Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Charles Morris

Wittekind, the Saxon Patriot

As Germany, in its wars with the Romans, found its hero in the great Arminius, or Hermann; and as England, in its contest with the Normans, found a heroic defender in the valiant Hereward; so Saxony, in its struggle with Charlemagne, gave origin to a great soul, the indomitable patriot Wittekind, who kept the war afoot years after the Saxons would have yielded to their mighty foe, and, like Hereward, only gave up the struggle when hope itself was at an end.

The career of the defender of Saxony bears some analogy to that of the last patriot of Saxon England. As in the case of Hereward, his origin is uncertain, and the story of his life overlaid with legend. He is said to have been the son of Wernekind, a powerful Westphalian chief, brother-in-law of Siegfried, a king of the Danes; yet this is by no means certain, and his ancestry must remain in doubt. He came suddenly into the war with the great Frank conqueror, and played in it a strikingly prominent part, to sink again out of sight at its end.

The attempt of Charlemagne to conquer Saxony began in 772. Religion was its pretext, ambition its real cause. Missionaries had been sent to the Saxons during their great national festival at Marclo. They came back with no converts to report. As the Saxons had refused to be converted by words, fire and sword were next tried as assumed instruments for spreading the doctrines of Christ, but really as effective means for extending the dominion of the monarch of the Franks.

In his first campaign in Saxony, Charlemagne marched victoriously as far as the Weser, where he destroyed the celebrated Irminsul, a famous object of Saxon devotion, perhaps an image of a god, perhaps a statue of Hermann that had become invested with divinity. The next year, Charles being absent in Italy, the Saxons broke into insurrection, under the leadership of Wittekind, who now first appears in history. With him was associated another patriot, Alboin, Duke of Eastphalia.

Charles returned in the succeeding year, and again swept in conquering force through the country. But a new insurrection called him once more to Italy, and no sooner had he gone than the eloquent Wittekind was among his countrymen, entreating them to rise in defence of their liberties. A general levy took place, every able man crowded to the ranks, and whole forests were felled to form abatis of defence against a marching enemy.

Again Charles came at the head of his army of veterans, and again the poorly-trained Saxon levies were driven in defeat from his front. He now established a camp in the heart of the country, and had a royal residence built at Paderborn, where he held a diet of the great vassals of the crown and received envoys from foreign lands. Hither came delegates from the humbled Saxons, promising peace and submission, and pledging themselves by oaths and hostages to be true subjects of Charles the Great. But Wittekind came not. He had taken refuge at the court of Siegfried, the pagan king of the Danes, where he waited an opportunity to strike a new blow for liberty.

Not content with their pledges and promises, the conqueror sought to win over his new subjects by converting them to Christianity in the wholesale way in which this work was then usually performed. The Saxons were baptized in large numbers, the proselyting method pursued being, as we are told, that all prisoners of war must  be baptized, while of the others all who were reasonable would  be baptized, and the inveterately unreasonable might be bribed  to be baptized. Doubtless, as a historian remarks, the Saxons found baptism a cool, cleanly, and agreeable ceremony, while their immersion in the water had little effect in washing out their old ideas and washing in new ones.

The exigencies of war in his vast empire now called Charlemagne to Spain, where the Arabs had become troublesome and needed chastisement. Not far had he marched away when Wittekind was again in Saxony, passing from tribe to tribe through the forests of the land, and with fiery eloquence calling upon his countrymen to rise against the invaders and regain the freedom of which they had been deprived. Heedless of their conversion, disregarding their oaths of allegiance, filled with the free spirit which had so long inspired them, the chiefs and people listened with approval to his burning words, seized their arms, and flew again to war. The priests were expelled from the country, the churches they had built demolished, the castles erected by the Frank monarch taken and destroyed, and the country was laid waste up to the walls of Cologne, its Christian inhabitants being exterminated.

