Charlemagne’s Wars: Successes and Failures


By Philip DaileaderWilliam & Mary

Einhard, Charlemagne’s biographer, regarded Charlemagne’s wars against the Saxons, initiated in 772 and concluded in 804, as his greatest. The long Saxon wars showcased Charlemagne’s resilience and determination, and victory led to the eastward spread of Christianity. That Charlemagne attacked the Saxons in 772, however, might seem ill-advised, considering that the fate of the Frankish kingdom was at a critical juncture.

Statue of Charlemagne
Not all of Charlemagne’s wars were successful. (Image: Yakov Oskanov/Shutterstock)

War with the Saxons

Charlemagne’s brother Carloman had died in 771, and the Frankish invasion of northern Italy in 773 and 774, so that Charlemagne could gain control of his brother’s heirs and kingdom, was in the offing.

However, Charlemagne’s campaign focused on capturing and destroying a well-known Saxon shrine, the Irminsul, which had treasures associated with it. Those treasures seem to have been Charlemagne’s objective; with them, he could convince the Franks to support his expedition into Italy and underwrite the expedition itself.

Following the conquest of the Lombard kingdom, Charlemagne then continued the war against the Saxons, but turned it in a new direction.

Saxony had multiple pagan tribes, wooden fortifications, and no towns to speak of; it was quite different from Lombard Italy, with its walled cities and its ubiquitous vestiges of the Roman classical past. Having initially looted a Saxon shrine, Charlemagne then sought to bring about the Saxons’ submission, as well as their baptism and Christianization. 

Charlemagne himself campaigned in Saxony in 775, and for the next decade, the Franks slogged on against the Saxons. For their part, the Saxons repeatedly surrendered and accepted baptism, only to renounce their surrender when the opportunity arose; leaders of the Saxon resistance began to emerge, such as Widukind in 777.

Saxon Rebellions

In the face of Saxon recalcitrance, Charlemagne’s tactics grew ferocious. In 782, at a place called Verden, Charlemagne executed 4,500 Saxons who had rebelled against him and then been turned over to him by other Saxons. We know about this massacre because the Royal Frankish Annals report it—and the Royal Frankish Annals tell us what Charlemagne wanted us to know. 

Painting showing submission of Widukind to Charlemagne.
In 785, worn down by annual Frankish campaigns, Widukind submitted to Charlemagne. (Image: Ary Scheffer/Public domain)

Charlemagne’s first capitulary for the Saxons, issued around the time of the massacre, established a penalty of death for Saxons who refused baptism, or who ate meat during Lent, or who committed any one of a number of other offenses.

Charlemagne himself seems to have been dissatisfied with the results that such hardline tactics yielded; over time, he moderated his approach somewhat.

In 785, worn down by annual Frankish campaigns, Widukind submitted to Charlemagne, who treated Widukind more leniently than one might have expected. Charlemagne himself served as godfather at Widukind’s subsequent baptism, and Charlemagne let Widukind return to his lands afterward—no monastic confinement, much less execution.

Crushing the Resistance

Seven years of peace followed Widukind’s submission, but the Saxons rebelled in 792, taking advantage of turmoil elsewhere in Charlemagne’s kingdom. Again, the Franks ground down Saxon resistance, while also seeking to redress the grievances that fueled rebellion—a second Saxon capitulary, issued circa 797, refrained from imposing the death penalty for religious infractions. 

Helping the Franks were a Slavic group, the Obotrites, whose victory against the Saxons in 798 set the stage for the war’s end, six years later. In 804, Emperor Charlemagne deported a large number of Saxons out of their homeland and into Francia, settling his Slavic Obotrite allies on the Saxons’ lands. Saxon resistance, which had in fact been minimal for the last several years, finally ended.

This is a transcript from the video series Charlemagne: Father of EuropeWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Charlemagne’s Meeting with Arab Ambassadors from Islamic Spain

However, not all of Charlemagne’s military ventures went so well. His incursion into Spain in 778 went poorly for him.

In 777, Arab ambassadors from Islamic Spain met with Charlemagne. They proposed that Charlemagne come to northeastern Al-Andalus, where the towns of Zaragoza and Barcelona, and their governors, would accept Charlemagne as their overlord.

Why would these towns and governors do that? A little more than two decades earlier, a newly arrived outsider had taken power across most of Al-Andalus. He was Abd al-Rahman, and he was a member of the Umayyad dynasty, which had provided the caliphs of Damascus until the Abbasids overthrew them and moved the caliphate to Baghdad. 

Following the coup of 750 in Damascus, Abd al-Rahman had gone westward to Al-Andalus, where he became Emir of Cordoba and claimed overlordship of Islamic Spain. The governors of Zaragoza and Barcelona had no great liking for the outsider who had come to rule them. So they turned to Charlemagne, who seemed strong enough to offer them protection, but distant enough to leave them in a state of de facto independence.

Basques’ Ambush of Charlemagne’s Army

Charlemagne accepted the offer. He divided his army into two groups. One traveled along the Mediterranean coast; the other, led by Charlemagne, traveled into Basque lands, crossed the Pyrenees, and made its way to the Basque town of Pamplona. The two Frankish armies then had to rendezvous at Zaragoza.

The march into Spain went without incident. But when Charlemagne and his armies reached Zaragoza, the town did not welcome him as he had expected that it would. Its governor had gotten cold feet about the whole plan. He refused to allow Charlemagne or his army into the town, and he refused to participate in the plot any longer. 

With little prospect for military success, Charlemagne and the Franks retreated northward. Passing by Pamplona, they either destroyed the town walls or sacked the town entirely—either way, their actions would not have endeared them to the region’s Basque inhabitants.

As the Franks made their way through the Pyrenees, Basques ambushed Charlemagne’s rearguard in a narrow pass near the village of Roncesvalles.

The Basques pillaged Charlemagne’s baggage train and killed some Franks important enough for the Frankish chroniclers to identify by name: Eggihard, Anshelm, and Ruodland. The Frankish defeat in Spain was chastening—it would be another twenty years before Charlemagne tried anything in Spain again.

Common Questions about Charlemagne’s Wars

Q: What seemed to be the initial objective of Charlemagne’s war with the Saxons?

Charlemagne wanted to have the support of the Franks for his plans to invade Italy. His campaign focused on capturing and destroying a well-known Saxon shrine, the Irminsul, which had treasures associated with it. Those treasures were Charlemagne’s objective, as with them, he could convince the Franks to support his expedition into Italy and underwrite the expedition itself.

Q: Why did Charlemagne decide to invade Spain?

Some Arab ambassadors from Islamic Spain met with Charlemagne in 777, and they convinced him that if he were to invade Spain, the people would accept his rule.

Q: Why did Charlemagne’s military campaign in Spain fail?

After Charlemagne reached the gates of Zaragoza, the governor of the town got cold feet and refused to participate; he didn’t open the gates for him. Charlemagne was then forced to move northward, where his army eventually got ambushed.

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