What I’m writing about this week, #15: The Battle of the Süntel Hills

For the past five years, I have been writing a series of “Viking” novels about my heroes the berserker Bjarki Bloodhand and his half-sister, the shield maiden Torfinna Hildarsdottir. The backdrop to the Fire Born series is the long wars between the man who would later become the Charlemagne (below) and the pagan Saxon tribes who lived on the north-eastern border of his vast Frankish empire.

The Franks were much more powerful – they had something like fifty times the population of the Saxons to draw their soldiers from – and were determined to convert the pagans to Christianity, at the point of their swords, if necessary. So it is a small miracle that the Saxons managed to hold out for more than thirty-odd years (AD 772 to 804) against the semi-professional troops of Charlemagne’s army.

Mostly the Saxons – who were led by a charismatic leader called Widukind, which means Child of the Woods, a kenning for Wolf (below) – fought a guerrilla war of ambushes, hit-and-runs attacks and rarely fought pitched battles against their vastly superior enemies. But they did have one notable victory in a set-piece battle against the Frankish heavy cavalry in AD 782 in a hilly and heavily wooded region of what is now Lower Saxony called the Süntel Hills, near the modern-day city of Paderborn.

The Saxons, encouraged by Widukind, called in my novels The Saxon Wolf, rebelled against the Franks in 782, after Charlemagne had announced a series of draconian laws known as the First Saxon Capitulary. The new Frankish laws imposed on Saxony outlawed paganism and now made minor crimes such as eating meat during Lent, and hiding someone who did not wish to be baptised, punishable by death.

The Saxons erupted in fury and Widukind raised his standard in the remote Süntel Hills, and summoned warriors to his side. Historians think that perhaps 4,000 or 5,000 Saxons answered the call and rallied to a high spur of land in the hills with a curious rock formation at the western end called the Hohenstein (High Stone – pictured below). Widukind built a fortress there and proceeded to sally out and plunder the surrounding, Frankish-controlled farm lands, gleefully burning churches and slaughtering Christians.

Charlemagne (called Karolus in my novels) was down in Bavaria at the time, preparing to launch an attack on the neighbouring Avar Khaganate on the Hungarian plain. But his Frankish officials reacted speedily to this new threat. Two armies were dispatched, one commanded by his Chamberlain, a man called Adalgis, a powerful force of heavy cavalry, and the other a slower-moving infantry force under the command of Charlemagne’s cousin Count Theodoric.

The Saxons must have had good intelligence because they knew the two armies were coming for them, and they prepared accordingly. Knowing that Adalgis was an arrogant and overconfident man, who would seek a quick victory – and that he hoped to deny Count Theodoric a share of the inevitable glory – they baited a trap on the Hohenstein spur (pictured above from the south). The only way the enemy cavalry could come at them was from the east. The northern, southern and western approaches were too steep for horses. And to ensure that the cavalry attacked them without waiting for the infantry to come up in support (Theodoric was still down in the Weser Valley to the south of the Hohensten spur), Widukind ordered his men to come out from their fortress and form a battle line in the open ground to the east.

Adalgis and his officers were so sure that the ignorant pagans were ripe for the slaughter, that they recklessly charged in – some two thousand heavy cabellarii charging a few thousand Saxons on foot in a shield wall. It should have been an easy Frankish victory but because Widukind knew that they could only attack him along the spur from the east, he arranged for them to be ambushed by Saxon archers hiding in the woods as they galloped towards the well-formed shield wall of his courageous Saxon rebels.

The Franks were utterly destroyed – Adalgis was killed, and so were another twenty important Frankish noblemen, and the second army under Count Theodoric was forced to retreat. It was a stunning Saxon victory – one of the very few in that long and terrible war, and it forms the basis of my forthcoming novel Blood of the Bear (Fire Born 5), which will be published by Canelo in October 2024. The Franks rallied, and came back at the rebels, and their vengeance was truly appalling, but that’s a story for another day.

If you don’t yet know my Fire Born series (above), it is best to start at the beginning with The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1). The latest novel in the series, King of the North (Fire Born 4) is available as an eBook, paperback and an audio book from Amazon.

If you are looking for something a little different, I have started an episodic King Arthur series, which begins with The Broken KingdomEpisode One: Arthur’s Bane. The fourth episode will be out in April.

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Tony Estabrook
Tony Estabrook
2 months ago


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