Episode 23 – Duke Ernst Rebel and Legend

In this episode Emperor Konrad II (1024-1039) consolidates his reign adding a secular leg to his control of the imperial church by placing his son Henry on the ducal throne of Bavaria,. This is the first of many ducal and royal titles he will acquire.

This push for centralised control leads to a rebellion, led by the emperor’s 16-year old stepson, duke Ernst II of Swabia (1012-1030). Ernst fights bravely but when his vassals put the oath to the emperor above the fidelity they owe the duke, he has to succumb. Konrad first locks him up but is prepared to reinstate him if he hands over his friend and loyal vassal Werner of Kiburg. When Ernst refuses he becomes an outlaw and – in the legend – has great adventures in weird and foreign lands where the Flat Hoofs and the Grippians live…


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 23: Duke Ernst of Swabia stepson and rebel.

Last week we began our new season with the unexpected and rapid rise of Konrad, a middling count of impeccable lineage but modest means to first king and then emperor. He and his wife Gisela were crowned emperor and empress at Easter 1027 in Rome. By June they were back in Germany holding a royal assembly at Regensburg. Item one on the agenda was the succession of the recently deceased duke of Bavaria. Konrad proposed none other than his son, the future king Henry III to become duke of Bavaria. It is testament to the level of authority Konrad had built in the last 3 years that the Bavarian magnates unanimously elected the 11-year old Henry to be duke.

This demonstrates more than anything the difference between Salian and Ottonian domestic policy. The Ottonians had not given any major ducal or Margrave positions to members of their immediate family after 955. The background to that was the rebellion of Liudolf that was at least in part fuelled by secular lords frustration that all routes of potential advancements were blocked by Ottonian family members. Otto I, Otto II, Otto III and Henry II would appoint members of the powerful clans, the Konradiner, the Luxembourger, the Ezzones, the Babenbergers etc. as dukes. Some dukedoms, like Saxony had become de facto inherited positions.  To curb the power of the dukes, the Ottonians, in particular Henry II, hollowed out the duchies by shifting possessions either to the royal demesne directly or the imperial church. Another way to reducing the power was by splitting the large duchies into smaller units. Lothringia was split into Upper and Lower Lothringia. Carinthia was cut out of Bavaria and the marcher lords like the Margraves of Meissen and those of Austria were given considerable autonomy relative to their dukes.

Konrad II’s decision to make his son duke of Bavaria is a break in this policy. He deliberately goes back to the pre-955 policy of Henry the Fowler of consolidating secular power immediately within the royal family. That would provide a second leg to imperial power beyond the imperial church.

Chris Wickham points out that there is a similar development taking place in Normandy at the same time. The dukes of Normandy are consolidating their power first by expanding a church system, mainly through abbeys as Eigenkirchen that give them a strong base of military and economic resources. They then subjugate the secular lords within the duchy using these resources so that by 1066 William the Conqueror commands one of the most unified and coherent political entities in Western Europe.

It is extremely unlikely that the Salian rulers looked at Normandy as a role model or were even thinking remotely in these political terms, but as we will see in the next dozen or so episodes, one of the planks of Salian political practice is to strengthen the royal demesne by confiscating vacant fiefs for the crown and reclaiming royal possessions given away by their predecessors.

For instance, Konrad II ordered an investigation and listing of all royal rights in Bavaria. The Bavarian counts were ordered to declare under oath all assets that are owned by the crown or had been passed out of the hands of the crown. This exercise did not have anywhere near the depth of the Doomsday book, but it had a similar intention, identifying what resources were there and which of those were available to the king.

And Konrad did not hesitate to take on the most prestigious of inheritances. When empress Kunigunde died, he had all former royal possessions confiscated for the realm. The fact that they were granted to her by Henry II and that she had been instrumental in his ascension of the throne counted for nought.

This again showed that Konrad firmly believed in a separation between private and state property as he made so clear in his response to the inhabitants of Pavia. By removing royal possessions from Kunigunde’s inheritance he sets the precedent that a king cannot dispose privately over state assets – a major departure from Carolingian thinking.

