Agnes of Poitou (1025-1077)

In this series of posts I will highlight some key protagonists in the Investiture Controversy, in part to make it easier to follow the podcast where we run into a bewildering array of personalities, locations and events. The bios will also be placed on a specific page on the website once I get to grips with the recent updates in WordPress.

Agnes was the daughter of duke William V of Aquitaine and Agnes of Burgundy. She married emperor Henry III in 1043. The marriage was entirely political, giving Henry III links to the powerful Angevin counts and solidified his position in Burgundy.
The couple had five children, three daughters and two sons, one of whom survived and became emperor Henry IV.
Henry IV was born in 1050 and was hence just 6 years old when Henry III died. Agnes assumed the regency for her son. To say it right away, Agnes of Poitou was no Theophanu and certainly no Adelheid. That is not to say she was terribly incompetent; she just was not absolutely brilliant. And given the situation, absolutely brilliant was the baseline for a successful reign.
After decades of centralisation of power under the previous three emperors time was ripe for a backlash by the mighty barons. Tensions had been mounting in the last years of Henry III, but now the magnates openly demanded a return to the previous system where the king/emperor was more of a “First amongst Equals”. Agnes was unable to hold back the tide, had to enfeoff major nobles with strategically important duchies and was unable to stop feuding amongst the castellans, counts and even bishops. Central power was quickly dissipating.
Her downfall came when the cardinals in Rome elected Pope Alexander II without requesting imperial permission before. Insisting on the ancestral right of the emperors to appoint or at least confirm the pope, Agnes supported an antipope, Honorius III. Honorius was the candidate of the anti-reform party, which comprised the Roman aristocracy and Northern Italian bishops. This party wanted to dial back the clock to a time when the pope was just the bishop of Rome that the city’s rulers literally used as a footstool. And they hoped for a reversal of the tighter rules on clerical marriage and simony, the buying and selling of holy offices.
This was a terrible PR move. Creating a papal schism was bad enough, but the imperial government was backing the bad guys. They pushed against the drive to clean the church from corruption and licentiousness.
And in this one fell swoop Agnes destroyed the reputation of the empire as champion of reform that Henry III and his predecessors worked so hard for.
When Agnes realised what she had done, she froze. Her entire background was in the church reform movement. Her grandfather had founded the abbey of Cluny after all. She took to her bed, pulled the duvet over her face and left all government activity to her advisers.
Her situation had become completely untenable. In 1062 the German magnates, led by archbishop Anno of Cologne staged a coup, abducting the young King Henry IV at Kaiserswerth (check out tomorrow’s post).
Agnes conceded after Kaiserswerth. She no longer led the regency and in 1065 moved to Rome to atone for her sins and in particular her role in creating the schism. She died in 1077 and is buried in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome

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