Charlemagne and (the destruction of) dolmens

Großsteingrab "Karlsteine" bei Osnabrück, Hans Peter Feddersen, 1870

The Karlsteine; a dolmen associated with Charlemagne. There are actually two Karlsteine. Große Karlsteine ​​and Kleine Karlsteine ​​are close to each other. The Karlsteine ​​are located on a hill called Hain in Haste, a district of Osnabrück in the Landkreis Osnabrück. Usually the large structure is referred to as Karlsteine.

The Karlsteine ​​is named after a legend: Charlemagne is said to have destroyed a huge capstone with a whip, after the Saxon leader Widukind asked for a sign from God.

In the year 800 Charlemagne is crowned Emperor of the West by Pope Leo III in Rome, a title that had not been held by a monarch since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476. Charlemagne became king of the Franks in 768 – after the death of his father and brother. Throughout his reign, Charlemagne went to war: against the Muslim rulers of the Iberian Peninsula (present-day Spain and Portugal), against the Lombards in the south (present-day Italy) and against the Danes and Saxons in northwestern Europe. This is sometimes accompanied by brutal violence and mass executions.

Attempts have been made to destroy megalithic structures for a long time. Thus, in 658, the Council of Nantes decided not only to raze the megalithic tombs, but also to bury them, so that the pagan relics would disappear completely from the consciousness of the people. In an edict of 789, Charlemagne called for the destruction of all megalithic tombs; moreover, under Charlemagne, the practice of pagan rituals was punishable by the death penalty. He wasn’t called a ‘preacher with a sword’ for nothing.

Europa ten tijde van Karel de Grote

In megaliths in the moonlight I already indicated that this has not only to do with the fight against idolatry. It was also a political move; popular assemblies (ding) were held at the pre-Christian buildings. And with the destruction of the ding places, the Franks tried to break the resistance and take power into their own hands.

Remains of Großsteingrab Gerichtsstätte (courtyard; this dolmen was formerly also called  der Steinberg), Dötlingen  in the Landkreis Oldenburg, Lower Saxony. In the 18th century, local affairs were held in this place. Between 1742 and 1812, the owner of the nearby Hof Aschenbeck held Holzgericht (comparable to the Holtrichters appointed by the Marken on the Veluwe in the Netherlands) over Waldfrevel (damage to the forests and the timber harvest). It often happened that dolmens were used as a gathering place for meetings and as a court.

In Germany a dolmen is called a Megalithgrab, Großsteingrab or Hühnengrab: a megalith grave, main grave or hunegraf. A Hühnenbett, hunebed, is a specific type in Germany, this word is not used for all types of megalithic graves as in the Netherlands. Hüne comes from the Middle High German huine and means giant. Another possibility is that it refers to Hūnen which means “Saxony” or “Westphalia”.

Sometimes the structures were assimilated by the Christian church; the megaliths were blessed and transformed into a chapel or church. In some cases the megalith was destroyed and the stones were used in the construction of the Christian edifice (sometimes, but not always where the pre-Christian sanctuary was). According to the Annales regni Francorum (Royal Frankish Annals), the Franks were campaigning in Saxony in 772 when Charlemagne ordered the destruction of the sanctuary of Irminsul.

The Große Karlsteine, mentioned at the beginning of the article, is special. The structure does not consist of granite blocks that were transported to the area by glaciers during the Ice Age. It is built with Piesberg sandstone, also called Piesbergquarzit, Kohlensandstein, Karbonquarzit or Kohlenquarzit, extracted from the Piesberg. The Kleine Karlsteine ​​has almost disappeared, the stones have been used as building material (probably for the Alexanderkirche in Wallenhorst which is six kilometers away).

According to legend, the Old Alexanderkirche was founded by Charlemagne, who, after defeating Widukind at Wallenhorst, “destroyed the pagan temple and built its first church. He put a golden chicken on the top of the tower as a sign that they churches would hatch”. The Old Wallenhorst Church is one of the oldest churches in the Diocese of Osnabrück.

