Tag Archives: History

Germanic Belief and Religious Tolerance

The preChristian Germanic peoples have often been characterized by historians, particularly by early Catholic historians,  “hateful of a higher religion, and so, like spoilt and envious children lashed out to destroy it”. We hear the same thing, though mostly from modern historians, about their character and regard for Imperial Roman civilization, but, while fundamentally similar, that is a matter best dealt with separately and on its own.

As for this supposed intolerance of the Germanic people for Christianity; it is best exemplified in the martyring of Sabbas and other Gothic Christians in the latter half of the 4th century AD.  According to the 5th century AD historian, Sozomenus,

“Athanaric’s men placed an idol on a cart and conducted it to the tents of those who were thought to be Christians. Suspects were ordered to worship the idol and to offer sacrifice. Those who refused were burned in their dwellings.”

That however is just a snap shot of a moment in history.

In fact, the Goths first came into contact with (Arian) Christianity in the mid-3rd century AD via their raids into the eastern Mediterranean region, from which they carried home many Christian slaves. And within the space of 100 years, the Bible had been translated into Gothic and Christianity had grown enough among the ethnic Goths to invite the serious attention of their kings and nobles.

Strange is it not? That a people supposedly so “envious” and “hateful” of a foreign faith would not only allow its presence but also its proliferation within their community. Indeed, when Athanaric’s men began their persecution of Gothic Christians a number of their non-Christian kith and kin, for better or worse, attempted to shield or otherwise hide the Christianity of their loved ones from the King’s men. Good ol’ St.Sabbas however denounced got wind of this and utterly denounced such Christians. And so went and got himself (among others) martyred.

It is worth noting that Athanaric’s distaste for Christianity was not a general phenomenon, directed against all Christians, but was directly mostly against Gothic converts. It is also worth noting Sabbas’ own willful contempt for the customs and community of the Goths. It is nothing at all unfamiliar to us from the earlier interactions of Christianity with the Roman Empire, when zealous converted went out of their way to blaspheme the state divinities in hopes of being fed to the lions and becoming a martyr for the cause. And it is also all too familiar from later interactions between the Continental Germanic tribes and Christianity; as perhaps best characterized in Willibrord’s baptism of a number of converts in the sacred spring on Fosites Island, followed by his slaughter of a number of sacred cattle for a subsequent feast. For this, Willibrord was brought before the Frisi-King, Radbod, to face capital charges for sacrilege.

Yes. Our ancestors most certainly had blasphemy and sacrilege laws. More properly, they had pious thew, they were what the Anglo-Saxons called aefast, while the law was an offender’s best hope of not being executed on the spot by an outraged mob.

Just ask Willibrord.

As for Sabbas and his ilk, they refused to partake of the sacrificial meat served up at the holy tides, which is of course tantamount to publicly rejecting the community,  refusing to take part in its spirit. He refused even just a token sign that, “despite your different beliefs, you are one of us”. The kingly hostility that he and his invoked was less a matter of a rejection of the Gothic divinities, though it was that too, and much more a rejection of the (holistic) community itself, gods and all. Basically, they proclaimed themselves to be subversives; more than happy to profit from their position among the Goths, but utterly reluctant to embrace that community and take part in it’s sacral identity.

Centuries later in the Viking Age, King Hakon the Good of Norway would find himself in a similar predicament when presented with the sacral mead at one of the holy tides; which caused a lot of concern among the gathered. He found a way around this Christian inspired reluctance by making the sign of the cross over the draught before taking it, while his confidants explained that he made the sign of the hammer over it.

This saved the king from an ordeal not entirely unlike that of wretched Sabbas, and born of much the same reasons.

Nevertheless, from Clovis of Frankland to AEthelbeorht of Kent to Penda of Mercia to Angantyr (Ongendus) of Denmark to Radbod of Frisia, we see time and time and time again Heathen kings receiving Christian missionaries with a right good will; extending protection to them, provisioning them, giving them the freedom to preach and win converts, sending them off with noble youths to be educated in the foreign beliefs, and treating them about as well as anyone could honestly ever hope or expect to be treated.

Not all of these kings ended up converting. And forsooth, not all of them remained at all friendly to Christianity; as one might expect when you extend every hospitality to a guest who then goes on to repay you by “destroying your house”, but, while Germanic ethics are not at all above “putting one’s best foot forward”, they ultimately hinge on reciprocity.

In fact, it was never the Germanic peoples who had any baleful preconceived notions about Christians or had any kind of special, or even common, hatred for them, or any other religion or culture. History itself utterly refutes such an absurd suggestion. And one need not look very far to discover where the inherent contempt for foreign beliefs comes from. It is clear and evident in historical Christianity. Not so much in our regard for outsiders, their culture and belief, save in reactionary retaliation for assaults on the heart and soul of our people, and the integrity of our community.


“(King) Raedwald (of East Anglia) was long ago made acquainted, in Kent, with the sacraments of the Christian faith, but in vain; for on his return home, he was perverted by his wife, and certain perverse teachers, and having been turned aside from the sincerity of the faith, his last state became worse than his first, so that, after the manner of the Samaritans of old, he seemed both to serve Christ and the gods which he before served: and in the same temple had both an altar for the sacrifice of Christ, and a small altar for the victims offered to demons.”

— Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation

“King Penda himself did not forbid the preaching of the Faith to any even of his own Mercians who wished to listen; but he hated and despised any whom he knew to be insincere in their practice of Christianity once they had accepted it, and said that any who despised the commandments of the God in whom they professed to believe were themselves despicable wretches.”

— Bede, the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation

“Early in spring King Olaf went eastwards to Konungahella to the meeting with Queen Sigrid (of Sweden); and when they met the business was considered about which the winter before they had held communication, namely, their marriage; and the business seemed likely to be concluded. But when Olaf insisted that Sigrid should let herself be baptized, she answered thus: — “I must not part from the faith which I have held, and my forefathers before me; and, on the other hand, I shall make no objection to your believing in the god that pleases you best.” Then King Olaf was enraged, and answered in a passion, “Why should I care to have thee, an old faded woman, and a heathen bitch?” and therewith struck her in the face with his glove which he held in his hands, rose up, and they parted. Sigrid said,”This may some day be thy death.””

— Snorri Sturlusson, Heimskringla


Our Story

Indigenous Germanic belief was never so sharply compartmentalized a thing as we think of today when we think of religion. Certainly, our ancestors had their notions of what might properly be thought of as religious … those things “set apart” in dedication to the gods and their worship, and which were mostly the preoccupation of the tribal priests and/or head of household … but those beliefs impacted all other aspects of their culture. Language, poetry, mead, farming practices, battle formations, social institutions, tribal land masses, etc. were all ascribed sacral origins by our ancestors. There was no sacred-profane dichotomy, but rather a “trichotomy” of the sacred (wih), the blessed community (holy), and everything else outside of that (unholy, ie. not whole, not integral to the community).

While, in the past, Christianity came to replace the theological aspects of our indigenous beliefs, it did not mark the end of our beliefs from a properly heathen point of view. Ideology does not define our folk in the same way as it does universalists. The conversion was not the end of our story. Our languages continued, our folk cultures continued, our cultural perceptions and biases continued … not only to BE impressed, but to IMPRESS itself upon Christianity … and our blood continued.

Our story has continued, as ever, to grow and evolve in accordance with our historical experience … in accordance with our native notion of law, of precedent. Our Christianized ancestors of yore, for better and for worse (but mostly for worse), laid down a new precedent … and we have laid down other precedents since … the Eddic “laying of layers” … that have enabled us “heathens” to arise again and lay down a new precedent of our own, which is itself an old one … that recognizes our sacral origins as a people and the value of who we are. But it is all our story as the offspring of NW Europe. There is no Christian history or Heathen history. There is only European history, Germanic history. Our story.

In Their Ancient Hymns: the Ethnogenesis of the Germanic Peoples

In their ancient hymns (which amongst them are the only sort of records and history) they celebrate Tuisto, a god sprung from the earth, and Mannus his son, as the fathers and founders of their people. To Mannus they asign three sons, after whose names so many people are called; the Ingaevones, dwelling by the seashore; the Herminones, in the interior; and all the rest, Istaevones. Some, borrowing the liscence that pertains to antiquity, maintain that the god had more sons; that thence came more denominations of people, the Marsians, Gambrians, Suevians, and Vandalians, and that these are the names truly genuine and original.” (Tacitus, Germania)

Such is what we have of the first recorded ethnogenesis myth of the Germanic peoples. It is preserved in the works of both Tacitus and Pliny, both hailing from the 1st century A.D., and was, presumably, considered “ancient” by the tribes of Germania at the time of it’s recording. Indeed, certain aspects of the “myth” as we have it predate the emergence of Germanic culture in southern Scandinavia by over a  thousand years, as we see in the case of the figure Mannus and his Aryan (aka. Indo-Iranian) cognate, Manu. Of this Manu, who’s name, like Mannus’, means “man, human”, the Mahabharate states,

And Manu was endowed with great wisdom and devoted to virtue. And he became the progenitor of a line. And in Manu’s race have been born all human beings, who have, therefore, been called Manavas. And it is of Manu that all men including Brahmanas, Kshattriyas, and others have been descended, and are therefore all called Manavas. Subsequently, O monarch, the Brahmanas became united with the Kshattriyas. And those sons Manu that of were Brahmanas devoted themselves to the study of the Vedas. And Manu begat ten other children named Vena, Dhrishnu, Narishyan, Nabhaga, Ikshakus, Karusha, Saryati, the eighth, a daughter named Ila, Prishadhru the ninth, and Nabhagarishta, the tenth. They all betook themselves to the practices of Kshattriyas. Besides these, Manu had fifty other sons on Earth. But we heard that they all perished, quarrelling with one another.

Both Mannus and Manu gave their name to us men, both had kingly children that rose to glory among their respective tribes, and both had many other son’s of, ahem, “lesser fame” and/or more local significance. If one goes on to relate Mannus to the Viking Age Heimdal — not an uncommon comparison based on his Eddic appellation “Father of Mankind” — and factors the Rigsthula into the comparison — which tells of how Heimdal fathered and united the various castes of men into a cohesive tribe — the match with Manu is complete. But really, the existing Mannus-Manu correspondence is already quite remarkable and adequately demonstrates the ancientness of (certain aspects of) the lost hymn.

On the other hand, the geography of the tribes would suggest that other elements of it were more recent and pertained specifically to the Germanic peoples; being no earlier than the first waves of migrations that spread and established Germanicism throughout Central Europe and gave rise to the Herminonic (interior) and the Istaevonic (everywhere else) branches of the Folk as found in the hymn. Needless to say perhaps, the Ingvaeonic tribes were made up of those people who remained in the ancestral homeland along the seashores of southern Scandinavia. This would date these elements of the hymn to somewhere in the ballpark of the 1st century B.C. at the latest, and certainly no earlier than the advent of the Celtic Iron Age and the corresponding collapse of Nordic Bronze Age culture (c.500 B.C.).

As such there does seem to be considerable truth indeed to Tacitus’ assertion that this hymn was ancient. It demonstrates a deep awareness of common heritage and shared identity that walked hand-in-hand with the evolution of a “Common” or “Proto-” Germanic tongue (c.500 B.C.) and which, to various degrees, endured the evolutionary divergence of the Germanic language into its various branches , the Migration Age, and even “the Conversion” (ie. of the Anglo-Saxons). It was in fact this enduring memory of common heritage that inspired the first Anglo-Saxon missionaries to evangelize their Danish and Continental brethren in the late 7th century A.D.

For those more familiar with Eddas, the Ancient Hymns seem at first glance an odd thing with little to no relationship to grand and “otherworldly” nature of the Viking Age Creation myths or even to the Anglo-Saxon Caedmon’s Hymn. And sometimes this is cited as evidence of the great changes that took place within Germanic culture between the Iron Age to the Viking Age … and usually for some less than honest reason that has to do with validating the misappropriation of Germanic culture for modern culturo-political ends as exemplified in Universalist Asatru, and which dismisses the numerous commonalities that thread the weave of Germanic identity together and which endured it’s spread over time or space … thus allowing for the quantification of a thing as Germanic. But really, trying to force the Ancient Hymns into the Voluspa or Gylfaginning or Caedmon’s Hymn is to mistake an ethnogenesis for a genesis. The former tells of the origins of a people, the latter the origins of the cosmos. As such, they are not different versions of the same thing. Rather they are different components of the same thing, as can be seen by those with a due familiarity with such legends that tell of the origins of tribes and aetheling (royal) houses as found in the Heimskringla or Gesta Danorum, and related in the tales of such figures as Ingui, Scyld Sceafing and Merovech. The ancient hymns are the “rainbow bridge” that link the abstract, otherworldy mythology to the more concrete and historical evolution of the people. This in the same way that the Old Testament “Genesis” gives way to the legends of the Jews, their rulers, their earthly ordeals, and their own (ethno-culturally specific) evolving relationship with the “divine mystery”.

Tuisto and Mannus

As for the figures to be found in the ancient hymns — Tuisto, Mannus, Ingui, Irmin, Istaev (and the others) — while I have already touched on Mannus above, he is named alongside Tuisto as the co-progenitor of the Germanic people. Linguistically speaking, the name Tuisto is obscure. It could be a corruption of the Proto-Germanic Tiwisko (son of Tiw/God) as Grimm suggested, or it could be some concept built upon the fairly evident Proto-Germanic twa- root, from whence we get the Modern English word two (as in the quantity) … such as twin or twist (the latter of which means dispute/conflict in all of the Germanic languages save the English). While I have been very much inclined to see Tiw himself in Tuisto over the years, and so preferred (and in fact formulated) the possible relation of Tuisto to twist (dispute; ie. Mars Thingsus, TyR is not a Peacemaker), it seems today far more likely that the name was either Tiwisko or Twin. Either would suffice, as either one will ultimately point us back in the direction of the other.

And here is why; the notion of co-progenitors is very well established in the creation of new tribal identities among the Germanic peoples and their various Indo-European relatives. It can be seen in Aggo and Ebbo for the migrating Lombards, Roas and Raptos for the migrating Asdingi, most famously in Horsa and Hengist for the migrating Anglo-Saxons, and even perceived in such Vandal co-rulers as Ambri and Assi, and Vinill and Vandill. In the greater Indo-European world we see it in Romulus and Remus for the tribes of Rome and in Castor and Pollux among the Greeks, and most specifically among the Spartans who modeled their dual kingship after the Dioscuri (Sons of God) wherein one king ruled the peace and the other ruled at war. Such a dual kingship among the Germanic peoples, made up of a priest-king and a warrior-king, is observed in the literature as early as Tacitus, and so contemporary with the “Ancient Hymns”, and as late Jordanes, rears it’s head here and there throughout the better known legends and histories of our folk, eg. Hrothgar and Halga, and can even be gleaned in the relationship between the strongly martial Carolingians and the more sacral Merovingians of France. Moreover, the iconography of the “Divine Twins” and the supremacy of the intimately related “cult of the sun” saturates the rock-art and twinned deposits of the Nordic Bronze Age and continued in high style on the Gallehus Horns and the “twin dancers” of Anglo-Saxon art.  


While Tacitus names Mannus as the son of Tuisto rather than his brother, this seems more likely some form of mistake in interpretation. Take for a handy example that the Aryan Manu is remembered as the father of mankind, while his fellow Aryan, Yama (Twin), is remembered as the first mortal to have died. One could be left with the impression that Manu is Yama’s father. And yet, in fact, Manu and Yama are remembered as brothers. As such, I tend to favor the theory that Tuisto and Mannus are in fact brothers, a Germaniversal expression of the “Divine Twins” as the co-progenitors of tribes and peoples.      

The Ancient Hymns and the Elder Futhark

Here it is interesting to note that the Germanic mystery alphabet, called the futhorc by the Anglo-Frisians — but more widely remembered simply as “the runes” — was formulated over a time in which the Ancient Hymns were pervasive; marking the “alphabets” beginnings with the experimentation found etched on one of the Negau helms in the 2nd century B.C. and ending with the fully crystallized elder futhark of the 2nd century A.D. This is curious because at least two of the eight staves that make up the 3rd aett or family of the futhorc share the names of the deities of the Ancient Hyms. Namely, Mannus and Ingui.


Now, I am certainly not the first person to have made this observation. And this certainly fed into my desire to equate Tuisto with Tiw, as Tiw’s rune stands at the head of the 3rd aett. The notion began to fall apart however when the notion that Tuisto and Mannus were actually brothers fell into the mix and proved itself the stronger. Nevertheless, as mentioned above, Castor and Pollux were themselves known as the “Dioscuri” or “Sons of Zeus/God”, likewise were their Baltic (Latvian)  counter-parts called the “Dieva deli” or “Sons of Dieva/God” … of which Grimm’s Tiwisko (Son of Tiw/God) would represent a Proto-Germanic cognate of in the singular.

And so we find the rune of Tiw standing right where we might expect it if the theory holds water. But where then is Tuisto? I would suggest that he is to be found in the “ehwaz” stave, which means horse and stems from the same Proto-Indo-European root that gave us such other appellations for the Divine Twins as the Lithuanian “Asvieni” and the Sanskrit “Ashvins”. And so we have in the first four staves of the elder futhark the notion that Tiw (Glory father) and Birch (the fertility principle, ie. the earth, a cow, a mortal woman) gave rise to the Divine Twins as embodied in the staves for Horse and Man; even as Zeus fathered Pollux on the mortal woman Leda (and on her Pollux was made the brother of mortal Castor by the King of Sparta).

These four staves are then followed by the staves named for Water, Ingui, Day, and Homeland; which all but tell the same tale made evident in the legends of Scyld Sceafing and Merovech … of the sea bringing (Water) a divinely favoured one (Ing) who, with the wisdom of the gods (Day), went on to establish a homeland/identity for the folk (Homeland) … or, alternately, who went on to establish a homeland/identity for the folk (Homeland) and the dawning of the first day (Day).

I dunno … it all falls into place a little too conveniently to be casually dismissed.

Well, my time is burning, so I’ll have to leave the sons of  Mannus for another time; which mostly means Irmin as I’ve already dealt with Ingui here while the others brothers, Istvae included, are far too obscure for anything more than sheer speculation and passing commentary.

Be whole!


The Conversion of Kent

As a person of Germanic belief, one can easily be left with the impression that the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons was, in comparison to that of our Continental or more Northernly brethren, an overnight success; as though Augustine arrived on Thanet one fine day, and by the next day everyone in the entire heptarchy fell down on their knees and proclaimed Jesus as their lord and savior.

In truth, from Willibrord’s first arrival in Frisia to the conversion of the Saxon resistance leader Widukind — which marked the official conversion of the Old Saxons and the end of the Saxon Wars — a total of 87 years had passed. Meanwhile from Augustine’s arrival on Thanet to the official conversion of Sussex by Wulfhere of Mercia a total of 83 years had passed. Even if one pushed that back to the death of King Penda of Mercia and the ascension (and quick murder) of his son and successor Peada that would still total 58 years, which is not a substantial difference. On a larger scale, the official conversion of the West Germanic peoples as a whole took 289 years (from Clovis to Widukind), while that of the North Germanic peoples or Scandinavians took somewhere in the ballpark of 200 years. Yes, things may have proceeded somewhat faster or somewhat slower here or there, but this is the gist of it all. Indeed, the conversion of the Germanic peoples, from Ulfias to Iceland took some 650 years give or take a decade.

The official conversion (which means “political” or “state” conversion) of the Germanic peoples was not a swift process among any denomination of the folk and always hinged on and/or was hedged in by  other (political and economic) factors that led to the decision. It was never purely a matter of theology, and the theology they received could hardly have been called pure. Indeed, early Protestant surveys reported entire regions of rural Germany that were given over to superstitions, as a testament to the political nature of the conversion, ie. the further from the halls of power, out on the heath for example, the less the influence. Not to give the impression of full blown, Crown-sponsored, ahem, “heathenism” surviving until such a later period (and among a folk who’s native beliefs were so violently opposed by the Church), but think rather of some kind of “Germanic Santeria” … which is Catholic, but which no self-respecting orthodox Catholic would admit as being so. Indeed, one could say this also of the more, ahem, orthodox Catholicism that has existed since the conversion of the Germanic peoples forward into the 20th century.

Here the words of Adam of Bremen in regards to the conversion of Iceland come to mind, “Although even before receiving the faith, living after a certain law of nature, they had not differed much from our own religion.

But back to the Anglo-Saxons. Let us take Kent as a case study in their conversion; as it was the first Anglo-Saxon kingdom to be Christianized, it’s conversion is the best documented, and it is often touted as having been a miraculous success.

Now, as the archaeological evidence testifies, West Kent had entered into an exclusive trade alliance with Catholic France in the early 6th century (ie. within decades of the conversion of Clovis) and this undoubtedly aided the local aetheling (royal) house, which AEthelbeorht would spring from, in fulfilling their kingly prerogative of providing prosperity to their people; which in turn enabled them to better fulfill their other kingly prerogative of defending their folk, and thus bolstered their prestige in the eyes of the men of Kent. It was against this backdrop that AEthelbeorht rose to power, wed the Franco-Catholic princess Berthe, united East and West Kent into a single kingdom, and went on to establish himself as the first in the line of “Bretwaldas”; a courtesy really that acknowledged whoever might be the most prestigious king in the heptarchy.

One cannot underrate the importance that Berthe herself played in the conversion of AEthelbeorht. Just witness the zeal which Clovis’ own wife, Clothilde, advanced Christianity to her husband. And indeed, the great value that the Germanic peoples placed on the counsels of women has been noted since as early as Caesar and Tacitus. This was quite the voice for the Church to have. And not simply within Germanic society, but within the very bed chamber of a king!

