Historical Note for The Saxon Wolf (Fire Born 2)

I always include, at the end of one of my novels, a long-ish note to explain my readers which bits of my story are true and which are fabrications. So this here is the Historical Note for The Saxon Wolf, my second Viking adventure, and I’d better warn you that it includes SPOILERS. You have been warned!

It is sometimes difficult to describe to the uninitiated what, exactly, historical fiction is. It’s not history – no one should read a novel as if it were a textbook on the period in question – but neither is it entirely fabricated like, for example, a fantasy story. 

So the purpose of a note like this at the end of a novel is to help the reader distinguish between historical fact and authorial fiction. Sometimes it’s obvious – if I were writing a story about Agincourt, I wouldn’t have to tell people that Henry V was a real English king – but sometimes it is not. The Saxon Wolf takes place during a period that used to be known as the Dark Ages, and about which we still know very little. The illiterate, pagan Saxon tribes left no written records of their deeds and the “histories” of the Christian Franks, their enemies, are often close to propaganda, extolling the virtues of their hero Charlemagne and his triumphs over the forces of, as they saw it, the Devil. 

Widukind of Westphalia was a real warrior, a young Saxon nobleman who led the resistance against Karolus (the future Charlemagne) and his Frankish warriors for several decades in what is now northern Germany the late 8th century. However, his story is surrounded by a thicket of myths and legends – he is a Robin Hood-type character, to my mind, a brave man who led a peasant army in dense woodland, including many bowmen, against the invading Christians and using what we would now call guerilla tactics, or asymmetrical warfare. His support was mostly drawn from the lower ranks of Saxon society, farmers, woodsmen, cattle herders, and so on, while his fellow noblemen were more easily persuaded to accept their Frankish overlords. 

Widukind made a lasting alliance with Siegfried (Sigfred), king of the pagan Danes in the traditional way by marrying his daughter, and several times the Saxon warlord was forced to retreat north into the Dane-Mark, behind the protection of the mighty Dane-Work, to seek sanctuary with his ally. He also managed to convince the Frisians (a decade later than this story) to rebel against their Christian lords and return to the old ways.

Widukind – whose name means “Child of the Woods”, a Saxon euphemism for a wolf, hence the title of this novel – is recorded as the Saxon leader in the Royal Frankish Annals, a contemporary account written by Charlemagne’s monks. But almost nothing is written about his personal characteristics. 

I have imagined him as an inspired public speaker because he must have had considerable powers of persuasion to induce his countrymen to fight on against impossible odds for thirty years. He also must have been stubborn, perhaps even a heroic figure. 

The Annals record Widukind as being followed by his great friend and advisor Abbio (or Abbo) – his “constant companion”.

I have, however, arbitrarily embellished the character of Abbio, making him a weird-looking sorcerer and spymaster, to create a more compelling actor in future books in the Fire Born series. Abbio’s bizarre way of speaking adds, I hope, to his sinister aura, but there is also good archeological evidence that people in the Viking Age often filed grooves in their front teeth, or even removed some of them, perhaps as part of some magical ritual.

The Annals also mention a chief called Hessi, naming him as the leader of the Eastphalian tribe, and a man called Brun, meaning Bushy Eyebrows, identifying him as warlord of the Angrians, who were famous for their horses and horsemanship.

Bjarki Bloodhand, Tor Hildarsdottir, Valtyr Far-Traveller, Snorri Hare-Lip (Count Simon) and Bishop Livinus are all inventions of mine. Although Livinus is an amalgam of several Anglo-Saxon clergymen who crossed the English Channel to serve Charlemagne or who bravely went into the wilds of pagan Saxony on proselytising missions. These include Alcuin of York and Saint Boniface. Neither of these two holy men exactly fitted the time period I was writing about, so I decided to give Karolus a fictional chaplain and chancellor (a role equivalent in clout to a grand vizier or prime minister), and also make him the Bishop of Aachen and putative Archbishop of Saxony. I also wanted the freedom to have my fictional baddie satisfyingly slaughtered by Bjarki or Tor, in due course, without distorting historical truth.

In charting the progress of the war in Saxony between AD773 and 775 (see map below), I was, as far as possible, guided by the original Frankish records. One of the things I enjoy most about writing historical fiction is that you are often gifted storylines from the time. You get verisimilitude – no one can say something is far fetched if it actually happened – and, if the events in the novel takes place in an obscure period, the reader is unlikely to be familiar with them, and you can more easily keep him guessing.

North Europe c800 AD

The Saxons did surprise and capture the Frankish fortress of Sigiburg (a site now occupied by the ruins of Hohensyburg Castle, near Dortmund) in the spring of 774. They also occupied and fortified the fortress atop the Eresburg (now the sleepy town of Obermarsberg), where I placed my fictional berserker academy, the Fyr Skola, then campaigned southwards in to Hessia (Hesse) where they fought a battle at the fortress of Buraburg, which they failed to take. The remains of iron stirrups and horses’ bits have been found by archaeologists at Buraburg, which indicate that it was garrisoned by Frankish heavy cavalry. 

The Saxon army ravaged most of northern Hessia in the summer of 774, pillaging farms, burning crops and gathering booty and slaves. They sacked the Abbey of Fritzlar, near Buraburg, slaughtering the monks and removing many treasures before retreating back north of the Ruhr into their own territory.

The following year Charlemagne, who had just returned victorious from a long war in north Italy – where he had been indeed been crowned King of the Lombardy with the Iron Crown in Pavia – marched his vast army up the arrow-straight Hellweg, the great highway, into the very heart of south Saxony. 

The Hellweg was built by the Romans during their long wars against the Germanic tribes across the River Rhine. The road was used to march the Legions into the heart of the Teutoburger Wald (called the First Forest in this novel), where famously, in AD9, they had their arses handed to them by the Germanic warlord Arminius. Eight centuries later, the cultural descendants of the Romans, Charlemagne’s Franks, used the Hellweg to attack the descendants of Arminius, the Saxon tribes.  The name “Hellweg” means the Road to Hell – or the Way to the Goddess Hel’s Realm, perhaps because of its military applications.

Admittedly, some scholars believe it may also mean the Salt Road – hal is a Celtic word for salt – because local people may have transported this most valuable commodity along it. Yet another etymology is the Bright Road – heller means bright or clear – because it is a space in the gloomy forest. I think of it as the Hell Road, mainly because that is a fine, dramatic name for a highway. A good chunk of this route, which ran from Duisburg to Paderborn, is now prosaically named Bundesautobahn 44.

Shortly after his triumphant return from Italy, Charlemagne recaptured the fortress of Sigiburg, then attacked the Eresburg settlement and easily took the cave-riddled prominence that rises out of the Diemel Valley. The King of the Franks did cut down the Irminsul, the holy World Tree of the Saxons, which was probably atop the Eresburg plateau. The original wooden church of St Peter and St Paul in Obermarsburg is said to have been constructed on the site where the mighty Irminsul once stood. 

The Saxons retreated north unwilling to face the overwhelming might of Charlemagne’s forces but made a stand at Braunsberg, a defensible ford on the wide River Weser. There they waited stoically for the Franks to come at them . . . 

To find out what happened next, you will just have to buy a copy of The Saxon Wolf.

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