Episode 25 – Konrad II, the Construction of an Empire

In his last years Konrad tries to further strengthen his power, first by fighting the Hungarians, unseating the duke of Carinthia and a second Italian expedition. Al three of these endeavours backfire. The Hungarians win the war, the duke of Carinthia gets unexpected support from Konrad’s son Henry III and the Italian campaign ends in a fiasco entirely of Konrad’s making.

Despite these setbacks Konrad leaves a well ordered kingdom when he finally dies in 1039 after 15 years of rule. His kingdom is booming, the creation of Ministeriales and the growth of the cities create opportunities for peasants who find themselves under increasing pressures from their landlords. Castles and churches are being built on an unprecedented scale, culminating in the Cathedral of Speyer, the largest building in Europe at the time (together with the Abbey Church of Cluny)


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans Episode 25 – Konrad II, The Construction of an Empire. Before we start, I have updated the HistoryoftheGermans.com website and you can find separate pages for the Salians and Konrad II with transcripts, some interesting pictures and maps. Take a look, it is worth it. You can also subscribe on the website and I will email you every time a new episode comes out.

Last week we followed Konrad’s great acquisition of Burgundy and his sometimes brutal pacification of the Eastern border. Today we cast our eyes south, first to the south-eastern corner made up of Hungary, Croatia, the duchy of Carinthia and Venice and then we shall look at core Northern Italy where Konrad will again shift the focus of Imperial policy. We will close with a look at the kingdom of Konrad at the end of his 15-year reign, the re-definition of kingship, the social changes that are now under way and the acceleration of construction activity that left us with the great cathedrals of Speyer, Worms and Mainz.

But let us start with the South-East. This is a place that has some significance to Konrad in so far as his family had traditionally held the duchy of Carinthia which often included the March of Verona. Carinthia is more or less the eastern border of the empire against Hungary and Croatia, stretching from Vienna to Trieste. The March of Verona is then Northern Italy, stretching from Aquileia to Verona including the Brenner pass. There is a map on my website where you can see it. The duchy itself had a fairly weak internal structure, in particular the Babenberger counts of Austria and the Patriarch of Aquileia were pretty much independent. Equally the Italian cities in the region began to assert themselves.

That may have been the reason the Salian family was never hugely invested in their duchy in the far south-east, so put up little resistance when Henry II took it off them and gave it to a certain Adalbero, member of another aristocratic clan. Even though Carinthia did not matter that much, Konrad still held a grudge against Adalbero and just waited for his chance to take Carinthia off him.

That however has  to wait. For now, Konrad needs Adalbero to deal with another problem – the axis Venice/Hungary.  We have not talked much about Hungary these last few episodes so let me put you back up to speed.

By 1030 the king of Hungary was still Saint Stephen who had taken power in 997 and had been baptised probably by Saint Adalbert sometime between 997 and 1000. In 1000 he was crowned king with a crown sent to him by Pope Sylvester II, the great friend and tutor of Otto III. Stephen seems to have received permission from emperor Otto III, which suggests he would have had to accept the emperor as his overlord. However, Hungarian sources deny that vigorously and, should there have been a concept of overlordship by 1030, it was not of much use to Konrad.

Conflict between Konrad and Saint Stephen emerged over the inheritance of Henry II. Stephen had married the sister of emperor Henry II which made his son, Emmerich, a theoretical contender for the throne. If he had ambitions to that role it did not make it into the chronicles since he does not feature as a candidate in the election in Kamba in 1024.

Apart from the imperial crown, Emmerich had a justifiable claim to the duchy of Bavaria, thereby standing very much in the way of the elevation of Konrad’s son Henry to the ducal title. Whether it was a dispute over the rights to the Bavarian title or escalating border skirmishes we do not know, but what is fact is that Konrad raised a large army to subdue the Hungarians. That effort ended in a total fiasco. Stephen prevailed and even occupied Vienna in 1030. Konrad may have wanted to have another go, but 13-year old Heinrich, or more accurately his tutor and regent for Bavaria, the bishop of Freising, signed a peace agreement with Stephen giving away a stretch of land to Hungary, something that irritated Konrad a lot.

