For Frankish King Charles (Charlemagne), building a palace at the Saxon settlement of Paderborn was a way to physically impose his will—a tangible symbol of his might. To make that symbol even more tangible, he held an assembly there in 777.
Perhaps that is why Paderborn made an attractive target. The Saxon peoples and Franks had a long history of fighting each other. Although the Saxons didn’t write down their side of the conflict, they likely saw Charles as an oppressor. In 778, with Charles occupied in Hispania (Spain), Saxons rose up against the Frankish king and burned down the palace. Charles rebuilt it and held another assembly there in 785. The Saxons again destroyed the palace in 794. Charles rebuilt it again.
Each time, it was an expensive endeavor for the materials, including imports befitting a palace, and craftsmen’s labor. The complex featured two large buildings: an audience hall and a church. About 34 feet wide and more than 100 feet long, the audience hall was a blend of Germanic and Roman architecture. It was made of mortared rubble and plastered and painted on the inside. And the church, when rebuilt in the 790s, was enlarged and include an outdoor platform for a throne.
Why make this investment—twice—in such hostile territory? Charles was proving was the ruler, and attempts to destroy his power were futile.
With that in mind, below is how I chose to portray how Fastrada, my heroine in Queen of the Darkest Hour, sees Paderborn as she arrives for the 785 assembly in Paderborn during the continuing wars with the Saxons.
Inside the bulwarks, her jaw dropped. The palace and church sat atop an incline, and their towers peeked from the walls surrounding them. But she was equally amazed by houses and huts in front of her.
“It looks like a Frankish city!” she said.
Charles grinned. “We were not going to let Widukind’s little fire defeat us.”
Fastrada reached for Charles’s hand. It had been seven years ago, when she had seen twelve winters, but she had not forgotten her father’s grim face when he recounted how Widukind’s Saxons had destroyed Paderborn while the Franks were doing God’s work in Hispania. Now that the city was rebuilt, what better way to show Charles’s power than to hold the assembly here?
Only the peasants who emerged from their homes were different. The men wore knee-length tunics and sheepskin cloaks similar to the Frankish style, but they had long hair and beards. The women favored sleeveless dresses held with brooches and covered their hair with voluminous veils. The expressions on their faces were mixed. Some people seemed curious; others were glowering.
The travelers rode toward the city’s center, passed through another gate, and entered a courtyard. Among the smaller structures and livestock pens stood the manor, a large, rectangular two-story stone building with square windows. The stone church about the same size was a few paces away. Fastrada straightened her shoulders. She was mistress of the palace and of these lands.
Inside the manor, the great hall would inspire awe in its guests. Bordered with delicate carvings near the ceiling, the plastered walls were painted with murals of saints and a Latin inscription in red letters. The columns were topped with thin pieces of marble forming geometric designs. Lamps overhead and a huge hearth would give the vast room its light after the sun set. Now, the windows were open for the summer air, and the hall was sweetened with the smell of fresh rushes on the floor. Opposite the entrance, Charles’s throne, made even higher with five steps, sat on a dais, and Fastrada’s ornately carved chair was beside it.
“This is what we need at Aachen and Ingelheim,” Charles whispered.
The Origins of Medieval Architecture: Building in Europe, A.D. 600-900, by Charles B. McClendon
Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers