The Saxon Wars: prologue

In the last post we looked at Saxon society, insofar as a non-written culture can be explored. In this post I’ll examine relations between Saxons and Franks. For reasons both cultural and geographic, there was always friction between the two peoples, and the historical record is filled with skirmishes. But don’t forget that war is always more interesting than peace, and stories about goodwill between Saxon and Frank weren’t recorded. Nonetheless it does become apparent that there was no love lost across the Rhine.

The Liber Historiae Francorum (the anonymous Book of the Franks) recounts a Saxon “rebellion” in 555, and the Merovingian King Chlotar’s subsequent expedition to levy Frankish punishment. What is not clear is what the Saxons were rebelling against. About fifteen years later “King Chilperic went with his brother with an army against the Saxons…” Around the year 623 the Saxon Bertoald and King Dagobert I of Austrasia fought to a standstill, until Dagobert’s father arrived with another army which tipped the scales. The king then “devastated the entire land of the Saxons and killed their people. He did not leave alive there any man who stood taller than his sword which is called a long sword.”1.Liber Historiae Francorum, trans. Bachrach, pp. 69, 78, 97-99.

Fredegar provides one account of at least some sort of cooperation between Saxons and Franks, during a war in 613 between Neustrian King Theuderic and Austrasian King Theudebert. Theuderic was winning when “Theudebert came to meet him with all the Saxons, Thuringians and other peoples from across the Rhine or elsewhere that he had been able to summon.”2.Fredegar, ch. 38, p. 31. What is not clear is whether the easterners came out of loyalty, obligation, or money. Whatever the reason, they were not effective, and Theuderic won the war. Next Fredegar goes into some detail regarding an expedition planned for 631, that deserves to be quoted in full:

The Saxons sent messengers to Dagobert to ask him to excuse them the tribute that they paid to his fisc; and they promised zealously and bravely to stand up to the Wends and to guard that sector of the Frankish frontier. Dagobert, on Neustrian advice, agreed to these Saxon proposals; and the Saxon envoys took an oath upon weapons, clashing them together as their custom is, for the whole Saxon people. But the promise was of little effect. Nonetheless, Dagobert excused the Saxons the tribute they owed him: since the time of the first Chlotar they had given 500 cows yearly. This ceased with Dagobert.3.Fredegar, ch. 74, pp. 62-63.

Let’s unpack some of that. Dagobert was responding to an incursion by the Wends (a generic name for several eastern peoples). As Dagobert approached Saxony with his army the Saxons offered a deal that would save Dagobert unnecessary bloodshed. The Saxons would deal with the Wends, if Dagobert would abolish the annual tribute of 500 cows that they usually paid. This tribute is mentioned as far back as 555, when King Lothar was marching on the Saxons, who “were once more in wild ferment…” The Saxons, however, insisted that “nor are we refusing to pay the tribute which we have given to your brothers and nephews.”4.Gregory, History of the Franks, bk. IV, ch. 14, pp. 209-210. It is interesting that even Fredegar notes that the Saxon promise wasn’t worth much, and in his next chapter the Wends are already ranging freely. But see the previous post for a possible explanation of Saxon perfidy.

The momentum in these skirmishes swung back and forth between Saxons and Franks. J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, one of the foremost historians of the Merovingian age, wrote that in the seventh century Merovingian activity across the Rhine “falls outside any possible definition of treasure-hunts…” Conversely, “The Saxons were conquering bits of the old Frankish Volksland up to the time of Charles Martel’s counter-attack in 718. Westphalian Hatterun first became a Saxon possession after 694, perhaps as late as 715. Merovingian kings took no part in holding and reversing this surge of Germans.”5.Hadrill, Long Haired Kings, pp. 230, 239.

At the opening of the eighth century, then, “the Saxons were pushing southwards until they were pressing hard against Frankish territory along a line which ran from the River Saale in the east to the Rhine in the west.”6.Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.54. Saxon expansionism coincided with a period of political upheaval in the west, as Charles Martel fought a civil war against the old Merovingian regime. One of notable encounters of this period occurred in the same year as Charles’ final victory at the battle of Soissons in 718. While Fredegar doesn’t mention it, “early Carolingian annals” say that after Soissons Martel marched 200kms eastward to the River Weser, to punish the Saxons.7.Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.70. While I wasn’t there, that is a claim that strains my credulity.

