Episode 24 – Konrad II’s Acquisition of Burgundy

The event looming over Imperial politics since around 1000 is the Burgundian succession. King Rudolf III is childless leaving several contenders with varying degrees of blood relations. If Henry II who was a nephew of Rudolf III had outlived the king of Burgundy, thigs would have been easy. But the old codger outlived the sickly emperor. His successor, Konrad II had no real inheritance right to Burgundy, apart from what came from the tips of spears. Follow the epic fight against Odo of Blois over the ultimately modest riches of the Burgundian Kingdom…


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans, Episode 24 – Konrad II’s acquisition of Burgundy. I know, you have opened this with some trepidation thinking, is he going to tell some more weird legends again or are we getting the podcast we have signed up for? No worries, this episode will be entirely fact based. I still hope you enjoyed meeting the king of Grippia and the Flat Hooves and if not, I am sorry for taking away 7 minutes of your life that you will never get back.

But now, as promised, let us go for some hard-nosed dynastic politics. As you may have heard in the last few episodes, there is a major political issue brewing in the background since around 1000. The last king of Burgundy, Rudolf III had failed to produce any offspring so that the vultures have been circling the kingdom for most of his 40-year reign.

Before we go into the intricacies of the Burgundian succession, let us talk first about what Burgundy is. This of you with exceptional memory may recall episode 4 when we discussed the three different Burgundies. But since I myself can barely remember how it works, here it is again.

The name of Burgundy goes back to a Germanic tribe that occupied a territory comprising more or less the Italian region o Piemonte, French speaking Switzerland, the current French regions of Bourgogne-Franche Comte, Rhone Alpes and Provence, Alpes Cote d’Azur. The area kept its name but went through multiple hands including being the core territory of the kingdom of Lothar created in 843. After the kingdom of Lothar had fallen apart in the late 9th century, the area of Burgundy broke up into three parts. The first one is the region we today know as Burgundy. That became the Duchy of Burgundy, which, to confuse everybody, is not part of the kingdom of Burgundy. The kingdoms of Burgundy were originally two, upper and lower Burgundy. These were united under king Rudolf II with a lot of help from Henry the Fowler and Otto the Great in the early 10th century.

This kingdom looks quite impressive on the map, but its kings were weak. Similar to the kings of France the Kings of Burgundy had little control over their vassals. Thietmar of Merseburg said about Rudolf III that there was no king like him. All he has is a title and a crown. He awards the bishoprics to anyone the local magnates demand and there is no count who does not act as independent as a duke. The king really only controlled the region around lac Leman, centred on the bishoprics of  Geneva, Lausanne and Sitten, the estates of Vevey and Orbe and the monasteries of St. Maurice, Romainmoitier and Peterlingen.  Yes, this is today real estate worth Quasillions, but in 1030 it was a nice but ultimately modest possession, the value of which lay mainly in the control of alpine passes. The local magnates, including the future dukes of Savoy and counts of Provence acknowledged a nominal overlordship of the King, but otherwise did as they pleased, very similar to the situation in France more generally. The absence of a central power allowed for constant feuding between lords and the emergence of proper robber barons, all of which put immeasurable pain on the local peasantry. 

At the same time the kingdom came under external pressure, mainly from the duke of Burgundy, Otto-Wilhelm, who was the son of Adalbert, former king of Italy and adversary of Otto the Great in his Italian wars. If you want to fully geek out on Burgundies, here is a fourth on. Otto-Wilhelm at some point lost the duchy of Burgundy and was reduced to a territory around Besancon, which he christened the County of Burgundy. Since the County  was part of the Holy Roman Empire, rather than France, it became called the Free County of Burgundy or in French the Franche Comte. Ok., let’s leave it here, the Franche Comte will not be on the test.

I guess from what I said so far it is clear that the Kingdom of Burgundy was not a great prize. But, whoever took it on would gain prestige, a title and controlled access to Italy. The latter is what mattered most to the emperors, since owning Burgundy means that the king of France would not be able to deploy troops into Italy.

Because of this strategic situation the emperors have been involved in Burgundy since the 930s. Family ties were close, most famously as the formidable Adelheid, wife of Otto the Great, was the daughter of a previous king of Burgundy. Equally, the mother of emperor Henry II was a daughter of again another king of Burgundy. In line with family ties, the emperor would regularly provide military support to keep the rickety kingdom going and in return the king of Burgundy would regularly attend the imperial court.

