Episode 26 – Henry III Comin’ in Smoothly

For the first time in almost 70 years the transition from one king/emperor to the next is smooth. Konrad II was not only one of the most successful medieval rulers, he also managed to live long enough for his son Henry III to grow up to adulthood before taking over.

Henry III is outwardly quite different from his father, well educated, deeply immersed in the concepts of sacred kingship and immensely powerful even before he had become king. But at the same time he shares Konrad’s steely determination and aggressive nature.

Items 1-3 on his agenda are Poland (a mess), Bohemia (a pseudo-Boleslav) and Hungary (an old grudge).


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans, Episode 26 – Henry III Comin’ in Smooth

Last week we discussed the last few years of Konrad II’s reign, which despite some setbacks in the trial of Adalbero of Carinthia and a pretty pointless Italian expedition still counts as one of the most successful rules of the Middle Ages. Not only does Konrad leave an empire behind whose central authority is undisputed, but he also managed to live long enough for his heir and successor Henry III to grow up to adulthood before taking over. The transition from Konrad II to Henry III 1039 is the first smooth handover of power since the transition form Otto I to Otto II in 972, 67 years ago.

With these two exceptions, the death of a king or emperor had always been a period of huge uncertainty and upheaval. Henry the Fowler, Otto the Great, Otto III, Henry II and Konrad II all had to fight opponents for the throne forcing the magnate to take sides. Once one side had won, the deck of cards was reshuffled and previously powerful men lose their position, like the kingmaker Aribo of Mainz did in 1039.

Henry III’s transition was entirely smooth. He had already been elected and crowned king in 1028. Beyond his royal title he had already become duke of Bavaria in 1027, duke of Swabia in 1038 and in the same year he also became king of Burgundy. In 1041, two years after taking over he also became duke of Carinthia. On top of that he controlled his family estates that amounted to almost a duchy in Franconia as well as the royal demesne which comprised the private Ottonian estate in Saxony, including the silver mines of Goslar. Never in medieval history did a German king concentrate so many powerful offices in his own hands.

That is not the only contrast to his father who ascended the throne backed by merely a portion of his family’s estate and the wealth his wife had brought into the marriage.  When Konrad was a 6’6 feet action man who could ride a hundred miles in a day and fight when half submerged in a swamp. Henry III may have borne some physical similarity to his father but failed to match him in strength and energy. He fell ill from an unknown illness in 1046 from which he never fully recovered.

Other than his father, Henry III had been diligently prepared for kingship from an early age. He was seven years old when his father ascended to the throne and from then on, he was educated by the leading clerics of his day. His first tutor was Bruno, bishop of Augsburg and brother of the former emperor Henry II. It is likely that he developed his notion of sacred kingship that was so similar to Henry II under Bruno’s influence. After Bruno’s death in 1029 Henry is given into the care of Egilbert, bishop of Freising, another member of Henry II’s inner circle. Another major influence was Wipo, the member of the imperial chancellery and chronicler of Konrad II’s life.

Henry’s worldview is very similar to Henry II. He sees his role as emperor in providing peace to his people, both from external foes as from internal strife. The king’s main job as a secular ruler is to uphold the law and dispense harsh justice if necessary but show mercy wherever possible.

But the emperor is not just a lay ruler, he is also the vicar of Christ on earth and a sacred individual making him responsible for the wellbeing of the holy church. And that means supporting the movement for church reform that emanated from Cluny and other reform monasteries. Like Henry II, this henry also believes that he has to make sure that prayer is effective, and the sacraments are dispensed by individuals educationally and morally qualified. Behind that is a firm belief that the wellbeing in the afterlife is way more important than wellbeing in the here and now. The emperor as the lord of all he surveys is hence primarily responsible to provide the infrastructure needed to prepare for the afterlife. And that includes competent priests who received their office on merit rather than bribes, who live by the rules of the bible, which includes increasingly the notion of celibacy.

In that latter, theological component Henry III differs from his father. Konrad II, whilst pious, had little time for theological disputations. He spent most of his time on horseback, sword in hand, rushing form one part of the empire to the other bashing heads together. Henry III will do his fair share of travelling and axe-wielding, but his true pleasures lie in reading the bible, prayer and listening to sermons. It is all party, party, party at the court of Henry III.

