Episode 102 – The Great Divide

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This week we will hit the arguably most important set of events in medieval German history often summarised under the banner of the Investiture Controversy. The Investment Controversy came about through a confluence of three major strains, the rise in piety in the wake of improving economic conditions, the establishment of the papacy as a power separate and superior to temporal rulers and thirdly, the opposition of the German magnates against centralising tendency of the emperors, led by the Saxons. And it is the latter part this episode focuses on. If you are interested in the whole story, the episodes 30 to 42 can give you the overarching story. I actually listened to them again and am a little bit proud of what I have done there. So much for self-aggrandization and let’s find out.


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 102 – The Great Divide

This week we will hit the arguably most important set of events in medieval German history often summarised under the banner of the Investiture Controversy. The Investment Controversy came about through a confluence of three major strains, the rise in piety in the wake of improving economic conditions, the establishment of the papacy as a power separate and superior to temporal rulers and thirdly, the opposition of the German magnates against centralising tendency of the emperors, led by the Saxons. And it is the latter part this episode focuses on. If you are interested in the whole story, the episodes 30 to 42 can give you the overarching story. I actually listened to them again and am a little bit proud of what I have done there. So much for self-aggrandization and let’s find out.

But before we start let me tell you that the History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website historyofthegermans.com. You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to Justin K, Margaret G., Ragnhild S and Regina who have already signed up.

We pick up the story where we left it in episode 100. The Saxon leaders had surrendered to Henry IV on October 25th, 1075. Henry’s soldiers were raiding and murdering up and down the duchy in revenge for the destruction of the Harzburg and the desecration of the imperial graves.

After the battle on the Unstrut Henry IV had the opportunity to show mercy and reach a lasting arrangement with the Saxons. But Henry did not look for reconciliation. He wanted to continue his policy of territorial consolidation through the construction of castles. Fun fact, his great enemy Otto of Northeim had swapped sides and was now his administrator in Saxony, rebuilding the castles he had railed against just 2 years earlier. That meant the Saxons remained hostile and the other dukes, counts and bishops remained concerned about the king’s authoritarian streak.

And that hostility came to bear as the conflict between Henry IV and pope Gregory VII explodes into the excommunication and deposition of the king. Just as a recap, Gregory and Henry had got into a disagreement over who could appoint the archbishop of Milan, which had resulted in 2 rival archbishops. This conflict had escalated into a letter Henry wrote to Gregory calling him, Hildebrand, not pope but false monk and where he called for him to be replaced. Gregory VII responded by first excommunicating and then deposing him. Henry was now dependent upon the support of his bishops and magnates, support he found he did not have. At an assembly at Trebur the German magnates ordered him deposed unless he can be released from the ban within a year and a day. That led to the famous crossing of the alps in mid-winter and the penance Henry IV did before Gregory VII at the castle of Canossa.

Whilst all this is going on, Saxony is back in open rebellion. Magnates who had fled into exile returned and the bishops released those who had been taken prisoner. Otto von Northeim changed sides again and handed the Harzburg over to the rebels, wiping out most of the imperial gains.

As you may remember that in March 1077 the princes declare Henry IV formally deposed at the assembly of Forchheim, even though he is now released from the ban. It is unclear who took part in this assembly, but we do know that Otto von Northeim was an important voice. At this diet, two decisions are taken. The first was the election of Rudolf von Rheinfelden, the duke of Swabia as anti-king. Even more important than that was the decision to change the constitution of the empire. The new king conceded that “royal powers should belong to no one by heredity right, as was formerly the custom” and further that “the son of the king, even if he was extremely worthy, should succeed as king rather by spontaneous election than by the line of succession”. And that the “people should have it in their power to make king whoever they wished”. The empire had become an elective monarchy.

In the civil war that follows the support for Henry IV sits mainly in the south, in his own lands around Worms and Speyer, Bavaria, parts of Swabia and along the Main river. The supporters of Rudolf of Rheinfelden are the Saxons, even though the anti-king himself wasn’t one.

The two armies were equally matched, Henry may have had more resources, but Rheinfelden had the greatest general of the time, Otto von Northeim. The first two major battles followed a simple pattern, where Henry would have the upper hand for the first half until Otto von Northeim appeared out of left field and pushed him back.

In the first of these battles, Henry and Rudolph both fled the field of battle, in the second it was just Henry who fled, but the rebels had sustained too severe losses to pursue the royal army.

Despite the military success Rheinfelden never managed to expand the opposition-controlled territory much beyond the Saxony and his exclave in Swabia.

In between negotiations between the parties and with the pope continued but without any conclusions.