By 597 AD, Augustine had arrived in Kent, where AEthelbeorht received him with typical heathen hospitality. He was even granted freedom to preach and win converts. By 600, AEthelbeorht himself had converted. Now, the general Catholic approach to the conversion of the Germanic peoples was the policy of temporary accommodation, as expressed in a letter written by Pope Gregory to one of Augustine’s missionaries, Mellitus, where he writes,

tell him what I have long been considering in my own mind concerning the matter of the English people; to wit, that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let water be consecrated and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed there. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more freely resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they are used to slaughter many oxen in sacrifice to devils, some solemnity must be given them in exchange for this, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they should build themselves huts of the boughs of trees about those churches which have been turned to that use from being temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer animals to the Devil, but kill cattle and glorify God in their feast, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their abundance; to the end that, whilst some outward gratifications are retained, they may the more easily consent to the inward joys. For there is no doubt that it is impossible to cut off every thing at once from their rude natures; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps.

It is a curious fact that here in this letter the Pope explicitly tells Mellitus to not destroy the temples of the people, but in a letter from the same year, but addressed to AEthelbeorht himself, he instructs the king to,

press on with the task of extending the Christian faith among the people committed to your charge. Make their conversion your first concern; suppress the worship of idols and destroy their shrines

Now, yes, technically a temple and a shrine are not necessarily the same thing, but they’re really close. And perhaps even closer still across languages, ie. Latin to Old English. I’ll leave this one at that, save to say that a century later, during the Saxon Wars, churches were made the only place of refuge from violations of the “Capitulary for Saxony”, under which such things as heathen worship, resistance to the missionaries, free assembly, etc. were deemed a capital offense.

Now, all of the men of Kent were not quite so eager to accept Christianity as their lord had been. And so Bede relates that AEthelbeorht,

showed greater favour to believers, because they were fellow citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

You can imagine the kind of rat-race this set in motion, with every yes-man in the tribe looking to better his position, at so cheap a currency, and every wiseman, who might well have refused conversion, being forced to act anyway before the ass-kissers came into control of the tribe. It’s essentially the same dynamic within the tribe as we see play itself out on the inter-tribal level between vying kings, and as we see repeat itself in the conversion of peoples the world over.

And yet for all of the “droves upon droves” that allegedly followed Aethelbeorht into conversion, his own son, Eadbald, who succeeded his father in 616 AD, refused baptism. And so the mantle of Bretwalda fell to the convert King Raedwald of East Anglia. One might imagine this refusal also threatened Kent’s trade alliance with the Franco-Catholics, and so perhaps it is not surprising to learn that he eventually conceded to baptism … under the influence of yet another Franco-Catholic princess who became his (second) wife.

It is not until 640 AD that we find King Eorcenbeorht calling for the “destruction of idols” in Kent. And indeed, two members of the aetheling house of Kent were slain in retaliation for this act, showing that the native beliefs still had a pretty strong pulse. In fact, for all of the rights the Church was granted under AEthelbeorht’s Law Code, it is not until the Laws of Wihtraed in 695 that “the worship of devils” was put on the books as a legally punishable offense.

And so here we are, some 98 years after the landing of Augustine on Thanet, and while we can clearly see that Christianity had by this time gained a position of socio-political dominance, it is equally evident that heathenism was still at work and a force to be dealt with. Afterall, you don’t draft laws prohibiting people from doing things they’re not doing. So we can plainly see that this was hardly a swift and sure conversion. And we can only wonder how the conversion might have progressed in Mercia with the death of Penda and the murder of Peada.

One of the biggest differences between the history of the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England, as opposed to the conversion of our Continental and Scandinavian brethren is detail; particularly in contrast to the Heimskringla, which furnishes with some pretty grim  and graphic scenes in which the heathen folk, at times named folk, of those lands met their death for refusing to convert. In contrast, Bede glosses over the entire affair.

And hey, we might actually have a little bit more detail today if it wasn’t for all them damned vikings raiding monasteries and destroying books. But believe you me, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons was neither swift nor easy … not that there is any glory in determining who was the bigger “victim” of course. Just that our folk, any denomination of them, have never been known (outside of modern times, maybe) to simply curl up and die. The Anglo-Saxons were no one’s push-over.

Be whole!



Frankish origins and the Merovingians

While it would be as foolish to attribute a Germanic origin to the modern French language and culture as it would to attribute the same to modern Spain or Italy, ie. the Goths, it is nevertheless a glaringly evident fact that it is after the Germanic tribes collectively known as the Franks that the modern Frenchman references both himself and his language.

Like all of the Germanic peoples, the roots of those tribes that would grow into the Franks extends back to the seashores of southern Scandinavia, the culture of the Nordic Bronze Age, and the Proto-Germanic language. As we first find them on the stage of (Graeco-Roman) history though — following the period of Germanic migration that marked the beginnings of the European Iron Age, and carried Germanic culture to the area of what is now Germany — the Frankish tribes were settled in the region of the Lower and Middle Rhine River.


In the 1st century, the Roman historian Tacitus mentioned the “Ancient Hymns” of the Germanic peoples, which celebrated their divine origins as a people from the god Mannus (Man, Human; cognate to the Indic Manu), and grouped the greater Germanic peoples into three branches; only two of which we need concern ourselves with. Each of these branches was named for one of the exceptional sons of Mannus. Thus, those tribes that lived along the seashore were called Ingvaeones after the man-god Ingui (Old Norse – Yngvi, aka. FreyR), while those that occupied the interior were called Irminones after the man-god Irmin (Old Norse – Jormun, aka. Odhinn).

The Franks themselves included two such tribes; the Ingvaeonic Salians at the Rhine delta and the Irminonic Ruparians who lived to the east of the Salii along the Rhine. They spoke Old Franconian, or some local variation of, itself a West Germanic tongue, and the ancestor of, not Modern French by any means, but the modern Franconian languages.

It was the aetheling (royal) house of the Salians, the Merovingians, that the Franks were at last united under. And the myth of the birth of Merovech, who gave his name to the line, shows off their Ingvaeonic origins quite tellingly. It relates of how a Salian Queen, the wife of King Chlodio, was sitting on the seashore one day, when a great bull emerged from the surf and engendered Merovech on her. This legend differs only in the aesthetic details to the founding of the Scylding house of Denmark by Scyld Sceafing; who was found as a baby in a shield-boat that had been set adrift in the sea, but in either case the new king is for all intents and purposes “born of the sea”; not unlike Ing himself in the Old English Rune Poem! In the Old English poem Beowulf, the Danes were called the “friends of Ingui”, while Ingui’s enduring link to kingship can be gleaned in the genealogy of the Anglo-Saxon kings of Bernicia and most poignantly in the old aetheling house of Sweden, who were called the Ynglings (Offspring of Ingui) in explicit reference to Yngvi-FreyR (see the Ynglinga saga of the Heimskringla).

 Ithyphallic artifact found at Arras in Northern France, dating from the 4th century CE. Consiste with other NW European images associated with Ingui worship from as early Adam of Breman.

Ithyphallic artifact found at Arras in Northern France, dating from the 4th century CE. Consistent with other NW European images associated with Ingui worship from as early Adam of Breman.

I believe it was Gregory of Tours (or Einhard???) who mocked the Merovingian custom of travelling to the annual assembly in a wagon drawn by two cows. But what Gregory took to be a peasant mode of travel does in fact have it’s roots in the wagon processions of Ingui and “Nerthus” — if indeed they are different deities; which is doubtful — in which an image of the god was carried “throughout the land” in a cow drawn wagon for the sake bringing peace and prosperity to the folk. Far from travelling like peasants, the Merovingians traveled like gods!

The Saxon Wars

Foreword: This is another piece that I originally wrote for Theod Magazine back in the mid-90’s. Much like my Penda “saga” it was the first detailed treatment of the subject in modern Germanic Heathen literature.

The continental mission began in the year 691 C.E. when the Northumbrian priest Wilibrord set out for Frisia with twelve companions. Before beginning his work, the missionary decided to first pay a visit to the land of the Franks, where, with the aid of the Pope, he secured the promise of military support from King Clovis II’s “mayor of the palace” (ie. warlord), Pepin II. Thus began a relationship that would lead not only to the savage conversion of the continental Germanic tribes, but also to the fall of the Merovingian royal line (of France) and the invention of the “Christian Kingship”. In stark contrast to the Anglo-Saxon mission, which relied upon guile, carrot-dangling, and compromise as it’s chief weapons, the continental mission was bloody and brutal; though ultimately the Catholic “policy of accommodation” was a significant factor in even this conversion.

Despite the fact that, in typical Germanic fashion, the initial missionaries were well received by such notable men as King Radbod of Frisia and King Ongentheow of Denmark – the latter of whom sent Wilibrord on his way with 30 Danish youths to be educated in the teachings of Christ! – their deeds would quickly earn them the hatred and contempt of Frisian, Saxon, and Dane alike.

An illustrative instance; soon after his departure from Denmark a gale drove Wilibrord’s ship to ground on an island known as Fositesland. On this island, which was considered a part of Radbod’s Frisia and sacred to the deity Fosite, stood a temple, as well as a spring and a herd of cattle. In spite of warnings, or perhaps, rather, prompted by them, Wilibrord baptized three locals he had managed to convert in the spring and then had a number of the cattle slaughtered for a feast.


In 696 C.E. Pope Sergius appointed Wilibrord archbishop of the Frisian nation.

With the death of Pepin II in the year 714 C.E., King Radbod took to the field against the Catholics; determined to drive them from his kingdom all together. He was met with strong opposition however from Charles “the Hammer” Martel, Pepin’s son and successor. In 719 C.E. glorious Radbod passed away, and with his death official conversion was forced upon the Frisians and Utrecht was permanently established as the Continental mission’s center.

Over the next three years another Anglo-Saxon missionary, Winfred (aka Boniface), rose to prominence in Wilibrord’s service. In 723 C.E. Pope Gregory II himself wrote a letter to Martel in order to bring his attention to the zealous missionary and request that the Mayor of the Palace guard his life. Later this same year Winfrid returned to Hesse, his primary sphere of evangelical activity, accompanied by a troop of Franco-Catholic soldiers. With this assurance, he proceeded to chop down the sacred Thunor Oak at Geismar. And with its fall, the mission began to spread into Saxony like wild fire.


In the year 741 C.E. Charles Martel died, leaving three sons, Carloman, Grifo, and Pepin the Short, as his heirs. In all, Martel is known to have sent troops into Saxony a total of five times in order to loot, burn, and generally terrorize the locals. Winfrid would comment that his missionary gains would’ve been impossible without the aid of Martel.

Of Martel’s sons, Grifo and Carloman, there is little enough to tell.

Upon his father’s death, Grifo, acting upon the advice of his mother, strove to take possession of all of his father’s holdings. He was defeated and taken captive by his brothers, and remained in their “care” until 747 C.E. when he escaped; fleeing into Saxony in hopes of rallying support for his cause. When Pepin the Short led his army of Franco-Catholics into Saxony however, the natives (presumably Westphalian Saxons) handed Grifo over without a fight.

