Henry IV departs from Canossa having been released from the ban. But does that mean all his troubles are over? Far from it. His enemies in Germany gather to elect a new king and the war of words turns into a war of swords.
A German history starting in the Middle Ages when the emperors fought an epic struggle with the papacy to the Reformation, the great 18th century of Kant, Goethe, Gauss, the rise of Prussia and the horrors of the Nazi regime. We will end with the post-war period of moral and physical rebuilding. As Gregory of Tours (539-594) said: “A great many things keep happening, some good, some bad” .
Henry IV departs from Canossa having been released from the ban. But does that mean all his troubles are over? Far from it. His enemies in Germany gather to elect a new king and the war of words turns into a war of swords.
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Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 34 – Gaining the upper Hand
Today we will find out whether the events of Canossa will turn Henry IV. into a faithful son of the church, a universally acknowledge ruler of the empire and ardent supporter of Pope Gregory’s brand of Church reform. Me thinks not.
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Last week we ended with King Henry IV. leaving the castle of Canossa where the pope had just released him from the ban of excommunication after a humiliating three days of standing outside in the snow doing penance for his alleged sins. Again, we do not know what he thought or felt on this journey down from the mountain. It could be elation that he is back in the bosom of the church and his kingdom returned to him, or he may be pondering the enormous price he had to pay for that.
But he did not have much time to ponder. A mere 10 miles down from Canossa he meets his army, led by the Lombard bishops. To put it mildly, these guys were certainly not happy about the reconciliation between the pope and their king. They had been living in a nightmare for years being pressured from below by an uprising of the urban poor and from above by the threat of being deposed by the pope. They had put all their hopes in the king coming down, removing this awful monk Hildebrand who had usurped the throne of Saint Peter and help them suppress the poor. Now this self-same king comes back from the negotiations having bent the knee and de-facto abandoning them to their fate.
The sources are contradictory about these next few weeks, but the most probable scenario is that Gregory and Henry had agreed to hold a joint synod in Mantua to stabilise the situation in Northern Italy and reconcile the bishops with the pope. That synod never happened, most likely because Gregory did not trust Henry’s promise of safe conduct. Not being too keen on getting apprehended by some irate bishops and incarcerated in a remote monastery or worse, Gregory remains on Matilda’s impregnable ring of fortresses around Canossa, watching.
Henry moves on to Piacenza and starts something that is supposed to look like royal rule in Italy. He even meets his mother who had come up from Rome, presumably to plead with him on behalf of the pope. I understand that psychology was an underdeveloped science in the 11th century, but who came up with the idea to think that Agnes could have any positive influence on the 26-year-old King Henry IV? His mother had abandoned him when he had been abducted age 11 in Kaiserswerth, she let him hang when he tried to establish his personal rule after 1066, she forced him to stay in the marriage with Bertha and now, during this low point of his career when he was abandoned by his friends, she had sided with his enemy. Well, she was very pious and prayed a lot.
Piacenza was the seat of bishop Dionysus of Piacenza, who like most of his colleagues had been excommunicated and hated Gregory. When Gregory sent two senior legates to the king to discuss what to do next after the synod of Mantua had failed, the bishop had both the legates thrown into jail. Henry said nothing.
The next day Henry sends a letter to Gregory’s asking for two things, (i) permission to be crowned king of Italy and (ii) who amongst the bishops should perform the ceremony. The latter is a good question since he needs an archbishop of Milan to officiate, of which there are currently a total of 3 roaming Lombardy, and he needs the bishop of Pavia who is at present excommunicated. The former is a stupid question. Since when does a King of the Romans need papal permission to be crowned king of Italy, and why would you think Gregory would allow it given his legates have just been thrown in jail? Suffice to say Gregory’s response was a resounding Njet. Who knows, Henry would have gone through with his coronation anyway, had it not been for some disconcerting news from Germany.
To explain those, let us talk a bit more about disappointing your followers. Henry IV is not the only one. You remember the German princes who are sitting by their warm winter fires and counting down the days until they are well and truly shot off that troublesome Salian king? Well, they were as surprised and as disappointed about this “reconciliation” as the Lombard bishops.
