Episode 27 – Peace in Our Time

The main role of a medieval monarch is to bring peace to his subjects. Peace is not so much absence of major international conflict, but protection from feuding lords. Whilst in France central power is far too weak to maintain any semblance of order giving rise to the Peace of God movement, the empire under Henry III can rely on its monarch to fulfil his role.

But his rule is not without tension. The dukes of Saxony and Lothringia are moving into opposition to the king and emperor who falls severely ill in 1045.


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 27 – Peace in our time

Last week we saw the young emperor Henry III taking a Gold medal in the imperial sport of subjugating the East. After the campaigns of 1040, 1043 and 1044 he finally had the dukes of Poland and Bohemia and the king of Hungary swearing fealty to him and all his successors. The last emperor who may have got there was Otto III, but that is very much disputed. Henry III’s position is clear, mainly because the blood on his sword was still fresh.

As a medieval emperor Henry’s job is not only to expand the reach of Christianity, but also to bring peace and justice to his lands. The monarch’s obligation to bring peace is one of the distinguishing features between the dark ages and the Middle Ages. A dark ages king was expected to provide opportunities for plunder and tribute, whilst in the Middle Ages the population has settled down and cares more about safety and security than about raping and pillaging.

In the 11th century the call for peace gets louder and louder, in particular in France. Peace is not so much the absence of large international war. What the population suffered most from were the incessant feuds between rival lords. When two rival lords had a disagreement, they rarely went into trial by combat to see who was the stronger. No, no, no, that was actually dangerous. The better solution was to burn down the rival’s fields and murder his peasants. Unarmed peasants could not inflict much harm on an armoured rider and when the rival lord comes with his equally well-equipped men, you can always race back into the safe stone castle you had just built.

The simple equation is more stone castles equals more feuds equals more peasant misery. A king who wants to have peace in his lands needs to do one thing first and foremost, which is preventing his nobles from building castles. In an ideal world only the king would build and man castles. However, the 11th century is far from being an ideal world.

The world is particularly far from the ideal in France. King Henri I (1031-1060) is considered one of the weakest French kings in history. He was off to a bad start since he had to give the duchy of Burgundy to his brother Robert, shrinking the already modest royal possessions even further. Note, this is the duchy of Burgundy, which is part of France and roughly equivalent of what we call Burgundy today. It has obviously nothing at all to do with the Kingdom of Burgundy or the County of Burgundy.

His brother was one of Henri’s less pressing problems. He also had to deal with his overbearing magnates. The two most irritating ones were the counts of Anjou and the counts of Blois Champagne who would usually fight each other. Count Fulk III the Black of Anjou was famous for building castles. He is said to have built almost 100 castles mostly in stone, the ruins of which are still terrifying. Then you had the dukes of Normandy and the dukes of Aquitaine who were a bit further afield from Henri’s direct zone of control, but often intervened in the struggles. New powers rose as well like the counts of Flanders and the Count of Holland. But even the magnates were not able to maintain order much beyond their castle walls, which meant every little count, baron or castellan built his own castle(s) and went merrily along brutalising the villeins.

In this chaotic environment the Peace of God or Truce of God movement gained traction. The idea was to bring the perpetrator of violence to heel by threatening them with sanctions meted out by heavenly intervention. The Church took the lead and held several councils, the first in Le Puy in 975, but then quite regularly during the early 11th century with a frenzy of activity in the 1030s, the millennium of Christ’s passion and potential date for the arrival of the antichrist.

According to the monk Adhemar, these events were religious festivals where the bishops would whip the crowd into a frenzy through a generous display of relics and calls upon the saints to intervene. The warriors in presence would then declare their intention of making war on those who violate the peace of God.

These attempts of pitching an army of saintly warriors has more than the whiff of crusaders to it and indeed the Crusader movement incorporates elements of the Peace of God movement and develops them further by sending the most violent and aggressive lords out of the country. 

That being said, these holy armies or more accurately holy militias were rarely successful against the battle hardened Seigneurs. That is why from the 1030s onwards a more manageable Truce of God was sought. The concept was that the lords would make vows on powerful relics promising to suspend warfare during the weekend, Saturday to Monday or even Wednesday to Monday as well as on high days and holy days. If they breached this obligation, they would be subject to all forms of spiritual sanctions from banning from mass to full excommunication. The imposition of these sanctions as well as the whole management of the Treuga Dei was initially in the hands of the church, mainly the bishops and Abbots who regularly suffered from incursions by secular lords. The Abbey of Cluny became a key sponsor and coordinator for the Treuga Dei.

The Treuga Dei was needed most in the parts of France where central power was weakest. The dukes of Normandy whose duchy was tightly run were able to maintain public order by themselves without having to take recourse to the church. 

Equally the empire did not feel the need for a Treuga Dei. The central power was strong under Henry III and entirely capable to prevent feuds and control the construction of stone castles.

Henry III however borrowed some elements from the Treuga Dei movement. 

In 1043 he holds a Synod in Constance where he assembles the nobles of Swabia. He first forgave every trespass committed against him. And then through prayers and exhortations he achieved a mutual reconciliation amongst all the Swabians presents, whereby they in turn forgave each other any trespass committed against them. The chronicler Hermann of Reichenau described the outcome of this peace happening and similar ones taking place all across the country as “a peace unheard of for many centuries that the king confirmed in an edict”.

The last sentence is what matters most in that description- confirmed by edict. In other words, Henry III did order peace or more precisely banned feuding by secular law. There were only two rulers at this point who had enough centralised power to do that, the duke of Normandy and the Emperor.

So, when the great wits on social media refer to this period as the Holy Roman Empire that was neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire, they could not be further from the truth. Leaving aside that the term Holy Roman Empire only coming into usage 200 years later, by 1044 the Empire was indeed sacred, led by a sacred ruler, it was Roman since it saw itself in the succession of the Roman empire in the same way as Constantinople saw itself, and it was very much an empire, the by far most powerful political entity in Western Europe.

The reason Henry III could impose his peace across the land had a lot to do with the fact that he still directly controlled pretty much all of Southern Germany. He is still himself duke of Swabia and Carinthia as well as King of Burgundy. He did give the duchy of Bavaria to a member of the Luxembourger clan in 1042. But according to Egon Boshof this did not significantly reduce his level of control. The new duke had not been elected by the Bavarian nobles and had little personal power base in the duchy. Under these circumstances he would be completely dependent upon the king, essentially an office holder rather than a magnate. Henry will do the same thing with the duchy of Swabia and Carinthia in the next few years, something I will discuss at length in a future episode.

The situation is somewhat different in the Northern duchies of Upper and Lower Lothringia and Saxony.

Let’s start with Saxony. Saxony was the heartland of the Ottonians. The success of the early Ottonians had clearly rubbed off on the Saxons in general and they saw themselves very much as the nucleus and foremost tribe in the empire Otto the great had created. After the Ottos had died out, the Saxons did not directly participate in the election of the last kings. Instead, Henry II and Konrad II had to come to Saxony after their elections and negotiate a separate acclamation. That acclamation was granted in both cases in exchange for recognition of ancient rights and probably the issuance of new privileges.

That already set Saxony apart. The other difference was the role of the duke. You may remember that Otto the great had made his old comrade in war, Hermann Billung, duke of Saxony. That elevation had initially been more of a governorship. Hermann Billung was to take orders from Otto in respect of the duchy and the main ducal lands, including the immensely valuable silver mines in Goslar remained in the personal possession of the Ottonians. Furthermore, Saxony had some immensely wealthy and powerful counts, such as the Margrave Gero and then later the Margraves of Meissen. One of the Margraves, Ekkehard had even tried to become king and died under suspicious circumstances as we heard in episode 17.

Therefore the dukes of Saxony were less powerful within their duchy, operating more like Firsts amongst Equals. On the flipside the protection of the ancient rights of the Saxons meant that the Billungs could make their duchy an inherited fief, whilst all other duchies were offices the king could -in principle – assign to whoever he wanted.

For Konrad II and Henry III this situation was unsatisfactory. Both tried to strengthen royal authority in Saxony, using the Ottonian crown lands and the Imperial church as their base. The bishops of Hildesheim and Halberstadt were given generous donations. The dominant churchman in Saxony was however archbishop Adalbert of Hamburg-Bremen. Adalbert was made archbishop in 1043 and clashed with duke Bernhard II of Saxony right from the start. The duke saw Adalbert as the king’s spy and agent in Saxony, sent to find the weakness in the Saxon defences. And he was probably not wrong in that. Adalbert and Henry had a strong alignment of interests. Henry wanted control over Saxony and Adalbert’s plan was to make Hamburg the metropolitan seat of an archbishopric that would cover all of Scandinavia and Saxony, from Lapland to Leipzig. On the latter front, Bernhard tried to torpedo Adalbert’s plans by marrying his son to the daughter to king Magnus of Norway and Denmark.

The other royal initiative was to expand the Ottonian heartlands in the Harz mountains. Henry III aggressively sponsored Goslar where he built his new imperial Pfalz. This building actually still stands today, another impressive testament to the great building boom of the Salian period. Furthermore, he also established a very special monastery in Goslar, the Priory of Saint Simon and St. Judas. This priory became a sort of stationary imperial chancellery. The main chancellery travelled with the peripatetic emperor, but some of its members would stay in Goslar. The members of the chancellery and the priory were trained to become bishops or abbots taking up the key positions in the imperial church. Under Henry III we are reaching the zenith of the Imperial church system we have discussed so many times in recent episodes.