As for Carloman, he invaded Saxony twice, in 743 CE and 744 CE, and both times he forced the submission of a drighten (warlord) called Theodoric. It is also worth noting that in 746 CE he ordered the Alemannian nobles to attend an assembly at Connstadt. Now, the Alemannians had been conquered by the Merovingian, Clovis I, in that black year 496 CE, but they had been in constant revolt ever since. Carloman had resolved to put an end to this once and for all. So, when the Alemannians arrived at the assembly they quickly found themselves surrounded by Franco-Catholic troops in full battle-gear and a slaughter commenced. When all was said and done, not a single Alemannian noble was left alive. The death toll was said to have numbered in the thousands. Soon after this, Carloman was struck by a sudden fit of conscience and decided to retire into a monastery.

Of Pepin the Short there is much more of direct significance to tell.

He and Winfrid were very close and over the years since Martel’s death the missionary had labored to strengthen the rather strained relationship that existed between the Carolingians and the papacy. It was in fact Winfrid who played off Pepin’s “Christian right” to be King against the sacral and hereditary right of the Merovingians, and in doing so won for Pepin the support of Pope Zacharias and a majority of Franco-Catholic nobles. At the Pope’s request an election was held, and Pepin the Short was declared the Christian King of the Franks. Childeric III, of the customarily long-haired Merovingian line, was tonsured and thrown into a monastery even as Winfrid crowned and anointed Pepin; thus instituting the Christian Kingship … or more appropriately, the cult of Monarchal Absolutism or Divine Right of Kings.

In hopes of creating at least the illusion of credibility, the Pope awarded the new “King” the title of “Patrician of Rome”, which is something that he had no legal right to do under Roman legal code. And Pepin responded by making an illegal donation of land to the papacy – lands which would in time grow into the Papal States – and by taking up the Pope’s cause against the heretical Lombards, who had been the allies of his father!

After returning to Frisia in 754 CE to continue his evangelical work, Winfrid met his end at the hands of a mob of Frisian commonfolk that still harbored resentments regarding their own conversion. The pattern of conversion established Wilibrord and Winfrid, and emulated by many a lesser missionary, was the chief reason for the great number of missionaries that “suffered” (sought and found?) martyrdom during the Continental mission; rather than any inherently Germanic heathen hatred of Christiantity or civilization.

Anyway, later that same year, Pope Stephen felt it somehow necessary to re-confirm Pepin’s right to the “Kingship” and thus re-anointed him. He further conferred the title of king upon Pepin’s sons, Charlemagne and Carloman, and anointed them as well.

Finally, in the year 768 CE Pepin the Short died and his kingdom was split between the two brothers. He had led a total of three raids into Saxony. It is worth noting that he forced the Westphalians, who bore the brunt of Frankish “evangelical” efforts, to pay of tribute of 300 horses, as opposed to the 300 cows that the Merovingians had always demanded. This not only marks a shift in emphasis in leadership from the stewarding of one’s own folk to the acquisition of greater land and resources, but also reveals the growing importance of the mounted soldier to the Franco-Catholic war- machine. By the time of Charlemagne, virtually the entire army was not only mounted, thus allowing for rapid advance and lighting fast battlefield manoeuvres, but many were also capable of fighting from the saddle. The resources taken to train and equip and keep such soldiers constantly in the field was absolutely vast, and over the years of Charlemagne’s “enlightened” reign this price would show itself on the common man … the once proud and free Frankish churl, many of whom would eventually have to sell themselves into thralldom in order to satiate their lord’s desire for control and conquest .

Of Charlemagne and Carloman it could easily be said that there was no love lost between them. It is known that Carloman favoured the Lombards, while Charlemagne was the Pope’s lap dog. In fact, this division of loyalty within the Carolingian house resulted in a familial disaster. Case in point, when Pope Stephen learned that the Queen Mother had arranged a marriage between Charlemagne and the daughter of King Desiderius of Lombardy, which was a good thing in terms of peace and regional stability, he wrote a letter to the Carolingians in which he scolded them for attempting a union with, as Stephen himself put it, “…that fetid brood of Lombards, a brood hardly human…” As a result of this, Charlemagne refused to hear the advice of his mother forever after. And obviously, this did little to brighten Carloman’s disposition toward either his brother or the Pope.

Curiously, in 771 CE Carloman died and, for reasons unknown, his wife felt it necessary to flee to the court of Desiderius. Whatever may have gone on here, this much is certain; with Carloman’s death Charlemagne became the sole ruler of all Frankland.

Now, with the death of Pepin the Short, the Saxons had taken to driving the Catholic missionaries from their lands; burning their churches to the ground for good measure. Furthermore, they had also stopped paying the annual tribute. As a direct result of these actions, Charlemagne vowed at the Worms assembly of 772 CE to subjugate the Saxons, destroy their religion, and convert them to Roman Catholicism.

Up until this point, the Carolingians had “merely” supported the Saxon mission, but at Worms, they took charge of it; though with the Pope’s blessing, of course.


Following the Worms assembly, Charlemagne rode into Saxony at the rear of 1,000 horsemen virtually unopposed. In contrast to statements that Charlemagne was the prototypical Germanic warlord, he did in fact ride at the rear of his host, as opposed to at the forefront, which, as Tacitus related, was the customary place of a Germanic warlord. Anyway, Charlemagne took the stockade Eresburg, then proceeded to the mouth of the river Lippe where stood the revered Saxon Irminsul. In imitation of Winfrid, he chopped down the pillar down and then spent the next three days violating the associated temples and plundering them of “a great amount of gold and silver”; which no doubt thatched the temple not unlike we read of the great Swedish temple of Uppsala. When all was said and done nothing remained of the most sacred spot in Westphalia, and perhaps all Saxony.


From here, the Catholic King led his army onward, plundering, burning and killing as he went, until he reached the river Weser. Here, with a hastily mustered fyrd (folk army, militia), the Saxons met him to discuss terms of peace. These were as simple as they were intolerable; that the missionaries be left unmolested in their work, that the annual tribute of 300 horses be reinstated, and that twelve highborn hostages be yielded up as tribute to the truce. With a sword not only at their own throats, but also those of their kinfolk, the Saxons had little choice but to submit.

Nevertheless, the following year, with Charlemagne off waging war against the Lombards, the Saxons struck back. A large-scale raid was organized by Lord Widukind of Westphalia and Lord Bruno of Angaria, and launched into both Frisia and Hesse. On this raid many churches were plundered and burned, including the church of Winfrid at Fitzlar.

In 774 CE Charlemagne retaliated. Three detachments of his main force were sent to drive the already retiring Saxons out of Frankland, while a fourth was sent directly into Saxony to plunder and burn to it’s heart’s content.

In 775 CE the Franco-Catholic assembly was held at Duren and there Charlemagne vowed to subjugate the Saxons “…or exterminate them altogether.” And so Charlemagne led a full host into small, loosely knit Saxony, accompanied by a mob of missionaries. Holy groves were burned, defiant priests cut down, temples destroyed, villages and farmsteads leveled, fields of grain trampled, while livestock was slaughtered and left to rot. The only real resistance the Catholic King faced on this crusade was led by the Lord Widukind, who snatched a modest yet decisive victory, and suffered two defeats. Both Bruno and Lord Hassi of Eastphalia submitted without a fight prior to Widukind’s second and “final” defeat.

Before retiring to his kingdom, Charlemagne left an occupying force at both Eresburg and Syburg.

The following year found Widukind active once more. Unsupported by his so-called peers, the princely Saxon retook Eresburg, displayed keen judgement in having it demolished, and then placed Syburg under siege. By the time Charlemagne rolled into Saxony, the stockade had all but fallen, and with the arrival of a massive troop of fresh soldiers, the Saxons were forced to abandon it and scatter. Widukind rallied his men at the old site of the Irminsul, and there it was decided that the aetheling should make for the safety of Denmark while everyone else remained to submit to Charlemagne.

And so it went, but what followed was a brutal period of forced baptisms, in which men were beaten senseless with clubs and forced into the baptismal font. In the meantime, Charlemagne not only ordered the reconstruction of both wooden forts, Eresburg and Syburg, but also the construction of the relatively massive stone fortress that was to be known as Karlsburg.

Lest any jibe Widukind’s retreat to Denmark, please do keep in mind that if his warriors had demanded he stay, he could not have done otherwise. He was their pre-eminent military mind, and THE figurehead of the rebellion. His warriors undoubtedly forced him to go.

In the year 777 CE Charlemagne held both his assembly and his annual muster in Saxony at Paderborn. He demanded that all of the Lords of Saxony attend — though this probably meant a certain segment of Saxons such as the Westphalians, Angarians, and Eastphalians in specific for reasons that will become evident as the history progresses — and all the lords so summoned answer … with the exception of Widukind. Mindful of the hostages of 772 CE, and no doubt the massacre of 745 CE, all present mouthed oaths of fealty to both Charlemagne and his children, and then surrendered themselves for baptism. Also, a very odd spectacle appeared there at Paderborn; a band of Muslim envoys. This lot struck an alliance with the Catholic King and then, with the close of the assembly, he hastened his host to Spain in order to wage war on the Saracen Muslims.

And here it might be proper to go into what detail we can of Lord Widukind of Westphalia. As has already been mentioned, he was the most prestigious lord of the Westphalian Saxons, and perhaps even of all the Lords of Saxons. In the years since 772 CE, he had led his fyrd to victory in a number of skirmishes against the Franco-Catholics. And he was clearly well aware that this war of Charlemagne’s was very different from any fought in the past against the Franks; with the spiritual sovereignty of his nation, and every individual in it, being at stake. As a result, he was forced to highlight the religious element in his fight against the Christians in a manner uncharacteristic of Germanic cultural values. One might say that the religious element had already been highlighted for him of course. But of all the Saxons, Widukind was easily the wealthiest and the most powerful, and furthermore, he was the brother-in-law of King Sigfrid of Denmark.

Now, it may very well have been that Widukind had designs on instituting the cult of Kingship amongst the Old Saxons, who had always been a very loose knit collection of petty tribes ruled by the petty lords of the locality; and only temporarily uniting (in theory) under a single, ahem, “Irmin-Drighten” (Great Warlord), chosen by lot, in times of great need. Thus, it may have been Widukind’s own (perceived?) ambitions that, more than anything else, kept his peers from giving him the support they really should have. Or perhaps his peers were just more concerned with their own estates and privilege?

But despite the seeming obsolescence of the Germanic fyrd, with its large mass of part-time warriors and kin-based units, it was a formidable force as both Alfred the Great and Harold Godwinsson would later prove against many a war-worthy viking invader. And it didn’t drive the people into debt, and was thus sustainable over the long term to boot; unlike the Imperial Legions of Rome for instance. Thus, one can only imagine what difference a united Saxon fyrd might have made under Widukind’s capable and innovative leadership.

Whatever the case, Widukind’s concern for and support of the Saxon way of life, not to mention his proven willingness to bleed in the trenches, quickly earned him the love and respect of churls from throughout Greater Saxony.