The Hungarian problem largely resolved itself for now when Emmerich died causing a crisis of the succession after the elderly Saint Stephen.

With Hungary neutralised, Konrad no longer needed the cooperation of Adalbero of Carinthia. Time to grab another duchy for the family. This time the power grab was totally blatant. Rather than waiting for the current incumbent to pass away peacefully, Konrad called a court in Bamberg in 1035 where he made a not further detailed accusation against Adalbero. A later chronicler claimed it was for high treason because Adalbero encouraged the peace with Hungary in 1031. But that is a slippery slope since the actual signature on the peace treaty was that of Konrad’s beloved son and Hope of the Empire.

It seems the jury of nobles called to adjudicate over Adalbero were also unconvinced by the allegations and requested to hear young Henry III’s perspective.

Henry stood up against his father and said that he could not recommend a conviction of Adalbero since he was bound by oath to support him.

Konrad realised that the whole thing had backfired really badly. Like really, really badly.

If he would have to let Adalbero go free, the imperial prestige would be seriously dented which would encourage the magnates to rebel and roll back the centralisation efforts of the last few years.

Equally if he would disregard his son’s intervention and force the nobles to convict Adalbero, his son’s honour would be attacked, and he could have another Liudolf rebellion on his hands.

When Konrad heard his son taking Adalbero’s side he berated, begged and threatened him until he fainted with anger. That must have been terrifying for the now 18-year-old henry to have his 6’6 father with arms like tree trunks shouting at him at the top of his voice accusing him of supporting his enemies and bringing shame and disrepute on his reign. But Henry held out.

The only thing Konrad to fall on his knees in front of the whole court and beg him under tears to reconsider. At that point henry had to concede. An emperor begging on his knees is a sort of ultimate trump card that is deployed sparingly and only to achieve the most important of objectives. His predecessors had used it too, so for instance Henry II begged on his knees for permission to create the bishopric of Bamberg. As we will see the Salians will have to pull that card a couple more times in increasingly dire situations until it finally stops working.

But in 1035 it still worked. Henry relented and the nobles convicted Adalbero of being in the way or whatever it was Konrad had accused him of. Adalbero was sent into exile where he died 4 years later. As often in these times, even heavy judgements against the head of a family does not preclude their descendants to return into their previous positions. And that is what happened here. Adalbero’s sons would later regain the duchy of Carinthia.

The duchy of Carinthia remained vacant for a year before Konrad gave it to his cousin, Konrad the Younger who after nearly a decade in the wilderness was now considered loyal. When Konrad the Younger died the duchy went to Henry III, making him duke of all of Southern Germany and King of Burgundy.

But Henry’s time has not yet come. Konrad still has one more campaign to run, this time in Italy.

If there is one thing, we know about Imperial Italy it is that it is a mess. Konrad had come to Italy in 1026 and tried to put some structure in. Like in Germany he tried to broaden the imperial powerbase by complementing the control of the church with a closer control over secular lordships. The most important of the latter was that belt across most of northern Italy from Florence to Mantua controlled by Bonifaz of Canossa. But he also sponsored other, lesser lords.

This system looked very successful from the outside. The Italians even contributed an army to support the Imperial efforts to acquire Burgundy, something that is a rarity in pretty much the whole of the Germano-Italian history.

This army consisted in one part of the troops of the secular lords, namely the margrave of Canossa. The other part were the troops of the bishops, in particular the troops of bishop Aribert of Milan. These soldiers are now the problem. To understand where the problem comes from we need to understand a bit more about the structure of the big Italian cities.

In Italy the big Roman cities had not been abandoned as it happened in Gaul but remained relevant centres of commerce even throughout the dark ages. Importantly the upper classes remained in the cities creating an urban aristocracy.  As they remained strong, control over cities did not fall to bishops merely because they were there, as it happened North of the Alps. In Italy the bishops had to fight for it. That fight concluded in the early 10th century when King Hugh of Italy awarded responsibility for the administration of the cities and their surroundings to the bishops, effectively expelling any counts still claiming control.