Oude Alexanderkirche in Wallenhorst

Beneath the church is a stone foundation, extending in two places beyond the plan of the present church and certainly attributable to the pagan shrine mentioned in the legend. The church was a station on the Baltic-Westphalian St. James Way to Santiago de Compostela.

Just below the Karlsteine ​​is “Kreuz im Hone” located, this refers to the first market in this area. This Kreuz is also called “Teggenbökenkreuz” (ten beech trees), because it is surrounded by ten beech trees. In ancient times it was said that there were seven naves, which were to keep alive the memory of seven brothers who served in the army of the emperor.

The seven brothers had begged Charlemagne to trust in God when he hunted the pagan king. The first Christian church service is said to have been held here. In Latin it is written on the cross:


This means: at this point in the time of Charlemagne the first mass in the area was celebrated, as has been reported since ancient times.

A Karlstein can also be found on the Lüneburger Heide. In addition to conquest and looting, the aim of the long and sometimes very brutal Saxon Wars was submission to Christianity. During these wars, Charlemagne is said to have been defeated by the Saxons on the Lüneburger Heide and, according to legend, lay down on a wooded hill on the so-called Karlstein in the municipality of Rosengarten (Norheide).

De hoefijzers zijn nog duidelijk te zien op de Karlstein op de Lüneburger Heide

Earlier, Karel ordered, on pain of death, not to wake him. But when the enemy Saxons approached, his entourage had to intervene. Fearing the consequences, they threw his dog at him. When Charlemagne awoke and saw the danger, he cried, “As surely as I shall cleave this stone with my sword, we shall surely slay the Saxons.” He jumped on his horse, jumped over the stone, split it in one fell swoop and defeated the Saxons on Lüneburg Heath.

Today, the horseshoe prints of the horse and the dog’s paw prints in the stone are reminders of what happened on the Lüneburg Heath. Horseshoe stones have been used as landmarks, places of execution or places of worship. It is not clear why the horseshoes were placed in the Karlstein. The deep grooves in the stone appear to be natural, weathered drainage joints. This is more commonly seen in sacrificial stones, examples are also reported in that article. And the paw print of King Arthur’s dog and the hoof print of his horse have already been mentioned in the article about King Arthur and megaliths.

Horseshoes are also associated with Widukind; he would have reversed it. Thus, his horse’s tracks would not lead to where he was going as he rode back and forth between his castles. He was the leader of the Saxon people and opponent of the Frankish king Charlemagne at the time of the Saxon Wars (772-804). In the end, Charlemagne won, adding the Tribal Duchy of Saxony to the Frankish Empire, and ordering the conversion of the pagan Saxons to Christianity. Nothing is known about the ancestry and childhood of Widukind (whose name meant “child of the forest” and which was probably a chosen name to underline his role as leader of the resistance against the Franks).

The remains of the Helmichssteine; missing carrying stones are indicated with metal

The Großsteingrab in Wallenhorst-Rulle, the Helmichsteine, was founded between 3500 and 2800 BC. in what is now Lower Saxony. Geva van Vestfold, daughter of the Danish king Siegfried I, is said to have been buried here. Such a burial does not have to have anything to do with the construction of a dolmen. Many dolmens have been reused in Europe in later times (for example in the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Middle Ages). The Wittekindsburg is located about a kilometer southeast of the Helmichsteine. This is a fortress (ring wall) from the early Middle Ages and dates from the time of the Saxon Wars.

Geva was the wife of Widukind or Wittekind (743-807). Widukind was the leading force in the Saxon Wars, in which the Saxons fought for their independence and the preservation of their own religion. After Charlemagne defeated the Saxons in 777, all Saxon nobles had to appear in Paderborn at the Diet. Widukind refused and went to his father-in-law Siegfried with the Danes. On the Imperial Diet, the Saxon nobility present was confirmed in their position in Saxony and thus they became part of the Frankish system.

In 778 Charlemagne went to Spain to fight against the Saracens, the Westphalian Saxons soon resumed their resistance.