Konrad’s political shift towards secular lordships as a foundation of Salian rule had sometimes been seen as a departure from Henry II’s policy of being a theocratic ruler using the imperial church to achieve his objectives.

Konrad clearly was no theologian or a “king of the monks” like Henry II. Au contraire. He had been called an “idiota” by an Italian cleric. Idiota at that time did not mean stupid, but more that he could not read and write and lacked understanding of theology.

He was still a pious man though and he started the greatest church building project since the imperial chapel in Aachen, but we rarely see him actively intervening in theological disputes as Henry II did. He formally presides over synods of bishops, but I guess he thought that most of their learned Latin disputations to be utter Gobbledegook.

That however does not mean he would let go of control over the imperial church system. Konrad is not the sort of guy who lets anything slip through his hands. He maintains Henry II’s policy of selecting and investing bishops and abbots on his command with the canonical election being a mere formality. He also continues Henry II’s support for the reform movement that continues to spread. Cluny was the epicentre of this movement that required the monks to stick to the Benedictine rule of Ora et Labora – to pray and to work. Konrad, like literally everybody at the time believed that prayers by saintly monks improved your chances to go to heaven and that the more saintly the monk, the more effective the prayer. It was therefore a king’s obligation to foster good behaviour amongst churchmen. What he and his descendants did not think about was that a reformed church would gain moral authority rivalling the moral authority of the anointed monarch who derives his right to rule from the same source the grace of God.

What Konrad was less concerned about was Henry II’s obsession with ‘incestuous’ in inverted commas marriages. You may remember for Episode 18 that Henry II together with bishop Aribo of Mainz extended the notion of what constitutes incest. These two took the view that anyone related in the seventh degree is not allowed to marry. That is a tall order, since the aristocratic families of East Francia were still few and so practically everyone, including the now reigning emperor was in breach of this interpretation of the rule. Konrad, rather than having a lengthy theological discussion about it, simple withdrew his troops enforcing the rule. In particular he ended the persecution of the Hammersteins, whose castle had been besieged by Aribo and Henry II and count Hammerstein was forced to agree to an annulment of their marriage. Once the imperial troops had withdrawn the couple got together again and lived happily ever after.

Konrad also ruled on the other great church controversy, the fight between the bishops of Mainz and Hildesheim over the abbey of Gandersheim. That had already been going on for decades when Konrad’s vote was called upon. Konrad sided with Hildesheim, which drove a last and final nail into archbishop Aribo of Mainz’s ambitions.

The man who had been the effective #3 of the realm after Henry II and Kunigunde, the man who brought Konrad to kingship and had crowned him in his cathedral of Mainz suddenly stood in the rubble of his political ambitions. The great fight against incest was over, Gandersheim lost and most significantly the right to crown the king had shifted to Cologne. In 1028 he announced that he would leave Mainz and go on pilgrimage to Rome. He never returned and died of disease in Como, Northern Italy.

Other changes Konrad II brought in were even more momentous. We are in the period when feudalism gradually takes over. The rights and obligations between lord and vassal are being defined more and more specifically. As this happens, in particular the lower nobility increasingly asserts the right in inherit their father’s fiefs, a process that gets formalised around the middle of the 11th century. These feudal obligations are hard to enforce, specifically if the vassal has managed to build one of these new-fangled fortifications called castles. The vassal can always find a reason why he does not owe service and as a free man, the only way to force him is by force.

In this situation a new type of armed warriors emerges, the Ministeriales. These are “unfree” men, in other words peasants with an aptitude for violence. This peasant is trained up to the standard of the noble knights, but their status remains that of an unfree man. Hence, he can be ordered to do whatever the lord requests, can be dismissed and his sons have no direct right to take their positions. Ministeriales first appear on church lands as bishops and abbots look for ways to defend themselves against their secular neighbours without becoming dependant upon the next lot of noblemen. Under Konrad II Ministeriales enter royal service and these unfree knights become a major part of the troops the emperor can call upon, both his own Ministeriales as well as those of his bishops.

