Widukind, also known as Widuking or Wittekind, was a Germanic leader of the Saxons and the chief opponent of the Frankish king Charlemagne during the Saxon Wars from 777 to 785. Charlemagne ultimately prevailed, organized Saxony as a Frankish province and ordered conversions of the pagan Saxons to Roman Catholicism. In later times, Widukind became a symbol of Saxon independence and a figure of legend - the Codex Wittekindeus is said to have been owned by him.
Very little is known about Widukind's life. His name literally translates as "Child of the wood" (i.e. a wolf), more probably a kenning than a proper name. All sources about him stem from his enemies, the Franks, who painted a negative picture, representing him as an "insurgent" and a "traitor". While Widukind was considered the leader of the Saxon resistance by the Franks, his exact role in the military campaigns is unknown.
According to the Royal Frankish Annals, the Franks campaigned Saxony in 772, when Charlemagne ordered the destruction of the Irminsul sanctuary. The Saxon Wars continued when Westphalian tribes devastated the church of Deventer and the Angrarii laid siege to the Frankish court at Fritzlar. The king retaliated against the local nobility, enforcing the consent to incorporate the Saxon lands as a Frankish march.
Widukind was first mentioned by the Annals 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 Sigfred (possibly Sigurd Hring). The next year, the Westphalians again invaded the Frankish Rhineland and subsequently fought a running battle against Charlemagne's forces and their local allies, while the king was busy in Spain.
By 782, Widukind had returned from Denmark and goaded the Saxon nobles into rebellion. From 782 to 784, battles between Saxons and Franks occurred annually, while Charlemagne had 4,500 Saxons executed at the Massacre of Verden. Widukind allied himself with the Frisians but despite that, Charlemagne's winter attacks of 784/785 were successful and the dux and his allies were pushed back to their homelands. In the Bardengau in 785, Widukind agreed to surrender in return for a guarantee that no bodily harm would be done to him. He and his allies were then baptized, possibly in Attigny, with Charlemagne as his godfather. Widukind thereby reached a peace agreement and the acknowledgement of the Saxon noble rank by their Frankish overlords.
There are no contemporary sources about Widukind's life or death after his baptism. Historian Gerd Althoff assumed that he was imprisoned at a monastery — a fate that happened to other rulers deposed by Charlemagne. He tried to identify Reichenau Abbey as a likely location where Widukind may have spent the rest of his life, but his results are inconclusive and widely rejected. Alternatively, he may have received a position in the administration of occupied Saxony. The Vita Liudgeri biography of Saint Ludger mentions him accompanying Charlemagne on his campaign against the Veleti leader Dragovit. According to the 12th century Kaiserchronik he was slain by Charlemagne's brother-in-law Gerold of Baar.
Numerous legends developed around Widukind's life; he eventually appeared as a saintly figure (becoming "Blessed Widukind") and the builder of many churches. He was later assumed to have died in 808; his feast day is commemorated on January 6.
According to legend, Widukind experienced a vision that led to his conversion. Disguised as a beggar, he was spying on Charlemagne's troop camp during Easter. He witnessed a priest performing a Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the priest was holding a beautiful child during the consecration. To his astonishment, people would receive communion and the priest would give the same child to each person. Widukind was dumbfounded by this scenario and went to beg outside, following the end of the mass. One of the emperor's servants recognized Widukind behind his disguise – due to an odd formation of one of his fingers – and Widukind was captured. He was interrogated and confessed to spying on Charlemagne's camp for the purpose of becoming better acquainted with the Christian faith. He later confessed the divine vision he had seen. The emperor concluded that God had given Widukind the grace of witnessing the divine child, Jesus, behind the Sacred Host of the Mass. Widukind then renounced his worship of pagan idols.
According to myth, Widukind rode a black horse before his baptism and a white horse afterwards. A white or black horse can be found on many flags and coats of arms in England, the former Kingdom of Hanover, Germany (state flags of North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony, Herford coat of arms), and the Netherlands (flag of Twente).
Since the 9th century, Widukind had been idolized as a mythical hero. 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 are the remains of a young woman. In 1971, archaeologists discovered three graves in a prominent place in front of the altar. The remains of three men who had died in the early 9th century, two of them about sixty years old warriors, the third a young man, were, after a DNA- analysis in 2002, identified as half-brothers or maternal cousins and a nephew. The man buried in front of the altar is assumed to be Widukind. When in the 10th century Saxon kings (of the Ottonian dynasty) replaced the Frankish kings in East Francia (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 German nationalism
Widukind became a hero for German nationalists in the early 20th century. German neo-pagans saw him as an heroic defender of Germany's traditional beliefs and their gods, resisting the Middle Eastern religion of Christianity. Christian nationalists also lauded him, linking Charlemagne with the humiliation of French domination after World War I, especially the occupation of the Rhineland, portraying Charlemagne as a "French" invader.
After the National Socialists came to power in 1933 so many plays and other works were written about Widukind that there were complaints that he was becoming a cliché. Alfred Rosenberg praised him as a hero of German freedom, who finally joined with the founder of the German Reich (Charlemagne). Two important plays about the Saxon leader were produced in 1934, Der Sieger (“The Victor”) by Friedrich Forster and Wittekind by Edmund Kiss. The first celebrated the conversion of Widukind, but the second caused controversy because of its explicit anti-Christian message. In that play after the massacre of Verden Saxon leaders say "That is what the Christians have done; they feign love, but bring murder!", a line that led to protests from the audience. The play portrays Catholic church leaders planning to destroy German freedom by forcing racial mixture on them, thus turning them into pliable "untermenschen". Thousands of German maidens are captured and will be forced to mate with "Jews, Greeks, Italians and Moors" unless Widukind converts, which he does only to avoid this horrifying prospect. He gives a speech saying that the survival of the German race was his principal concern, and that future generations will praise him for this when the true spirit of the German people arises once more.
Many buildings are named after him in the area of Enger, including the Widukind-Gymnasium Enger.