But before you think he is a bookish geek who shrinks away from his father, think again. In 1031, just 14 years old he signs a peace agreement with the Hungarians that brings down the wrath of his father and the disgrace of his tutor Egilbert of Freising. But Henry III does not kowtow. When a few years late the whole thing comes up again in the context of Adalbero of Carinthia’s dismissal, Henry III refuses his father’s explicit demands. Henry is now about 18 and his father, an absolute bull of a man with the subtlety of a sharpened axe gets into such a rage with him, he actually faints with anger. But Henry III still holds out. He only relents when his father begs him on his knees. There is a real steeliness to his character that may be covered by his preference for consensus and mercy, but, as we will see, comes out on occasions when it is needed.

Enough with the preliminaries, lets get into the action.

When Konrad II died in 1039, Henry III takes over seamlessly. Though no coronation as such is required, he still goes through a formal enthronisation on Charlemagne’s chair in Aachen but he does not have to undertake a full royal progress as both Konrad II and Henry II had done.

It is straight onto the desk and item 1 on the agenda.

A you may remember Konrad the II had made a right old mess in Italy in the year before. Konrad had been called to mediate in a conflict between the archbishop of Milan and his vassals where he took the side of the rebellious vassals. That resulted in an uproar by the Italian clergy, which up until then had been the bedrock of imperial power in Italy. Konrad managed to make things really bad by apprehending the archbishop of Milan. At that point all inhabitants of Milan who only weeks earlier were at each other’s throat united behind their archbishop. They may dislike their current archbishop but that does not mean they would let a foreigner run roughshod over the head of their city. Konrad ended up besieging the city of Milan without success. In his desperation he even granted the smaller nobles the right to inherit their fiefs, even the fiefs of the church which brought the red mist down over the Italian bishop’s eyes. The whole thing was quite an impressive blunder given that 4 years earlier the Milanese had been fielding an army to support the emperor’s cause in Italy.

Henry III quickly reversed his father’s policies. He made peace with bishop Aribert and mended the relationship with the bishops. He reverted to the tried and tested imperial policy of granting the bishops fiefs and rights in exchange for support in war. Henry III also relied heavily on the system of Missii, royal envoys usually counts or bishops who come to act on behalf of the king in resolving disputes and allocating fiefs that have become vacant. What he did not manage though was to revoke the vassals inheritance rights his father had so foolishly granted.

That brought stability to the imperial rule in Italy but not to the city of Milan. For the third time in a row bishop Aribert is getting expelled from his city, this time by a rebellion of the lower classes. This had nothing to do with anything Henry III had done but was a clear indication of the shifting economic and demographic environment. When 10 years earlier the big conflict was between the higher nobles, the Capitani and their sub-vassals, the Valvassores, now it is between the third estate against the whole lot of nobles and bishops lording it over them.  This is not the first city in Italy where the new class of merchants and artisans demand a role in the management of city affairs, but this is Milan, at this point possibly the largest city in western Europe of almost a 100,000 people. 

Again, the Milanese ask for mediation by the emperor and Henry III takes a more delicate approach than his father. Through a combination of carrots and sticks he gets the nobles to come down from the castles and horses and agree a new way of communal living in the city based on a city constitution. Within a hundred years most Italian cities will have constitutions that give its most important burghers participation in city affairs.

Apart from this patch-up job, Italy did not feature highly on the imperial agenda of the first few years. Most of Henry III’s energy in the first 5 years was taken up by the empire’s neighbours to the east, Poland, Bohemia and Hungary.

Poland as you may remember from previous episodes had tumbled into some sort of anarchy after the deposition of Miesco II. Konrad II and the grand prince of Kiev had decided to split the Polish kingdom into three parts given to the three remaining members of the Piast family. One of these was Kasimir, son of Miesco II and his wife Richeza, a German of the highest aristocracy and granddaughter of Otto the great. Kasimir had a difficult time in Poland and had to regularly ask for asylum in Germany where he effectively grew up.

In 1037 Kasimir and his mother had another of their many attempts to regain the crown, which again failed. This effort compelled the still largely pagan population to rise up and smash up the Christian infrastructure of the kingdom. Kasimir tried again in 1038 but had to flee again, this time to Hungary.