All this adds up to a further concentration of power with the king, going beyond what even Henry II had achieved. That was clearly not at all what the lords who elected Konrad II had in mind. We already heard that the dukes of Lothringia, the duke of Swabia and Konrad the Younger had to be less than gently encouraged to recognise Konrad II during his royal progress in 1025.

2 years later when it had become clear what Konrad was up to, the discontent turned into open rebellion. The dukes of Lothringia did not actively participate, but it is duke Ernst II of Swabia who takes the lead, together with count Welf II of the Welf family that we will hear a lot about in this podcast and who are famously the ancestors of Queen Elisabeth II.

Ernst II was Konrad’s stepson. You may remember that Konrad had married Gisela, the widow of the duke of Swabia. She had two sons out of her first marriage, the oldest, Ernst succeeded his father as duke of Swabia. Ernst was probably 11 or 12 years old at Konrad’s coronation which means his mother’s guardianship would have ended shortly after that. What motivated young Ernst to oppose Konrad almost from the get-go is not quite clear. It might be that he just hated his stepdad. These things happen. But there are good political reasons for Ernst II to oppose his stepfather.

The big event everyone is waiting for in the 1020s is the death of Rudolf III King of Burgundy. Rudolf had no children and only three sisters, one was the mother of emperor Henry II, one was married to Count Odo of Blois and the third had been married to duke Hermann of Swabia, grandfather of our friend Ernst. Swabia and Burgundy are neighbours and their ruling families had been close since basically forever.

When Henry II was still alive, it was fairly clear that he would inherit Burgundy as the nephew of Rudolf III and proud owner of a lot more guns than anybody else. The new emperor and proud owner of self-same guns was Konrad who was not personally related to Rudolf III’s family, only his wife Gisela was. It would not be mad for Ernst to believe the game was open again and he was in with a chance to become king of Burgundy.

Therefore, step one for Ernst would be to assert his claim to Burgundy in the manner most appropriate in the 11th century, by violence. Konrad had tried to stop Ernst from going down this route by first taking him along on his trip to Italy, and when he wanted to go back home, by giving him the abbey of Kempten as a consolation prize.

Kempten, despite being gorgeous and close to some excellent skiing was not good enough for our ambitious young Ernst, now maybe 15 or 16 years old. As soon as he had come back from Italy he began an assault on Burgundian territory. He also built a castle near Zurich from where he began devastating the lands of the rich imperial abbeys of St. Gallen and Reichenau.

The plan seems ton have been to on the one hand gain supporters by handing them the land taken from the two abbeys, whilst at the same time making a statement that he was absolutely serious abut his claim to the Kingdom of Burgundy. This behaviour would have been considered completely normal and justified in the late Carolingian period, i.e., before Henry the Fowler.

So, when Conrad II called Ernst to a royal assembly I Ulm to justify himself, Ernst was happy to come. He believed that he could bully the emperor into accepting his demands by appearing with his full military might, bringing along all of his vassals he could find along to the royal assembly. And should the bullying tactic not work, he and his troops could always fight his way out of the imperial hospitality.

Whilst he is camping outside the walls of Ulm, he has a last meeting with his vassals asking them to renew their vows of support, reminding them of the Swabian nobles’ long tradition of fidelity to their dukes. He appeals to their sense of honour and promises untold glory and riches, presumably from Burgundy, should they stick with him. What Ernst did not expect is what happens next. Two counts, Friedrich and Anselm stand up and say (quote): “We do not deny that we have sworn never ending fealty to you. We are prepared to fight for you against anyone, except for one, the one who has put us into vassalage to you. If we were unfree servants of the king, and he had given us to you as your serfs, then we would have to stay with you. But we are free men and the highest protector of our freedom on earth is the king and emperor. If we abandon him, we would lose our freedoms, whish as is written, no honourable man will ever give up. On these conditions we will serve you in all your honourable and just endeavours. If however you ask us to go against our honour, we will return to where you had summoned us from ”. (unquote)

