As we go through the story of the Saxon Stem duchy in the 10th and 11th century, two or maybe three main strains of the story emerge, the gradually drifting away of Saxony from the empire, the relationship between Saxons and Wends and the antagonism between the archbishop of Hamburg and the magnates. As for the first part of the storyline, the conflict between Saxons and the empire we are now hitting the hot stage. I did cover that already a long time ago in Episode 31 “The (second) Saxon War”. I had at some point thought of simply dropping the old episode into the feed as it quite neatly summarises the events of the great Saxon rebellion that precedes the journey of emperor Henry IV to Canossa. But then I thought I should at least put these events more into the context of the history of the North. So, most of what you hear now is recycled material with just a few artfully designed segues –as Wilhelm Busch used to say “wovon sie besonders schwaermt, wenn es wieder aufgewaermt”.
Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 100 – The Saxon War – Take 2
As we go through the story of the Saxon Stem duchy in the 10th and 11th century, two or maybe three main strains of the story emerge, the gradually drifting away of Saxony from the empire, the relationship between Saxons and Wends and the antagonism between the archbishop of Hamburg and the magnates.
As for the first part of the storyline, the conflict between Saxons and the empire we are now hitting the hot stage. I did cover that already a long time ago in Episode 31 “The (second) Saxon War”. I had at some point thought of simply dropping the old episode into the feed as it quite neatly summarises the events of the great Saxon rebellion that precedes the journey of emperor Henry IV to Canossa. But then I thought I should at least put these events more into the context of the history of the North. So, most of what you hear now is recycled material with just a few artfully designed segues –as Wilhelm Busch used to say “wovon sie besonders schwaermt, wenn es wieder aufgewaermt”. Sorry – not translatable.
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Last week we saw the Saxons’ anger rising and rising and rising as the emperors Konrad II and Henry III tightened the screws on the duchy. And worse, the church had become a serious impediment to the looting and slaving business. The church insisted that Christians could not be enslaved and thanks to their missionary efforts in the eastern marches the pool of available pagan slaves was shrinking fast.
Resistance to the tightening control was not confined to Saxony. Towards the end of his reign Hermann of Reichenau, our most reliable chronicler of that period writes: quote “At this time both the foremost men and the lesser men of the kingdom began more and more to murmur against the emperor. They complained he had long since departed from his original conduct of justice, peace, piety, fear of God and manifold virtues in which he ought to have made progress from day to day; that he was gradually turning towards acquisitiveness and a certain negligence and that he would become much worse than he was before”. (end quote)
When Henry III died in 1056, the empire fell to his six-year-old son, Henry IV and his mother, the empress Agnes as regent. Agnes was in over her head and made several far-reaching and arguably catastrophic mistakes that undermined the imperial position.
As for the border region, the death of the emperor Henry III coincided with one of the rare defeats of the Saxons in their wars with the Slavs. The Margrave of the Northern March, William had taken an army “of Saxons in infinite number” who have been defeated and killed.
Naturally, the Saxons blame the emperor, who else for this defeat. Had he only sent more troops, made a better plan or generally been better at his job..
Lambert of Hersfeld writes the “the princes of saxony” had reached an agreement that the way to get compensation for their losses would be by seizing the kingship from young king Henry IV. Not just that but they were committed to actually killing the child, which would have created an absolute outrage. They then lined up behind a most unlikely candidate for the throne, a count Otto who was a half-brother of the margrave of the Northern marches whose mother was apparently a Slavic servant. This Otto person had spent most of his life in Bohemia and had only come to Saxony when his brother died in the hope of receiving the Northern March. Once there, the Saxon princes sold him the idea he could aspire straight for kingship. I am struggling to believe how serious the whole affair was, but it came to an actual battle when the conspirators with said Otto in their midst were heading to a royal assembly at Merseburg. On their way they ran into two distant relatives of the child king who somehow realised that something was amiss, plus they hated Otto and his friends for some other reason. In any event the two sides got to work, tearing each other apart. Otto and one of the royal cousins managed to run each other through with their lances, both dying from their wounds. In the end the royal party prevailed, and this particular insurrection petered out.