But unyielding as Wittekind was, his great antagonist was equally resolute and persistent. When he had finished his work with the Arabs, he returned to Saxony with his whole army, fought a battle in 779 in the dry bed of the Eder, and in 780 defeated Wittekind and his followers in two great battles, completely disorganizing and discouraging the Saxon bands, and again bringing the whole country under his control. This accomplished, he stationed himself in their country, built numerous fortresses upon the Elbe, and spent the summer of 780 in missionary work, gaining a multitude of converts among the seemingly subdued barbarians. The better to make them content with his rule he treated them with great kindness and affability, and sent among them missionaries of their own race, being the hostages whom he had taken in previous years, and who had been educated in monasteries. All went well, the Saxons were to all appearance in a state of peaceful satisfaction, and Charles felicitated himself that he had finally added Saxony to his empire.

He deceived himself sadly. He did not know the spirit of the free-born Saxons, or the unyielding perseverance of their patriotic leader. In the silent depths of their forests, and in the name of their ancient gods, they vowed destruction to the invading Franks, and branded as traitors all those who professed Christianity except as a stratagem to deceive their powerful enemy. Entertaining no suspicion of the true state of affairs, Charlemagne at length left the country, which he fancied to be fully pacified and its people content. With complete confidence in his new subjects, he commissioned his generals, Geil and Adalgis, to march upon the Slavonians beyond the Elbe, who were threatening France with a new barbarian invasion.

They soon learned that there was other work to do. In a brief time the irrepressible Wittekind was in the field again, with a new levy of Saxons at his back, and the tranquillity of the land, established at such pains, was once more in peril. Theoderic, one of Charlemagne's principal generals, hastily marched towards them with what men he could raise, and on his way met the army sent to repel the Slavonians. They approached the Saxon host where it lay encamped on the Weser, behind the Sundel mountain, and laid plans to attack it on both sides at once. But jealousy ruined these plans, as it has many other well-laid schemes. The leaders of the Slavonian contingent, eager to rob Theoderic of glory, marched in haste on the Saxons, attacked them in their camp, and were so completely defeated and overthrown that but a moity of their army escaped from the field. The appearance of these fugitives in the camp of Theoderic was the first he knew of the treachery of his fellow generals and their signal punishment.

The story of this dreadful event was in all haste borne to Charlemagne. His army had been destroyed almost as completely as that of Varus on a former occasion, and in nearly the same country. The distressing tidings filled his soul with rage and a bitter thirst for revenge. He had done his utmost to win over the Saxons by lenity and kindness, but this course now seemed to him useless, if not worse than useless. He determined to adopt opposite measures and try the effect of cruelty and severe retribution. Calling together his forces until he had a great army under his command, he marched into Saxony torch and sword in hand, and swept the country with fire and steel. All who would not embrace Christianity were pitilessly exterminated. Thousands were driven into the rivers to be baptized or drowned. Carnage, desolation, and destruction marked the path of the conqueror. Never had a country been more frightfully devastated by the hand of war.

All who were concerned in the rebellion were seized, so far as Charles could lay hands on them. When questioned, they lay all the blame on Wittekind. He was the culprit, they but his instruments. But Wittekind had vanished, the protesting chiefs and people were in the conqueror's hands, and, bent on making an awful example, he had no less than four thousand five hundred of them beheaded in one day. It was a frightful act of vengeance, which has ever since remained an ineradicable blot on the memory of the great king.


The baptism of WIttekind.

Its effect was what might have been anticipated. Instead of filling the Saxons with terror, it inspired them with revengeful fury. They rose as one man, Wittekind and Alboin at their head, and attacked the French with a fury such as they had never before displayed. The remorseless cruelty with which they had been treated was repaid in the blood of the invaders, and in the many petty combats that took place the hardy and infuriated barbarians proved invincible against their opponents. Even in a pitched battle, fought at Detmold, in which Wittekind led the Saxons against the superior forces of Charlemagne, they held their own against all his strength and generalship, and the victory remained undecided. But they were again brought to battle upon the Hase, and now the superior skill and more numerous army of the great conqueror prevailed. The Saxons were defeated with great slaughter, and the French advanced as far as the Elbe. The war continued during the succeeding year, by the end of which the Saxons had become so reduced in strength that further efforts at resistance would have been madness.