As I said before, the states east of the empire are a bit like communicating pipes. If Poland goes down, Bohemia rises, which is exactly what happened. In 1039 Bretislaus, duke of Bohemia invaded Poland. He marched almost unopposed to the former Polish royal heartland and took away the relics of Saint Adalbert from the Cathedral of Gniesno. Adalbert, the friend of Otto III was not any old saint, but the saint of eastern Europe. He was revered for baptising king Stephen of Hungary, he had been bishop of Prague where he had performed many miracles and had died on a mission to the Prussians. Emperor Otto III had come in parson to pray barefoot and in hair shirt at his grave. With the relics of Adalbert, Bretislav could hope to have his own archbishopric which would make the Bohemian church independent from German influence. Remember that Mainz still had control over the bishopric of Prague putting Bohemia at a disadvantage against Poland and Hungary who both had their own archbishops reporting directly to the Pope. Apart form the spiritual trophies Bretislav also took the rich lands of Silesia for himself.

This rise of Bohemian power was intolerable for Henry III and it seems also for Jaroslav the Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus. The two agreed to help young Kasimir to create order in Poland. Jaroslav gave Kasimir his daughter and a lot of gold and Henry III gave him 1000 heavily armed soldiers and they sent him on his merry way.

This time Kasimir succeeded. He could establish some form of central government and embarked on the long and arduous process of putting Poland back together again, which is why he is known to Polish history as Kasimir the Restorer. In exchange for his generous help, Kashmir recognised Henry III as his overlord, confirmed vows made by his predecessors Miesco II and Bezprym

Sending Young Kasimir off to remake Poland was however not sufficient to put Bretislaus of Bohemia back into his box. Henry III mustered an army almost as soon as he heard about Bretislaus invasion of Poland. War is avoided in the last minute when Bretislaus sends hostages, including his son promising to come to Germany and give homage to Henry III as well as to “perform what was commended of him. That however turned out to be a lie. Breteslaus saw no need to submit to this fresh and untested king. Instead, he used the time to strengthen his defences, made a deal with Hungary and expand his military awaiting Henry III in the following year.

At least initially Bretislaus plan worked and Henry III’s army perished in an attempt to take a border defence. The losses must have been very severe. The chronicler Hermann of Reichenau reported that the king departed with a loss of very many knights and princes and with his purpose unfulfilled. Even worse, he had to hand back the hostages in exchange for his captured men, making him look really weak and incompetent.

But there is always next year. And so henry mustered an even bigger army, as usual, mostly from the Imperial church. The abbot of Fulda reports that even though most of his soldiers including their commander had died in the campaign of 1040, he had to provide an even larger contingent in 1041.

This time Henry III was cleverer.  Instead of attacking the border defences he snuck into the country by an unfrequented route with one army, whilst the margrave of Meissen came by another route further east and the margrave of the Eastern March came up from the south. Once Henry was in Bohemia, Bretislaus ran out of options and had to give in. He came to a royal assembly in Regensburg and renounced his acquisitions in Poland except for Silesia for which he paid tribute. He made an oath of fealty and Henry III accepted him as his vassal. That was the end of Bretislaus dream to become the next Boleslav the Brave.

One of the things that hampered Breteslaus in his last campaign was the loss of Hungarian support. In his first round King Peter Orseolo of Hungary had come to his aid and attacked the Eastern March, aka Austria. This time he could not, since King Peter Orseolo himself had been expelled from his country. 

There is an obvious question here, which is, who is king Peter Orseolo. Even if against all the odds you do not speak Hungarian you would know that this is not a Hungarian name.

The confusion is all my fault – as usual. Though Hungarian affairs have popped up regularly these last few episodes I have put off bringing you up to speed about the fascinating History of Hungary.

Now we can no longer postpone and it is time to bring us all up to speed with Hungary again. Last time we took a closer look at Hungary was just after the battle on the Lechfeld in 955 which brought an end to the Magyar incursions. After the defeat Hungary reconsolidated during the long reign of prince Geza (972-997). Geza decisively shifted Hungary towards Christianity and in particular favoured Western Christianity over the Greek version. This religious distinction had an underlying political and ethnic dimension as well. After the emperor in Constantinople had subjugated the Bulgars, Hungary had a border with Byzantium in the South and the Empire in the West. As tensions between the west and the east intensified, the country balanced on a tightrope. The southern and eastern part of the country, the so-called “black” Hungarians leant towards Constantinople, whilst the so-called “white” Hungarians leant towards Roman Christianity and the Ottonian emperors. This conflict and the still resistant pagan population led to regular revolts and uprisings.

