Widukind of Westphalia – the German Robin Hood

I’ve just finished my fifth and final Fire Born novel – Blood of the Bear – and sent it off to my excellent publisher Canelo and, as often happens, I have come to realise, after the fact, what the book is really all about. I thought I was about my two heroes Bjarki Bloodhand and Torfinna Hildarsdottir and their struggles with love, madness and death. But I understand now that the true central character of the novel, and perhaps the series is . . . Widukind of Westphalia, the Duke of Saxony, aka the Saxon Wolf.

Widukind of Westphalia (his statue above is in Herford, Germany) was a real, flesh and blood man, who led the bloody rebellion of the pagan Saxons in the long wars against the Christian Franks in north Germany at the end of the 8th century AD. This war forms the backdrop of my five Fire Born novels. And while I have made Widukind out to be a vain, self-serving, occasionally pompous speechmaker in these adventure novels, I think the real Widukind was probably rather a heroic character, and certainly he remains something of a popular folk hero in Germany today, a similar figure to our own Robin Hood. 

He first appears properly in my second Fire Born book The Saxon Wolf. (I’m not counting his brief appearance at the very end of The Last Berserker.) He was a Saxon aristocrat, probably called Theodoric, and the name Widukind, a nom de guerre, means “Child of the Woods”, which is a kenning for wolf. This is why he is referred to as the Saxon Wolf. And his nickname probably came about because he made good military use of the thick forests of homeland, in which wolves and bears still abounded.

His tactics were those common to all asymmetrical warfare: ambushes, hit-and-run raids and, most of the time, a strict avoidance of full-pitched battle. As well as possessing many excellent military virtues, he must have been extremely charismatic: he persuaded his Saxon people to fight and die for his cause, when it must have seemed doomed, again and again, so I have always imagined him to have been a great orator, a Winston Churchill, if you like, a dazzling, witty and extremely persuasive public speaker.

In truth, I had to imagine a great deal about Widukind because historical facts about him are scant. He appears a few times in the Royal Frankish Annals (RFA), one of the few historical sources for the period, as a leader of the rebel Saxons and one who for many years refused to submit to Charlemagne (Karolus in these novels). Widukind, we are told, often sought refuge with King Sigfrid (Siegfried) of the Dane-Mark, who was his staunch ally. Indeed, it seems Widukind was constantly popping in and out of the Dane-Mark. His modus operandi was to go south into Saxony, raise a rebellion among his people, attack Frankish fortresses, slaughter the occupying troops, cause havoc then, when things got too hot for him, flee back into the the Dane-Mark, safely beyond the reach of Charlemagne’s furious vengeance. 

[Spoilers coming your way!] Widukind’s greatest battle with the Franks was fought at the Süntel Hills in 782AD, near the Hohenstein, about eight miles north of modern-day Hamelin. This is the climax of Blood of the Bear (Fire Born 5). In the Süntel Hills, a remote, wooded, mountainous area, his Saxon infantry defeated a large force of thousands of Frankish cavalry under Charlemagne’s chamberlain, a man named Adalgis, one of the King’s right-hand men, and several other important royal officials were also killed. The RFA  says this: “The loss to the Franks was greater than numbers alone, however, for two of the legates, Adalgis and Gallo, four counts and as many as twenty other men of distinction and nobility were killed, as well as others who were in their followings and chose to die at their sides rather than survive them.” 

It should be noted that the Royal Frankish Annals were written by Christian monks, so they can hardly be considered impartial. What is clear though from the RFA entry, is that the defeat of thousands of elite, highly trained Frankish heavy cavalry troops by a small ragtag army of rebel infantry was a serious humiliation for Charlemagne. And the description of loyal Frankish followers nobly dying beside their commanders is, I think, an early attempt by the RFA at spinning some very bad news indeed.

I believe Widukind fully deserves his place in the global pantheon of outlaw heroes. However, his life as a wanted man and hero-on-the-run came to an ignominious end in 785AD, when he finally surrendered to Charlemagne and was baptised a Christian at the church in Attigny – a town now in northeast France – along with his loyal follower Abbo or Abbi (Abbio in my novels). I should admit here that there is no evidence that Abbo was a creepy sorcerer who wielded seithr, as I have described him, although the North European pagans did practice “magic” routinely.

Since it was Charlemagne’s very sensible policy to reward the Saxon rebel lords who submitted to him by appointing them as his regional counts (comes) and restoring them to their fiefs under his authority, it seems likely that Widukind was made a Frankish count and served Charlemagne after his conversion. There is a suggestion in a biography of Saint Ludger, a missionary to the Saxons, that Widukind was appointed to a high administrative role in Saxony after his belated conversion to the True Faith.

Blood of the Bear (Fire Born 5), which will be out in paperback, audio and eBook in October, is the last novel in this series. But I do think it is a worthy final chapter not only for the adventures of the fictional Bjarki and Tor but also for the historical hero of these books, Widukind of Westphalia.

NB, if you haven’t read any of the Fire Born books, you should probably start with The Last Berserker.

In other news, I have nearly finished my Arthurian fantasy novel, The Broken Kingdom, which has been delivered episodically over the past six months as short, 70-page eBooks. Episode Four: Arthur’s Folly is out now, and the last one, Episode Five: Arthur’s Battle, will be published in late June. I will be bundling all five of the eBook episodes together and publishing them as a paperback in due course. If you haven’t read any episodes of The Broken Kingdom, you should definitely start with Episode One: Arthur’s Bane.

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Tony Estabrook
Tony Estabrook
26 days ago

Very well explained Angus, so widukind goes off to be baptized(traitor) I’m sure you could sift through the archives and continue the saga for bjarki and tor( more adventures please) and look forward to reading the complete Arthur novel, book five of fire born is already pre-ordered.

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