Of the lands invaded and subjugated by Charlemagne, none irritated the Frankish king like Saxony. From the year 772 to 785, Charlemagne launched a military invasion of Saxony on almost a yearly basis. His motive, according to the chroniclers of the Royal Frankish Annals, was “to attack the treacherous and treaty-breaking tribe of the Saxons and to persist in this war until they were either defeated and forced to accept the Christian religion or entirely exterminated” (RFA, year 775). The rebellions in Saxony slowed down after a mass execution at Verdun in 782 and the conversion to Christianity of major Saxon leaders in 785, but the Saxon War would not officially end until 804, when thousands of Saxons were forcibly relocated from their homeland.
For most of the war, the Saxons kept to a cautious and defensive strategy. They would wait until Charlemagne had traveled to a periphery of his empire, such as Italy or Spain, before revolting against the Franks. Nevertheless, to the dismay of the Saxons, Charlemagne, or one of his generals, would always eventually cross into Saxony and crush the rebellion within a year or two.
Despite the generally defensive trend of the Saxon rebels, they did go on the offensive every now and then, especially in the 770s. In 774, for instance, the Saxon rebels reached as far as the borderland castle of Büraburg. Two years later, in 776, they marched even further westward and took the castles of Eresburg and Syburg. Finally, in 778, the Saxon rebels advanced as far as the Rhine.
Of these particularly aggressive years of rebellion, the battle for Syburg was one of the more peculiar encounters between the Franks and the Saxons. It all began when Charlemagne marched into Italy in 776 to deal with a rebellious subordinate by the name of Hrodgaud. When the Saxons learned that the Frankish king was away, they rebelled and forced the castle of Eresburg to surrender. After the capitulation of Eresburg, the Saxons marched against Syburg and offered the garrison a chance to surrender. The defenders of Syburg, however, were more stubborn than those of Eresburg, so they kept their gate firmly shut and refused the Saxon offer. In response, the rebels settled in for a siege.
At this time, the bulk of Charlemagne’s army must have been in the south, for the Saxons felt they had enough time to build catapults at Syburg. The Saxon army, however, apparently had poor engineers, or terrible aim, for the siege weapons reportedly misfired or imploded, ultimately causing more damage to the besieging army than to the defenders. When the Saxons saw that their siege engines were not working, they decided to resort to simpler methods. In the end, the Saxon leadership told the engineers to abandon the dangerous catapults and to instead construct ladders and other tools that would be useful in scaling a wall.
The Saxons, however, would not get to storm the walls of Syburg with their freshly constructed ladders. Before the siege preparations were complete, something odd reportedly appeared above a church in Syburg. The authors of the Royal Frankish Annals wrote that there were sightings of two fiery red shields hovering above the church. This oddity has been interpreted various ways, from the possibility of it being a signal flag for the defenders or maybe even some sort of natural phenomenon or optical illusion. Whatever the case, the sighting caused the defenders of Syburg to rally and led the Saxons into despair.
After the sign appeared above the church—whether it was caused by man, weather or God—the warriors of Syburg poured out from their defenses to attack the besieging Saxons. With the force of their sudden sortie, the Franks successfully broke the siege and pursued the fleeing Saxons toward the River Lippe. Not long after the battle, Charlemagne marched into Saxony with his main army and quickly forced the Saxons to surrender.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Depiction of a battle between Saxons and Franks, by Alphonse de Neuville (1836–1885), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Scholz and Barbara Rogers. Ann Arbor Paperbacks / University of Michigan Press, 1972.
- Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.