And so, with Charlemagne and a large chunk of his host off in Spain, Widukind returned from Denmark. And not long afterwards, a second organized raid was launched into the lands of the Franco-Catholics. While churches remained the primary focus of the attack, it was distinguished form the raid of 773 CE by the fact that no booty was taken in their retaliatory destruction. No doubt this would have weighed them down, slowing both their advance and retreat, and reveals a goodly degree of authority, on behalf of Widukind, and discipline, on behalf of the Saxons. The Saxons advanced as far as the Rhine, the traditional border between German and Roman, and then began to fall back. When a troop of cavalry was sent to drive the invaders out of Frankland, Widukind feigned a retreat, lured the force to a river crossing, and there sprung an ambush.

The Franco-Catholics were slaughtered to a man.

Meanwhile, as Charlemagne was double-timing it back from Spain, he ran afoul of some Saracens at Roncesvalles. The Catholic King suffered the loss of many fine men there, including the war-worthy paladin Roland, and was forced into retreat.

Finally, late in the summer of 778 CE, Charlemagne at last charged his Austrians and Alemannians with the task of driving the invaders back into Saxony. Needless to say, time always being a factor, this was accomplished with relative ease.

Over the following winter, and just to make an otherwise traumatic year even worse, Charlemagne’s young son, Lothar, fell ill and died.

And so it is perhaps not without reason that, for the next two years Charlemagne concentrated all of his efforts on Saxony; invading, pillaging, killing, deporting, and carrying out mass forced baptisms.

In 782 CE he once again held his annual assembly in Saxony, this time at Lippspringe. Here the Saxon lands were divided up into “political counties” and awarded to the Catholics King’s vassals; including a select few Saxe-Catholics, who were also given land and title in Austria to insure “mutual interest”. Furthermore, the power to mete out justice was stripped from the traditional panel of “dooms men” (local churls well versed in local law and custom) and given over to the Counts; who further enjoyed the freedom to exercise that power however they saw fit. We might speculate that most fell back on what they knew, and exercised their power according to Franco-Catholic norms; which amongst other things was aimed at the eroding the strength of the kindred, and breaking down the social fabric in general … to the end of empowering a centralized authority. The formation of guilds for instance was considered a threat to the power of the centralized state, as such organizations required that oaths be sworn between members, and these oaths might infringe on loyalty to the state. This “crime” was made punishable by flogging, ***nose slitting***, and even full outlawry under Carolingian rule. Charlemagne also set up an evolving circuit of counts, which limited the ties between the Count and the folk he ruled over, and thus further increased the power of his centralized authority.

Anyway, beyond this, one can only imagine how any given Count may have exercised his power at any given time.

As the Lippsringe assembly drew to a close, it was crashed by a band of Danish envoys led by a Dane called Halptani. On behalf of his lord, King Sigfrid of Denamark, he launched a formal protest against the persecution of their fellow Germanics, but Charlemagne was indignant and responded by accusing King Sigfrid of harbouring “outlaws“. He then went on to further insult the King by offering to “reward him” if Widukind was turned over. This offer was refused outright by Halptani on his lord’s behalf, who retorted by issuing a formal warning that any evangelical activity in Denmark would be regarded with extreme prejudice. This new attitude of the Danes towards Christianity is said to have become a subject of dark humor around the Carolingian court.

Following the close of the assembly and Charlemagne’s return to Frankland, word was received that the Sorbs (a Slavic tribe living between the Elbe and the Saale) had launched a raid into Eastphalia and Thuringia. Thus, three noblemen – Adalgis, Geilo, and Worad – were set over an army of Austrians and charged with the task of driving the Sorbs out of the Empire-to-be.

This attack by the Sorbs “just so happened” to coincide with Widukind’s return to Saxony. And as word of his return spread, revolt began to flare. In response to this, Charlemagne sent his cousin, Count Theodoric, to reinforce Adalgis and the others. They met at the river Weser and, abandoning the Sorb campaign, immediately proceeded to the Suntel Mountains. There, on the northern slope, Widukind and his fyrd stood in defiance of the Franco-Catholics.

Hoping to regain the advantage Widukind had taken by positioning his force on the wooded slope, Theodoric ordered an enveloping manoeuvre. However, before he was able to move his troops into position, Widukind appeared and goaded Adalgis into a reckless up-hill charge. The Franco-Catholics quickly found themselves surrounded and a great slaughter commenced. In the end, Adalgis, Geilo, Four Counts, and twenty other men of rank lay dead. What few soldiers escaped the massacre made for the protection of Theodoric, who pitched camp and sent word to his cousin.

And so before long, Charlemagne rolled into Saxony at the head of a fresh host of troops, thus forcing the battle-weary Saxons to once again scatter. Once again, Widukind was forced to “infringe” on the hospitality of noble Denmark. And indeed, in the wake of Charlemagn’e scorched earth policy, it is likely that Denmark was beginning to experience a steady trickling-in of Saxon refugees.

But if the Saxons thought Charlemange had been terrible up to this point, they hadn’t seen anything yet.

In recent years, the Catholic Warlord had been facing continuing revolts throughout Frankland, suffering partial defeats and disastrous encounters, his lands had been struck by famine, and he had suffered the death of both a young son and a close personal friend. Undoubtedly this must have been grating on the infamous Carolingian temperament as demonstrated by Charlemagne’s uncle Caroloman in his deeds against the Alemannians.

In any event, all of the Saxon Counts were ordered to Verdun, where the Catholic King demanded to know who was responsible for this uprising. Without hesitation all named Widukind, as all knew to be the case, but this was not enough. The nephew of Carloman continued to press the matter until finally, each began to name the other and many more besides. In the end, 4,500 stood accused, both noble and common alike. Those not present at the assembly were quickly rounded up, and then on one black day, late in the year, all 4,500 were beheaded at Verdun.

When word of this reached Widukind, we can imagine that he was left numb. Even by 8th century standards such an act was considered excessively brutal, and even many a Frankish nobleman began from this day to fear for his freedom and privilege. The Pope remained, remarkably, silent on the matter.

In the year 783 CE Widukind returned to Saxony. He was accompanied by a band of Frisian envoys and immediately called for a folkmoot. No doubt he spoke of the elderfolk, their deeds, ordeals, and way of life, and of all they had suffered at the hands of Charlemagne, his forefathers, and other “peace-loving” Christians. And most certainly, he spoke of Verdun. And when all was said and done, “all of Saxony” answered with one voice. Throughout the land pitched battles were fought, churches burned to the ground, and both Counts and missionaries slaughtered without mercy. Simultaneously, temples were rebuilt and the great blessings begun anew. The Frisians, undoubtedly recalling the deeds of King Radbod, followed suit in their lands.

But for all the zeal, it was already too late. The tide could not be turned back.

Once again, Charlemagne led a great host into Saxony and began burning farms, destroying newly rebuilt temples, trampling fields of grain, and both killing and stealing livestock. In shameless defiance of customary rules of warfare, the Catholic King, with his young son Charles the Younger at his side, continued on throughout the winter and the Yule months with his evangelical work.

And so the “war” raged for two years, with each side enjoying many partial victories and suffering partial defeats, but by the end of 784 CE the Frisians had been subdued and the Saxon nobility had begun to betray their folk once again. Widukind was forced to flee back to Denmark, where we might imagine he took stock of the situation.

The Saxons had endured the unendurable. Over the past twelve years, enough time for young boys to grow into men, they had seen sacred groves and ancient trees leveled, holy springs polluted, items of great spiritual value stolen, and men of priceless knowledge butchered. Their homes had been burned, their crops destroyed, cattle slaughtered, with winter looming or reigning supreme, their women and children led off into captivity, and their rights entirely stripped away in their own land. By this time, neither Westphalia, Angaria, nor Eastphalia could field even a modest fyrd. And yet the stubborn Saxon churls, broken and bloodied as they were, stood ever ready to follow noble Widukind.

Apparently, the Catholic King was making good on his boast.

However, while none could doubt Charlemagne’s prowess as a general, things were not so much better in the Franco-Catholic Empire. Resources were strained, famine had struck twice in the space of six years, and already hungry churls were being driven further and further into debt, even slavery, as a direct result of their Monarch’s insatiable lust for war. Even the nobles did not go untouched. But of all those under Charles the Great, it was the Thuringians, Austrians, and Alemannians who suffered the most; bearing the brunt of Charlemagne’s battles. As resentment built, assassinations plots began to brew in their midst.
In the year 785 CE, after routing the final remnants of organized Saxon resistance, Charlemagne sent word to Denmark that he desired to meet with Widukind and discuss terms of peace. And once he produced a number of hostages as an assurance of his good faith, the Saxon aetheling made his way to Attigny. The terms that awaited him there were surprisingly fair; if Widukind would submit to baptism and Carolingian overlordship, Charlemagne would pull his army out of Saxony and grant the Saxons a good deal of autonomy in regards to their own affairs.

These terms were agreed to, binding oaths were sworn, and then Widukind knelt, not before Charlemagne himself, but before an idol of Christ. Thus was the official conversion of the Saxons complete.



This victory was celebrated throughout Christendom, But the Saxons themselves quickly realized that if something sounds to good to be true, it probably is. The infamous “Capitulary on Saxony” was soon enacted. According to these dictates, any Saxon who refused baptism, resisted the missionaries, or acted in any way, physical or otherwise, against the spread of the cult of Christ was subject to immediate death. Of the fifteen offences that carried the death penalty, only one, the act of perjury, had any precedent in Saxon customary law. Folkmoots were strictly forbidden, as was the worship of the native pantheon, and not only did the meting out of justice remain in the hands of the Counts, but a new veto privilege was also given to the Christian priests. In addition to this privilege, churches were made the only place of refuge from “the law”. This was all simple good-cop-bad-cop logic designed to drive the Saxons into the arms of the clergy. It also brings into question any notion of “religious zeal” in the number of churches that were erected throughout Saxony in the wake of “St.Widukind’s” submission and the end of (this phase of) the war.

For the following seven years, once again long enough for boys to become men, the Saxons suffered under Charlemagne’s tyranny. They were even forced to act as auxiliaries in his military campaigns, though they are said to have undertaken their duties with little of their former fighting spirit. During this time the Bretons of Brittany revolted, as did the Bavarians. A Thuringian-Austrian assassination plot was tied in with a revolt of their own, and not only did Charlemagne continue to wage war on the Lombards, but he even managed to start a diplomatic conflict with King Penda’s descendant, the mighty King Offa II of Mercia. Beyond these events, a great lightning storm was said to have raged over Frankland one December, killing a number of people, a great death of birds occurred, a terrible epidemic swept the Empire, and once again…famine struck.

In 792 CE it came to pass that the Albingians, who were considered a branch of the Saxons, but whom often held aloof from the wars of their fellows, struck out against Charlemagne’s encroaching Empire. It was at the mouth of the river Elbe, which marked the southern boundary of their lands, that they fell upon a troop of Franco-Christian soldiers and virtually wiped them out.

As it went, this blow was left unanswered by Charlemagne, and as a result, Count Theodoric and his men were later ambushed and slaughtered when they entered Saxony the following year to collect auxiliaries for Charlemagne’s Hun campaign. And with this act, years of pent up offence exploded. Throughout Saxony churches were again burned, priests slaughtered or taken captive for leverage, and the old ways were restored.

