The Sword of Charlemagne or Baptism

 •  3 min. read  •  grade level: 12
The professed object of Charlemagne was to establish Christianity in the remote parts of Germany, but it must ever be regretted that he used such violent means to accomplish his end. Thousands were forced into the waters of baptism to escape a cruel death. The sword or baptism were the conqueror's terms. A law was enacted which denounced the penalty of death against the refusal of baptism. He could offer no terms of peace, enter into no treaty, of which baptism should not be the principal condition. Conversion or extermination was the watchword of the Franks. And though the old religion might sit loosely enough on the conscience of the Saxon, he could see nothing better in the new; for to his mind baptism was identified with slavery, and Christianity with subjugation to a foreign yoke. To submit to baptism was to renounce, not only his old religion, but his personal freedom.
With such anti-Christian, such inhuman, feelings the war was carried on, as we have said, for thirty-three years. At the head of his superior armies he oppressed the savage tribes, who were incapable of confederating for their common safety; nor did he ever, it is said, encounter an equal antagonist in numbers, in discipline, or in arms. But after a struggle of incalculable bloodshed, and of almost unexampled obstinacy and duration, the numbers, the discipline, and the valor of the Franks prevailed at length over the undisciplined and desultory efforts of the Saxons. "The remnant of thirty campaigns of undistinguished slaughter," says Greenwood, "and wholesale expatriation, accepted baptism, and became permanently incorporated with the empire of the Franks and Christianity. Abbeys, monasteries, and religious houses of all descriptions sprang up in every part of the conquered territory, and the new churches were supplied with ministers from the school of Boniface—a school which admitted no distinction between the law of Christ and the law of Rome."
Baptism was the only security and pledge of peace which the Franks would accept for the submission of the Saxons. And thus it was—how sad and humbling to relate!—when the conquest was complete, and the carnage over, the priests entered the field. Their office was to baptize the vanquished. Thousands of the barbarians were thus forced, at the point of the sword, into what the priests called the regenerating waters of baptism. But to the Saxons their baptism meant neither more nor less than the renunciation of their religion and their liberty. The consequence was, that no sooner were the armies of Charles withdrawn, than the indefatigable Saxons rose again, and burst through the encroaching limits of the empire, ravaging as they went. In their burning rage and bitter revenge they hewed down crosses, burnt churches, destroyed monasteries, slaughtered their inmates, respected neither age nor sex, until the whole country seemed wrapped in flames and deluged with blood. Such revolts, it is said, were often provoked by the insolent language, and still more by the offensive demeanor of the missionary monks, and the severe avarice with which they exacted their tithes. But such outbursts, on the part of the Saxons, were followed by a fresh invasion and a merciless slaughter by the Franks, until tribe after tribe yielded to the conquering arms of Charlemagne. On one occasion after a severe revolt Charles massacred 4,500 brave warriors in cold blood who had surrendered. This cruel and cowardly abuse of power leaves a dark, an indelible stain on his history, which no apology can ever remove. Even the skeptic historian alludes to it in a most truthful and touching way. "In a day of equal retribution," he says, "the sons of his brother Carloman, the Merovingian prince of Aquitaine, and the four thousand five hundred Saxons who were beheaded on the same spot, would have something to allege against the justice and humanity of Charlemagne. His treatment of the vanquished Saxons was an abuse of the right of conquest."