Charlemagne (r. 768-814) can often be viewed as a bright, radiant light in the ruthless Dark Ages. His rule was usually just, and he pushed the people of his empire to renew their interest in art and education. For the most part, Charlemagne is remembered as a ruler who was both effective in management and beneficial to his people.
Yet, as almost the entirety of Charlemagne’s reign was spent in continuous waves of warfare, his actions caused incalculable quantities of bloodshed. As the king of the Franks and the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, threats to his realm were constant and his own ambitions often brought about violence.
One of the darkest marks on Charlemagne’s record occurred during the Frankish campaign against the Saxons. He invaded Saxony in 772 CE, taking control of the region. With victory came plundering, enslavement and the smashing of pagan shrines. Yet, the victory was not complete. Even though Saxon lands were occupied by Frankish forces, the fighting spirit of the Saxons was not yet broken—it would take thirty years of war for the Franks to suppress the Saxons.
Ten years into the Frankish occupation of Saxony, a Saxon leader named Widukind began instigating rebellion against Charlemagne. He managed to incite a rebellious spirit back into many of the Saxons who had previously surrendered to the Franks. With Widukind leading the way, the rebellious Saxon army attacked a nearby Frankish army. Despite the Frankish force being led by at least two of Charlemagne’s trusted officers, the Saxons won a decisive victory. The two liegemen of Charlemagne who led the Frankish army were both killed in the battle.
When Charlemagne heard of the revolt in Saxony and the deaths of his two lieutenants, the king mobilized his forces and marched against the Saxons. With a massive army of Franks bearing down on them, the Saxon people betrayed the rebels, causing thousands of men to fall into Charlemagne’s custody. According to the Royal Frankish Annals, Charlemagne was not in a forgiving mood—he had 4,500 of the Saxon rebels executed, supposedly on a single day, in 782 CE. The event is now remembered as the Bloody Verdict of Verden.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.