Who was the ‘wood-child’ – the wolf – who rallied the pagans of Saxony against Charlemagne’s Christian armies at the end of the 8th century? And why has he been paid so little attention? Angus Donald writes about Widukind, the war leader who plays a major part in the second book in his Viking Fire Born series, The Saxon Wolf.
You could make a convincing argument that the Saxon Wars – fought in the late 8th century between Charlemagne, mighty Christian King of the Franks, and the stubbornly pagan inhabitants of northern Germany, which is the subject of my Fire Born series of Viking novels – were the first proper crusade. After all, the campaigns of the Teutonic Knights 500 years later against the pagan tribes east of the Vistula are known as the Prussian Crusade. So why not the Charlemagne versus the Saxons?
This 30-year-long conflict, which began in AD772, was equally motivated by religious intolerance, coupled with a desire to seize rich lands, and was thoroughly approved of by the Catholic Church. And, on the surface of it, it looks like the Saxon Wars should have been a slam-dunk win for the Christians.
King Charlemagne (who was not crowned ‘Emperor of the Romans’ by the Pope until AD800) ruled vast territories that stretched from Brittany to Bavaria, from the marshes of Frisia to the Spanish March in the Pyrenees.
He was the lord of most of Western Europe and millions of its people. The Saxon tribes – the Westphalians, the Eastphalians, the Angrians and the Nordalbians (see map) – were divided among themselves and numbered only in the tens of thousands.
The reason why the conquest of Saxony took so long can, I believe, be mostly attributed to two factors: the warlike intransigence of the Saxon people, who rejected Christianity, and the inspirational leadership of one warrior: Widukind of Westphalia, who orchestrated the Saxon resistance.
Widukind, one of the main characters in The Saxon Wolf, published this month, first appears in AD777 in the Royal Frankish Annals, an account of the great events of the day written by Charlemagne’s monks.
Widukind is recorded in the Annals as refusing a summons from the Frankish King to attend a gathering of defeated Saxons to do homage to him. Instead, Widukind defied Charlemagne and fled north to the safety of the Dane-Mark. This pattern was repeated several times, apparently, with Widukind using the northern pagan kingdom as a base of operations, under the protection of his father-in-law, King Siegfried (or Sigfred).
The Saxon fugitive fought a decades-long guerrilla war against the Franks, raising the local people in rebellion as soon as Charlemagne was distracted by events in other parts of his vast domain.
And Widukind has entered the folklore of Germany as a Robin Hood figure, leading a brave peasant army – after the local nobles surrendered to the Franks – which was mostly armed with knives, bows and arrows. According to the legends, Widukind and his low-born, rag-tag troops leapt out from thick woodland time and again to ambush and despoil the Christian invaders.
However, the real, historical, Widukind is difficult to disentangle from the mythical hero. The Saxons of the day were mostly illiterate and left no written histories of the deeds of their great leader. So it was left to the enemy to record Widukind’s exploits in the Annals.
As well as the convenient alliance with the Danes, we know that he persuaded the once-pagan Frisians to reject the Church and rebel against their Frankish overlords and that he was victorious in at least one significant full-pitched battle over his foes in the Suntel Hills (near modern-day Hannover) in the summer of AD782. Yet the historical record is sadly lacking in details.
Even his name is something of a mystery. Widukind means ‘Child of the Woods’, a Saxon euphemism, or kenning, for a wolf, which gave me the title of the novel. But his true name was possibly Theodoric, the same as his father’s, and he may even have descended from Frankish stock. He was certainly an aristocrat and, as such, would have been given an education and trained in arms from the age of seven or even younger.
In The Saxon Wolf I portray Widukind as a charismatic speaker, a skilful orator, who with only the power of his words is able to persuade the downtrodden Saxons to rise, again and again, against the mighty foe.
When I began researching Widukind, I was rather surprised that such an interesting character should have been paid so little attention by historians over the years. Then I discovered the reason.
Widukind’s legend was unfortunately co-opted by the Nazis in the 1930s and the Saxon hero was proclaimed a symbol of the perfect race-warrior in their warped theories. Widukind was held up as a noble champion of pure Aryan blood, defending his people against pollution by ‘lesser races’.
Widukind’s memory has been tainted by this connection ever since. He became a toxic figure for historians, you might say. You could say he was cancelled. And while I am certain that he was indeed an ardent nationalist, and fought fiercely for his people against the invaders of his homeland, I find it impossible to think of him as some Nazi übermench.
I am sure Widukind was flawed – who is not? – and I’m certain he also sometimes behaved badly, as he does at times in my novel, but I also find him a deeply compelling individual, a driven and heroic figure, and I suspect his 8th-century countrymen might have felt the same way, too.
Angus talks about the background to The Last Berserker, the first book in this series, in How to become a berserker – a historical novelist’s guide.
He’s also written about the history behind his Holcroft Blood novels set in the later 17th century:
Thomas Blood and the Theft of the Crown Jewels
Why the Glorious Revolution was . . . well, neither
The never-ending Battle of the Boyne
- Statue of Widukind in Herford, North Rhine-Westphalia: Wikimedia
- Map of the Saxon tribes: ©John Brodie Donald
- Charlemagne receiving the submission of Widukind by Ary Scheffer, 1835: Wikimedia
- Tomb said to be Widukind’s in St Dionysius’s Church, Enger, Herford District, North Rhine-Westphalia: Wikimedia