There was great excitement throughout Saxony. Messengers had gone through the land summoning the people to a grand assembly, such as was held only in times of special business or grave danger. None knew the reason for the summons, but all knew that the great Frankish king Charles, or Charlemagne, as men had begun already to call him, had led his armies to the borders of Saxony. The men who were making their way over the forest paths to the place of meeting shook their heads gravely when his name was spoken.
The assembly came together, and still no one knew what was the reason for its call, until the oldest chief of the Saxons arose and said: "An ambassador has come from the Franks, and desires speech with the Saxon nation. If it be your will, he shall be called into your midst."
"Bring him into our presence," replied the chiefs, and a tall Frank, clad in the garb of a monk, was brought before them.
"I am a Christian bishop," he said, "and I come to tell you of my God. Your gods which you worship are no gods at all. They have no power, and it is wrong to worship them. Mine is the only true God. He is stronger than all others, and all who do not bow down before him are heathen. I call you to put aside your idols and give him honor and worship. Give up your religion and take mine. If you do not, I have something to tell you which has been revealed to me. A great and powerful king will come against you, whom God shall send to punish you. He will conquer your nation and wipe it out from the face of the earth. This will happen if you do not become Christians."
It was a queer way to preach Christianity, was it not? To us, who think of Christianity as a power to be trusted for all good qualities, it seems impossible that men should ever have spoken in this way. But this was a dark period in the world's history, when men did everything by force, and even the church did not know any other way to spread its teachings than by the sword.
The Frank was silent, and a murmur of indignation rose among the people, which soon grew into a cry of anger.
"What has he said to us? That our gods are no gods at all; that we must take his foreign god or his king will come upon us. It is an insult. Away with him, let him be put to death!"
Thus spoke the younger chiefs, whose blood ran hot in their veins; but the old men held them back as they would have fallen upon the stranger and taken him away.
"He is our guest," they said. "He has come to us as ambassador from the mighty Charles. Let him depart with our answer; let it not be said that an ambassador was murdered in the Saxon assembly."
Their words prevailed, and the Frankish monk went back to Charlemagne. What did he report? That the Saxons were a fierce and stubborn people, and that they refused to accept the God of the Christians. Charlemagne was angry at the message, and he called together a great council both of the men of the church and of the fighting men of the kingdom. They agreed that they would fight the rebellious Saxons and force them to become Christians.
"These people must not remain heathen, worshiping idols," declared Charlemagne. "It would be a disgrace to the Frankish church if we let heathen carry on their practices unchecked on our very borders. Saxony must be Christianized or wiped out."
With a great army he crossed over into Saxony, and this is the way he began his work. There was in the western part of Saxony, near the Frankish border, a sacred grove, the grove of Eresburg, which was situated at the top of a hill. Here the Saxons came to worship. They believed that the world was shaped like a great tree: the rays of the sun were the branches, the earth was the trunk. On the branches and at the roots lived the gods,—the sun and moon and stars, the wind, the thunder, the water gods, and many more. So they worshiped this all-sustaining world tree, and made a wooden likeness of it. They had been a wandering people before they settled between the Rhine and the Elbe, but wherever they went they had always kept with them this pillar of wood, called the Irminsul, which was carved in the likeness of the earth tree. Now, when they lived over a wide stretch of country and were split up into many tribes, they had put the Irminsul in the sacred grove at Eresburg, and here they came together as a nation, at certain seasons of the year, to pay honor to the symbol of their common faith.
Charlemagne had heard of this custom, and it seemed to him a terrible thing that these heathen should come together and worship an idol.
"If I destroy this idol," he said to himself, "I shall have done a service to God, and I shall have attacked at its source this terrible heathen belief."
Frankish soldiers scaled the hill of Eresburg and stepped within the sacred circle where only the priests of the Saxons might stand. They found there a hoard of gold and silver and many ornaments, deposited before the Irminsul as offerings by many generations of Saxons. These they distributed in the army. The sacred pillar they cut in pieces. In three days the work of destruction was finished,—the sacred grove had been cut down and a Frankish fort rose in its place.
That was the way Charlemagne went over to Christianize Saxony and to add it as a province to his empire. Do you wonder that he did not find it easy? Do you wonder that the Saxons rose up against this conqueror who had insulted their gods and threatened to take away their freedom, and that it Was thirty-three years from the time of his first entrance into Saxony before he felt that the province was surely his? That is a side of the matter which the Franks could not see, but which we can see very plainly.