In the fight with the counts the bishops had to rely on an army of vassals recruited from the urban aristocracy. These were given fiefs or administrative rights like justice, holding of markets etc. This upper level of the administration became known as the Capitani, who would in turn have their own vassals who provided military or administrative services. These latter vassals were known as Valvassores. The main difference between a Capitani and a Valvassore was that the former would always be able to pass his position down to his offspring, whilst the humble Valvassore would need to be appointed, meaning he could lose the fief. Below this disunited layer of aristocrats were the urban plebs who included not just the poor labourers but also prosperous artisans and rich merchants.

The Valvassores were unsurprisingly unhappy about that situation. They did all the work but had very little security of inheritance and wealth. And that became very obvious when they came back from their glorious fighting in Burgundy. Hoping to be rewarded for their effort, they instead found little coming down to them. As the chronicler Arnulf reported, “Bishop Aribert came to lord it over all, considering his will, not that of others”.

When in the summer of 1035 another one of the Valvassores had his benefices removed without much justification, the cauldron boiled over. The rebels picked up their weapons and attacked the Capitanei and the bishop in his palace. Aribert managed to escape and mobilised an army from other bishops and magnates who were facing similar problems with their Valvassores. The Valvassores in Milan also received help from their comrades in other Northern Italian cities.

The two sides met at a place later called Campo Malo, the Field of Evil, for all the human gore that irrigated it. The ensuing great slaughter ended when the bishop of Asti, a mighty warrior fell. The bishop, disoriented by the loss of his best fighter and the decimation of his army left the battlefield.

Both parties now asked for the emperor to come down to adjudicate.

Konrad with his customary swiftness collected an army and appeared before Milan in 1036. Konrad took one look at the situation and concluded that the group he cared about most were the Valvassores, since they were the actual soldiers Konrad would need. Aribert was understandably unhappy about that and when the next morning the urban plebs rioted it is not hard to figure out how that has come about.  Konrad had to retreat to Pavia and called Aribert to a royal assembly to defend himself Aribert showed up, took one look at the jury bench Konrad had assembled to adjudicate him and went “no comment” and renounced the emperor’s jurisdiction.

Konrad had him arrested and handed him over to the Patriarch of Aquileia for safe keeping. He than put him under the ban, had him deposed and replaced by one of his chaplains.

With that move he managed to turn one small problem into two very large ones.

The Milanese seeing their archbishop locked up and deposed on a pretext immediately stopped their internal bloody squabbles and united as one. Konrad now had to besiege Milan, the largest and richest city in Italy. A city that just 18 months earlier had sent him soldiers to fight his private battle for Burgundy.

If that was pretty bad, the other problem was even larger. The emperor moving against one of the most eminent bishops in Italy rattled the other bishops who had been the main pillar of imperial power to date. Konrad’s actions showed that this emperor relied much more on secular lords and knights than bishops. With their position as de facto rulers of Italy at stake a number of bishops rebelled. Konrad had summoned them to court as well where they were convicted of treason and exiled to Germany, presumably “pour encourager les autres”.

The only encouragement that produced was for the Patriarch of Aquileia to release Aribert who returned to Milan in triumph and began preparing for a siege. Konrad brough his army before the walls of Milan, but struggled to gain any advantage against the well-fortified city, an experience that will become familiar to his successors.

In an attempt to break the unified front of defenders he issued his famous “Constitutio de Feudis”. This law declares that no vassal can lose his fief except through a decision by a court of his peers. All fiefs are inheritable and can even be inherited when the vassal is at war with his overlord, provided adequate compensation is offered. And finally, the vassals are guaranteed not just the fiefs received from secular lords, but also those received from the church.