The cruelty which Charlemagne had displayed, and which had proved so signally useless, was now replaced by a mildness much more in conformity with his general character; and the Saxons, exhausted with their struggles, and attracted by the gentleness with which he treated them, showed a general disposition to submit. But Wittekind and his fellow-chieftain Alboin were still at large, and the astute conqueror well knew that there was no security in his new conquest unless they could be brought over. He accordingly opened negotiations with them, requesting a personal conference, and pledging his royal word that they should be dealt with in all faith and honesty. The Saxon chiefs, however, were not inclined to put themselves in the power of a king against whom they had so long and desperately fought without stronger pledge than his bare word. They demanded hostages. Charlemagne, who fully appreciated the value of their friendship and submission, freely acceded to their terms, sent hostages, and was gratified by having the indomitable chiefs enter his palace at Paderborn.

Wittekind was well aware that his mission as a Saxon leader was at an end. The country was subdued, its warriors slain, terrorized, or won over, and his single hand could not keep up the war with France. He, therefore, swore fealty to Charlemagne, freely consented to become a Christian, and was, with his companion, baptized at Attigny in France. The emperor stood his sponsor in baptism, received him out of the font, loaded him with royal gifts, and sent him back with the title of Duke of Saxony, which he held as a vassal of France. Henceforward he seems to have observed good faith to Charlemagne, for his name now vanishes from history, silence in this case being a pledge of honor and peacefulness.

But if history here lays him down, legend takes him up, and yields us a number of stories concerning him not one of which has any evidence to sustain it, but which are curious enough to be worth repeating. It gives us, for instance, a far more romantic account of his conversion than that above told. This relates that, in the Easter season of 785,—the year of his conversion,—Wittekind stole into the French camp in the garb of a minstrel or a mendicant, and, while cautiously traversing it, bent on spying out its weaknesses, was attracted to a large tent within which Charlemagne was attending the service of the mass. Led by an irresistible impulse, the pagan entered the tent, and stood gazing in spellbound wonder at the ceremony, marvelling what the strange and impressive performance meant. As the priest elevated the host, the chief, with astounded eyes, beheld in it the image of a child, of dazzling and unearthly beauty. He could not conceal his surprise from those around him, some of whom recognized in the seeming beggar the great Saxon leader, and took him to the emperor. Wittekind told Charlemagne of his vision, begged to be made a Christian, and brought over many of his countrymen to the fold of the true church by the shining example of his conversion.

Legend goes on to tell us that he became a Christian of such hot zeal as to exact a bloody atonement from the Frisians for their murder of Boniface and his fellow-priests a generation before. It further tells us that he founded a church at Enger, in Westphalia, was murdered by Gerold, Duke of Swabia, and was buried in the church he had founded, and in which his tomb was long shown. In truth, the people came to honor him as a saint, and though there is no record of his canonization, a saint's day, January 7, is given him, and we are told of miracles performed at his tomb.

So much for the dealings of Christian legend with this somewhat unsaintly personage. Secular legend, for it is probably little more, has contented itself with tracing his posterity, several families of Germany deriving their descent from him, while he is held to have been the ancestor of the imperial house of the Othos. Some French genealogists go so far as to trace the descent of Hugh Capet to this hero of the Saxon woods. In truth, he has been made to some extent the Roland or the Arthur of Saxony, though fancy has not gone so far in his case as in that of the French paladin and the Welsh hero of knight-errantry, for, though he and his predecessor Hermann became favorite characters in German ballad and legend, the romance heroes of that land continued to be the mythical Siegfried and his partly fabulous, partly historical companions of the epical song of the Nibelung.