But that does not mean the Saxons were done. Nor was anyone else. The years of Agnes regency and then the rule of archbishop Anno of Cologne were extremely chaotic. The members of the regency council were accused of the most base corruption, shoving royal assets to each other whilst demanding bribes for the confirmation of rights and privileges. At the same time the duchies of Swabia and Bavaria slipped out of imperial control to men who would become the most irreconcilable enemies of the emperor. Check out episode 30 for more detail.
This regency period ended when Henry IV had been declared an adult at the ripe old age of 15.
It is around now, 1066 that Henry IV. begins his major castle building projects around Goslar. His father had already begun the process of creating a coherent royal territory around the silver mines in the Harz mountains. These royal lands around Goslar were administrated by Ministeriales, unfree men trained in war and administration. Mighty castles are built on the tops of mountains, castles no longer designed to protect the local population in times of war, but to suppress them. Instead of enfeoffing these castles to loyal men of noble descent, he garrisoned them with the sons of peasants trained in war who owed everything to him. He put the administration of the royal territory not into the hands of a count as would have been the case 50 years earlier but appoints a governor (Prefectus) who could be hired and fired at will.
The largest and most important of these new castles was the Harzburg, not far from the imperial residence in Goslar. Harzburg was not only one of the largest castles built in the 11th century, rivalling Fulk of Anjou’s mighty constructions, it was also designed as an imperial residence and administrative centre. Nothing indicates more clearly the change of times than the fact that the emperors are leaving their indefensible palaces on the plains and move behind 10-metre-high walls on mountaintops. The Harzburg contained an imperial palace as well as a monastery. Henry IV had his brother Konrad who had died very young as well as his first son buried in this richly decorated chapel. He also transferred the imperial regalia, i.e., the imperial crown, the Holy Lance etc. onto the Harzburg.
Whilst the walls of the Harzburg and other fortifications are going up, the empire is shaken by a sequence of scandals that further undermine the imperial reputation. The first one involved Henry IV’s attempt to gain a divorce from the empress Bertha, something that did not happen and something he will later be very grateful for.
The second one which involved the recently appointed duke of Bavaria, Otto of Northeim. Otto was from a Saxon noble family that had come to prominence under Henry II. Otto himself made a very advantageous marriage when he married Richeza, a granddaughter of Otto II who also brought a huge dowry. He was put in as duke of Bavaria by Agnes in 1061, which was an odd choice to start with.
There is no indication that Otto of Northeim was involved in the attempts on Henry III’s life in 1046 and the botched coup of 1057, but he was such an important figure in Saxony, it is unlikely he was kept completely in the dark. Northeim then appears again as a co-conspirator in the kidnapping of Henry IV at Kaiserswerth, something that cannot have endeared him to the young king.
Then a sequence of mysterious events take place. Whilst Henry was staying at Otto of Northeim’s estate, one of his Ministeriales is ambushed and killed. Things are being investigated, but nothing comes of it. Since life is cheap and Ministeriales are still serfs, nobody ascribes much significance to that event.
In 1070, a certain Enigo, a thug of ill repute, claims publicly that Otto of Northeim had tried to hire him to murder the king. Otto of Northeim strenuously denies the claim. In classic 11th century fashion, when it is one man’s word against another’s, the resolution has to be through trial by combat. Otto of Northeim initially accepts the ruling but does then not appear on the set dates in Goslar to fight for his honour. Under these circumstances the Saxon magnates pass a judgement in default. Otto of Northeim was stripped of the duchy of Bavaria, all other fiefs and even of his allodial possessions. Northeim is declared an outlaw.
According to the chronicler Bruno, this was all a plot by Henry IV. to strip Northeim of his title. Bruno even alleges that Northeim would have been killed on the king’s orders even if he had won the trial by combat. I find that last point hard to believe. The trial would have taken place in full view of the Saxon nobles and if Henry would have wanted to pull a stunt like this, his reputation would have suffered immeasurable damage. That in combination with the string of assassination attempts by Saxon nobles and the mysterious death of his Ministeriales the year before makes it likely that there was something to this allegation.
Guilty or not, Otto finds support from other Saxon nobles, including from Magnus, son of the duke of Saxony in his fight with the king. But he failed to bring the whole of the duchy behind him and had to submit to the emperor after a year of fighting. Henry IV. imprisons him and Magnus. Otto of Northeim is released in 1072 and some of his inherited lands are returned to him, minus a chunk Henry wanted to keep. Magnus, who after his father’s death had become the duke of Saxony, is kept longer, presumably as insurance against another Saxon uprising.