Geza’s son who was initially called Vajk took over in around 997. Vajk had been brought up in the Roman Christian tradition and had been married to Gisela, the sister of Emperor Henry II.

Transition was anything but smooth and his first act was to use soldiers sent by Gisela’s father to besiege and capture his uncle Koppany who had claimed the throne. Koppany was hung, drawn and quartered and parts of his body were sent around the realm pour decourager les autres.

In either 1000 or 1001 Vajk became king of Hungary and took the name of Stephen, later known as Saint Stephen. The Hungarian view of the coronation was that Hungary received the crown and sceptre from the pope and that Stephen was crowned without having to become a vassal to either the emperor or the pope. The in inverted commas German version is that the crown and sceptre was indeed sent by pope Sylvester II, but that Sylvester II acted in this matter as well as in all others in with the “favour and urging of emperor Otto III, in other words that Hungary had accepted ultimate suzerainty of the empire.

Saint Stephen ruled for an astonishing 40 years, until his death in 1039. During his rule he turned Hungary into a medieval kingdom, modelled on the Carolingian empire. He introduced ~40 counties, managed by counts who were royal officials. He established 2 archbishoprics and 8 bishoprics as well as many monasteries. Other than in Bohemia the Hungarian church always only recognised the papal authority and was not part of the Imperial church system.

In 1028 (or maybe a lot earlier) Stephen removed the last magnate still adhering to the Eastern church, Ajtony, prince of the black Hungarians who ruled an area equivalent to today’s Romania. After that, all of Hungary, which was a lot larger than today’s sate of Hungary had become part of the Roman catholic church, tying the country firmly into Western Europe.

Despite the clear religious orientation towards Rome, Hungary still had to balance its link to the West with maintaining good relations with Byzantium. It seems that Hungary would at times provide troops to help with Byzantine efforts to subjugate the Bulgarians.

Hungary found itself in a situation not dissimilar to Venice as the link between west and east. Both were sort of rooted in the Western empire and were catholic, but also had close links to the empire in Constantinople. Venice began creating a string of ports along the dalmatian coast, whilst Hungary controlled much of the hinterland of these ports. Though the two states could not be more different, one a sophisticated, independent city republic built on international maritime trade and the other a nascent medieval kingdom created by steppe nomads, they formed a close alliance. Stephen married his sister to the Venetian Doge Otto Orseolo.

Saint Stephen had one son with his wife Gisela, Imre or Emmerich in German. At Konrad II’s election in 1024, Emmerich was the nephew and hence the closest relative of the previous emperor Henry II. Nevertheless, the chronicles do not report any explicit claim made by Emmerich or his father during the election. That was different when it came to the succession in Bavaria after the death of its duke in 1028. Bavaria had traditionally been run by members of the family of Henry II. Emmerich therefore had some claim and may have sounded out the Bavarian nobles for his chances of election. Bavaria would have been a great prize for Hungary lying just access the border. However the plan failed and, as we know, the duchy went to Henry III.

The rejection of the Bavarian succession added to tensions with the empire. Other issues included Konrad’s aggressive policy against Venice which led amongst other things to a deposition of the Stephen’s brother-in-law, Otto Orseolo who fled to Hungary with his wife and little son, Peter. Border skirmishes mainly by Bavarian border counts escalated into all-out war after 1028. This war was mainly led by Bavarian and Carinthian troops under the formal command of the 11-year-old Henry III. That war did not go well, and Henry suffered a severe defeat forcing him to agree a peace in 1031 whereby Hungary gained a stretch of land on the eastern frontier of the empire.

Konrad II did not like this treaty one bit and it resulted in the dismissal of Henry III’s tutor and guardian, Egilbert of Freising who I mentioned earlier this episode.

After 1031 the relationship with empire improved, mainly because Stephen’s son and heir, Emmerich died in a hunting accident and took all claims to the Bavarian title to his grave.