The ever-diligent Fredegar and his “continuators” record other skirmishes. In 724, “[t]he Saxons had risen in rebellion at that very time; so Charles attacked and defeated them.” And in 738, “When the Saxons, detestable pagans who live beyond the Rhine, rose in rebellion the warrior Charles set out with a Frankish army. He quickly crossed the Rhine at the place where the Lippe flows into it, laid waste most of that region with frightful thoroughness and thus far he taught the men of that region of savages the lesson of paying their taxes, took from them many hostages and came home a conqueror, the good Lord being still his helper.”8.Fredegar, Continuations, pp. 90, 93. Fouracre notes that Martel’s campaigns were “aimed at limiting their expansion rather than at conquering Saxony itself.”9.Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.117.

When Martel died in 741 many nominally subject kingdoms rose in revolt, and the Saxons were no exception. “[I]t was Odilo of Bavaria who articulated opposition to Karlomann and Pippin, sending out his agents to the Aquitanians, Alemans, Saxons and Slavs to incite them to rebellion.”10.Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.167. The two brothers also had to deal with their half-brother Grifo, who spent time in Saxony among his other adventures.

Fredegar recorded more skirmishes, betrayals, and incursions.

During their third year [744], Carloman again invaded Saxon marcher territory, where there was trouble. Fortunately the Saxons who lived on the Frankish frontier submitted without a fight and were enslaved; and most of them, Christ being our leader, received baptism, and the sacraments began to be provided them.11.Fredegar, Continuations, ch. 27, p. 99.

That same year [747-8], the Saxons behaved in their accustomed way by breaking the oath of obedience that they had sworn to his brother. So Pippin had no option but to raise an army and forestall them, the kings and of the Wends and of the Frisians coming gladly to his assistance. Seeing this, the Saxons as usual fell victims to fear; and they sued for terms when already many of them had been killed and taken off into slavery and their lands burnt. They submitted to Frankish control in the ancient manner and promised henceforth to pay in full the tribute, which they had once owed to Chlotar. Most of the asked to have the sacraments made available when it became clear that it was impossible to rebel against the Franks, reduced, as they were to impotence.12.Fredegar, Continuations, ch. 31, p. 101.

In the year following these events [753], the Saxons broke their oath of fealty to the said king and rose against him in the usual way. King Pippin was furious. He summoned the entire Frankish host and again crossed the Rhine to reach Saxony in great strength. Once there, he fired their land far and wide. Men and women were taken prisoner, and great was the plunder. Many a Saxon fell there. The Saxons were grief-stricken when they saw this and, frightened as always, sought the king’s pardon and the restoration of his peace and the sacraments, and would pay much heavier tribute than they had formerly promised and would never again rise against him. King Pippin then returned, through Christ’s mercy, in great triumph…13.Fredegar, Continuations, ch. 35, p. 103.

The Royal Annals mention one expedition that Fredegar misses, “King Pepin went into Saxony and took the strongholds of the Saxons at Sythen by storm. And he inflicted bloody defeats on the Saxon people. They then promised Pepin to obey all his orders and to present as gifts at his assembly up to three hundred horses every year.”14.Royal Annals, year 758, p. 42.

It is not clear if Pepin meant to truly conquer and colonize the Saxons, or if, like his father, he was merely (and ineffectually) beating them back. Obviously slaughter was not a problem.

By 760 the Saxons fade back into obscurity. That could be due to Saxon docility after years of attacks, which would be understandable. At this time, of course, Pepin began his multi-year campaign against Aquitaine, and his (and the chroniclers’) attentions looked southwest instead of east.

Pepin’s son, however, would launch the longest, most brutal, and ferocious war in the early medieval record, against the Saxons. We’ll pick that up next month.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Liber Historiae Francorum, trans. Bachrach, pp. 69, 78, 97-99.
2. Fredegar, ch. 38, p. 31.
3. Fredegar, ch. 74, pp. 62-63.
4. Gregory, History of the Franks, bk. IV, ch. 14, pp. 209-210.
5. Hadrill, Long Haired Kings, pp. 230, 239.
6. Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.54.
7. Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.70.
8. Fredegar, Continuations, pp. 90, 93.
9. Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.117.
10. Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.167.
11. Fredegar, Continuations, ch. 27, p. 99.
12. Fredegar, Continuations, ch. 31, p. 101.
13. Fredegar, Continuations, ch. 35, p. 103.
14. Royal Annals, year 758, p. 42.

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