Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Did Lull Advise Charlemagne to Get Tough on Pagans?

By Kim Rendfeld

What was it like for Saint Lull in 785, when he got the news Continental Saxon ruler Widukind, responsible for church burnings and mass murder, had agreed to accept baptism, with Frankish King Charles as his godfather?

Lull was between age 75 and 80. A disciple of the missionary Saint Boniface, the English-born churchman had worked for 40 years to restore the faith where Christians had lapsed and wanted to spread it to pagan lands. Lull might have recently retired to the abbey at Hersfeld. Before his death on Oct. 16, 786, he composed a few verses celebrating Charles’s conquest.

Perhaps he did more than watch from the sidelines. Lull was an advisor to Charles (Charlemagne), and historian Richard A. Fletcher suggested Lull might have encouraged the Frankish monarch to get tough with recalcitrant pagans.

It is possible for several reasons. Boniface, who had anointed Charles’s father as king of the Franks, had chosen his close friend Lull to be his successor as the archbishop of Mainz. Lull had joined Boniface in Germany after a pilgrimage to Rome, and rose through the clerical ranks. He was a deacon in 745, priest in 751, and bishop in 752. His ascendance in 753 to an influential position in a city that was almost 800 years old was bittersweet. In instructing Lull to keep building churches, Boniface told his disciple he was nearing the end of his life. Lull wept at this foretelling.

An advocate for strict discipline and the authority of bishops over all monasteries and convents, Lull might not have been the easiest guy to get along with, as Saint Sturm, abbot of Fulda, would attest. After Boniface’s martyrdom in 754, they fought over where the relics would have their final resting place, and Lull retaliated when he lost. (See the link below for more on that.)

Statue of Saint Lullus in Bad Hersfeld
(photo  by 2micha GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0,
via Wikimedia Commons)

The King Needs Allies in the Right Places

Charles was only a child when this tiff happened, and history doesn’t record what he thought about it. Twelve years later, a dying Pepin split his kingdom between his two sons, Charles and Carloman. The brothers didn’t get along, and Charles needed allies. Lull was a good choice. His diocese was near Carloman’s realm, and Charles would have liked that Lull, educated at monasteries in Malmesbury and Nhutscelle, was a learned man. In fact, Lull was constantly asking for more books.

Charles also made friends with Sturm, who had not forgotten his earlier dispute with Lull. I suspect the feeling was mutual. Yet the two clerics might have agreed on one thing: protect their abbeys, along with Fritzlar, from the pagan Saxons. The monastery at Hersfeld, which Lull had founded with Charles's support around the time Charles became king, was less than a week’s journey from the Saxon fortress Eresburg. Sturm’s abbey at Fulda was a two-day journey after that.

Lull and Sturm would have known about the long-standing hostility between the Christian Franks and the pagan Saxons. But Charles’s first war in Saxony in 772 was different; it was the first time religion became a factor. Charles borrowed a tactic from Boniface and ordered the destruction of a monument sacred to the pagans, a pillar in this case. It’s not too much of a stretch to think Lull or Sturm reminded him of the story where Boniface felled a sacred tree and pagans had converted.

Boniface chops down a tree sacred to pagans,
engraving by Bernhard Rode, 1781
(public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Why Charles, now sole ruler of the Franks, invaded Saxony at that time is open to speculation. Perhaps, the Saxons had stopped paying yearly tribute won from the previous war 14 years before, while Pepin, and then Charles were distracted with the wars in Aquitaine. Charles might have thought to let such insolence go unanswered would weaken him. Perhaps, Charles was trying to protect Church interests in pagan lands, or he saw the Saxons as a threat with the fortress of Eresburg so close to Frankish territory.

Charles had a military victory that year, but the wars with brutality on both sides would continue on and off for decades. At one point, he appointed Sturm to watch over affairs in the conquered Eresburg. In 779, age and illness caught up with Sturm. On his deathbed, he asked his brethren to pray for him and singled out Lull “who always took sides against me” for forgiveness.

Time to Be More Aggressive?

I would like to think Lull welcomed the attempt at reconciliation, but he probably had other things on his mind. At this point, he had supported missionary work for 34 years. He likely remembered the pagans who had burned Saint Lebwin’s churches in Deventer and the attacks on Fritzlar and the nearby fortress of Büraburg. Just the previous year, the Saxons again burned churches all the way to the Rhine and slaughtered indiscriminately.

And then there was the abbey in Hersfeld, which sat on land Sturm was told to leave many years ago because it was too close to Saxony to be safe. Lull was setting it up as a center for learning, a monastery that would rival Fulda. He might have already wanted to translate Saint Wigbert’s relics to Hersfeld, making it an attraction for pilgrims and their alms.

Might Lull have encouraged Charles to be more aggressive? The best answer I can give is it’s possible.

In 782, the same year Charles avenged a disastrous military defeat in the Süntel with a mass execution (4,500 if we are to believe the Royal Frankish Annals), he issued a capitulary to the Saxons. Among other things, it made capital offenses of pagan practices such as burning the dead. The capitulary put the force of law behind the missionaries’ efforts. Perhaps in Lull’s mind and others’, a few souls would be lost, but they were going to hell anyway. This was a way to prevent them from dragging others with them.

Charlemagne accepts Widukind's submission,
1840 painting by Ary Scheffer
(public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Now the Saxons were in a hard place. If they followed their old gods, they risked execution. If they ignored the deities responsible for victory in battle and successful harvests they risked starvation and the ability to be ruled by their own. Led by Widukind, they decided to keep fighting. So did the Franks.

Near the end of 784, Charles took the extraordinary step of going to war in the winter, using Eresburg as a base. Most early medieval wars were fought in summer, when animals could graze and soldiers could get food by raiding farms on enemy lands. The lack of crops and fodder made fighting in winter risky. Apparently the pressure was too much for Widukind. He and Charles made a deal: Widukind would convert to Christianity and submit to Charles, and Charles would offer his protection as his lord.

Lull must have felt triumphant to hear the news. Finally, missionaries would be able to do their work unimpeded. Finally, Saxon souls would be saved. He might have gone to his death at peace with the knowledge, despite a conspiracy against Charles from Franks or Thuringians unhappy with the deal. What he didn’t know was that the wars would resume in a few years.

Related: A Fight over Who Gets the Martyr's Relics


The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge

The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Alban Butler

The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity by Richard A. Fletcher

St Lullus” Athelstan Museum, Malmesbury

"Hersfeld" by Oswald Hunter-Blair, The Catholic Encyclopedia

The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England

Willibald: The Life of St. Boniface

Kim Rendfeld’s rereleased novel The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar opens with the destruction of the Irminsul, a monument sacred to the pagan Continental Saxons, and Charlemagne’s deal with Widukind plays a key role in her work in progress, Queen of the Darkest Hour.

You can order The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, about a Saxon peasant who will fight for her children after losing everything else, at AmazonKoboBarnes & Noble, and iTunes. Kim's first novel, The Cross and the Dragon, in which a Frankish noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband, is available at Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, CreateSpace, and other vendors.

Connect with Kim at on her website, her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at, on Facebook at, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.

1 comment:

  1. "Among other things, it made capital offenses of pagan practices such as burning the dead"
    Gosh, was Lull following the example of Ambrosius of Milan centuries earlier in AD 391?


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