Meanwhile in Hungary the situation became complicated. The closest relative of Stephen in the male line was a man called Vazul (my pronunciation is likely totally wrong so forgive me). Vazul was believed to harbour pagan sympathies and Saint Stephen rejected his claim and appointed his nephew Peter Orseolo as heir.

Vazul was obviously unhappy about that and got into conflict with Saint Stephen. Whether he made an attempt to have him murdered is unclear, but Saint Stephen had him seized and killed anyway. According to some sources the saintly ruler had his enemy’s ears filled with molten lead – a sort of discount version of the poring of molten gold down Crassus’ throat. Vazul’s three sons, Levente, Andrew and Bela were expelled from the kingdom.

When Saint Stephen died in 1038, his nephew Peter Orseolo took over. As a foreigner he lacked support amongst the Hungarian elite and hence relied heavily on German and Italian foreigners who had migrated to Hungary during the reign of Saint Stephen.

In foreign policy he took an active stance against the empire and in particular Henry III, presumably because the Salians had forced him and his father into exile. He supported Bretislav of Bohemia in his raid on Poland and used the opportunity to invade Bavaria and Austria. Given this policy was quite successful it would have likely continued if peter could have managed his domestic issues more successfully.

His key policy was to increase the royal demesne at the expense of Hungarian nobles and magnates. He overstretched it when he seized the lands of the royal widow, Gisela the wife of Saint Stephen and imperial princess. That pushed the party of Stephen into the opposition who deposed Peter and replaced him with another nephew of Stephen, Samuel Abas.

Peter fled to his brother-in-law, Margrave Adalbert of Austria whose lands he had raided just the previous year. There he found a surprisingly warm welcome and Adalbert recommended him to emperor Henry III. In 1041 he showed up at the royal assembly in Regensburg where his former best mate and comrade in arms, Bretislaus of Bohemia was also asking for imperial mercy.

Samuel Abas who had no particular beef with the empire was also trying to agree some sort of lasting peace. However, negotiations failed, probably because Henry III insisted on full submission to his suzerainty and return of the lands seized in 1031.

War was now inevitable, and Samuel Aba attacked Bavaria and Austria in 1042. The army sent against Austria was destroyed by Margrave Adalbert whilst the army sent against Bavaria caused much damage. It took Henry until the autumn to raise troops and push the Hungarians back. Henry, or more likely his Margrave Adalbert sacked Bratislava, then a Hungarian fortress. And took most of what is now Slovakia.

The two sides agreed a peace treaty in 1043 whereby Samuel Aba returned the lands seized in 1031, which were given to the counts of Austria, thereby much improving their fortunes.

But by 1044 the king of Hungary was back on it. Henry III mustered a comparatively small army and invaded. Samuel Aba whose army was much larger let Henry progress fairly deep into Hungarian territory, presumably hoping to cut Henry off from supplies and capture the king himself.

However, Henry mounted a surprise attack by his armoured riders having shipped his army across the river Raab. The large Hungarian army turned to flight or surrendered right there and then. King Peter was reinstated as king and Samuel Aba was captured and killed shortly afterwards.

With this battle of Menfo Henry III had achieved a clean sweep of the eastern frontier. The rulers of Poland, Bohemia and Hungary are now all vassals of the empire. This completes his father’s policy that started with breaking the empire of Boleslav the Brave. Savour the moment, because only 2 years later king Peter is deposed again and presumably killed. His successor, Andrew, a son of Vazul who had been so cruelly killed by the saintly King Stephen will take over.

He and his successors will no longer make the mistake of letting an imperial army loose inside their kingdom. Despite all their internal squabbles the Hungarians will strengthen and man their border defences making all subsequent attempts to invade futile.

But this is two years down the line. Right now Henry is the master of the East, duke and lord of Burgundy and Southern Germany. Two items are still outstanding before he climbs to the absolute high point of the medieval empire, asserting control over The last two remaining duchies, Lothringia and Saxony and the big Biggy, reform of the Papacy. Some or maybe all of it will be in next episode.

I hope you will join us again. And in the meantime if you enjoy the podcast why don’t you tell your friends about it. If they want to check it out, send them to my website historyofthegermans.com or my Facebook page History of the Germans Podcast. Thanks a lot for doing that.