That suggests the king’s rights to vassalage penetrate through the mid-layer of dukes all the way down to all free men. As someone growing up in English or French history that would not be much of a surprise, but for me it is. I always understood that one of the reasons the medieval German emperors failed to establish a centralised monarchy like the French and English kings was that in the empire the oath of vassalage was only ever to the next lord up the food chain, i.e., the knight would pledge to the count, the count to the duke and the duke to the king, whilst in England and France all free men would swear an oath to the king. This scene shows that at least in the early 11th century, the free men felt bound directly to the king by oath, even in the empire. That will ultimately change and by the 14th century there will be a formal distinction between immediate vassals to the emperor (“reichsunmittlebar”) and those who owe allegiance mediated by their respective overlords. But for now, the emperor still has direct vassalage rights over all free men. The other interesting thing is that the unfree men have no choices to make. Whoever owns/controls them can ask them to do whatever he wants, even order them to commit high treason, as if they were not really human.

For duke Ernst, this was a major blow. Without his supporters there was no point in continuing the rebellion and Ernst surrendered unconditionally to the emperor’s and his stepfather’s mercy. The other conspirators, Welf II and Konrad the Younger gave up too. By 1028 the rebellion had collapsed.

Ernst lost his duchy of Swabia and was incarcerated in the fortress of Giebichenstein next to the city of Halle and der Saale, a castle that had already become the state prison for Henry II and would continue to hold eminent prisoners throughout the Middle Ages.

Ernst situation should now be quite dire. The Ottonians had established a “Two strikes and you are out” policy. That meant a first revolt would normally be forgiven against renewed commitment to service. Once that is done publicly, the rebellious noble would receive most, but not all of his possessions and offices back. But if the noble rebels again, it is game over. All titles and possessions are granted to someone else, and the offender will have to flee into exile to avoid being hanged.

Technically Ernst was on his second strike since he had briefly opposed Konrad’s election by force of arms in 1025. But he is released after less than a year, and it seems returned to Swabia.

This preferential treatment may well have a lot to do with the fact that Ernst was the emperor’s stepson.  Ernst’s mother, the empress Gisela was another one of these formidable early medieval empresses like Mathilda of Ringelheim, Adelheid, Theophanu and Kunigunde. Her influence and wealth had not only been instrumental in getting Konrad to the throne, but she was also his most important counsellor. More than half of the imperial charters include the opening phrase “upon recommendation of the empress Gisela”, suggesting she was instrumental in making the decision laid out in the charter. She took a lead role in the crucial negotiations with the king of Burgundy as well as taking part in synods and royal assemblies. Gisela was no pushover and clearly able to assert her wishes, one of which was for her son to be shown mercy.

In 1030 Ernst was called to Ingelheim to discuss the terms of his formal reinstatement as duke of Swabia.  Konrad had one key condition for his re-instatement. Ernst should go and persecute Werner (or Wezel) of Kyburg, one of his most loyal supporters who had kept the rebellion going whilst Ernst was in jail. The order was to treat him and all his family as enemy of the state, which means capturing and hanging them without trial.

Some sources say, Werner of Kyburg had grown up with Ernst and that they were close friends and almost brothers. But even if that was not so and Werner was just a vassal, albeit a very loyal one, the situation for Ernst is now extremely difficult. If he follows through with Konrad’s demands, what are the other vassals going to think about a duke who wipes out one of his loyal supporters, including his entire family. On the other hand, if he refuses, he will lose the duchy.

Ernst does the honourable thing and refuses. He loses the duchy and Konrad goes one step further. He gets a court of princes to convict Ernst as an enemy of the state, which makes him an outlaw or, as the Germans call it “vogelfrei”. That means anyone can kill him, steal his possessions, devastate his lands without persecution. To complete the circle the bishops excommunicated Ernst and all who followed him and order all their possessions to be confiscated.

Where is Ernst’ mother in all of this you ask? The chronicler Wipo says that the empress Gisela, though saddened by developments, gives a public commitment that she would not seek revenge against anyone following through with these judgements.

This decision has forever blackened Gisela’s name. One may argue that at this point in the proceedings there was little she could have done to rescue her obstinate son. But nevertheless it is remarkable that though her husband had de facto called for the murder of her son, Gisela remained at his side and there is no record of a cooling of the imperial couple’s relationship. These were sometimes rather unemotional times it seems.