Gregory had written to the Princes on January 28th, right after the feast in the halls of Canossa. His letter still reads somewhat apologetic since he uses most of the parchment explaining why he could not refuse a king in a hare shirt, fasting and freezing outside his front door.
As for the hard-core anti-Henry faction in Germany, they could not care less if he had turned into a royal icicle. Members of that hard-core faction were first up, the Saxon magnates and bishops who were still in full-on rebellion occupying the Royal castles. Then there were those bishops who had fully bought into the Gregorian model of the papacy, namely Gebhard of Salzburg and Altmann of Passau. And finally, there were the three Southern German dukes, Rudolf of Rheinfelden, duke of Swabia, Welf IV, duke of Bavaria and Berthold of Zaehringen, Duke of Carinthia.
These guys had expected to see pope Gregory coming across the alps just about now to officially condemn Henry IV. and elect and consecrate a new king. As far as comedowns go, that was a pretty bad one. They must have known that Henry had set out to intercept Gregory, but given time and weather, they could have been confident that Gregory should have made it through.
Just take a look at the timeline, it was really tight for Henry. Gregory was supposed to be in Augsburg by February 2 and he had set off from Rome in early December. Assuming a speed of 20 miles per day even across the alps in winter, the journey from Rome would have taken 30 days. But he only travelled as far as Canossa. From Canossa it was still 400miles or at least 20 days to Augsburg. Gregory should have left Canossa on January 13th if he had wanted to make it. On the other hand, It is unlikely that Henry had already managed to get anywhere near Canossa by January 13th. Henry had been in Besancon on December 25th, when he set off for his 500 mile journey to Canossa, meaning he and his army only arrived there around January 19th. That matches with the date of the reconciliation which happened on January 28th after 4 days of penance in the snow.
If I was a Saxon noble and would look at these numbers and the letter from Gregory, I would feel a strong whiff of having been cheated. All the guy had to do was to run for Augsburg and they would have got rid of that pesky king.
But that does not mean all is lost. Henry IV. may no longer be excommunicated, but the pope had not explicitly reinstated him as king, at least that was their interpretation. So, they decided to call another Reichstag, this time in Forchheim in March 1077 to decide the fate of king Henry IV. They invited all the princes and bishops, as well as the pope and Henry IV. himself.
The pope said he was planning to come and was negotiating safe passage with King Henry IV. Well, that does not fill one with confidence. A man who did not dare to travel the 50 miles from Canossa to Mantua on this king’s guarantee is not going to travel 500 miles through enemy territory on a promise. Gregory instead sends his legates.
Henry himself is quite keen to go. However, his enemies, the three Southern German dukes are still blocking the passes. He could have taken the route via Mont Cenis as before but that would be pretty much double the distance and would have made it certain he would be late. So, Henry decides to use brute force. He travelled to Aquileia in the Northeast of Italy which was part of the duchy of Carinthia. There he elevates a local magnate to be the new duke of Carinthia and deposes Berthold of Zaehringen. That proves a clever move, because Berthold quickly loses ground in Carinthia and Henry can get through with a new ally in tow.
But he only gets into Germany in April. A month earlier the Reichstag of Forchheim had taken place.
Who went to the Reichstag? Well, it depends on who you ask. According to Lambert and Bruno, our two fully paid-up members of the Saxons fan club, everybody was there. All princes of rank and all the major bishops. If you ask the chroniclers sympathetic to Henry, ahh, there are none. In terms of actual names quoted, the key participants were Otto von Northeim, Rudolph von Rheinfelden, Welf IV, Berthold von Zaehringen, now no longer duke of Carinthia, the Gregorian bishops, and at least one archbishop who used to be loyal to Henry, Siegfried of Mainz, two papal legates and, yeah, that is it.
This assembly then discussed -briefly- the need to depose king Henry, which they did. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? They then proceeded to elect a new king. Lambert said that the delegates had to choose amongst a multitude of noble and competent candidates. Well, not so sure. Welf IV and Otto of Northeim hated each other since both wanted the duchy of Bavaria, so they are both out. Berthold of Zaehringen had just lost Carinthia, which is not exactly the track record they were looking for. All the other senior guys were, well bishops. That made the choice of Rudolph of Rheinfelden a foregone conclusion. So foregone, Rudolph had actually ordered a crown to be made months earlier.