In the first two years Charlemagne thought that he had conquered Saxony, as he had conquered other lands, by a few battles and marches and a show of Power. He had the chiefs come together and offer him allegiance. To the great king, accustomed to be obeyed, it seemed as if the story of independent Saxony was closed, and so perhaps it would have been if it had not been for one thing which the historian records in eight words, "Wittekind, chief of the Westphalians, was not there." Charlemagne did not know it; he did not care. He went back to Italy, rejoicing that another great section of Europe had been added so easily to his empire.
But Wittekind, chief of the Westphalians, had not been there. He had not intended to be there; he had urged the other chiefs not to be. In the breast of this Saxon chief burned a passion for independence which was like a torch shining out in these days of gloom and despondency and giving forth its light and heat till all Saxony caught fire and was aglow with the passion for freedom.
"The Franks think they have conquered us. The king has gone away and left his men to rule over us. He has burned down the sacred places of our religion. Shall we let any man, however strong, place us under the rule of foreigners and take away our gods, giving us a foreign god in their place?"
So spoke Wittekind; and so men began to speak all through the land; and the people rose, with him as their leader, and threw off the hated yoke of the Franks and tore down the forts which had been built. Then Charlemagne came back, and again he conquered. Again he summoned the chiefs of the defeated people to come and give him their allegiance, and again they dared not stay away; but again "Wittekind, chief of the Westphalians, was not there." When he saw that the people were yielding and that he could do his country no good by staying, he had crossed over to Denmark, to whose king he had given his sister in marriage, there to get help for the Saxons. This time Charlemagne wanted him; he had learned that it mattered that he was not there; but he could not get him.
Charlemagne stayed longer this time. He had found out that these people could not be subdued by one victory. He gave them laws which they hated very much,—laws taxing them one tenth of their income and of their labor to build Christian churches, and decreeing that every one who did not submit to be baptized must be killed. Along with the hateful laws he showed them his power and riches. "For the first time," says the chronicle, "the needy Saxons learned to know the abundance of wealthy Gaul, for Charles gave to them many lands, and costly vestments, heaps of silver, and rivers of mellow wine."
Still the people were very angry at the laws and taxes, which seemed to them like tribute, the badge of slavery. When Charlemagne went away to Spain to fight the Saracens, they sent to Denmark for Wittekind, and once more they rebelled. This time, however, many chiefs would not join in the fight for Saxon independence, because they had seen that under Charles they could be rich and prosperous.
For a short time Wittekind and his armies carried all before them. If his nation had stood by him, it would have gone hard with the Franks. They would have been forced to let the Saxons be an independent allied people. The people were with Wittekind; the chiefs were not. So the Saxons were defeated, and Charlemagne ruled once more in the land. "At last, with open roads and no man to gainsay him, he went where he would through Saxony."
The province seemed at last to be his, but Charlemagne was not satisfied, for, as before, "Wittekind, chief of the Westphalians, was not there." He was still at large, sheltered by the people, who were his devoted followers, in the wilderness beyond the Elbe. No man of the common people could have been bribed or tortured to give him up to the conqueror.
Now we see the real Charlemagne, Charles the Great, the wise emperor whose story was told in "Barbarian and Noble," whose name has been honored for all the centuries. He did not send soldiers to take the patriot. His anger was passed, and he did not desire to put him to death. He sent envoys—not Frankish envoys, who would have been suspected of some plot, but men of Saxon blood—to treat with the chief and ask him to come to a conference, and he bade them offer hostages as a pledge of good faith.
Wittekind met the emperor's offer in the same spirit. As Charlemagne knew that with Wittekind on his side there would be no leader of Saxon independence, so Wittekind had learned to his sorrow that with the other chiefs of the Saxon nation supporting Charlemagne resistance would be useless. With only one companion, his friend Abbio, he came to the royal palace. There on Frankish soil, at the river which separated Saxony from the Frankish kingdom, he submitted to Christian baptism. The emperor himself stood sponsor for the Saxon convert, loading him with christening gifts. Wittekind returned to Westphalia, where he lived to a good old age. Other chiefs, who had gone over to Charlemagne's side from love of wealth or desire for favor, deserted the emperor when they could no longer get these rewards. Amid all the later rebellions Wittekind remained faithful to his vow of allegiance.
Therefore when you honor Charlemagne, who built up a great united empire and spread civilization and Christianity over Europe, give honor also, as did he, to Wittekind, who was first his brave enemy and then his faithful subject. Charlemagne took away from the Saxons their laws and gave them better; he took away their heathen religion and gave them a better; he conquered them for the time, and it was well that he did; but he could not harm them, for he could not take away the spirit of independence, whose great hero was the patriot Wittekind.