“It has always been the prerogative of children and half-wits to point out that the emperor has no clothes. But the half-wit remains a half-wit, and the emperor remains an emperor” – Neil Gaiman
Charlemagne (742-814 A.D.) had a Saxon problem. I mean, who doesn’t, right? Just ask 5th Century Britain. It’s hard enough being the King of the Franks, but when your goal is to ascend as the first emperor in Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire, you really need to clear your calendar. Charlemagne’s father Pepin the Short kicked off the Carolingian Dynasty with a bang, extending the Frankish Kingdom from France into Germany, but Charlemagne had broader ambitions. Sadly, nobody really appreciates the aspirations of an emperor until they are actually emperor. Thus, he had to deal with rebellion in the Aquitaine, touchy relations with Lombardy (which he eventually settled through conquest), and thirty years of insurrections and outright warfare in Saxony (northwestern Germany), starting in 772. That’s a lot to have on your plate, even with the Pope’s blessing. The last thing you need is an infestation of unidentified flying objects.
The Castle Sigiburg (or Syburg) was a Saxon hillfort raised by Westphalian Saxons around 700 A.D. After Saxon raiders sacked and burned a Church in Frankish territory (at Deventer in the Netherlands), Charlemagne decided he’d had enough. In 772 he launched a campaign into Saxon territory, pushing the limits of Francia all the way to the Weser River, and on the way happened to seize Sigiburg. By 774, he had to turn his attention back to his spat with the Lombards in northern Italy. The Saxons took advantage of his absence destroyed his fortress at Eresburg and seized Castle Sigiburg. Once Charlemagne mopped up the Lombards in 775, he re-invaded Saxony, took back his fortresses and left large military encampments scattered about to intimidate those pesky Saxons into submission. But you know how unruly those Saxons get. The minute he had to skedaddle to crush a minor Lombard rebellion, the Saxons razed his fort at Eresburg and got busy besieging Sigiburg. Then things got weird.
The Annales regni Francorum (“Royal Frankish Annals”) are a year-by year “state of the monarchy” report from 741-829 A.D., compiled by various court officials close to the Frankish king, and one of the major sources on the political and military history of Charlemagne. Keeping in mind that the Annals were largely a work of Carolingian propaganda and spent a lot of time lauding the righteousness of the Franks and their project to Christianize all of pagan Europe, the 776 A.D. entry mentions that strange things were afoot at the Siege of Sigiburg (apart from the keystone cop characterization of the Saxon war effort).
A messenger came with the news that the Saxons had rebelled, deserted all their hostages, broken their oaths, and by tricks and false treaties prevailed on the Franks to give up the castle of Eresburg. With Eresburg thus deserted by the Franks, the Saxons demolished the buildings and walls. Passing on from Eresburg they wished to do the same thing to the castle of Syburg but made no headway since the Franks with the help of God put up a manly resistance. When they failed to talk the guards into surrender, as they had those in the other castle, they began to set up war machines to storm the castle. Since God willed it, the catapults which they had prepared did more damage to them than to those inside. When the Saxons saw that their constructions were useless to them, they prepared faggots [historically, a bundle of brushwood used in military engineering] to capture the fortress in one charge. But God’s power, as is only just, overcame theirs. One day, while they prepared for battle against the Christians in the castle, God’s glory was made manifest over the castle church in the sight of a great number outside as well as inside, many of whom are still with us. They reportedly saw the likeness of two shields red with flame wheeling over the church. When the heathens outside saw this miracle, they were at once thrown into confusion and started fleeing to their camp in terror. Since all of them were panic-stricken, one man stampeded the next and was killed in return, because those who looked back out of fear impaled themselves on the lances carried on the shoulders of those who fled before them. Some dealt each other aimless blows and thus suffered divine retribution. How much the power of God worked against them for the salvation of the Christians, nobody can tell. But the more the Saxons were stricken by fear, the more the Christians were comforted and praised the almighty God who deigned to reveal his power over his servants. When the Saxons took to flight, the Franks followed on their heels as far as the River Lippe slaughtering them. Once the castle was safe, the Franks returned home victorious (Annales regni Francorum, 776 A.D.).