For all intends and purposes, Burgundy was a vassal state of the empire, but that relationship had never been formalised as such until 1016. In that year emperor Henry II made the support in another border skirmish conditional upon Rudolf III formally promises him to make him heir. In a lavish ceremony Rudolf handed crown and sceptre of Burgundy to Henry II, who handed it back hem, which should be understood as Rudolf becoming Henry II’s vassal.

Had Rudolf III had the decency to die before his nephew Henry II, all would have been ok. As it happens the old codger clung on to life, whilst Henry II though 20 years younger succumbed to his wide range of illnesses.

Now we have a problem. Henry II could claim Burgundy both on the grounds of being its overlord and the fact that he is Rudolf’s nephew and hence one of his closest relatives.

Konrad II has no such personal claim. Yes, he is sort of related since his wife Gisela is a niece of Rudolf III, but to be frank, there are another two nieces and a sister, al married to powerful aristocrats. One of these powerful aristocrats is Odo, count of Blois and Champagne, one of these quasi-independent French magnates whose lands lay just north of Burgundy.

Konrad – as always – tried to get on the front foot. His argument was that he may not have a personal claim, but that the empire had an institutional claim on Burgundy. We already heard that view of the empire being a separate entity from the emperor when Konrad told the citizens of Pavia off for destroying the royal palace. Here it is again, just with a lot more significance than in the Pavia example.

As ever, subtle legal arguments work a lot better when they come with sharp and pointy things attached. Konrad may not have been a legal scholar of great renown, but he did know how to yield a sword. Already in 1025, so within months of his coronation he occupied Basel, a city Rudolf had occupied immediately after Henry II’s death. He took the opportunity to appoint a tame cleric as bishop of Basel without even consulting with Rudolf who was nominally required to acknowledge the appointment. That demonstration of force plus intervention by the actual heiress, empress Isela, had the desired effect, an agreement was reached, and Rudolf showed up for Konrad’s coronation in Rome in 1027.

As agreed, Rudolf ordered the insignia of the Burgundian crown to be sent to Konrad upon his death, which duly happened on September 6, 1032. So far, so good.

Where things became unstuck was when it came to the Burgundian nobles. They had gotten so used to a feeble king, the last thing they wanted was the powerful and energetic Konrad taking over. They very much preferred the much less resourceful Odo of Blois who was invited to come to Burgundy. It seems Odo was a bit unclear what he was really doing there. Instead of aiming for a quick election and coronation, he wandered around Burgundy collecting the odd acclamation, but mainly plundering and trying to expand his territory.

Hesitation is something Konrad II did not suffered from. As soon as he heard of Rudolf’s death, he jumped on a horse and rode hell for leather to Burgundy. The slight difficulty was that he was on the Polish border at the time, a good thousand kilometres from Burgundy. But by Christmas he had made it to Strasburg and on February 2nd he gathered his Burgundian supporters in the abbey of Payerne/Peterlingen where he was duly elected and crowned king of Burgundy.

That was a smart move as Odo’s wavering meant he was the only crowned king who could claim legitimacy. But legitimacy alone does not equate to control and Odo had captured a large number of strongholds across Burgundy. Konrad got to work besieging one after the other.

It was a miserably cold winter, a winter so cold that the horses would literally freeze into the ground over night so that they could only be freed with axes and stakes. The men were constantly frozen so that their faces were constantly white with frost and even the beardless adolescents looked like old men. One man who could not find help to free his horse killed it and skinned it upwards as it stood. Basically, it was like Stannis Baratheon’s attack on Winterfell.

Other than Stannis, Konrad knew when enough was enough and retreated to Zurich, where he received homage from some more Burgundian magnates who were disappointed with Odo’s indecisiveness.

The other move was for Konrad to sign an agreement with king Henry I of France. Not that Henry has much power or resources given France has been in a more or less perennial civil war following the long and disastrous reign of his father Robert II. In the 1030s we have the houses of Anjou and Blois fighting over supremacy whilst the king looks on. At this particular point in time Henry had sided with Anjou so allowed Konrad to enter French territory to devastate the homelands of Odo. Seeing his home under threat Ode had to hurry back home, giving up positions in Burgundy.

In the next year, 1034 Konrad finally put the boot in and attacks Burgundy on two fronts. One army is coming down from Germany, whilst his allies in Italy, the archbishop of Milan and the count of Canossa brings up an Italian army. I am not sure, but that might be the only time the Italian possessions of the empire ever provided support to imperial policy outside Italy.