The resistance consisted not only of looting in the Rhineland, but also aimed at the own nobility. In 782, Widukind returned as leader of the new uprising and plundered several Frankish territories. He defeated a Frankish army at the Süntel.

This revolt, which also involved Frisians and Wenden (Sorbs), ended with the massive beheading of 4,500 Saxons by Charlemagne.

Widukind Denkmal in Herford, Nordrhein-Westfalen, 1967

According to a German version of the saga, Widukind would have ridden over the ridge of the Wiehen Mountains in anticipation of a divine sign. Should he or should he not adopt Christianity and submit to Charlemagne? That would mean the end of the wars between his Saxons and the Franks. Widukind’s horse (Wittekind) would then have scratched a stone with its hoof. Immediately a well sprang up there, the Wittekinds well. Thereupon Widukind, convinced that this was indeed a divine sign, immediately converted to the Christian faith and submitted to Charlemagne.

Widukind (Wittekind) had a church built on the source. The conflation of a spring legend playing on a mountain pass with the decision to submit to the military superior Charlemagne, interpreted as a Christian-religious conversion experience, indicates that there used to be a Saxon spring shrine on the site of the current church in Bergkirchen . The stone church that stands today is a successor to the wooden church built on this site after the Saxon Wars. Southwest of the church tower, in the church grounds is the Wittekindsquelle, suspected site of the medieval Saxon spring sanctuary and the legendary site of the wellspring. The church and the source are a short distance from the crossing over the Wiehengebirge as the last elevation before the northern German lowland with Widukind’s hometown Wildeshausen in it. Numerous burial mounds and megalithic tombs can be found in the Wildeshauser Geest.

With his baptism, Widukind finally reached a peace treaty with Charlemagne. At the same time, he strengthened the position of the Saxon upper class in the Frankish empire: in the years that followed, Saxon nobles were incorporated into the Frankish county constitution after their baptism, so that the historian Widukind von Corvey established that the two peoples had become one as early as the 10th century had grown together.

The Wittekindsteen is located on the Westphalian Hellweg between Duisburg and Paderborn, this road is probably about 5000 years old. It is the route on which salt from eastern Europe was transported to the ports in the west as early as 2000 BC. According to Friedrich Vormbaum, the name of the Wittekind stone is derived from a local legend, in which the Saxon duke Widukind and Charlemagne shake hands with the stone after a military conflict.

De Wittekindsteen

Another legend tells that Widukind had this stone chair made to rest and look at the beautiful hills. The Wittekindstein is now interpreted as a judgment stone from the Middle Ages.

According to Jacob Grimm, the oldest evidence of the occurrence of the Hellweg comes from the Old High German period: a document from the year 890 states helvius sive strata publica , i.e. “Hell road or public road”. The German dictionary of the Brothers Grimm gives the meaning “country road, army road in Westphalia”. Originally it was the path “on which the corpses were driven” (more precise information in Jacob Grimm’s work Deutsche Mythologie). Also Wolfgang Golther, who in the section on Hel, the goddess of death, wrote in his Handbuch der Teutonic Mythologie: “Helvegr is the path to the underworld, which corresponds to the Westphalian Hellweg, Totenweg (road of death).

A dolmen in the abandoned village of Wötz is mentioned in an Altmark legend. Legend has it that a Frankish knight, whom Charlemagne had sent to the Saxon duke Widukind, got lost in the deserted area and encountered some Wends there. They wanted to kill an old man. They explained to the knight that the man was their father and since he could no longer work, they would kill him (as was their custom). They wanted to burn it and bury the urn in the megalithic tomb, next to the urn of a hero buried there long ago. But the knight wouldn’t accept the murder. So he ransomed the old man and made him the gatekeeper of his castle.