Duke Ernst and his friend and vassal Werner von Kiburg flee from Ingelheim and began a life of outlaws.

And here the narrative splits. The legend of duke Ernst written in the 13th century tells us that Ernst and Werner embark on a journey to the holy land. This trip leads them to the most weird and wonderful lands.

The first land they reach after a terrible storm that left them disorientated. In the distance they see a splendid looking city.. As the duke and his party approach the city they find a beatific park outside where a sumptuous meal laid out on gold and silver dishes, but no-one to be seen anywhere. After they have  eaten, Ernst and Werner enter the city telling their fellow travellers return to the ship. There they saw stately palaces -beautiful, grand and strangely formed – with arches and lofty doors which were more ornate than any others and sparkled like stars. Nearby the park they had eaten they find a place which had a gold roof and skilfully fashioned emerald walls that gleamed bright green. In it Duke Ernst found a room which was gracefully decorated with jewels set in shining gold. In it was a bed trimmed with gold and pearls arranged in squares, the bedstead adorned with lions, dragons and snakes, all skilfully wrought of gleaming gold. There was also a chair made from ivory and decorated with amethysts shining red, and so on and so on. Finally they saw in the courtyard two streams, one warm, one cold flowing into a bathhouse with an arched roof of green marble. Inside gleamed two red gold vats into which water flowed through silver pipes that were cleverly arranged to supply a strong flow of either warm or cold water, whichever one wished. The vats drained off into a bronze pipe that conducted the water all across the city to clean its marble roads, since the people liked their city to look nice.  And, since there was no one in the city, Ernst and Werner decided to take a bath and then lay down for a snooze on the bed. When they woke up they began to seriously wonder which community of Russian oligarchs was living in such beautiful a city.

They put on their armour and kept watch at one of the palace’s windows. That is when they heard a strange cry, mighty and terrible which came from the plain outside the walls and sounded like the screeching of a huge flock of wild cranes. The din was very loud and frightening, as fierce a clamour as has ever been heard. The two knight retreated deeper into the palace and kept watch.

Finally, they caught side of a throng of men and women in front of the city gate. Both young and old had well formed hands and feet and were in every aspect handsome, stately people, except that their necks and heads were like those of cranes. They wore clothing of satin and silk and no fault could be found with their bodies, which, both men and women, were strong and beautiful.

These were the people of Grippia, whose king was distinguished by having the neck and head of a swan. They had just come back from an expedition against the king of India who they had killed and whose beautiful daughter they had captured to become the king of Grippia’s new wife.

The banquet laid out in the park had been the wedding banquet for his marriage, which duly proceeded. The two knights saw the beauty and sadness of the girl and decided to rescue her. Duke Ernst’s plan was to jump into the middle of the wedding party, kill the king and his retinue and fight their way back to the ship. Werner held him back from that complete madness and so they waited for the king to take the girl to the luxurious bedchamber. Once the king and 12 of his magnates had entered the bedchamber where the girl was being undressed, the two dukes fell upon them. However, as they were hacking their way to the princess the Grippians close to her stabbed her with their beaks. The knight had killed all, including the king but save for one who ran away to alarm the whole city. The princess heavily wounded lay sorrowfully, stained by her warm, red blood, for she was in great pain and near death. She promised them the riches of India if they could rescue her, but finally succumbed to their wounds.

The two knights then had to fight their way back to the gates of the city where their companions had come hearing the din of battle. So far they had not lost a single man, but on their way back to the ship they were attacked by a Grippian army on Horseback who pelted them with arrows but avoided hand-to-hand combat – Hungarian style. Only after severe losses di Ernst, Werner and their comrades make it back to their ships.