On October 15th, 1080, the two armies met again on the Elster river in Saxony, not far from Leipzig. Henry had been retreating from a pursuing Saxon army. He was outnumbered and tried to combine forces with his ally, the duke of Bohemia. His progress came to a halt when he reached the swollen Elster river that he could not cross. He pitched up camp and prepared for battle. That evening he drew up another donation to the cathedral of Speyer, the shrine to the imperial Salian family seeking the help of the Virgin Mary. It had become a habit of Henry’s to make generous donations to the church of Speyer at pivotal moments of his career and as we have already seen, there is no shortage of such moments, making the cathedral church extremely rich. All that money went into making this already enormous church even bigger.

Here is how the historian I.S. Robinson describes the battle (quote):

At daybreak on 15 October Henry drew up his army west of the Elster, along a stream called the Grune, where the marshy ground would impede the enemy’s approach. His forces included the vassals of the sixteen prelates who accompanied him, Swabians under the command of their duke, Bavarians under the command of count Rapoto IV of Cham and Lotharingians commanded by Count Henry of Laach (future count palatinate of Lothringia).

There were no Bohemians in the royal army; Henry had failed to make contact with Vratislav’s forces. When the Saxons arrived on the opposite bank of the Grune, they were exhausted by their rapid march and were without most of their foot soldiers., who could not keep up. As they approached the royal lines, the bishops in the Saxon army ordered the clergy to sing Psalm 82, traditionally regarded as a prayer against the enemies of god’s church. The two armies picked their way through the marches on opposite banks of the Grune until they reached a safe crossing, whereupon they immediately engaged in close combat. The royal army fought so fiercely that some Saxon knights fled and the rumour that the whole Saxon army was in retreat was so far believed that the clergy in the royal camp began to sing the Te Deum. They were interrupted by the arrival of men bearing the body of Count Rapato IV of Cham.  This sudden reversal was the work of the resourceful Otto von Northeim. When the Saxon knights fled and royal forces pursued them, Otto rallied the foot soldiers and forced back the pursuers. Returning to the battlefield, Otto found the royal contingents commanded by Henry von Laach beginning triumphantly singing the chant of Kyrie Eleyson. Once more the premature celebrations of the royal army were cut short and, the foot soldiers of Otto von Northeim sent the enemy fleeing across the Elster.” (end quote).

But this victory did cost the rebels dearly. When Otto von Northeim returned to the camp, he found his king mortally wounded his right hand cut off. Rudolph of Rheinfelden died that night or in the morning of the next day.

That was a major blow to the opposition. The manner of Rudolph’s death, losing the hand he had sworn allegiance to Henry IV, seriously undermined the standing of the opposition as the “good ones” in the conflict. For once Henry IV is winning the propaganda war.

The other issue was that the opposition was divided. The two major protagonists after Rudolph were Welf IV and Otto von Northeim. These two men hated each other ever since Henry IV had replaced Otto as duke of Bavaria with Welf IV. Both men had drawn pledges from Rudolph that in case of victory they would get the duchy of Bavaria.

Under these circumstances electing a successor for Rudolph as anti-king proved difficult. Henry IV tried to use the situation by making a peace offering to the Saxons. They could elevate his son Konrad as Saxon king, who would reign as their ruler before finally succeeding his father as Emperor. That would bring back the old Ottonian order where the emperor was a Saxon. Otto von Northeim’s response was “I have often seen a bad calf begotten by a bad steer, so I desire neither the father nor the son”.

The opposition kept debating about who to elect, not helped by Gregory VII urging them to wait with the election until he could come down to Germany. The two parties agreed a short-lived truce until June 1081. After that fighting resumed and an assembly of opposition leaders elected Hermann von Salm, a previously unknown count to be king. Gregory did not endorse the new king and his name was never mentioned by the pope. More importantly, Otto von Northeim took his sweet time acknowledging that he would never be king and finally recognised Hermann.

But somehow the momentum was gone from the rebellion. Henry IV could leave the management of the conflict to his closest ally and son-in-law, Frederick of Hohenstaufen. Frederick kept things ticking over whilst focusing on consolidating both the royal territories as well as is own.

This lowkey conflict continued until Henry IV returned to Germany in 1084. In the meantime Henry had taken Rome and managed to effect an imperial coronation. Gregory VII had retaken the Holy City with the help of the Normans, but they made such mess, the pope had to leave with them and died in Salerno that same year.