The dolmens on a Google Maps map, made by Willem Donker. Photos taken by him can also be found on the hunebednieuwscafé: Leetze 1, Leetze 2, Leetze 3, Leetze 4, Leetze 5, Leetze 6, Leetze7 & Leetze 8

The grave at Wötz is one of the megalithic graves at Leetze. The megalithic tombs are located on a meridional line about 1,100 meters long. According to research by Johann Friedrich Danneil (in 1843), this line ran further north and included another grave at Wötz, which was about 30 paces (about 23 meters) northwest of grave 1, and at least seven graves at Wallstawe. However, these were already destroyed at the end of the 19th century. The large Bierstedt stone grave is located 3.1 kilometers southwest of the graves at Leetze. There were originally 13 megalithic tombs at Bierstedt; 12 were destroyed in the mid-19th century.

A regional legend interprets the large stone grave at Bierstedt as the grave of a maid named Ilse. She was seduced and made pregnant by the farmer’s eldest son. When the farmer drove her away because of this, she hanged herself. She was then buried at a well and three stones were rolled onto her grave. The ghost of the maid would have haunted the well for a long time.

Monument for Roland in Roncesvalles

Charlemagne went to Spain in 778. During the Imperial Diet in Paderborn, in which the Saxons were baptized, a group of distinguished foreigners also appeared: Arabs from northern Spain who came to enlist the aid of the mighty Franks against their lord Abd al-Rahman I, Emir of Cordova. In this request to intervene in a dispute between the Saracens themselves, Charlemagne probably saw a welcome occasion to expand his territory south of the Pyrenees; he may have toyed with the idea of ​​conquering the whole peninsula.

In the Iberian Peninsula, stories of Jentilak and Mouros (Moors) are associated with megaliths, as described in who built the megaliths in the Iberian Peninsula. Megaliths are also associated with the knight Roland (Roldán or Roelant, in Old Franconian Hruodland or Hruotland), the nephew of Charlemagne. Its name goes back to the Old Germanic name Hrôth Nanths, a typical two-part name meaning “”the one famous throughout the country”.

The stories report that the Jentilak helped the population in the Battle of Roncesvalles. The Jentilak are giants, they could throw huge megaliths with ease and with their help the Basques defeated the Franks. Roland perished.

The legend still circulates among the Basque mountain dwellers that on stormy nights the echo of a horn can be heard. This is the horn Elephant that Hruotland would have blown when he died to warn the Frankish vanguard. In Catalonia, Roland (or Rotllà as the Catalans call him) became a mythical, strong, giant. In both Northern and Southern Catalonia, there are many place names that have something to do with Rotllà.

In the Roelantslied, the Basques are replaced by an enormous number of Moors or Saracens. The Roelantslied is a translation of the Chanson de Roland; it is part of the group of Frankish or Charlemagne novels depicting events attributed to Charlemagne and his knights. The Roelantslied dates from the 13th century, the French original from the period 1050-1150. The exploits that appear in the Charlemagne novels are, added together, so numerous that they cannot possibly be attributed to a single monarch and his retinue. In fact, the stories are based on folk literature about Charlemagne and the Merovingian dynasty. Older stories were reused. The same happened with the stories about King Arthur (see King Arthur and megaliths and King Arthur and Stonehenge).

The term Saracens is not very precise: since the Crusades the word, which came from ancient writers, has been used in much literature as a general designation for Muslims and later all opponents of the Christians.

Palette de Roland dolmen in Villeneuve Minervois. It’s a small dolmen with a very short entrance, and it looks across the plain to the Pyrenees, with glimpses of the Mediterranean on days of good visibility.

The Palette de Roland is a toponym that occurs in several places. Here it is Roland, Count of Brittany, brave warlike friend of Emperor Charlemagne, who gave his name to the dolmen. They are always flat stones (often dolmens) with a weight of several quintals with which Roland, endowed with superhuman strength, would have played the game of palette. In fact, ‘jeu de palets’ is very similar to ‘jeu de boules’. Instead of balls, it is played with flat discs (pucks).

The origins of this game are shrouded in mystery, but there is a 14th century depiction depicting palette players, and a 1354 hunting handbook defines distance in “palette throws”. At that time, the game was still played on the ground. The wooden sign that is now in use probably dates from the early 20th century.