Their ordeal was far from over though. As they fled, they came close to the Mountain in the Congealed Sea. This rock draws to itself in a short time all ships built with iron nails that sail within 30 leagues of it. There was nothing to be done and the knights commended their souls to the lord and awaited their end. The rock pulled the knights ships in faster and faster. As they drew nearer, they saw a great fleet of ships all drawn to the rock. Then its power dashed their ships towards the shore with such force that all the vessels crashed against each other, and their masts collided again and again. The knights miraculously survived the falling masts and in fear jumped ship and swam to the rock. The rock was barren, and the knights began dying of hunger. And every morning two griffins would come to the island from afar and grab the knights who died in the night to take them as food to their nest. After a month there were only six knights left, Ernst, Werner and four others. Werner suggested a last daring attempt to escape. He and Ernst put on their full armour and then get their comrades to sow them up in strong cowhides. Then they were laid out on the deck of the ship for the griffins to pick them up. So they duly did and the two valiant knights were brough to the Griffin’s nest. The griffins’ young tried to get at the knights inside their armour, but after a while gave up. Once the griffins had lost interest the two knights cut open the cowhide with their swords and escaped. All of their comrades, except for one escaped by the same route to continue their journey.

They next come to the land of the cyclops where they find a great jewel that now adorns the imperial crown. They helped the cyclops in a fight with their neighbours, the Flat Hoofs. These man had such large feet that when it rained they would simply lie down, raise their legs and shelter under the cover of their enormous feet. The king of the cyclops was so happy about his help that he gave Ernst a duchy to rule and generously rewarded his followers.  Ernst was however restless and began a war with a people called the Ears, whose enormous ears reached all the way down to their feet and which they used as clothing. Needless to say, he won that war as well.

His next expedition was to the Prechami, the smallest people in the world. The Prechami lived in perennial fear of the giant armoured  Cranes that stalked their land and picked them up and ate them whenever they left the dense forest, they lived in. No surprise, Ernst and his men, valiantly supported by the Prechami army prevailed over the armoured Cranes and just asked for a few men of his race as reward.

Next up are the Caananites, a race of giants who ran an equals sized protection racket. When they decided to expand their operation to the land of the cyclops, duke Ernst urged the king to hold out. The king agreed and rejected the giants demand for tribute, who promptly send an army of 1000 giants tall as five men standing on top of each other. Duke Ernst decided to attack them inside a thick forest. Under the cover of the forests canopy the giants could not see duke Ernst’s men who cut off  their lower limbs with swords and javelins. One giant after the other fell, crashing into the forests whilst their comrades smashed everything with their rods, doing more harm to their own side than to Ernst’s cleverly protected men. The giants had to retreat, and Ernst managed to capture one of them. He healed his wounds, and this adolescent giant became his servant and friend.

After six years Ernst decided that he should finally complete his pilgrimage and travel to Jerusalem. He took the treasures he had accumulated as well as a Flat Hoof, a Prechami, one of the Ears and his giant and travelled via Ethiopia and Egypt to Jerusalem. There he prayed at the church of the holy sepulchre, fought the heathens and gave donations to the church.

Finally, he returned home via Rome and went secretly to Bamberg where the emperor was holding a diet. The day before Christmas he managed to contact his mother and they arranged to call upon the emperor’s mercy. On Christmas eve he kneeled in front of the emperor and asked for forgiveness. He brough him the treasures he had collected on his travels as well as his giant, his Prechami and Flat Hoof. The emperor was best pleased with these presents and understood that he had been misled by his advisors in banning Ernst. And so they lived happily ever after.

That is what the legend says.

The reality is more prosaic. Ernst and Werner first tried to gather some support with French magnates but were sent packing. They then hid in a wilderness that was called the Black Forest living of banditry. Finally, one of the soldiers the emperor had sent to capture him got hold of his horses making them immobile. He took one last stand with his comrades in a clearing near the castle of Falkenstein. Ernst, Werner and all his remaining supporters died as did the count who had pursued him. His body was brought to Constance and, after his excommunication was lifted, was buried in the church of Saint Mary. When Conrad heard of the death of his stepson, he is supposed to have said: “Viscous dogs rarely have offspring” Unemotional times indeed.

The duchy of Swabia first went to his little brother Hermann who died young and was afterwards awarded to the heir to the throne, king Henry III.

That is all we have for you today. Next week there will be no more Flat Hooves and Prechami, but cold, hardnosed politics. We will look at how the biggest political question of his time, the succession in Burgundy will be handled. We will also hear about the wars against the would-be king of Poland and the actual king of Hungary.  I hope you will join us.