History of Germany - H. E. Marshall


Wittekind seemed a second Arminius, and he fought Charlemagne as Arminius had fought the Romans. When other Saxons had yielded to Charlemagne, he had still defied him, and at length, when resistance was useless, he had fled to the court of the Danish King Siegfrid.

Now, knowing that Charlemagne was far away in Spain, he returned. With the desire for freedom burning in his heart, he called upon every Saxon who truly loved his country to join him and shake off the fetters of slavery.

Gladly the Saxons answered his call. They broke their oaths, they denied the waters of baptism which had been forced upon them at the sword's point. They cast down the crosses, burned the churches, and advanced through the country, filling it with terror and bloodshed.

As soon as Charlemagne heard of this revolt he gathered his army and marched against the rebels. Again many battles were fought, and all the land was filled with misery, and wasted with war. At length Wittekind gained a great victory over one of Charlemagne's generals.

When Charlemagne heard of it, his wrath was terrible, and, gathering another army, he marched against the rebels. The Saxons had fought bravely, but now when they heard that the mighty King was coming against them himself, their courage gave way. They laid down their arms, and scattered to their homes. And Wittekind, finding himself alone, fled once more to Denmark.

But Charlemagne, although he found no enemy in arms against him, was determined to be avenged. So he commanded the Saxon chiefs to appear before him. Not daring to disobey, they came. Then very sternly the King asked of them why they had revolted, and who was their leader.

With one accord they answered, "It was Wittekind."

But Wittekind was beyond the reach of Charlemagne's vengeance. Yet he was not to be baulked of it. So, threatening to waste the country with fire and sword were he not obeyed, he commanded that the chief of those who had helped in the rebellion should be given up to him.

And now the men who had fought so bravely in the absence of their conqueror quailed before his frown, and four thousand five hundred men were given into his power. Charlemagne condemned them all to death, and in one day all their heads were cut off. Those were rough times. But even in those days it was a deed of horror, and it remains as a dark blot upon the fame of Charlemagne.

By this terrible vengeance Charlemagne had hoped to crush the Saxons and to put an end to the constant rebellions. And indeed, for a short time, it seemed as if he had succeeded, for the Saxons were stunned with horror and grief. They seemed quiet, but it was only the dreadful quiet of sullen rage, and in spring it burst into wild rebellion.

Wittekind was recalled, and once more the land was desolated by war. Battle after battle was fought, again and again the Saxons were defeated, yet still they fought. Never before had they shown themselves so brave, and so determined. They were defeated, but not conquered. Winter put an end to the strife, but spring again renewed it, and so year by year the struggle continued.

Then one year Charlemagne made up his mind to remain in Germany all winter, and utterly crush the rebellion. This he did, and all winter long the wretched Saxons were harried and plundered. They were hunted from their hiding-places, and slain without mercy, until at length the spirit in them was broken, and they yielded to the conqueror. Wittekind alone, with a few faithful followers, held out beyond the Elbe.

At last even Wittekind yielded and was baptized. There is a story told, which, however, we fear is not true, of how Wittekind dressed himself as a beggar, and so found his way into the camp of Charlemagne in order to spy out its strength or weakness. He wandered about for some time, and at length came to the tent of Charlemagne, where Mass was being celebrated.

Wittekind, in his beggar's disguise, crept in among the worshippers, and, greatly wondering, watched the solemn service. It seemed to him very strange and beautiful. Then, as he stood watching in silent awe, a marvellous thing happened. It seemed to him, as he gazed at the lifted hands of the priest, that he saw in them a child clad in shining garments, radiant in beauty, such as never before had been seen on earth. And as Wittekind looked a sudden change was wrought in him. A wondrous peace seemed to fall upon his heart, and sinking on his knees he buried his face in his hands, tears of some strange unearthly joy running down his face.

When Mass was over, alms were given to all the beggars. When it came to Wittekind's turn he was so shaken by what he had seen that he forgot his danger, he forgot to act his part. It was soon seen that this was no beggar, but the great Saxon leader.

At once he was seized and led before Charlemagne. There he told of the shining vision he had seen, and of the wondrous peace which had come upon him.

And when it was told to Wittekind that he had seen a vision of the holy Christ-child, he begged to be baptized and received into the Church of Christ. Then he sent to his camp, and begged all his generals to come and be baptized even as he had been.

This story is very likely not true, and we do not really know how Wittekind was at length persuaded to become Christian. We only know that, weary of the hopeless struggle, he gave in at last, and promised to serve the God of Charlemagne who had proved himself the stronger.

Charlemagne rejoiced greatly over Wittekind's conversion. He stood as godfather for him, gave him the title of Duke of Saxony, and loaded him with many costly gifts.

After this we hear no more of Wittekind. It is believed that he lived quietly on his own estates until he died peacefully in some monastery.