So Roland threw the huge stones during his game of palette. It is again reminiscent of the Jentil who play games with stones, such as pilota, or King Arthur who played with the flat keystones of quoits in the game of the same name. And in Utrecht the giants tossed The Closed Stone back and forth, until it was tied up on a chain.

The Palet de Rotllan (“Palet de Roland” in Catalan) in Arles-sur-Tech, has long been considered a dolmen, but it consists of several granite millstones. The dolmen du Vieil Homme, or dolmen de la Jagantière, is sometimes called the “Palet de Roland” because, according to legend, the stone was formed by Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew. He used the stone as a palette (puck) and threw it at Narbonne.

The dolmen of Lo Morrel dos Fados (dolmen on a hill in Occitan), also called the dolmen of the fairies (dolmen de las Fadas) or Palet de Roland, is located in Pépieux. It is the largest dolmenic tomb in the south of France, according to Jean Guilaine, who ranks it among the most important megalithic sites in France. The dolmen consists of a long megalithic gallery of 24 meters in length, contained in a tumulus of about 35 meters in length. It consists of three different parts:

  • a 12-meter corridor marked by opposing megaliths, interspersed with low dry stone walls whose original stones have been preserved.
  • a 6 meter long anteroom that has kept its imposing capstone resting on powerful megaliths, two of which have been recently restored.
  • a burial chamber.
Dolmen Lo Morrel dos Fados à Pépieux

The archaeological material found in these dolmen is preserved in the excavation depot of Carcassonne, with the exception of a rivet dagger which is kept in the museum of Olonzac. It is evidence of a nascent metallurgy, between 3400 and 2900 BC, favored by the existence of copper deposits in the Minervois.

Cornered at Salto de Roldán, Roland escaped by jumping from one mountaintop to another on horseback. However, there are differences in details as there are many versions of the story. The jump was in an unspecified direction or from Peña de Amán to Peña de San Miguel, and other stories it was from Peña de San Miguel to Peña de Amán. In some stories, the horse landed with such force that it left the marks of its hooves in the rock. The horse sometimes died as a result or was killed in the middle of the jump by a wizard. In some stories, Roland continued north on foot and slammed into the Pyrenees with his sword to create Roland’s Breach so he could see France one last time before dying.

In the Roelantslied there is a solar eclipse, Charlemagne also makes the sun stand still. The solar eclipse predicts the death of Roland, Karel makes the sun stand still to make the day long enough to conquer the Saracens after the death of his beloved cousin. The longest day, midsummer, is often associated with dolmen and dolmens.

Charlemagne can take Saragossa in possession, the mosques and synagogues are destroyed and the pagans are forced to be baptized. The queen is an exception; she will travel back with the Franks and will be given the opportunity to convert voluntarily. On the way, Roland, Olivier and Turpin are buried in the church of St. Romain in Blaye. Ganelon is quartered as punishment for his betrayal, as he caused the drama, and Roland’s betrothed also dies when she hears of his death. Queen Bramimonde is baptized in Aachen and given the name Julienne.

In addition to the Roelantslied, there are many arrangements and translations of the Chanson de Roland. In the years 1230-1250, by order of the Norwegian king Haakon IV Haakonarson, a number of chansons de geste were translated into Old Norse prose and brought together in a compilation known as Karlamagnús saga. The very free translation in pairs rhyming verses by Pfaffe Konrad from Bavaria, the Ruolandes Liet, dates from about 1172. A prose compilation of Karel’s novels has also survived in Welsh. This work, entitled Campeu Charlymaen, belongs to the fourteenth century and contains a translation of the first part of the Chanson de Roland.

In France and Italy, Roland’s legend is often told through puppetry. In Italy and the Slavic countries, the knight Roland is mainly called Orlando and the stories about his person are more romanticized.

A version of the story is also told in Belgium. According to legend, Tchantchès – which means Francis in Walloon – was born in Liège on 25 August 760 in a totally miraculous way between two cobblestones in the Outremeuse district, reminiscent of the child stones. The baby refuses to drink water. He is then fed with a bottle of peket. At his baptism, he falls with his face against the edge of the baptismal font, which explains his damaged and specific nose shape.