Odo of Blois had to give up all his possessions in Burgundy and return home. He remained hostile until he attacks again in 1037 but gets comprehensively beaten by the duke of Lothringia in a battle where Odo himself dies.

And with that Konrad is universally acknowledged as ruler of Burgundy. However, he immediately passes the crown to his son the future king Henry III who actually has a hereditary claim to the throne through his mother Gisela.

Henry III is now by far and away the most powerful secular lord in Germany. He is duke of Bavaria, duke of Swabia after his stepbrother Hermann had died and now king of Burgundy. He controls all alpine passes, which means he is de facto in control of imperial policy in Italy as well. This shows more clearly than anything how Salian policy differed from the Ottonians who usually appointed local lords as dukes into vacant duchies.

And, from then on until 1648 the lands of Burgundy, which comprises most of South-Eastern France including the Provence, the lands around Lyon, Macon and Besancon remained part of the Empire. How much use Burgundy was is debatable though. Neither Konrad nor any of his successors will make serious attempts to streamline the Burgundian kingdom in the same way they did Germany and tried in Italy. The magnates of Burgundy remained semi-independent, and the only effective control was over the royal heartlands around Lac Leman and the main alpine passes of Mont Cenis and St. Bernard. That kept the French out of Italy, which was the main objective in the first place.

As for the lands of the kingdom of Burgundy itself, in particular Provence, Franche Comte and Alsace, they kept a somewhat separate status even after they had come under French suzerainty giving them a distinct character.

Before we leave the western frontier, there is another topic that always plays a role in the region and that is Lothringia. As you may remember the very large duchy of Lothringia had been split into two by Otto the Great in the 950s. Since then, the respective dukes of upper and lower Lothringia playing a complex game of three-dimensional chess between the Emperors, the local powerful families like the Luxemburg’s and the powerful bishops.

By 1030 the counts of Flanders had to be added to the mix as they built up another coherent territorial polity just across the border in French territory. Amidst all this the duke of Upper Lothringia died without a male heir. He had two daughters who became wards of the empress Gisela but no son. For once he did not invest his son Henry III with the vacant duchy. 

Instead, Konrad decided that Lothringia needed to be streamlined and so reunited it under Gozolo, the duke of Lower Lothringia. That created on the one hand an entity that could assert itself against the rising powers of the counts whilst being able to repel attacks such as the assault by Odo of Blois in 1037. On the other hand, it created a new centre of power that could challenge the emperor – swings and roundabouts.

So much for the western border.

The East and in particular Poland had been a major challenge to imperial power pretty much since the Slavic uprising of 983. Henry II despite being the most domestically powerful German ruler since Otto the great had comprehensively failed to control Boleslav the Brave. Henry, saintly or not, had even allied himself with the pagan Liutzi against the Christian poles to no avail.

Since 1018 Poland and the empire maintained a somewhat uncomfortable truce which allowed the empire to focus on Italy and domestic affairs, whilst Boleslav continued his astounding string of successes by invading the Rus and occupying Kiev.

When Henry II died in 1024 Boleslav used the opportunity to again assert his claim to be a king, an honour he believed had been awarded to him by Otto III at the congress of Gniezno. Henry II never acknowledged the title and consistently referred to him as duke Boleslav.

Irrespective of whether he was already king or not, Boleslav had himself crowned king of Poland sometime around the end of 1024 or early 1025, i.e, during the period when Konrad II was ascertaining his position in Germany.

Boleslav died shortly afterwards and was succeeded by his son Miesco II who had himself crowned in December 1025 in Gniezno. Conrad protested, but was at that point preoccupied with consolidating his rule in Germany and the upcoming expedition to Italy.

Whilst Konrad was in Italy the German opposition around Duke Ernst of Swabia and the Lothringian dukes tried to build links to the King of Poland. Around 1026 the duchess Mathilda, mother of Konrad the Younger and wife of Duke Friedrich of Upper Lothringia sent Miesco a valuable manuscript which in one of the pictures shows Miesco enthroned as king. In the accompanying letter she praises him for his excellent education, honour and charity and calls him the invincible king, who has been granted the royal diadem by the grace of God. Despite this combination of flattery and high treason however did not yield a material support to Duke Ernst’s rebellion.