Goslar was a provocation to the Saxons. Not only was the regular presence of the king an expensive exercise since the neighbouring counties had to provide the food to the court, it was also an affront to ancient Saxon rights. The Saxons would traditionally hold their assembly at the ducal palace in Werla, a place that no longer exists 20km from Goslar. Werla was a large palace covering nearly 20 hectares enclosed by a stone curtain wall with two or more gates, several towers, two palaces, one of which had a heating system etc., etc. pp. This was a place of Saxon pride and a demonstration of its ancient power. By building out Goslar, the Salians cut Werla out of the equation. The place emptied out and by the 15th century had entirely disappeared.

To cut a long story short, Henry III had it in for the Saxons and in particular its dukes, the Billungs.

In 1047 the Billungs had enough. Henry III had gone to a royal estate in Saxony called Lesum to meet with the archbishop Adalbert. Lesum was a bit of a red rag as well, since Konrad II had taken it off the Billungs under some legal pretext 10 years earlier. Whilst the Emperor and Archbishop met, the Billungs, duke Bernhard II and his brother Thietmar come around with a large retinue. During this probably rather uneasy stay one of Thietmar’s vassals, a certain Arnold confides in the archbishop that Thietmar plans to kill the emperor.

Arnold is made to accuse Thietmar openly which results in another trial by combat. There is no evidence on either side, so God is to decide. Thietmar is happy to go along, maybe less on grounds of actual innocence but more on his recognised prowess with the sword. Anyway, the Lord reveals that Thietmar was lying by means of Arnold’s sword sticking between his rips.

There is no record of how Bernhard II explains the situation to his overlord, but not much happen to him. Henry III may not yet have enough assets in place to take the duke of Saxony on directly.

There is a prologue to the story. A few years later Thietmar’s son captures his father’s killer and has him strung up between two dogs. That gets Henry III involved again. The son is exiled for life and his lands are given to the bishop of Halberstadt, further undermining ducal power in Saxony.

Apart from this attempted murder the Saxons held still and watched the erosion of their ancient rights and privileges with growing contempt and anger as long as Henry III lived.

Lothringia is another case again.

You may remember that the Brun of Cologne, the brother of Otto the Great had divided the duchy of Lothringia in two parts, Upper and Lower Lothringia in the 960s. Under Konrad II the two duchies were put together again by Konrad II. Konrad needed a strong duke of Lothringia as a counterweight to Count Odo of Blois-Champagne, his rival for the Burgundian crown. Odo’s lands bordered Lorraine and in 1037 he attacked Lorraine to seek revenge for the loss of Burgundy. Konrad II calculation worked and Odo was defeated and killed by the new duke of all Lothringia, Gozolo.

Gozolo’s success was a double-edged sword for his family. On the one hand he was successful in removing Odo, whose lands were divided amongst his sons. On the other hand, now the emperor no longer needs a strong Lothringian duke to fight the count of Champagne. In fact, the emperor wanted the exact opposite. He, and that is our friend Henry III now, he wanted a weaker duke who owes his office to him, the king.

That became even more so when Henry III met up with king Henri of France in 1043. In the meeting Henri agreed to let Henry III marry Agnes of Poitou, the daughter of the duke of Aquitaine and linked to the counts of Anjou through her mother. Henry now has a big enough stake in the French power play to keep any count of Champagne in check.

In 1044 he got the opportunity when Gozolo died. Henry III pressured Gozolo into changing  Gozolo  will. Instead of leaving the whole duchy to his able son Godfrey, he split the duchy up again. The duchy of Upper Lothringia went to his son Godfrey and the duchy of Lower Lothringia to his younger son Gozolo II, who according to the chroniclers was “ignavus”, which means something like lazy, slothful and cowardly.

That came as a huge surprise to Godfrey, known as Godfrey the bearded. As ever so often there are no contemporary pictures of Godfrey the Bearded but the 19th century went to town on his beard. I will put some of the best images on the blog.

Godfrey had been sharing the running of the combined duchy with his father since 1044. Hence, he must have had an inkling that this division had not come about because his father suddenly found his younger son competent.

Godfrey simply could not understand why this was happening. Hadn’t his father and he himself served the Salians faithfully, spilled their blood to bring down the mighty count Odo? Had Lothringia not always been one entity since its creation in 843 with the recent division just a matter of administrative ease?