Several German historians, including Stefan Weinfurter make this out as a sensible move within a broader context of formalisation of the feudal rules and obligations. I am not sure. For me these smacks of desperation. Giving away the church fiefs is the diametrical opposite of previous imperial policy of strengthening bishops and helping them regain lands occupied by secular lords. That was a steep price to pay, not just in Italy but also in Germany where these events did not remain unnoticed.

And it did not work. Milan did not fall. The Valvassores did not flock to Konrad’s banner in gratitude. They said, thank you very much, and kept poring boiling tar on the heads of the German soldiers. When the summer heat set in, he had to retire into the mountains.

He did not come back to Milan the next campaign season. Instead, he took his forces down to Southern Italy in order to reorganise the Lombard duchies. This looked to me like an effort to create some tangible success out of this otherwise dismal expedition. The impact of his activities was insignificant in the near term, but had one very important long term effect. Konrad invested the leader of a band of Norman mercenaries with the county of Aversa.

The Normans had come to southern Italy from around the year 1000. Their journeys tended to be a combination of pilgrimage and mercenary service. Most likely they came in small numbers, between 40 and 250 in the first wave getting involved in the endless fighting between the Byzantines, the Lombard dukes and the Emir of Sicily. They would play each of these players against the other until 40 years later they will have conquered both Southern Italy and Sicily becoming the key powerbroker for the papacy.  I am pretty sure I will do a whole episode on the Normans in Sicily and the six sons of Tancred of Hauteville, because it is an amazing story.

But not yet. Konrad, having “organised” Southern Italy returned home. He had left it too late, and the army had to march through the heat of summer, and more importantly, through the malaria-infested plains North and South of Rome. Disease struck that killed many, amongst them Gunhilda, the daughter of King Canute who had married the heir to the throne, Henry.

Konrad arrives home at the end of 1038. He orders his Italian vassals to besiege Milan next spring, even if he would not be there to lead him. He celebrates Pentecost 1039 in Utrecht where he experiences great pain in the intestines, lies down in bed and dies a few days later.

Despite his last unsuccessful Italian expedition, Konrad had left a well-ordered kingdom to his son and heir, Henry III. Henry III had already been crowned king in 1028 and was duke of Bavaria, Swabia and Carinthia as well as the king of Burgundy. No Ruler had yet held such a formidable personal position upon ascension to the throne.

And the kingdom was booming. The economy benefitted from more efficient agriculture, improving climate and the opening up of trade routes from Italy to England, Poland, Scandinavia and Russia, countries that have long been on the periphery or simply inaccessible. It is not quite clear how much society changed. On the one hand the creation of the Ministeriales created opportunities for Serfs to become lords, but on the other hand, lords, both secular and spiritual became more sophisticated in managing their estates, inventing new obligations their serfs were to deliver. The peasants tried to halt this expansion and sometimes even managed to gain the king’s ear. In 1035 Konrad issued a charter where the abbot of Limburg had to list explicitly all the obligations he expects his unfree peasants to provide “so as to make sure no future abbot requests more than is his due”.

In principle peasants were not able to leave their lord’s lands, but the rapid development of city populations suggests that at least some made it out. Cities not just in Italy but also in Germany were expanding at a rapid pace, some growing five-fold in the span of a 100 years. Konrad was the first ruler who systematically fostered commercial activity by granting rights to markets, coinage, building of bridges and awarding of freedoms. Building techniques improve and the first multi-story buildings are emerging. Wooden city fortifications are being gradually replaced by stone walls. And the legal position of city dwellers improved. Konrad issued a charter for the city of Speyer whereby children of unfree peoples could become partially free when they lived in the city. The leadership of the city lay in the hands of the bishop’s Ministeriales, themselves also unfree. In the largest of the cities like Cologne and Regensburg early forms of communal government were created. We are only 35 years away from the first attempt to expel a bishop from a German city.

It is not just the cities where building activity goes into overdrive. The 11th century is the time when castles spring up all over the country. These are the seats of the aristocrats on the one hand, but also those of the Ministeriales who were given a fief to pay for their service. 