Basically, Henry IV was back in the saddle. All that was left was mopping up the opposition. That opposition had now changed quite fundamentally. Otto von Northeim had died in 1083. With him the Saxons had lost their unifying figurehead. Amongst the temporal leaders of the Saxons we now have several. There is Magnus, the duke of Saxony who does play a role, but is often lukewarm in the support of the uprising and subsequently does not have the leadership role his title suggests. Then we have the sons of Otto von Northeim, of which there are at least three, Siegried, Kuno and Henry the fat. The house of Wettin is also on the rise and their main protagonist is Henry of Eilenburg. But the most prominent was Ekbert II, margrave of Meissen. He needs a bit more of an introduction.

Last time we talked about the margraviate of Meissen, the man in charge was the ruthless Eckart II who died childless. The county then went to the counts of Weimar who only lasted about 20 years before it went to Ekbert I, count of Brunswick. Now that rings a bell I guess. Brunswick will become the de facto capital of the duchy once Henry the Lion from the house of Welf takes over. For now it is just one of several important counties and seat of the Brunones, one of the ancient Saxon families. They are linked to the imperial family and as it happens the only family the Saliens have in Saxony. Ekbert I gained his one significant entry into the history books when he rescued little Henry IV from drowning at the coup of Kaiserswerth. That explains why Meissen is given to Ekbert I when the previous margrave died without male descendants in 1067. He did not last long, and in 1068 his son, Ekbert II takes over.

Ekbert II should be a contented little count. Not only did he hold the margraviate of Meissen, he was also count of Brunswick and Count of Frisia plus he had inherited the lands of the counts of Weimar, making him the most significant magnate in saxony now that Otto von Northeim’s possessions have been split up between his sons.

But he is not a contented little count, nor is he loyal to the imperial house that had bestowed all that wealth on his family. So he joined the Saxon uprising in 1073 and fought alongside Otto on Northeim. When their case was lost in October 1075 Ekbert’s little empire collapses into dust. Henry IV is so enraged by Ekbert’s betrayal, he issues an order saying that by the law of the nations … the enemies of the king… are outlaws and should be disinherited of all their possessions and that Ekbert “shall have no part in the kingdom” Meissen goes to the duke of Bohemia, Frisia to the bishop of Utrecht and Brunswick, I do not know.

What we do know is that the year after as the rebellion resumes, Ekbert is back. He regains Meissen and Brunswick and puts his weight behind Rudolf von Rheinfelden. But after his previous experience, he likes to keep an open mind and open communication channels with the other side so as to be ready to swap sides should things turn unpleasant. They did not get too unpleasant for Ekbert II until 1085 which is why he stuck with the Saxons.

The other thing that has changed was the relationship between the Saxons and the church reformers. So far, the Saxons and the popes have shared an enemy, but not much else. You may remember that one of the reasons the Saxons were so disenchanted with the emperors was their sponsorship of the church. And they did not feel that Gregory VII had been wholeheartedly in their side. It took him 3 years to endorse the anti-king Rudolf of Rheinfelden and he never supported the current official head of the whole enterprise, Hermann von Salm. Ah, sorry I nearly forgot him. He is still about, still technically their king, but he does not really matter.

By 1084 when Henry IV had returned triumphantly from his Italian adventures, the Saxons and the church move closer to together. The main church leaders are Hartwig archbishop of Magdeburg and Burchard of Halberstadt. The bishops were much less interested in the rights and privileges of the Saxons, but in church reform and the supremacy of the papacy. But needs must and the bishops stood together with the temporal lords throughout the 1070s and early 1080s.

And there is another leg to all this, the Swabians. When Rudolf of Rheinfelden became anti-king, his vassals in the south joined the Saxon uprising as did the house of Welf. They were supposed to be joint partners in the endeavour, but the two groups had again little in common apart from the animosity towards Henry IV. The military benefit of the alliance with the Swabians was almost entire offset by the complexity of coordinating across disconnected territories and the inability to elect a truly powerful leader as anti-king.

When Henry returns, he is no longer the teenager/young adult of his earlier career. He had grown up and become more realistic in his ambitions. So rather than going in like a wrecking ball, he now aims to break up the opposition and reconcile with former foes.

He tries this with the bishops by inviting them to have a theological discussion about the legality of his excommunication. This does not get very far since the situation is ultimately irresolvable by argument. Henry had created not only an antipope but also anti-archbishops and anti-bishops all of which were trading excommunications and bans. There were synods on either side where either the all Gregorian bishops were summarily deposed or all Henrician bishops were told to go packing.