As far as insurance goes, this one did not work.
In the summer of 1073, the Saxon had enough of Henry’s castles. What pushed them over the edge was that Henry, cash strapped as he was, did not pay the Ministeriales who manned the castles. As a consequence the Ministeriales forced the local peasants to bring food to them, and if they failed to do so, burned their villages and raped their wives and daughters. At least that is the story told by the usually extremely biased chroniclers Bruno and Lambert. It may also be that the villages belonging to the castles were obliged to bring the produce by law and custom, as was the case with the castles the mighty Saxon lords had built themselves. The only difference was that the soldiers manning Henry’s castles weren’t Saxons, but foreigners from elsewhere, possibly Swabia.
In June of 1073 the magnates of Saxony, including the bishops of Magdeburg, Halberstadt, Hildesheim, as well as Hermann Billung, uncle of the incarcerated duke Magnus of Saxony and Otto of Northeim appear before the emperor in Goslar demanding an audience to discuss the castle building program.
Henry IV. does not grant an audience. In fact, he leaves the Saxon magnates stand outside the castle whilst he is playing dice with is mates inside – again as reported by our biased chroniclers. This is often seen as an unnecessary insult that justifies the upcoming rebellion and puts Henry IV. in the wrong. On the other hand, imperial dignity required that the king would not yield to such explicit demands. Henry IV. had had a poor previous experience when he yielded princely demands to come to an assembly in Trebur to defend his advisor, archbishop Adalbert of Hamburg-Bremen. That was an experience he was not too keen to repeat. Plus, Henry also had been assembling an army for a campaign against Poland, which would come in handy if he needed to suppress any Saxon uprising.
The Saxon magnates are now infuriated to the max. A month later they meet at Hoetensleben for an assembly. There Otto of Northeim gives his famous speech, which I will try to translate here. Thanks, by the way to deepl.com whose free translation service has become a lifesaver for this podcast. Here is Otto of Northeim:
“The calamities and disgraces that our king has brought upon each one of you for a long time are great and unbearable, but what he still intends to do, if the Almighty God permits him, is even greater and more severe. Strong castles he has erected, as you know, numerous in places already firm by nature, and has placed in them a great multitude of his vassals, and abundantly provided with weapons of all kinds. These castles are not erected against the heathen, who have completely devastated our land where it borders theirs, but in the midst of our country, where no one ever thought of making war against him; he has fortified them with such great effort, and what they mean for this land some of you have already experienced, and if God’s mercy and your bravery do not intervene, you will soon all experience it. They take your possessions by force and hide them in their castles; they abuse your wives and daughters for their pleasure when they please; they demand your servants and your cattle, and all that they like, for their service; yes, they even force you yourselves to bear every burden, however odious, on your free shoulders. But when I imagine in my thoughts what is still waiting for us, then everything that you are now enduring still seems to me to be bearable. For when he will have built his castles in our whole country at his discretion and will have equipped them with armed warriors and all other necessities, then he will no longer plunder your possessions one by one, but he will snatch from you all that you possess with one blow, will give your goods to strangers, and will make you yourselves, you freeborn men, oblige unknown men as servants. And all this, you brave men, will you let it happen to you? Is it not better to fall in brave fight than to live a miserable and ignominious life, being made a shameful mockery by these people.
Even Serfs who are bought for money do not endure the unreasonable commands of their masters, and you, who were born free, should patiently endure servitude? Perhaps you, as Christians, are afraid to violate the oath with which you have paid homage to the king. Indeed, to the king you have sworn. As long as he was a king to me and acted royally, I also kept the oath I swore to him freely and faithfully; but after he ceased to be a king, the one to whom I had to keep loyalty was no longer there. So not against the king, but against the unjust robber of my freedom; not against the fatherland, but for the fatherland, and for freedom, which no good man surrenders other than with his life at the same time, I take up arms, and I demand of you that you also take them up. Awake, therefore, and preserve for your children the inheritance which your fathers have left you; beware lest through your carelessness or slothfulness you yourselves and your children become serfs of strangers” (end quote)
Now before you go and think that here is the first outburst of genuine German nationalism, I have to stop you there. When Northeim talks of “patria” or “fatherland” he talks about Saxony, not Germany. And when he talks about freedom, he is not talking about human rights, but ancestral privileges, the Freedoms as they will be later called.