Meanwhile, the Saracens invaded Septmania, where they reaped a great slaughter of Franco-Catholics, and the first Viking longships rowed out of Denmark to engage in the sacking of the Northumbrian monastery at Lindisfarne.


It was not until 794 CE, the year in which Jarrow was sacked by the Danes, that Charlemagne and Charles the Younger rode into Saxony. The Saxons met them just south of Paderborn where they submitted without a fight and swore that they would embrace Christianity once more. But for all of that, Charlemagne received word the following year at the Kostheim assembly that the Saxons were indeed still worshiping in the time-honoured manner. As a result, the Catholic King spent the entire year ravaging Saxony. And the following year was a virtual rerun of the last; save that Charlemagne pushed beyond the swamplands until he reached the shores of the Baltic.

And so this continued on for year after terrible year until finally, in 804 CE, an estimated 10,000 Saxons were uprooted and resettled in various parts of the vast Franco-Catholic Empire; where they undoubtedly suffered the misplaced anger the Franks harbored for their Monarch. Those lands left empty in Saxony were then re-peopled with loyal Franco-Catholics.

During these years, Saxon refugees streamed across the Danish border, and by 804 CE mighty King Godefrid, son of Sigfrid, had seen enough. With Charlemagne and his ally Duke Thrasko of the Obodrites (a Slavic tribe) still campaigning in northern Albingia, Godefrid made for Schleswig, the centre of Old Anglia. There he massed up his entire fyrd, all of his horsemen, and his entire fleet of longships.

In earlier diplomatic missions the Danes had made clear their stance toward Christianity, and subsequently drove that point home with the sacking of both Lindisfarne and Jarrow. And now it seems that Denmark was at last prepared to challenge the champion of Christianity himself. Messengers were sent back and forth between King and emperor, but needless to say perhaps, nothing was resolved.

For the next four years Denmark sat strangely silent. Meanwhile, back in the Empire yet another great famine and epidemic swept the land. As a result, many noblemen failed to attend the annual assembly and muster.

Then, in the 808 CE Denmark struck.

King Godefrid launched an attack on the Obodrites, making two-thirds of their land tributary and driving Thrasko himself into exile. Furthermore, the Dane-King took control of northern trade by leveling the important trading centre of Rubric, and then transferring all of it’s merchants and artisans to safety of Hedeby. He then restored the elder earthwork first erected by Offa I of Old Anglia back in the 4th century CE. It has since become known as the Danevirke.

Over the course of the next year, ambassadors of both Godefrid and Charlemagne met at Badenflot. Much was discussed, nothing resolved, but by the end of the talks, Godefrid had made a couple of things clear; that he considered both Frisia and Saxony his by right, and that he was prepared to topple Charlemagne from his throne and bring a bloody end to Christianity in the north.

And this was no idle boast on Godefrid’s part. Beyond his own Danes, the son of Sigfrid is also believed to have ruled over Vestfold in Norway and could no doubt count upon the aid of both Frisian and Saxon alike. Whatever advantage a mounted army offered Charlemagne was entirely countered by absolute and unquestionable Danish naval supremacy (an area Charlemagne had chosen to neglect despite better counsel), and beyond this, Godefrid had displayed genius not only in matters pertaining to war, but to peace as well.

In 810 CE, even as the Emperor began planning a Danish campaign, 200 longships descended upon Frisia. Godefrid fought three major engagements against the Franco-Catholics stationed there and took the victory each time.

Thus was Frisia liberated under the royal banner of Denmark.

When word of this reached the Emperor he immediately sent out the call to muster, but once again, many could not, or simply would not answer. And so, with what troops he had, Charlemagne began an uncharacteristically slow and uncertain march for Frisia. In the meantime, Godefrid sailed back to Denmark to plan an offensive against Frankland itself. Unfortunately, long before Charlemagne reached Frisia he received word that the Dane-King had been murdered. In a very suspicious and undignified display, the champion of Christianity said that he had never received news so delightful or worthy of praise.

With no heir apparent, a successional feud erupted that left Denmark in the grips of chaos and saved Frankland, for a time. Charlemagne himself died four years later, survived only by one son, the timid Louis the Pious. He was crowned Emperor by the Pope in 816 CE, but by the middle of the ninth century the Imperial crown was merely aesthetic. In 845 CE the legendary Dane, Ragnar Lodbrok, sacked Paris itself, and thirty-six years after that, the vikings destroyed a great monument of Charlemagne that Louis had erected in Aix. By 987 CE the Carolingians, the royal Christian house of Frankland, had fallen.

As for the Saxons, in 933 CE, under the rule of Henry I, they launched a crusade against the Danes; intent on converting them by fire and sword.

King Penda of Mercia: Glory of the Anglisc

Foreword: November 15th has been taken by some modern Germanic Heathens to commemorate the life of the tirfast Mercian king, Penda; as it was on this day that this warrior-king fought in his last battle at the now lost Winwaed river in Northern England. I originally wrote this piece for Theod Magazine back in the 90’s and it represented the first detailed treatment of the life of Penda in modern Germanic Heathen literature.

Of all the kings of Anglo-Saxon England it is Penda of Mercia who stands out as foremost in my mind…

Penda came to power during the turbulent age of the heptarchy, when the Anglo-Saxon political landscape was dominated by seven rival kingdoms – Sussex, Wessex, Kent, East Anglia, Northumbria, Mercia, and Essex – each vying for supremacy over the others. Savage wars against the Brits remained common place, especially for Northumbria, and if only to complicate matters further, the cult of Christ had begun to work it’s way into Anglo-Saxon society, sped on by the Pope in Rome. By the beginning of Penda’s reign it was already well entrenched in the aetheling (royal) house of Kent, had a secure foothold amongst the East Anglian aethelings, and was being championed by the (in-)famous King Edwin of Northumbria. For the common folk this was a time of great confusion and unprecedented blasphemy, during which kings of sacral stock turned their backs on the elder ways and took an active role in their suppression. King AEthelbeorht of Kent, the first Anglo-Saxon king to accept baptism, was renowned for the favour that he showed to his Christian subjects, while the year 627 C.E. found Edwin of Northumbria consenting to a petition to destroy all the temples and holy steads within Northumbria. In 640 C.E. King Eorcenbeorht of Kent ordered the “destruction of all idols” within his own kingdom. Such acts as these would in time — up to 100 years after Augustine’s arrival in Kent! — be followed by the drafting of legislation aimed at driving those who would not take up the new faith into debt, and eventually, thralldom; with the implication being made in later “laws” that nonChristian men should be sold out of the country, ie. the law forebade selling Christian thralls outside of the country. While our Catholic-written history preserves little of the folk’s reaction to such wolfish behavior, in the case of Eorcenbeorht the reaction was so strong – two of his kinsmen were slain in retaliation! – that it earned a place in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. And of course, even amongst a folk whom otherwise love their kings, it takes only one white crow. In any event it is against this social, political, and religious background that King Penda shines forth with tirfast brilliance. Not only did he succeed in uniting Northern and Southern Mercia, along with virtually all of Northen England, but he was also a magnet for all men, regardless of race or religion, who yearned for righteousness, equity, and honour in a world gone mad.

It is unfortunate that the lays of this glorious king’s line have not survived the centuries, but according to the genealogical records it was fathered by the god Woden sometime during the 3rd century C.E.; though Saxo Grammaticus (History of the Danes) relates that it traces back to Angul, who gave his name to the Anglii (and which probably extends back earlier to the prolific priest-king god Ingui and their assignment as Ingvaeones by Tacitus, 1st century CE). No doubt the opening lay would have been similar to the Rigsthula, and told of how the god of kingship both fathered and educated young Wihtlaeg, the first of the line. And of how this first generation Wodenic aetheling established himself as the foremost of the Angles, thereby instituting the cult of Wodenic kingship I would gather. Thanks to the Danish monk Saxo Grammaticus we can safely say that Wihtlaeg’s son, Waermund, rose to power during the early 4th century C.E., when the coast of the Roman province of Britain was being harried by the Anglian, Saxon, Frisian, and Jutish forerunners of the “dreaded” vikings. Sometime around 360 C.E., by which time Waermund had grown blind with old age, it is told that a powerful Myrging (Saxon?) chieftain sent an envoy to Old Anglia demanding that the kingdom be handed over lest the kings frailty breed lawlessness and provoke foreign aggression. In lieu of this, the King was to produce an heir to decide the fate of Old Anglia in single combat, under Tiw, with the chieftain’s own son. As it was, poor Waermund did have a son, a lad of Beowulfian stature and brawn named Offa, but this son had always been so quiet, somber and dull that few folk deemed him to be worthy of much. As a result of this, Waermund rose to meet the challenge himself, but as old and blind as he was, the envoys merely mocked at him, saying that their chieftain would never engage in so disgraceful a combat. Thus, poor Waermund’s heart sunk, but it was at this point that Offa “unlocked his word horde” so to speak, chiding the Myrgings, saying,

“It is idle for your lord to covet a kingdom which can rely not only on the service of its ruler, but also on the arms and wisdom of most valiant nobles. Moreover, the King does not lack a son, nor the kingdom an heir. And you are to know that I have decided to face not only the son of your lord in single combat, but also, at the same time, whomsoever he should chose as his shoulder companion out of the boldest of your own folk.”

After Waermund had recovered from his initial shock and disbelief, that this had truly been his son who had spoken, he asked the lad why he had held his silence for long? Offa replied that until this point he had simply been confident in his fathers might and wisdom. And when Waermund asked why he had challenged two instead of the stipulated one, Offa spoke of the death of the Swede-King Athisl; of how he had been slain unfairly by two Anglisc aethelings in days now gone, and of how this duel would come to counter that old shame. So, while there was some difficulty in finding Offa a coat of mail that would cover his massive frame, and a sword that would not shatter beneath his might, in the end he met the Myrging challenge and was victorious. The tirfast son of Waermund went on to become the King of Old Anglia, and, if not all of Saxony, then at least of the lands of these Myrgings. He also went on to become the most celebrated king of his age. He is mentioned in both the Anglo-Saxon poems as Beowulf and Widsith, the latter of which extols Offa’s unsurpassed courage and the breadth of his kingdom.


At this point in history, Penda’s ancestry becomes little more than a collection of names. It is believed that Offa’s great-grandson Icel was the first of his line with a mind for British soil. Near the end of the 5th century C.E., with the invasion of Britain already well underway, he led his warriors up the river Trent, killing, enslaving, and driving back the Brits as he went, eventually settling in the Trent valley area. His tribe of Angles came to be known as the Mercians, or Boundary Folk, and his dynasty as the Iclings.