Rudolph was of noble stock, descending from the kings of Burgundy and had been married to Henry IV’s sister. He was also a strong supporter of the reform movement. His family monastery in St. Blasien in the Black Forest had become a centre of the left wing of the reform movement. He was also a recognised military leader whose bravery and skills were acknowledged by all sides. What further worked in his favour was that he had established a strong rapport with Gregory VII already in 1073. Gregory rated him and his legates saw him as a man of “outstanding humility, suitable for the honour of Kingship in his age and his morals”.
So, the right man for the job, and a job that needs doing? Well not so quick.
There is not just this one party amongst the German magnates and bishops. When Henry IV was excommunicated and had accepted the conditions imposed in Trebur, his followers had to disperse and find ways to get their own excommunications lifted. But in March that had been done and they formed again as a party around the king. They make up the other committed faction opposing the opposition.
But the majority of the German magnates and bishops were in the middle. They were trying to find a way through this mess that allowed them to honour their obligations under the oaths they have made to the king, that addressed the concerns about expanding imperial power, that maintained their relationship with the pope and that kept them on the right side of the church reform movement.
What is happening here is that the three main strains of the narrative diverge again after they had converged at Canossa. The fight of the princes against the king is no longer on parallel tracks with the expansion of papal power and church reform is no longer identified with one or other party.
That is why you find some ardent reformers supporting the king, whilst some fully paid-up members of the Imperial Church system support the rebels.
For those in the middle it was on balance ok to require the king to stand trial at a council in Augsburg when the king was still excommunicated, and the pope was presiding. They may even have sided with Rudolph of Rheinfelden had the pope given a good reason why they were no longer bound by their oaths of fealty.
But Gregory did neither get to Forchheim to preside over a trial nor did he declare that the deposition still stood irrespective of the revocation of the ban. In fact the pope could even have immediately reinstated the ban given that Henry did not provide satisfactory safe conduct to Germany as he had promised in Canossa.
To the rebels’ irritation Gregory did not explicitly endorse the election of Rudolph of Rheinfelden for another 3 years. He maintained a policy of strict neutrality and had even instructed his legates at Forchheim several times to be neutral. His legates ignored him, and he admonished them for that publicly.
Why did he do that? Clearly the frozen feet of Canossa had not turned Henry IV into an obedient son of the church whilst Rudolph von Rheinfelden had immediately sworn allegiance and submission to the pope and was an avowed supporter of the reform movement.
The reason Gregory gives is that he wanted to decide by weighing each side’s argument in a public council in Germany. He would decide once he had (quote) “heard the arguments on both sides and learned whom justice most favoured”. As you may have guessed I am not the world’s greatest fan of Gregory VII, so maybe I am biased, but to me it is clear. Gregory did not endorse Rudolph because he had not chosen Rudolph. His notion of what a pope is and what he can do does not have room for royal assemblies where some mere bishops, dukes and counts choose a king. The raising and deposing of kings is the pope’s job. And so none of you is king until I say so.
And another part of his papal doctrine is now biting its tail. Gregory had declared that the pope never errs, has never erred, and will never err. Let’s test this. In Canossa Gregory believed that Henry IV would honour his promise and be obedient to the Lord Pope, but within less than 2 weeks he realised that was not the case. Further, he believed that Henry would let him travel to Germany to sit in judgement over him, well he was wrong on that too. Gregory was an intelligent man who must have known that he had been played, but because he could not err, he could not admit that he had been played. That is hybris on a scale well beyond what Sophocles or Aeschylus had ever come up with.
It is only in 1080 after a lot of toing and froing that Gregory finally endorses Rudolph of Rheinfelden and excommunicates Henry IV for a second time. But by now the lines have become so entrenched, the excommunication had little effect. The faith in the pope’s omnipotence had evaporated quite quickly after 1077. When Gregory sent a letter declaring neutrality in May of that year, the Saxon chronicler Bruno wrote: “when our countrymen received this letter, they lost the great hope they had placed in the apostolic rock”. So even the so-called Gregorian party was no longer looking to Rome.
With his standing weakened, Gregory felt he needed to up the ante in his excommunication of 1080 and added a curse. Unless Henry would repent and resign by the feast of St. Peter in Chains, i.e., by August 1, he would be struck down by the apostles Peter and Paul. Spoiler alert, they did not.