Now, “the likeness of two shields red with flame wheeling over the church” at Sigiburg that sent the Saxons fleeing in disarray is exactly the sort of thing you might take note of and preserve for future generations. The Franks took it in stride, as clearly it was a sign of divine favor, and they were determined to give props where props were due. Obviously, it’s hard to say what folks might have seen. It was the Middle Ages after all. Historical astronomy buffs have long interpreted this occurrence as another in a long string of European aurorae sightings from the 770’s, extrapolating that a spate of sightings of red crucifixes and shields in the sky (usually reported at major battles) and strong Carbon-14 variations in trees around this period of time are similarly indicative of a set of solar super-flares. Sounds good, right?
Not all astronomers and dendrochronologists agree, pointing out that 776 is too late in the game to account for the Carbon-14 rise that began before 775 and everybody is pretty clear on the fact that the Sigiburg event happened during the daytime, and thus conclude that the phenomena was not an aurora (the generic term for when the Earth’s magnetosphere is sufficiently disturbed by the solar wind to generate cool light displays), rather a “halo display” or “mock suns” (Neuhauser & Neuhauser, 2011). The cooler name for mock suns is “sun dogs”, an ice crystal-related atmospheric phenomenon that consists of a pair of bright spots to the left and right of the Sun, and while I’m a big fan of sun dogs, such an explanation seems like a minor bit of scientific one-upsmanship versus a good match for the Carolingian description of a weird appearance in the sky at a convenient moment in a siege. Charlemagne had a busy schedule, so it’s not like he could hang around wondering what the heck just happened. He had to set to work crushing the remaining Saxon resistance. When life serves you celestial dispensations, you make lemonade. Unfortunately, this would not be the last of Charlemagne’s encounters with an unidentified flying object. Some people just attract the stuff.
Most UFO timelines with pretenses towards at least rudimentary historical citation make an odd claim, which has been repeated verbatim, that “St. Gregory of Tours, a historian, wrote of Charlemagne: “Alcuin, the secretary and biographer of Charlemagne, and author of the Vita Karoli, states in the thirty second chapter of his work that in 810 when he was on his way from Aachen, he saw a large sphere descend like lightning from the sky. It traveled from east to west and was so bright it made the monarch’s horse rear up so that Charlemagne fell and injured himself severely”. Stuff like this gets on my nerves, since it involves basic fact checking. While St. Gregory of Tours was indeed a Gallo-Roman historian that wrote the Historia Francorum (“History of the Franks”), he died 148 years before Charlemagne was born, so he never wrote a damn thing about him. Now, Alcuin was indeed Charlemagne’s secretary and biographer, but he didn’t write the Vita Karoli Magni (Life of Charles the Great), which was instead written by Frankish scholar Einhard sometime after 814 A.D. And it turns out that Einhard mentioned a little incident with an unidentified flying object in 810.
One day in his last campaign into Saxony against Godfred, King of the Danes, Charles himself saw a ball of fire fall suddenly from the heavens with a great light, just as he was leaving camp before sunrise to set out on the march. It rushed across the clear sky from right to left, and everybody was wondering what was the meaning of the sign, when the horse which he was riding gave a sudden plunge, head foremost, and fell, and threw him to the ground so heavily that his cloak-buckle was broken and his sword-belt shattered; and after his servants had hastened to him and relieved him of his arms, he could not rise without their assistance. He happened to have a javelin in his hand when he was thrown, and this was struck from his grasp with such force that it was found lying at a distance of twenty feet or more from the spot (Einhard, 1880 translation, p73-74).
Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800 A.D., and has widely been considered the “father of Western Europe” having united most of it for the first time since the Roman Empire, but sadly he only got to enjoy it for fourteen years, dying in 814 from some sort of lung inflammation. Kingship doesn’t bestow immortality, except in the literary sense, nor apparently does it preclude having to contend with strange phenomena in the form of unidentified flying objects. Even emperors can’t just decree the weirdness away, it seems. An anomaly, as Horace said “with impartial step, knocks at the hut of the poor and the towers of kings”.
Einhard, ca. 770-840. Life of Charlemagne. New York: American Book Co, 1880.
Neuhauser D.L. & Neuhauser R. “Presumable European aurorae in the mid AD 770s were halo displays”. Astronomical Notes (Astronomische Nachrichten) AN 999. Wiley: Jena, Germany, 2011.
Scholz, Bernhard Walter, 1931-. Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals And Nithard’s Histories. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972.