Where he had more success was in trying to break up the phalanx of territorial lords. These guys did not care much about the pope and church reform, they just wanted to be free from authoritarian rule. But talking to the other side was risky. At an assembly of Saxon magnates the bishop Udo of Hildesheim, his brother and the count Dietrich of Katlenburg were accused of having opened negotiations with Henry.  The three of them admitted having spoken to the emperor but insisted they had no intention of surrendering. They were accused of betrayal and a quarrel broke out at the end of which Count Dietrich lay dead and the bishop and his brother had to run to Henry Iv where they remained.

Count Dietrich was not just anyone, he was a rebel since 1073, a member of a great old Saxon family and married to Ekbert of Meissen’s sister. His potential betrayal caused a lot of concern, and with good reason. What added to the worries was that bishop Udo of Hildesheim now definitely supported Henry. His job was to recruit more defectors. Henry promised not just preferment but also that he would swear an oath that “if the Saxons permitted him to exercise kingship in the same way as his father, he would never infringe the rights they had enjoyed since the time of their conqueror Charles the Great.”. He basically offers the Saxons what they wanted all along. That did work for the temporal lords, but not for the bishops. They tried to hold things together, if necessary by purges.

In 1185 Frederick of Putelendorf, a nephew of our old friend Adalbert archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, was killed by the count Louis “the leaper” of Thuringia, again upon suspicion of being a defector from the Saxon cause. This callous act brought Louis the victim’s job, making him count palatinate of Saxony.

Louis is a bit of a mystery man. There are many stories about him that are bit difficult to verify. He got his nickname when, after he was caught, escaped from prison by jumping into the Saale river from one of the towers of the castle of Giebichenstein. He was also the founder of the landgraviate of Thuringia, a princely territory that kept growing and growing in the centuries that followed, not always by playing cricket.

But by July 1185 the bishops’ poker play ended. Too many of the Saxon lords cared more about bringing the conflict to an end on acceptable terms. Henry IV was able to take a large army to Magdeburg where he was received with all the honours. The Saxon nobles even assembled to depose their useless anti-king Hermann von Salm. Henry then replaced all the opposition bishops with loyal candidates which was fine. Then he replaced several key administrative positions. All done, Henry IV dismissed his army and settled in to enjoy the lasting peace he had achieved.

His peace however lasted barely two months, or a Truss as we call it in England. Our friend Ekbert II who had sworn fealty again was clearly unhappy with the outcome. He had assumed that he would retain the margraviate of Meissen under the new regime. But that was not so. Henry IV maintained his decision to oust him and gave the margraviate to the duke of Bohemia. So he and others ganged up, sent the new bishops back home and called back Hartwig of Magdeburg and Burchart of Halberstadt. Hermann von Salm returned and celebrated Christmas in the same halls the emperor had sat in judgement only months earlier. Henry IV was back to square 1.

The following year, the emperor tried again. He mustered a large army and -after condemning Ekbert II again, this time as an enemy of the empire, set off for Magdeburg. But after a few weeks of burning and pillaging he turned around and goes back home. Why is not quite clear but some sort of treachery, this time in the imperial ranks thwarted the campaign.

Now it is the Saxons’ turn. They revive their old alliance with the Swabians around Welf IV and agree to jointly take Wuerzburg, thereby creating a land bridge between the two territories.  5 weeks into the siege an imperial army appears. The rebels march out to the Pleichfeld to fight. The southerners are full of fervour for the holy war they fight against their sinful deposed ruler. They put up high crosses on wagons flying red banners, a contraption that sounds like an Italian Carroccio. Whether rit was the crosses, the religious fervour or straightforward military skill, the imperials are defeated, not just defeated, but the battle turned into a rout. Eyewitnesses talk about nine huge piles of corpses of the defeated army against just 30 lost amongst the rebels.

But the Saxons and Swabians did not make much out of their success. They leave a garrison in Wuerzburg and re-install their archbishop. But a year later Henry IV is back, Wuerzburg returned to imperial control and the connection between the two rebel strongholds broken.

The divisions in the rebel camp keep deepening. At some point the Swabians negotiate with Henry directly without checking in with their partners. Duke Magnus Billung, after all nominally the leader of the duchy joins Henry IV.

So in 1187, Henry IV goes again. Same procedure as before. He raises and army and marches into Saxony. This time Ekbert II goes to the imperial tent, surrenders and swears fealty until the end of time, provided he is recognised as margrave of Meissen. Henry IV agrees, which was a difficult thing to do.

Henry’s most significant ally in the war with the Saxons was the duke of Bohemia, Vratislav. He was so dependent upon him, he elevated him to be king of Bohemia, something emperors had refused to do ever since Boleslav the Brave had claimed a crown. The other thing he had promised Vratislav was the margraviate of Meissen. He now had to go back on that promise. That was a high price to pay for the loyalty of Ekbert II, but sure worth it. Henry dismisses his army and sends Ekbert up to Magdeburg to get everything ready for his joyous entry into the city.