As a young man he gets to know knight Roland and they become friends. As a result, Tchantchès is introduced to the court of Charlemagne and is present at the battle of the Roncevaux-Pas.

At the critical moment, however, he had fallen asleep, so that when he awoke he could only determine the death of knight Roland.

Roland, Tchantchès en Karel de Grote

In 787 Willehad was consecrated bishop of Bremen in northern Germany. Although the lives of saints would like to believe that the actions of a missionary in the area where he works will quickly generate a herd of devout Christians, the reality is much more unruly. Seven days after the dedication of a wooden church in Bremen, on September 8, Willehad dies. Three years later, the church goes up in flames. The Saxon War flared up again, but that was mentioned earlier in this article.

Episcopal city of Bremen since 787. Charlemagne and Willehad look on with satisfaction. Stamp issue Federal Republic of Germany 1987

The Roland statue in front of Bremen Town Hall is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List (along with the Town Hall next door, both on Marktplatz and next to the cathedral). According to legend, the city of Bremen will remain free and independent as long as the Roland stands and watches over the city. Therefore, a second statue would be hidden in the cellars of the town hall that could quickly be placed as a replacement, should the original Roland ever fall over.

Above: The Bremer el; the distance between Roland’s knees is exactly 55.372 cm.

Left: The Roland statue in Bremen

Just as with the nearby statue of De Bremer town musicians, special meaning is attached to touching the statue: anyone who has rubbed Roland’s knee, will come back to Bremen again.

The eight facades on the town hall in Bremen represent the emperor and the seven electors of the Holy Roman Empire. The figure between Roland’s feet is said to be the cripple who, according to legend, crawled around a piece of land in 1032 that was subsequently donated to the city as Bürgerweide by Countess Emma van Lesum. Today the Bürgerweide is a partly built-up event area in Bremen where the Bremen Freimarkt takes place every year.

Emma came from the noble Saxon family of the Immedingen, presumably descendants of Widukind. She was buried in Bremen Cathedral. Her body has turned to dust, except for her hand (with which she distributed gifts to the poor). Her hand was interred as a relic in the Abbey of St. Ludgerus in Werden Abbey.

The importance of keeping the statue of Roland is reminiscent of stories about megaliths. For example, there are stories that the world will end if one falls over or is moved like the “Pierre Brunehault”. This Brunehilde stone is a menhir in Belgium. Brunehilde was a Visigothic princess who was regent of Austrasia and Burgundy between 567 and 613. Brunehilde was also linked to the Roman highways, which were being restored at the time, hence the Chaussée Brunehaut named after her. There are several stories associated with Brunehilde. According to one of those stories, the menhir Pierre Brunehault was erected on the spot where Brunhilde’s body was found, after she was put to death by the Franks, tied to a galloping horse.

But back to Roland’s death. He goes to a knoll, where under a tree lie four blocks of marble, to die. With his last strength he tries to smash his sword Durendal against a rock – he thinks the weapon should only serve Christ – but instead of the steel he only splits the stone. With his dying breath, Roland honors his homeland, salutes his master and falls facing the enemy. In the battle of Roncesvalles he became a martyr and also became the symbol of the sovereignty of Bremen. A hero who died fighting the pagans in Spain was given a statue in the city that was founded in the area where Charlemagne Christianized the pagan Saxons with his sword.

When Napoleon Bonaparte wanted to take the statue to the Louvre, the Bremers managed to convince him of the little artistic value of the Roland statue, so that it could remain in its place. Between Lübbecke and Holzhausen, above the village of Mehnen, near the mountain range, is a hill called the Babilonie. Widukind once had a mighty castle here. It has sunk now, but the old king sits in it and waits for his time to come.

Marinda Ruiter

Brunehilde Tied to the Horse, Évariste Vital Luminais, 19th Century

This is a translation of a Dutch article, sources can be found in that article (see Karel de Grote en (de vernietiging van) hunebedden)


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