Only by 1028 did Miesco II act. What has driven that is unclear, but it may well be the developing links between Konrad and King Canute that would culminate in the marriage of Henry III with Canute’s daughter Gunhilda 8 years later. Remember that Canute’s kingdom comprised not just England, but Denmark and large parts of the Baltic coast, making him Poland’s neighbour in the north.

Miesco begins a kind of Guerrilla war with Konrad where he avoids an open battle and lures the imperial troops into the endless swamps and forests of Poland where their horses are useless and armour cumbersome. But despite his smart tactics, success eluded him. Whilst his father managed to put the fear of god into all his neighbours, expanding Poland at the expense of the empire, Bohemia and the Kievan Rus, his son lacked the authority required. Furthermore, he was not the only son of Boleslav. His brother -and I will now properly embarrass myself- called Bezprym had contested the father’s will and fled to Russia.

His three enemies created a powerful coalition taking back the lands Boleslav had gained. The Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus attacked Poland from the North with the intention of putting Bezprym on the throne. The duke of Bohemia came from the south taking back Moravia and the emperor took back the county of Lusatia that Henry II had to grant to Boleslav.

In 1031 Miesco was expelled from Poland and his half-brother Bezprym was put on the throne by the Grand prince of Kiev. Bezprym immediately reconciled with the emperor by sending him the royal insignia of Poland thereby renouncing the royal title. However, his reign did not last long. There are reports of riots caused partially by Bezprym’s persecution of Miesco’s followers and he was murdered after just a year. Miesco II came back to Poland in 1033 but gave up his hostility towards the empire. He submitted to Konrad at a royal assembly in Merseburg where he gave up his pretensions of kingship and reverted to being a mere duke and gave up all claims on Lusatia.

Konrad ordered Poland to be split up amongst the three surviving members of the Piast dynasty. That separation did not last long as Miesco II’s two contenders met a violent end. But after the upheaval of the last decade, order was almost impossible to restore. The peasants revolted and aristocrats expanded their positions. When Miesco II died, his wife and little son, Kazimir, fled to the court of Konrad II. Kazimir made several attempts to regain control, which initially failed. We will talk about Kazimir’s return to the throne when we talk about Henry III’s reign.

As for Konrad, he effectively broke the Polish hegemony of the eastern lands and recovered Lusatia. This is something his predecessor Henry II had been unable to do, though his adversary was Boleslav the Brave, one of the most accomplished soldiers and politicians of the age.

Management of the Polish border was given to the last descendant of Margrave Ekkehard of Meissen. He is most famous for being married to Uta von Ballenstedt, whose sculpture on the cathedral of Naumburg is one of the most recognisable pieces of medieval art. In the 1930s she was appropriated both by the Nazis as the ideal Arian woman and by Walt Disney as the Evil Queen in Snow White. When Umberto Eco was asked which woman of European art he would be most like to spend an evening with, he replied: In first place, ahead of all others, Uta of Naumburg”. I will put a picture of her in the blog on the website and you can make up your own mind.

The issue with the countries on the eastern side of the empire is that they are a system of communicating vessels. If one goes down, another goes up. So when Poland went down, Bohemia came up. The duke of bohemia, Udalrich, had benefitted materially from Miesco’s weakness and recaptured Moravia, which had been lost to Boleslav the Brave 20 years earlier. He even managed to capture Miesco when he had to flee from his half-brother. This rise in Bohemian power caused concern in the empire, so when by 1033 Miesco and Poland had become embroiled in their internal fighting, Konrad sent an army under the nominal command of his son Henry III to Bohemia. Udalrich had to submit to Konrad who deposed him. Bohemia was split up again and Udalrich was replaced by his brother Jaromir, whilst Moravia was given to Udalrich’s son, Bretislav. By 1034 Konrad changed his mind upon pressure of Bohemian magnates and gives Udalrich the duchy to rule jointly with Jaromir. No prizes for what happen next. Udalrich takes over the whole of the duchy and blinds his brother Jaromir. That is not quite what Konrad wanted, so he would have invaded Bohemia again had not the sudden death of Udalrich solved that problem. Udalrich’s son, Bretislav, was made duke of a now reunified Bohemia. He paid homage to Konrad, provided hostages and promised to help with an expedition against the Slavs.

Yes, the Slavs, or more precisely, the Liutzi, former allies of henry II were still around. Though they paid tribute to the empire, they were still independent and largely pagan. With Poland and Bohemia largely under control the natural next political step had to be to strengthen control over the Slav lands between the Elbe and the Oder.