But rousing the speech is nevertheless and the Saxons raise an army and head towards the Harzburg, where Henry IV. had gone to hold out while his agents bring over the army initially meant for the Poland campaign to defeat these obnoxious Saxons once and for all. The Saxons set up camp on an opposite hill and sent their demands to the king. He was to dismantle all his castles in Saxony and dismiss his false councillors.
The Harzburg was almost impregnable, so the Saxons blockaded the castle’s food supplies whilst throwing large stones down on the fortifications from a new structure built on the opposite hill.
Henry’s hope of support from the army readied for the war in Poland was quickly dashed. The mighty princes who made up his forces shared many of the views Otto of Northeim had articulated in his speech. They could see that if Henry were to prevail in Saxony, he would proceed to build similar castles in Bavaria, Swabia and anywhere else in the country. So, the princes withdrew their troops. Some magnates led by the archbishop of Mainz go further allegedly offering Otto von Northeim the crown.
Henry IV. fled the Harzburg and set up camp in Worms. There he managed to gather some bishops for an attempt to make a military move on Saxony, but his support was far too weak.
On February 2nd, 1074 he signed the peace of Gerstungen, which cannot be described as anything but a complete capitulation. In a near full assembly of the great bishops and princes of the realm, Henry IV. conceded the demolition of all his castles, dismissed his councillors and gave full amnesty to all the rebels.
Henry IV. withdrew the garrison of the Harzburg and immediately the Saxons stormed in. The Saxon troops it is important to note were not just aristocratic knights but comprised a lot of free or half free peasants. These guys were the first through the gate and began the demolition work. In the peace agreement it was specifically stated that the demolition of the Harzburg should be gentle, respecting the imperial chapel on the site. Well, that did not happen. The Saxon commanders could not stop their enraged mob from tearing down the chapel, stealing the relics and horror of horrors pulling the remains of the Salian princes buried there out of their coffins and throwing them in the ditch like vile garbage.
This profound insult to the honour not just of Henry IV. but the realm as a whole led to one of these sudden mood swings that punctuate so much of medieval history.
The Saxon nobles apologised immediately and promised a thorough investigation and harsh punishment for the perpetrators. But that was not enough. The mighty princes, who did not treat their peasants any different to the way Henry IV. had the neighbours of the Harzburg, realised that these Saxon armies contained an unsettlingly large contingent of free peasants. And in 1073/1074 there had already been uprisings in major cities, namely Worms and Cologne where the bishops had to run for their lives. Even the mighty archbishop Anno of Cologne had been attacked. He only got away with his life because one of his supporters had put a door into the city walls near his house. This “hole of Anno” can still be seen in Cologne.
Given the choice between supporting a potentially overbearing emperor or the rabble-rousing Saxons, many of the Southern dukes, namely Rudolf of Rheinfelden, the duke of Swabia took the side of Henry IV. Henry IV. could muster an army to bring the Saxons to heel. The two sides met at the Unstrut river on June 9, 1075.
What ensued was one of the bloodiest and painful battles of the 11th century. Though in principle it was Saxons against the rest of the kingdom, in reality many families were split. Fathers were fighting sons; brothers were killing each other in the melee. The unity of the kingdom created when king Henry the Fowler had fought against the Hungarians literally around the corner from here was trampled into the dust on that early summer’s day.
Henry IV. prevailed in the brutal fighting. After the battle his troops were let loose across Saxony, murdering and pillaging wherever they went. On October 25th, 1075, the Saxon barons conceded an unconditional surrender.
This is by no means the end of the story – the civil war will continue. But it is a crucial moment. Up to this point there has been war and bloodshed in the kingdom. This is the Middle Ages after all where the state had not yet acquired the monopoly of violence. But this is the first time, imperial power stands against an entire duchy, not just its duke or a set of noblemen. If I had to put a pin onto the timeline where the history of Southern and Northern Germany split apart, the battle on the Unstrut would be my first choice.
Next week we will look at something that happens around the same time and involves several of the protagonists of this tale. It is the story of Gottschalk, the prince of the Abodrites who is trying to take his people out of the bind they find themselves in. He does that in a close alliance with Adalbert, the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen and will meet his fate when that great prelate falls, but still paving the way to a reset of the relationship between Wends and Saxons. I hope you will come along.
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