"let him be punished by death” - Charlemagne's “Ordinances concerning Saxony”

28 October 797, the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae, the “Ordinances concerning Saxony” issued by Charlemagne prescribing death as punishment even for minor transgressions among the forcibly Christianised population of Lower Saxony were moderated into the Capitulare Saxonicum.

“If any one of the race of the Saxons hereafter concealed among them shall have wished to hide himself unbaptized, and shall have scorned to come to baptism and shall have wished to remain a pagan, let him be punished by death” (Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae, 785)

Hermann Wislicenus: "Charlemagne destroys the Irminsul" (1880)

After decades of war, it is always rather difficult to judge who started it. At the begin of the 8th century, raids into Frankish territory by the four Saxon tribes, the West- and Eastphalians, the Angrians and the Transalbingians as well as the Frisians, became rampant and the renowned Mayor of the Palace Charles Martel, Charlemagne’s grandfather, who actually had his hands full with establishing his own dynasty and save Europe from the Moors in Southern France, began to fight back. Or it was the other way around and Charles Martel invaded Saxony and Frisia to secure his own hinterland. Or it was a mixture of both. Charles’ son Pepin the Short continued fighting the Saxons and when Charlemagne finally became sole king of the vast Frankish Empire in 772, five major campaigns had already been launched into the tribal lands between the rivers Rhine, Weser and Elbe, forts and monasteries had been established, major pagan cult places were destroyed and the Saxons answered with sacking the forts and monasteries and the region remained a top trouble spot for the Franks.

Ary Scheffer (1795 - 1858): "Charlemagne receiving the submission of Witikind at Paderborn in 785"

Charlemagne finally decided to do the job of subduing the unruly Saxon properly. Rallying points like the Irminsul were destroyed, tribal forts either razed or occupied, new cities, like Paderborn and Osnabrück, founded in the occupied territories and monasteries fortified, people were baptised by force. The Saxons under their leader Widukind put up a fierce resistance and Frankish retribution was equally savage. At Verden on the river Aller (30 miles southwest of Bremen), Charlemagne had allegedly 4.500 rebellious Saxons executed and who tried to bury the death outside of a Christian cemetery, ate horse meat or was caught sacrificing to the old gods, let alone attended to a meeting, was executed, whole clans were rounded up and deported into other, pacified territories of the Empire, place names in the southern parts of Germany, like “Sachsenhausen” (lit home of the Saxons), are attributed to this forced migration. Widukind finally gave up and was baptised in 785, spending the rest of his life in a monastery, probably Reichenau Abbey.

Albert Baur (1835 - 1906): "St Ludger preaches the Gospel on the banks of the River Ems" (1901)

Resistance was far from being over in occupied Saxony in 797, but moderating influences, especially Charlemagne’s chief scholar Alcuin who basically said that no man willingly accepts a faith by being overburdened with taxes and fines or threatened with death, did at least alleviate the impact of Frankish occupation. Under the Capitulare Saxonicum, Westphalians who did miss mass were no longer beheaded but punished with a fine, old tribal laws were reinstituted, loyal Saxon instead of Frankish counts and Bishops were appointed and the last Saxon uprising took place in 841 when the Stellinga, the lower classes rebelled against Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious. The chronicler Einhard wrote that the war the Franks fought against the Saxons was the most difficult they had to fight and, finally, in 919 the first king of the Saxon Ottonian dynasty ascended the throne of the Eastern Frankish Kingdom that became the Holy Roman Empire.

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