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Widukind



The last germanic hero of the Dark Ages


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The Man and the Legend

Widukind (8th/9th centuries; modernized name Wittekind) was a Saxon leader and the chief opponent of Charlemagne during the Saxon Wars. In later times, he became a symbol of Saxon independence and a figure of legend.

Very little is known about Widukind's life. All sources about him stem from his enemies, the Franks, who painted a negative picture of Widukind, calling him an "insurgent" and a "traitor". He was mentioned first in 777, when he was the only one of the Saxon nobles not to appear at Charlemagne's court in Paderborn. Instead, he stayed with the Danish king Siegfried (possibly Siegfried Ring).

In 778, Widukind led battles against the Franks, while Charlemagne was busy in Spain. From 782 through 784, annual battles between Saxons and Franks occurred. While Widukind was considered the leader of the Saxon resistance by the Franks, his exact role in the military campaigns is unknown. Even though Widukind allied himself with the Frisians, Charlemagne's winter attacks of 784/785 were successful, and Widukind and his allies were pushed back beyond the River Elbe.

His name: Wolverine

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Widukind is clearly a kenning. A kenning (Old Norse kenning [cʰɛnːiŋɡ], Modern Icelandic [cʰɛnːiŋk]) is a type of literary trope, specifically circumlocution, in the form of a compound (usually two words, often hyphenated) that employs figurative language in place of a more concrete single-word noun. Kennings are strongly associated with Old Norse, later Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon poetry. Is commonly accepted that Widukind refers to Wolf or more probably Wolverine, an animal that undoubtedly referred to war and death between the old germanic tribes.

The mysterious baptism of Widukind

In the Bardengau in 785, Widukind agreed to surrender in return for a guarantee that no bodily harm would be done to the members of his family. Widukind and his allies were then baptized in Attigny in 785, with Charlemagne as his godfather.

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There are no sources about Widukind's life or death after his baptism. It is assumed that he was imprisoned at a monastery —a fate that happened to other rulers deposed by Charlemagne. Reichenau Abbey has been identified as a likely location where Widukind may have spent the rest of his life. Alternatively, Widukind may have received a position in the administration of occupied Saxony.

Later historical perception

Since the 9th century, Widukind had been idolized as a mythical hero; he started to be erroneously called a duke or king of Saxony. Around 1100, a tomb for him was made in Enger; recent excavations have found that the contents of the tomb are indeed early medieval, but it is impossible to decide whether the body is Widukind's. When in the 10th century Saxon kings (of the Ottonian dynasty) replaced the Frankish kings in East Austrasia (the later Holy Roman Empire), these kings proudly claimed descent from Widukind: Matilda, the wife of King Henry I, was apparently a great-great-great-granddaughter of Widukind. The House of Billung, to which several Dukes of Saxony belonged, had Matilda's sister among its ancestors and thus also claimed descent from Widukind.

In the following centuries, Widukind continued to be seen as a Saxon hero.