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“Widukind? A freedom fighter?” my Frankish characters say. “Are you mad? He’s burned churches. His murderers killed indiscriminately.”

“Widukind is a hero,” my Saxon characters reply. “He will rid us of these foreign invaders who destroyed our sacred pillar and stole our territory. When we promise to follow their odd religion, they demand money.”

So, whose side is right? Both.

To eighth-century Saxons, the Westphalian nobleman was a freedom fighter. As a 21st century tolerant American, I cannot condone his burning of churches or slaughter of war captives. Nor can I condone the Franks’ destruction of a sacred monument, coerced baptism, or shaking down anyone for tithes.

Widukind Memorial

Widukind memorial in Herford, Germany (Photo by M. Kunz, GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

When events are seen though medieval eyes, however, the reality becomes even more complicated. When a vanquished party swore an oath of loyalty, he invoked the divine. To a medieval Christian, there was only one true God to make the vow valid. Pagan deities were devils, and they would only need to point out the human sacrifices.

In the pagans’ minds, those sacrifices of war captives were a thanksgiving for victory. Instead of enslaving the captives, the victors offered them to the war god. And the churches they burned were symbols of foreign oppression.

Most factual information about Widukind comes from the Franks and their Christian allies. We have no way of knowing what eighth-century Continental Saxons thought. They did not have a written language as we know it. But we can glean a couple of insights:

  • The Saxon must have seen the Franks as oppressors. As his contemporaries complain of Saxons breaking their vows of loyalty to God and king, Alcuin of York, a scholar in Charlemagne’s court, writes letters pleading with fellow Christians to educate the Saxons before baptizing them and to stop demanding tithes—better to lose the money than the souls.
  • Widukind must have been charismatic. Between 777 and 785, Widukind repeatedly led Saxons to battle and inflicted damage. But then the Franks would come and chase away his forces, and Widukind would escape. Even after Charles ordered the execution of 4,500 Saxon men—revenge and justice for a disastrous Frankish defeat—Widukind was still an influence.

In late 784, Charles made the bold move to attack Saxony in winter at a time when most wars were fought in spring and summer. With unpredictable weather, no grass in the fields for the horses to graze, and no crops to raid for warriors’ food, the cold, dark months were bad for fighting. Charles spent Christmas at a villa in Saxony and eventually moved to Eresburg, captured almost 13 years before. He used the fortress as a base in the spring and summer then held an assembly in Paderborn.

That is when things changed. As Charles gained more territory, perhaps Widukind realized his enemy was relentless. Maybe he was losing support among his own people. Whatever the reason, he decided to negotiate.

The Franks see Widukind’s baptism in 785 as a victory, but it might be more accurate to see it as a bargain.

Widukind's Submission

19th century painting by Ary Scheffer (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Before Widukind traveled to Attigny to go through the rite, he and Charles exchanged hostages, something two peers did to ensure their adversary behaved themselves. When Widukind made his vow, Charles was his godfather and presented him with gifts. In essence, Widukind had Charles’s protection against the monarch’s own Frankish subjects.

Perhaps the deal was for Widukind to convert to Christianity, pay tribute to Charles, and quit burning churches so that he could return to his land. The annals don’t mention Widukind after 785, but he may have founded a few abbeys, a typical penance for a nobleman.

Even after his conversion, Widukind was still revered by Saxons. A 10th century historian bears his name. That scholar, Widukind of Corvey, dedicated the history of his people to Matilda, a royal woman who claimed the eighth-century Westphalian leader as an ancestor.

This post was originally published April 14, 2014, at Unusual Historicals.