When Charlemagne decided to invade Saxony in 772, he took spiritual warriors in addition to those guys with the spears and swords. Whether St. Sturm, the abbot of Fulda, was with Charles during those battles is not clear, but the king of the Franks put him in charge of the Christian mission in a large part of the conquered territory.
Charles’s wars against Saxony were different than those his ancestors had fought. It was the first time religion was part of the conflict. Perhaps, Charles wanted to protect Church interests. Perhaps he thought Saxons were more likely to keep their oaths if they put their souls on the line. Treaties were secured with vows that invoked deities. To Charles, only one was valid.
Whatever his reasons, Charles put his trust in Sturm, who had been a priest for about 40 years. He had grown up near Saxon territory in the monastery at Fritzlar, where he was an eager student. With the exception of a trip to Rome and two years in exile, he had lived in the region most of his life and had advised Charles on his relationship with the king’s first cousin Tassilo, the duke of Sturm’s native Bavaria.
The most influential person in Sturm’s life was St. Boniface, who had also tried to covert pagan peoples. At Boniface’s urging, Sturm and two companions spent nine years in forested wilderness seeking a suitable spot to start a new monastery. Medieval folk depended on the forest for survival, but it was also the home of predators, both beasts and evil spirits.
Boniface, then the archbishop of Mainz, had rejected their first choice, which Sturm’s hagiographer, Eigil, described as “a wild and uninhabited spot and [they] could see nothing except earth and sky and enormous trees.” The reason, ironically, was it was too close to pagan Saxons to be safe.
So Sturm tried again, and he finally found the right place on the Fulda River. His contemporaries probably saw it as the middle of nowhere. However, Boniface believed God had picked the place and successfully appealed to Frankish Mayor of the Palace Carloman to donate the land. Boniface later visited the site to give it his blessing.
The year was 744, when the Franks, under the rule of Carloman and his brother Pepin, were at war with the Saxons. Again. Despite the battles in Saxony, some of which involved Carloman and Pepin’s troublesome half-brother Grifo, the monastery at Fulda thrived, and Sturm visited Rome to better learned the Benedictine way of life.
An 11th century image of St. Boniface baptizing converts and being martyred.
Tangling over Relics
In 754, Boniface was martyred while trying to convert pagans in Frisia, and his body was taken back to Francia. That was the beginning of Sturm’s political troubles.
When the relics reached Mainz, its archbishop, St. Lull, also a disciple of Boniface, wanted the martyr’s body to remain in his city. Sturm insisted that Boniface be taken to Fulda, a wish his mentor had expressed while still alive. Martyr’s relics were treasured in the Middle Ages, and they were attributed with miraculous powers. Pilgrims would flock to those relics, which meant alms for the church housing them.
According to Eigil, Boniface himself weighed in by appearing to a deacon in a dream and asking why he wasn’t being taken to Fulda. Lull was not convinced until the deacon swore at the altar. The relics went to Fulda, but Lull retaliated in a distinctly medieval way.
Lull accused Sturm of disloyalty to Pepin, now king and sole ruler of Francia. Sturm made no effort to defend himself and placed his trust in God. Believing the accusers, Pepin sent Sturm and some companions to the Abbey of Jumièges, where they were treated well.
In the meantime, Lull had managed to get Fulda placed under his jurisdiction and appointed a new abbot, but the monks at Fulda refused to accept the bishop’s puppet. So Lull caved and let them elect one of their own. They choose a monk whom Sturm had mentored and, along with nuns in convents and the faithful at other churches, prayed for Sturm to be restored to Fulda.
The prayers worked. Pepin sent for Sturm and in a chapel told him he had forgotten what they were quarreling over. Sturm replied he wasn’t perfect but has never committed any crime against Pepin. To signify the reconciliation, the king pulled a thread from his own cloak and let it fall to the floor.
So Sturm went back to Fulda, and the monastery would claim Pepin as its sole protector, making it independent of Mainz.
Saint Boniface’s Crypt, Fulda Cathedral, Germany (image released to public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
A New King and New Missions
When Pepin died in 768, he split the kingdom between sons Charles and Carloman (the Franks were fond of recycling names). Seeking divine favor and earthly alliances, Charles gave donations to Fulda. He also made Sturm an emissary between him and the duke of Bavaria.
Eigil says Sturm established friendly relations between the royal cousins for several years. Well, not exactly. In fairness to Sturm, even the most gifted diplomat would have difficulty with those two. Relations might have been good while Charles was married to a Lombard princess, the sister of Tassilo’s influential wife. When he assumed sole rule of Francia, Charles divorced the Lombard after only a year and then overthrew his ex-father-in-law. The duchess of Bavaria never forgave the Frankish king.
Sturm had other affairs to deal with when Charles invaded Saxony four years into his reign and destroyed the Irminsul, a pillar sacred to the Saxon peoples, the same way Boniface had felled a tree sacred to pagans. The message: My God is stronger than those devils you worship.
1882 illustration by Heinrich Leutemann (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Sturm embraced his new mission. He preached to the Saxon converts and exhorted them to destroy pagan groves and temples and build churches instead.
But as soon as Charles was occupied elsewhere, pagan Saxons attacked Christian sites. Then Charles would send Frankish warriors to put down the rebellion. This cycle would repeat itself for decades.
While Charles was in Spain in 778, the Saxons devastated Christian holdings and killed indiscriminately all the way to the Rhine. When Charles got word, he sent soldiers to put down the rebellion, and the Saxons retreated. But the monks at Fulda feared an attack and fled with Boniface’s relics. They spent three days in tents in the forest until they learned that the locals had fended the Saxons off.
Charles still wanted Sturm to lead the Christian mission, but the aged man was ill. The king assigned the royal physician to attend to him. One day, the physician gave Sturm a potion to make him feel better, but the patient got worse and realized he was going to die. He asked his brothers for forgiveness and in turn forgave those who wronged him, including Lull.
Sturm died Dec. 17, 779. The monks had no doubt that Sturm was going to heaven and would have a special relationship with God.
This post was orginally published Nov. 12, 2014, at Historical Fiction Research.
Eigil’s Life of Sturm
Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers
Pierre Riché’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, translated by Jo Ann McNamara
Pierre Riché’s The Carolingians: The Family Who Forged Europe, translated by Michael Idomir Allen