For the next three generations it is believed that the Iclings fought as drihtens (warleaders) under the mighty kings of Wessex. Following the battle of Fethanlaeg in 584 C.E. however — a battle in which the Brits were dealt a crushing defeat — there was a falling out that gave birth to future Mercian-West Saxon hostilities. It was around this time that Penda was born. In what is believed to have been the fourth year of the reign of King Cearl of Mercia, the West Saxon King, Ceowulf, began to harry the Mercians. In 600 C.E. however, young Penda met this Ceowulf in battle and put him to flight. As a result, he won for both himself and all of Mercia the Avon valley. However, it is not until 628 C.E. that Penda emerges onto the stage of recorded history. His defeat of King Cyngils of Wessex was the deed that won him the kingship of the Mercians, not to mention Cirencester and all the lands along the lower Severn. This was the price of peace, and it may also reflect the recompense of some loss suffered by the Mercians as a result of Fethanlaeg! In any event, with this acquisition the descendant of Offa laid the foundation for those mixed Anglian and Saxon tribes that would become known as the Hwicce and the Maegonsaeton. And this would also seem as likely a time as any to place Penda’s attempt to seal the rift between the Iclings and the Gewisse by taking the West Saxon princess Cynwise as his queen, and betrothing one of his sisters to Cenwalh, son of Cynegils.

Now, as mentioned earlier, Edwin the Oathbreaker had become the champion of Christ by this time, but before I go on, it is worth noting that since the invasion of Britain those Anglii that had settled north of the river Humbre had stood apart from their sibs to the south. They themselves were “originally” of two separate kingdoms, Deira and Bernicia, each with its own aetheling house. The first to unite these kingdoms under a single kindred was the terrible AEthelfrith of Bernicia, who took the Deiran princess Aacha as his queen and drove the rest of her kindred into exile. Amongst those exiles was young Edwin, son of Ida. Of Edwin’s exile it is known that, for a time, he found asylum in Northern Wales, but eventually it came to pass that a dispute arose between himself and the Welsh aetheling Cadwallon, who vowed to cut off the Anglians head if ever the crown of cruel Northumbria came to rest upon it! From Wales the son of Ida moved on in his exile, coming to rest in Mercia around 610 C.E. It was during this time that he won the Mercian princess Cwenburh as his betrothed, suggesting, if nothing else, that Edwin was a very impressive young man indeed! Evidently, King Cearl was quite impressed with the Deiran aetheling. And we might even say the same of Cadwallon, though in a round about way. But I wonder, where did the mind of the rising star of the Iclings rest?

In due time Edwin bid farewell to his kind host in Mercia, and moved on in his exile, eventually coming to rest in East Anglia. There he was received with open arms by King Raedwald, who was also the reigning Bretwalda; a “floating” title originally used by the Anglo- Saxons to mark out the most powerful and influential king _south_ of the Humbre. In any event, while Edwin did enjoy the hospitality of this great king for a time, it eventually came to pass that AEthelfrith received good word of his whereabouts. Thus, the King of all Northumbria quickly sent envoys to the Bretwalda, at first kindly requesting, but ultimately demanding under threat of war, that Edwin be handed over. And so it came to pass the Raedwald summoned the East Anglian Witan to decide the doom of their honoured guest. It is said that while the Witan was in session Edwin sat outside in the night where he had a wondrous vision. In this vision he was approached by a tall, uncanny stranger who promised the aetheling relief from his current troubles, victory over his enemies, and fame far exceeding that of any of his line before him. In exchange, Edwin swore that he would hold as foremost the one whose counsels brought all of the above to pass. And so in the mean time the talk had gone against Edwin, and his doom had been all but decided when the historically nameless Queen of East Anglia spoke out; as she was wont to do. In years past she had seen to it that her king kept up the w worship of the native gods/goddesses despite his conversion, and now she chided him for this lack of kingliness! So moved was the Witan by their Queen’s eloquence, that they quickly reconsidered and decided, instead, that it would be best to meet AEthelfrith in battle. And so it came to pass that AEthelfrith, who had been unable to muster his full might, was crushed by Raedwald. And soon after, Edwin was hailed as the King of Northumbria.

In the same year as Edwin’s return to Northumbria, which was 616 C.E., there was a great collapse in the Catholic Church in England. In Essex for instance, the three brother-kings who ruled over those folk drove the missionary Mellitus from their kingdom for failing to show them the same simple courtesy he had shown their father; to break bread with them. Meanwhile, in Kent, the new king initially refused to accept baptism. These events, taking place as they did within the two original Anglo-Catholic kingdoms, nearly brought an end to the mission to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons.

Now, not only did the son of Ida manage to hold Northumbria together after his coronation, but he also went on to become the first king north of the Humbre to bear the title Bretwalda! Unfortunately, his vanity to have all of the kings of the heptarchy acknowledge his supremacy led to his betrothal to the Kentish princess AEthelburga, and ultimately, to Edwin’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. This in turn led to the suppression of the native beliefs within Northumbria, and one must certainly wonder what the Queen of East Anglia, Edwin’s true saviour, would have said about that? Then again, consdiering her dealings with Raedwald on this very issue, we likely already know what she would have said.

Moving right along, while the renowned historian Bede, a Northumbrian himself, makes no mention of the events that led up to the famous battle of Heathfeld in 633 C.E., other sources reveal that Edwin had himself launched a massive invasion into Northern Wales in 632 C.E. As a result of this act of Christian brotherly love, King Cadwallon, who was a Christian himself, vowed to exterminate, not every Anglian in Britain as Geoffrey of Monmouth would have us believe, which would have been far to idle a boast for so eminent a king as Cadwallon, but rather, every Northumbrian in Britain.

Speaking of Geoffrey of Monmouth, he would also have us believe that Penda fell under Cadwallon’s power when the Welsh King beat him at the battle of Caer Exon. However, I for one find it quite difficult to believe that Cadwallon, who was still licking his wounds from the beating Edwin had laid on him, was in any shape to force a drihten the calibre of Penda, whose own strength rivalled that of Wessex, into submission. It must not be overlooked that this Icling’s prowess as drihten inspired awe amongst his contemporaries, so much so that the Christians attributed his success to the practice of “diabolical arts”. Furthermore, overlooking the fact that Geoffrey was writing centuries after the events he was describing, and given the strong relations that we know existed between the Mercians and the Brits by the end of Penda’s reign at the latest, I would suggest an alternative explanation. The King of Mercia, both secure in his own might and wise to Cadwallon’s, MET with his Welsh peer at Caer Exon. There, after much heated discussion, it was agreed that Cadwallon should lead the raid on Northumbria, due to the woe Edwin had brought upon the Welsh. Furthermore, it should be noted that “Penda” is not exactly the most Anglo- Saxon of names, leading one to suspect that one of his immediate ancestresses was of Welsh stock! This suggests that alliances, and avenues to alliances, already existed, and thus, would seem the safer way to bet. As for Penda’s justification for taking part in the raid, no doubt this was quite simple; Edwin’s power was ever on the rise, and when he forsook Cwenburh in favour of AEthelburgha that waxing might became a severe threat to the well-being of the Mercians. In any event, this much is for certain, Cadwallon did put an end to Edwin, with the support of Penda, in the year 633 C.E. at Heathfeld. And incidentally, Cadwallon did make good on that promise he had made in his youth!

Soon following the victory at Heathfeld, and after the obligatory pillaging, the Mercian King returned home. He was accompanied by Eadfrith, son of Edwin by Cwenburh, who had thrown himself upon Penda’s mercy. Of this aetheling Bede writes that he was “…compelled to submit to Penda, who subsequently, in breach of a solemn oath, put him to death during the reign of Oswald.” While something tells me that there was a little more to the matter than what Bede had to say, it is nevertheless true that the aetheling house of Deira was making a rapid advance toward extinction!

As for Cadwallon, he continued on ravaging Northumbria, apparently intent on fulfilling his other legendary vow! He held the field for an entire year, during which time Northumbria fractured back into it’s original kingdoms and the worship of the native gods/goddesses was taken up once more. In the summer of 634 C.E. King Osric of Deira, Edwin’s kinsman, is said to have had Cadwallon under heavy siege “…in a strong city…”, but it nevertheless came to pass that, when Cadwallon had grown tired of his state, he ordered the doors thrown open and fell upon the Deirans with a great fury. Osric and all of his men were utterly destroyed. Later on in the same year King Eanfrith of Bernicia, who was acting upon some very, very poor counsel, rode out with twelve hand picked warriors to seek an audience with Cadwallon and discuss terms of peace! Needless to say perhaps, they were all slain. Near years end however, Oswald of Bernicia, who had bided his time in Kent, hatching devious plots according to Bede with King Eadbeald of Kent, returned to Northumbria. He met Cadwallon at Heofenfeld, and there, the Welsh king’s fyrd was scattered, and his reign of terror brought to an end. The son of AEthelfrith went on to reunite Northumbria, under Irish Catholicism, and then to establish himself as sixth in the line of Bretwaldas.

In the year 635 C.E., Penda, apparently not all that impressed by Oswald’s might and authority, once again took to the field; this time against King Ecgric of East Anglia. Unfortunately, Bede tells us nothing of the circumstances that led up to the war. While Offa’s offspring most certainly had designs on the Swedish and continental trading routes that lay open to East Anglia, these do not seem to have been an immediate concern. I would suggest that this conflict involved the Middle Angles, who could boast no aetheling house of their own, who were situated between East Anglia and Mercia, and who were clearly under Penda’s banner by 652 C.E. at the very latest. It would seem to me that this Ecgric, who had only a weak claim to the East Anglian kingship, made a play for Middle Anglia in an attempt to get out from under the shadow of his predecessor, the devout Sigebeorht, son of Raedwald, and wrack up some “Christian glory” for himself. At this point, the Middle Angles responded by placing themselves under Mercia’s protection, leaving little choice but for Penda to go in and teach the East Anglians a lesson in good manners. Thus, Penda launched his first raid into East Anglia. While Ecgric stood in all ways ready to him, the East Anglian fyrd itself refused to fight unless Sigebeorht was brought forth from his monastery to lead them. At length, Sigebeorht had to be physically removed from said monastery and dragged by the East Anglians to the field of battle! At this point the battle was fought, both Ecgric and Sigebeorht were slain, and Penda stood victorious. Curiously enough however, at least to some trains of thought, Penda did not annex East Anglia. Rather, he promptly returned to Mercia, leaving the East Anglians to sort out their own affairs.

In this same year, and no doubt encouraged by Penda’s acquisition of Middle Anglia, Oswald made a timely visit to Wessex where King Cynegils was about to accept baptism. The Bretwalda received the West Saxon King from the font, gave him his daughter in marriage, and in doing so struck an alliance with mighty Wessex. In effect, this rendered the Saxon kingdom neutral in regards to both Mercia and Northumbria, and no doubt created a certain aura of suspicion in the mind of old King Penda. Clearly enough, Oswald was not as secure in his station of Bretwalda as Bede would have us believe, and Mercia, so humble in its infancy, had at last come into its own!

And so things remained relatively quiet from this point until 641 C.E., the year in which Oswald launched a massive raid into Mercia. This was the first breach of the Mercian peace since the days of Ceolwulf! The great fyrd of Mercia was mustered and Penda rose to meet Oswald, but Northumbria was strong and its king hell-bent on victory. Nearly overwhelmed, Penda was forced to signal the retreat, with he and his men falling back into Wales. Oswald pursued of course, but when he at last caught up with old Penda, he found himself confronted by a combined Mercian-Welsh force at Maserfeld! And so it was there that Penda put an end to the son of AEthelfrith, cutting off the Northumbrians head and his hands and propping them on stakes for all to see.

