntel Mountains, with plans to attack later. Had the Franks followed this original plan, the execution at Verden might not have taken place at all. But some East Franks were worried that Theodoric would get all the glory and decided not to wait.

“They took up their arms,” says the Revised Royal Frankish Annals, “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 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.”

A Political Vengeance

Verden, from the Aller River, via Wikimedia Commons,
used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License
The casualties included two of Charles’s envoys, four counts, and up to 20 other noblemen. When he learned of this disaster, Charles himself led a charge into Saxony. He caught up with the enemy to where the Aller and Wesser Rivers meet. “All denounced Widukind as the instigator of this wicked rebellion,” says the Revised RFA. But the Westphalian warrior was not among them, having escaped to Nordmannia (Denmark).

Charlemagne, around 812,
via Wikimedia Commons,
used under the terms of the
GNU Free Documentation License
Instead, the Saxons submitted to Charles and surrendered 4,500 leaders. Four years earlier, Charles had suffered a loss in the Pyrenees, one that could not be avenged because the perpetrators had scattered. And the Basques who had caused the massacre at Roncevaux were not about to burn churches or kill civilians.

The Saxons were different and had a history to prove it. Charles’s own counts likely would have demanded that the enemy who destroyed holy places and slaughtered young and old, men and women, pay a price.

“He never allowed any of them who perpetrated such perfidy to go unpunished,” Einhard wrote.

If Charles hoped to beat the Saxon peoples into submission with the execution of 4,500 men, he was mistaken. They attacked the very next year and would keep on fighting for years to come. He did make peace with Widukind in 785 with the Saxon leader’s baptism, where Charles served as godfather and by implication offered his protection. But even that peace came with a political price, a subject for another post.

Kim Rendfeld is the author of The Cross and the Dragon, which takes place in King Charles’s Francia 773-779, when the wars with the Saxons have already started. Her novel has been published by Fireship Press. For more about Kim and her fiction, visit www.kimrendfeld.com, read her blog at www.kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, connect with her on Goodreads at www.goodreads.com/Kim_Rendfeld, check out her Amazon page at www.amazon.com/author/kimrendfeld, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.