Well, Henry IV finds out that Ekbert’s idea of “until the end of time” meant barely 24 hours. Once he is in Magdeburg, Ekbert sends envoys to henry saying that actually, upon reflection, he is still bound by oath to his compatriots and so, sorry, no can do. What happened in the meantime is that the two bishops, Hartwig of Magdeburg and Burchart of Hialberstadt had handed over, not only all the land and money they could spare, but promised him they would make him “king of the Saxons”.

That was the end of that campaign. But hey, there is always another year.

The 1188 campaign was however different, different in so far as it did not happen.

The offer of kingship to Ekbert II was what brought the rebellion to collapse. The Saxon leaders knew Ekbert and they knew he was not to be trusted. So Ekbert was not proposed as king of the Saxons. Ekbert claimed that Burchart and Hartwig had tricked him, re-joined the camp of Henry IV, swearing ternal fealty and attacked the diocese of Halberstadt. Burchart met up with Hartwig and one of Otto von Northeim’s sons, Kuno in Goslar. What then happened is unclear, but somehow the citizens of Goslar and the Halberstadt Ministeriales get into a fight, at the end of which the Gregorian party is another bishop short. All fingers point at Ekbert II.

With Burchart gone, the other Saxons throw in the towel. The sons of Otto von Northeim bend the knee as does Henry of Eilenburg, head of the house of Wettin. In return henry confirms all ancient rights and privileges, whatever these are. Henry IV then marrie Eupraxia, the widow of the count of Stade, another important Saxon family.

Hartwig of Magdeburg is the first to submit, promising to bring along the other Gregorian bishops of Naumburg and Merseburg. Hartwig is immediately restored to his seat as the one and only archbishop. Not just that, he is made the emperors representative in Saxony and Thuringia, a sort of viceroy.

That arrangement was the smart move here. By creating a layer between the emperor and the Saxon nobles in the form of a man the Saxons knew and trusted, they could be assured that there would be no more imperial overreach. Hartwig was the ideal man for the role. He kept it until 1104, constantly loyal to the emperor and keeping his oath to leave the Saxons well alone.

That would be the end of this story was it not for the eternal troublemaker, Ekbert. Having rebelled twice and reconciled twice, he thought all good things are three and whilst all the other Saxons made peace, he got going again. And though he was pretty much on his own he won a battle at Gleichen where he again routed an imperial army. He captured the bishop of Hildesheim, the defector of 1185 and only let him live after he had handed over his diocese. But in the end, he could not sustain it. In 1189 Henry of Eilenburg caught up and defeated him. Ekbert got away and hid in a mill on the river Selke. There soldiers in the pay of the abbess Adelaide of Quedlinburg found him and killed him.

That was the end of Ekbert II of Meissen and also the end of the Saxon wars. The chroniclers counted 15 incursions of the emperor into Saxony. This was the last. Henry IV will never again set foot in the duchy. The Salians and their heirs will never again rule directly in Saxony. We have gone from unease, to rift to separation. Saxony will now look to its own leader who sits between them and the emperor. And the question who that will be hangs on the inheritance of Ekbert II.

Since Ekbert had no male offspring the margraviate of Meissen became a returned fief. That was given  to Henry of Eilenburg, whose family, the Wettins held it until 1918. 

Ekbert’s personal wealth including Brunswick and Frisia went to his daughter Gertrude who had married Henry the fat, son of Otto of Northeim. Henry the Fat takes over the role of Ekbert as the most important noble in Saxony until his death in 1101. Henry’s daughter Richenza inherited most of these lands and when she married Lothar von Supplinburg provided him with what he needed to rise first to duke of Saxony and later to emperor. But that is a tale for another time, next week to be precise. I hope you will join us again.

You won’t believe it, but when you hear this I will still be sailing somewhere in the Atlantic or maybe just got into the Mediterranean. If you want to follow along, you can do so on a website and app called Marine Traffic. Search for sailing vessel Purple Rain under French flag. What this journey means, apart from working like a dervish to get enough episodes recorded to cover the time, it also means that my marketing efforts trickle down to zero. Hence, I would hugely appreciate if you were to help promote the show. Why not send a link to the History of the Germans to a friend or family member who might be interested, write a comment on one of my older posts which tends to revive them or even write your own post on social media. That would be massively appreciated, as would obviously signing up on Patreon at patreon.com/historyofthegermans.

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