Predictably enough, Bede contrasts this image of “heathen” brutality with a pious image of Oswald falling to his knees and praying for the salvation of his warriors just prior to the coup de grace. But in considering the brutality of this act we might also consider that, not only had the Mercian frith been violated for the first time in 41 years once again, and the King forced into retreat, but Penda’s younger brother Eowa had also been slain in this fight! As for the severed hands and head, it would seem that Penda considered Oswald a thief, while their display upon stakes would seem to go back to the elder Germanic belief (Tacitus, Germania) that the punishment for criminal activity should be displayed for all to see.

Following in Oswald’s footsteps was his inept brother, Oswui. While Bede credits Oswui with being the next in the line of Bretwaldas, it is at least somewhat curious that Penda dictated the terms of peace between Mercia and Northumbria following the war; taking Ecgfrith, Oswui’s youngest son, as a hostage, and betrothing his own daughter Cynburh to Alhfrith, Oswui’s eldest. In light of the “warlike heathen” stereotype we might consider the implication here; that Penda desired to bring an end to the rivalry that had began between Mercia and Northumbria during the reign of Edwin. And it goes without saying that he would have extracted oaths to this end as well.

Now, let us take a moment to consider that Mercian expansion into Northumbria, or Wessex for that matter, would have brought with it problems that far exceeded the rewards. The acquisition of East Anglia on the other hand, would not only bring few problems that the Mercians were not already familiar at dealing with, but that open port would also offer a considerable boost to the otherwise modest Mercian economy. So, it is with this in mind that I say, from the get go Oswui was bound and determined to make trouble.

And so it was in the summer of 642 C.E. that Oswui mustered a fyrd, rode out to Maserfeld, and reclaimed his brothers remains; something that good sense would suggest should not have been done, all things considered. As a consequence, Penda launched the first of three raids into Northumbria, ravaging the land and besieging the brother of Oswald in Bamburgh. And lest any wonder about Penda’s justification for this raid, it should be noted that both Alhfrith, and AEthelwald, son of Oswald and ealdorman of Deira, accompanied the wise old king on this raid! And consider also that, following the raid the Deirans forsook both Oswui and AEthelwald, and hailed Oswin, last male offspring of the aetheling house of Deira, as their king.

In the year 645 C.E. it came to pass that King Cenwalh of Wessex forsook his Mercian queen, perhaps acting upon the counsel of Oswui himself! In prompt response to this diplomatic act of aggression, King Penda launched a raid into Wessex, defeating the West Saxon fyrd and driving his fellow heathen into exile. Within a year, Cenwalh had found his way into the company of King Anna, who had ruled in East Anglia since the death of Ecgric. There, under Anna’s encouragement, Cenwalh accepted baptism. I am reminded of Edwin’s high weofodthane Coifi…

For the next five years all of Anglo-Saxon England enjoyed a time of peace, and one that not even Cenwalh’s return to the West Saxons could breach. In due time however it came to pass that Oswui raised the fyrd in an attempt to oust Oswin and reunite Northumbria under his rule. Lacking confidence in his own might, luckless Oswin is said to have gone into hiding, only to be betrayed by a close friend. From there, Oswui ordered the death of Edwin’s kinsman, and the aetheling line of Deira met its end. In spite of this misfortune, the Deirans wanted nothing at all to do with Oswui, and so they proclaimed that their former ealdorman, AEthelwald, would serve as their new king. It might be telling, once again, that the son of Oswald lost no time whatsoever in placing both himself and his folk under the protection of Penda! This meant of course, that Deira was now effectively a part of Mercia, and whatever Oswui might have threatened upon his nephew, it now stood as cause for Penda to lay yet another beating on him. According to Bede, all of Bernicia was ravaged and entire villages laid to waste.

It was either soon after, or perhaps during this raid that Penda was approached by envoys from a number of Brit-Kings, who petitioned his aid in reclaiming a number of precious heirlooms Oswui had extracted as tribute from them. This led to a siege at what is believed to have been Sterling, and while Oswui initially refused to yield up the ransom, he quickly reconsidered when the King of Kings began tearing down a neighbouring village and stacking the debris around the burgh. And so, with Sterling on the verge of being reduced to cinders, the British treasures were handed over and returned to their rightful heirs. It is said that Oswui offered Penda many more treasures beyond those given to the Brits, but that the Icling wanted nothing of them.

staffordshire hoard

Staffordshire Hoard

In the year 652 C.E. it came to pass that the Middle Saxons, who, like the Middle Angles, had no aetheling house of their own, fell under Mercian influence. This is a rather odd event, and only a vague reference is made to it in one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; of which there are something like 5. This could have been a push towards Essex, which was constantly exherting internal pressures for a return for to the native gods/goddesses, which could also boast the important trading centre of London, and which would eventually fall under Mercian influence during the reign of Wulfhere. More on him later. While the chronicler may have simply confused Middlesex and Middle Anglia, the latter of which we know was awarded to Penda’s eldest son Peada in this same year, he may also have simply been more attentive than his fellows. It is possible that Peada somehow made this acquisition. And in a manner that so impressed his father that he awarded his son with the kingship of the Middle Angles. In this regard it is also worth noting that in this same year Oswui persuaded King Sigebeorht the Small of Essex to accept baptism, suggesting that Essex, for some reason, felt itself threatened enough to aline itself with a king who was a proven failure.

Be that as it may, the following year Peada became smitten with the Bernician princess Alhflaed, and asked her father for his consent in the betrothal. Now, not unlike many another Christian, Oswui saw this as at once strictly out of the question, as a useful evangelical tool, and as a useful political tool. So, after his atypical Christian posturing, Oswui conceded to allow the betrothal if Peada would in turn submit to baptism and aid in the spread of Christianity amongst his folk. As we might expect, Peada took the matter up with his father before committing to anything, thus setting the stage for Penda’s historic doom;

“I will not forbid the preaching of the Christian faith even amongst the Mercians, if any are willing to hear it, but I shall nevertheless hate and despise those whom I perceive to be without works of faith once they have received the faith of Christ. For they are utterly worthless, those whom scorn to obey the god in whom they trust.”

Thus, with Penda’s blessing, Christianity was introduced amongst the Middlefolk. Much to Bede’s credit, he did not fail to mention the old king’s broadmindedness and wisdom in regards to religious matters. While Penda was himself firmly “in the camp” of the native gods/goddesses, it would be foolish to believe that he was ignorant of British Isle Catholicism; a knowledge that he would have picked up from any one of the number of his allies. More than this however, it would seem (via implication) that he had actually built up his own ideas regarding how that faith was to be practiced. And here we get a glimpse of the Icling fulfilling one of his more sacral duties as king; acting as the voice of Heaven and stewarding over the spiritual well being of his folk. In fact, in honour of King Penda one might very well say, “the closer to Mercia, the better the Christian”.

In 654 C.E., having earned the respect and gratitude of the exiled East Anglian aetheling, AEthelhere, Penda once again launched a raid into East Anglia. With the death of King Anna, AEthelhere was hailed as king by the East Angles, and he in turn swore his troth to the King of Kings. At long last, Mercia had acquired her “gateway to the world”.

In the following year it came to pass that something so stirred the old kings ire that, as Bede relates, he assembled a terrible host and resolved to put an end to Oswui once and for all. As to what, specifically, caused the war we will never know. Bede states only that AEthelhere was responsible and nothing more. Certainly, Oswui was in no position to challenge Penda, although who knows what devious plots he might have been hatching with Wessex, Essex, and/or Kent. On the other hand, given that Offa of Old Anglia had ruled over all the Anglian folk in their Scandinavian days, and with only Bernicia standing between Penda and the elder glory of the Icling line, the idea of a new Anglia may have held some appeal. Whatever the case, AEthelhere was foremost amongst the thirty odd drihtens, of Anglo-Saxon and British, Germanic and Christian, extraction that assembled under the tirfast king’s banner. Ealdorman AEthelwald of Deira was also numbered amongst their ranks, but curiously enough, or perhaps not, Penda released the son of Oswald from his military obligations, and he acted strictly as a guide. The battle was fought in the month of November in a field hard by the now lost Winwaed River. In defiance of the odds, Oswui snatched the victory. Now, it may have been that Bede implicitly exaggerated the overall strength over Penda’s force, but in any event, I believe that Woden himself had come to fetch his kinsmen at Winwaed, which may have been the aged kings final battle whatever the outcome. With Penda’s death the kingship returned to eaven, the waters of the Winwaed spilled over the land, and the Mercian host was thrown into confusion. AEthelhere and his entire war band followed the King of Kings into death, as did the lion share of the other drihtens. The one notable exception to this was Cadfael of Northern Wales, who may have saved his skin, for as long as it would last, but whose name became synonymous with cowardice…amongst his own countrymen. In contrast, a great ship burial was dedicated to AEthelhere, whose body had been lost in the flood, by his folk in East Anglia. This ship burial has since gone on to be the single greatest archaeological discovery in English history! I am speaking of course of the find at Sutton Hoo.


Following the tragic battle of Winwaed, Oswui annexed Mercia and evangelised it by fire and sword. Although Peada was eventually appointed ealdorman of Southern Mercia by Oswui, it “just kinda happened” that he was murdered by his wife, Oswui’s daughter, over the following Easter-tide; at which point Oswui took control of all of Mercia. The Northumbrian held Mercia until 658 C.E., when he was forced out by three Mercian lords who had kept Wulfhere, the younger brother of Peada, in hiding. This Wulfhere grew into a mighty king in his own right, but he lacked his father’s high-mindedness and integrity. During his reign, he reconverted the East Saxons, whom had reasserted their native belief for the third and final time, and brought about the conversion of the South Saxons as well. By 658 C.E. the political conversion of Anglo- Saxon England was all but complete.

As for Mercia itself, while but a shadow of what it had been under Penda, it remained a dominant kingdom in the heptarchy up until the death of Offa II in 796 C.E. At this point, Wessex reassumed centre stage, eventually giving birth to that legendary king, Alfred the Great; Penda’s true successor. Northumbria on the other hand, went on to become a breeding ground for the ill-mannered and fanatical missionaries whom, in conjunction with the military might of the Carolingians, would bring a bloody end to the worship of the native gods/goddesses upon the continent; unwittingly setting off the Viking Age to boot!

In closing, by the time of Penda’s death in 655 C.E. he was not only king of his own Mercia, but also ruled over Hwicce, the Maegonsaeton, the Middle Angles, the Deirans, the Middle Saxons, and the East Angles. Included within his rice were two kings who had willingly entered his service, folk of three different tribes, and two extremely different belief systems, all of whom Penda brought together in harmonious accord. And without resorting to the “throw’em all together and let God sort’em out” mentality of a more “enlightened” era. Add to this Penda’s strong alliances with the many Brit- Kings and it must be acknowledge that Penda, more than any other king before him, was truly the Bretwalda. In regards to this magnificent king it could easily be said that what fabled Camelot came to represent in fiction, Penda’s Mercia represented in fact.