The greatest buildings of this time are the churches though. The activity already started with Henry II’s grandiose plans for Bamberg or his friend Meinwerk’s privately funded building program for Paderborn. But under Konrad and his successors this is going into overdrive. The cathedrals of Strasbourg, Mainz, Worms, Wuerzburg, Eichstaett, Hildesheim, and Hamburg to name a few were completely rebuilt. In this episcopal cities the activity is not limited to the cathedral. Whole cities are remodelled in the form of the cross, like Utrecht, Minden and Trier with secondary churches and abbeys punctuating the endpoints. In Cologne, Constance and Eichstaett the bishops are attempting to replicate the topography and holy sites of Rome. Bishops also build sumptuous palaces that re needed to host the emperor who would stay more and more in bishops’ palaces rather than his own Palaces of Pfalzen on his perennial travels across the realm. Some cities turn gradually into sacral landscapes like the temple cities of ancient Egypt. There was such attention to detail that Meinwerk would send one of his abbots to Jerusalem to take exact measurements of the church of the Holy Sepulchre to rebuild it in rainy Paderborn.

Who built all this? The villeins, who else. There are stories of bishops driving their peasants to complete exhaustion, neglecting the sowing of crops leading to famine the next year. Bishop Benno of Osnabrück was known for beating up his peasants if they refused to work. I was not sure about that comparison to ancient Egypt, but now it sounds quite plausible, doesn’t it.

But the crowning glory of Salian construction frenzy is undoubtably the cathedral of Speyer. Speyer is a modest city of 50,000 inhabitants on the left bank of the Rhine south of Frankfurt roughly on the level of Heidelberg. It is part of the heartland of the Salian family possession near Worms. Though it had a bishop since 346 AD at the time of Konrad’s accession of the throne, it was a poor bishopric, its church old and decrepit, was on the verge of ceasing to be a bishopric and tiny with maybe 500 inhabitants.

Konrad, who had seen the splendour his predecessor had lavished on Bamberg wanted a similar monument to his reign. Speyer had the great advantage of already being a bishopric, even if it wasn’t a very prestigious one. That would save him the hassle of begging his bishops for permission to create a bishopric from scratch.

So right from the get-go Konrad grants Speyer privileges and supports. However, other than Bamberg, the bishop himself gets only modest help. All the resources are going into the construction of the enormous new church. Even the layout of the city differs from the sacral landscapes actual bishops are building. All roads are aligned to the main façade of the church, a bit like absolutistic rulers in the 18th century designed their cities with streets radiating away from their Palace.

Equally the design differs considerably from Henry II’s Dom in Bamberg and Charlemagne’s imperial chapel in Aachen. These were buildings you entered from the sides, with all four, or in Aachen’s case, eight sides of similar length. They were places for people to congregate and worship together.

Speyer is different. It is clearly aligned from West to East. When it will be finished the main nave will be 134 metres long and 33m high, drawing the eye to the elevated eastern Choir. In Konrad’s design concept that choir would sit on top of a crypt whose entrance would open out to the main nave. The first thing a visitor would see as his eyes are drawn to the Eastern end would be the entrance to the crypt. And that is where the funeral monument of Konrad was to go. It is actually still there, though the crypt had now disappeared under the floor of the Cathedral.

When Speyer Cathedral was finished in 1101 it was, together with the abbey church of Cluny, the largest building in Europe. It still stands today despite some ill-fated restorations and a re-romanisation in the mid-20th century, but even then, you can sense the immense scale of Salian ambition.

And Salian ambition is what we will hear more about as we go through the next episodes. Next week we will look at the reign of Henry III, the son of Konrad. IN many ways he is the opposite of his father, well read and the emperor that will turbocharge the program of church reform emanating from Cluny. Like Konrad he will expand the powers of the monarch, never yielding ground to foreign or domestic adversaries. Let’s see how he can manage the resulting tensions with his magnates. I hope you are going to join us again next week.