With that let’s leave developments in Rome and the actions of Gregory for next episode and let us concentrate on events in Germany.
The assembly in Forchheim did not just elect Rudolph von Rheinfelden to be king, it also changed the constitution of the empire. The 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”.
This is a major tilt of the monarchy in Germany towards the electoral principle, the opposite of developments in France and England where the electoral components are waning away around that same time. In France we end up with the mantra “The king is dead, long live the king” whilst in the Holy Roman Empire the death of the previous ruler leads to the election of a new one. There are other elected monarchs in Europe, most notably the kings of Poland and they do have one thing in common, a weak central authority. The kings of France and England had a strong incentive to strengthen the central authority because they knew that their offspring would automatically inherit this position. An elected monarch will always be incentivised to strengthen the position of his own family at the expense of central power. Hence even though there will be dynasties passing the imperial title from father to son, like the Hohenstaufen, the Luxembourgers and the Habsburgs, they will use their position to expand their family’s territories rather than expanding royal power. Some historians, specifically in the 19th and 20th century had drawn a straight line from the events in Canossa and Forchheim to the weakness the Holy Roman Empire, to Prussian militarism, Kaiser Bill’s chip on his shoulder, World War I and World War II.
A bit of a stretch in my view, but I would agree that Forchheim was another fork in the road where the patterns of German history deviated from France and England.
Getting back to more mundane issues, in March 1077 there were now 2 kings. Rudolph of Rheinfelden thought initially he would have the upper hand, with him controlling Swabia himself and his allies controlling Bavaria and Saxony. However, things unravelled somewhat.
Henry had already successfully deposed Berthold von Zaehringen as duke of Carinthia and handed it to one of his followers. He now tried the same with Swabia. He made Frederick Count of Buren duke of Swabia. Frederick held lands in the centre of Swabia and commanded a significant followership amongst the major Swabian nobles. Henry further elevated his status even by marrying him to his daughter Agnes. Frederick then embarked on the construction of a suitable castle befitting his rank near the village of Stuf or Stauf. That castle would be called the Hohenstaufen a name that would be adopted by Frederick’s family, a family that will bring about Frederick Barbarossa, probably the best known of medieval German rulers thanks to a much better PR machine than the one our friend Henry IV. commanded.
The new duke of Swabia was able to establish himself in part of the duchy, but the Zaehringer family, and their allies controlled most of the lands on the upper Rhine and into German Speaking Switzerland.
Henry was more successful in Bavaria and expelled his enemies from the duchy which he managed directly rather than appointing a new duke. That meant Rudolph of Rheinfelden’s actual power base was Saxony. He controlled most of it, including Goslar and its rich silver mines.
Henry established his main basis of operations in Mainz where the burghers had thrown out their archbishop in another sign that the urban elite is asserting itself in the major trading cities. He could count on the Bavarians, some Swabians, most of the Lotharingians and the duke of Bohemia.
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 truce until June 1081. Some fighting resumed and at some point, a much diminished 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. Fighting continued but it was for now on a level that allowed Henry to go down to Rome and go after his other great enemy, Gregory VII.
Rudolph von Rheinfelden was buried in the cathedral of Merseburg in under one of the first full length funerary monuments showing him as a living man with all the royal insignia. The inscription celebrates his kingship and his death as “the sacred victim of war” and who died for the church.
All part of the ongoing propaganda war. Rudolph von Rheinfelden is portrayed as a martyr for the cause of church reform, whilst Henry goes back to Gregory’s curse that the king would die if he had not relented by the day St. Peters Chains – well it did happen, just that the false king died from the false pope’s curse losing his right hand. This hand is still kept at the cathedral of Merseburg – or so they claim.
In 1082 Henry sets off for Rome to follow the propaganda war up with a real war. He can count on the Lombard bishops to help him but will that be enough to subdue Matilda of Tuscany and get into the city of Rome to impose a new pope and finally be crowned emperor. All that in the next episode.
I hope to see you next week. And in the meantime, should you feel like supporting the show and get hold of these bonus episodes, sign up on Patreon. The links are in the show notes or on my website at historyofthegermans.com.