There was however a real problem in justifying an attack. The Liutzi had been allies and were paying tribute. There were regular raids by probably both sides into each other’s territory, but assigning blame was difficult. In 1033 a Saxon Count Liudger had been killed by the Slavs together with 40 of his comrades. The Slavs claimed that it was the Saxons who had provoked the fight, and they had only acted in self-defence.  As there were no Christian witnesses, the emperor, on advice from his princes, proposed to determine the veracity of the respective claims through a trial by combat.

The Saxons put up a fighter who was full of the Christian faith, but, as the chronicler Wipo said, did not take seriously that God is the truth and decides all and everything in his proper judgement. The heathens on the other hand put up a fighter whose one and only focus was the truth. The Slav fought hard and fair until the Christian defender was hit and fell.

The judgement was clear for all to see, there was no just reason to go to war against the Liutzi. The Saxons and Konrad had to abandon their expedition. To pacify the border, Konrad built a strong fortification at Werben on the Elbe River. The following year they finally got their casus belli. The Liutzi it says had taken the castle of Werben by treachery and killed or captured the garrison left there by Konrad. Whether that is true, or we have an early version of the Gleiwitz incident. In any event, Konrad mobilises his army and enters the territory East of the Elbe River. As his army marches around in the lands of the Liutzi, they burn and devastate the lands but leave the fortifications and towns alone.

The emperor is not shy getting his own hands dirty. He performs great feats of military courage, still fighting when up to the elbows in swamps and leading his men from the front. I probably have not made enough of the fact that Konrad is the first emperor since Otto II who was leading his men in battle. His bravery and quite frankly astonishing physique must have reminded his court of the warrior kings of old and provides a strong contrast to the sickly henry II and the emaciated Otto III.

With his warrior credentials came a taste for cruelty, specifically towards the pagans. Based on a probably false accusation the pagans had desecrated a wooden crucifix by beating it with fists, torn out the eyes and cut of hands and feet, Konrad proceeded to apply the same treatment to actual humans, and not just a few of them.

It is hard to get an understanding how contemporaries saw these kinds of events. It is interesting to note that Wipo, who was writing a eulogy of Konrad and always, always errs on the side of glorification of the emperor is uncustomary hesitant about this episode. First he emphasises very strongly that the Liutzi were in the right and that the Saxons had provoked them. And when it comes to describing Konrad’s activities he does not – as usual – describe it as the eye witness, he actually was, but refers to a poem written by someone else who declares Konrad an “Avenger of the Faith”. I cannot shake the thought that Wipo, and probably many others, felt uneasy about these murderous expeditions.

And in the end, these campaigns were not designed to integrate the Slavs into the empire. All they were meant to do is increase the tribute they were paying. Clearly not Konrad’s finest hour.

Before we close the narrative on the eastern frontier one last thing about Denmark. As mentioned before, Konrad developed a close relationship with king Canute, ever since the two men had met at Konrad’s coronation in 1027. This culminates in the marriage of Henry III to Canute’s daughter Gunhilda who was called Kunigunde in Germany. It had taken a little while for this marriage alliance to come together as Konrad had initially attempted to find Henry a bride in Constantinople. Several missions had failed to produce a suitable candidate, not so much out of reluctance of the Byzantine court but more out of a lack of suitable females. The ones with sufficient blood link to the emperor were too old and Konrad was not prepared to settle for another Theophanu (or Theophano as I am reliably informed, she is called in Greek).  

That being said, Gunhilda was not second best. The marriage was important enough for Konrad that he offered a truly royal present to king Canute, the whole county of Schleswig just across the border from Denmark. This is the beginning of the Schleswig Holstein question, a question so complex Palmerstone is alleged to have said in 1864 that only 3 people ever understood the Schleswig Holstein Question, one was the Prince Consort who was already dead at the time, a German professor who had gone mad, and Palmerstone himself, but he had forgotten. 

And here is my ambition for the Podcast. When we get to the war over Schleswig Holstein, e will all collectively understand the Schleswig Holstein question, ideally without going mad in the process. But until then is still a long way to go. Next episode we will conclude the reign of Konrad II, discuss his second Italian expedition and look at more examples how Konrad’s idea of the res publica manifests itself, putting the needs of the state above the commitments and relationships of the individual. And we will take a look at the greatest of Konrad’s legacies, the magnificently beautiful cathedral of Speyer, a building that will replace the imperial chapel in Aachen as the largest building North of the Alps. All that next week. I hope to see you then.