He made his disappointment known to all and sundry, which may well have involved bringing up an armed retinue to the royal assembly Henry III called him up to. Some sources claim he had conspired with king Henri of France promising the duchy of Lothringia. As we know every single king of France believes the duchy of Lothringia is his and wants it back. But it is unlikely Godfrey had already come to this point in 1044. Like Duke Ernst of Swabia, he thought he could negotiate with a Salian Emperor. Nope. As soon as he had arrived at court, Henry III’s court removed him as duke of Upper Lothringia. For Henry the role of Duke was an office, not feudal position. Hence if a duke refuses to accept the redrawing of the borders of his duchy, he is guilty of high treason.

As we know there is now only one thing for Godfrey to do – rebel. The fighting was ferocious, and Lothringia was beaten up severely. Henry III ultimately prevailed even though he did have to fight in Hungary and Burgundy at the same time. Godfrey was taken to the castle of Giebichenstein, the state prison.

In 1046 he was re-instated as duke of Upper Lothringia having handed over his son as a hostage. Lower Lothringia was taken away from the inept Gozolo II and given to another member of the Luxembourger family, who now ruled both Bavaria and Lower Lothringia. I know, me too. I cannot see why you bring down one family only to give it to another, equally powerful.

Another odd move was to enfeoff the count of Flanders with lands on the Schelde river and around Valenciennes. That irritated Godfrey, whose land it was, but the counts of Flanders were an ambitious lot with great plans, none of which involved strengthening the empire.

In between the defeat of Godfrey and the re-organisation of Lothringia two things happen, one definitely significant, the other possibly important.

Let us start with the potentially important one. Henry falls gravely ill in 1045. What he suffered from is unclear. What is noticeable is that Henry III takes several decisions after his recovery that seem to be driven more by heightened personal animosity than political calculations. Or maybe he could just never stand duke Godfrey.

The other definitely significant event is his marriage to Agnes of Poitou. You may remember that Henry III had been married to Gunhild, the daughter of King Canute. Gunhild died in 1038 on return from Konrad II’s last expedition to Italy, probably of Malaria. Gunhild was an expensive miscalculation. King Canute drove a hard bargain, and Konrad II had to hand over the duchy of Schleswig to get the marriage alliance over the line. Canute repaid him by dying shortly afterwards, which lead to the disintegration of his Nordic Empire, making Gunhild politically worthless.  Moreover, the couple only had a daughter, Beatrice who became abbess of Quedlinburg.

Henry III should have got married quickly after that, but for some reason this did not happen. It took 5 years before he arranged the marriage with Agnes of Poitou. As I mentioned before, Agnes was the daughter of the duke of Aquitaine and the stepdaughter of the count of Anjou. That brings Henry great contacts in France but also some headaches.

As most nobles of that period, Agnes and Henry III were too closely related to get married according to canonical laws. The marriage immediately attracts criticism from the reform church, including from the influential abbot Siegfried of Gorze. Being French did not help either as some of the older curmudgeons disliked the fancy French dresses, haircuts and armour.

Another thing Agnes brought apart from Parisian, or more likely Bordelais fashion was a particular brand of church reform represented by the abbey of Cluny. I think we discussed Cluny a bit in the Germany in the Year 1000 episodes. Cluny was not just a monastery; it was a monastic empire. There were existing imperial centres of monastic reform like Gorze and St. Maximin near Trier. These monasteries supported reform by sending their monks out as abbots to bring back the strict interpretation of the rule of Saint Benedict. And that was it.

Cluny was different. If you asked Cluny for help to sort out your monastery or create a new one, they would require you to make it a daughter house of the Monastery of Cluny. That means it’s abbot reports to the Abbot of Cluny, who in turn reports to the pope. That in turn means the secular lord who held the monastery as an Eigenkirche until then, loses it to the abbot of Cluny.

A high price to pay for reform, but one the lords of France had been happy to pay, probably because their list of sins was so long. In Germany Cluny had made inroads, in particular with empress Adelheid, but were held back by the later Ottonians and Konrad II. Agnes opened the doors wide for the abbots of Cluny. Abbot Hugh of Cluny, known as the great, which makes him I think the only abbot who is called the great, anyway, Hugh of Cluny becomes godfather of Henry III’s son and heir.

There we are. You may not be aware, but in this short episode we have met some of the dramatis personae that will lead us to that great medieval turning point, the road to Canossa. Agnes of Poitou, Adalbert of Hamburg-Bremen, Bernhard, duke of Saxony, Godfrey the Bearded and the great abbot of Cluny. Some people are still missing for the great play, but they will make their appearance next episode, when Henry III will take down three popes with one shot. Yes, it is time for our favourite pastime, an expedition to Italy. This expedition will be the most important imperial coronation journeys to Rome, not just for German history, but for the history of the papacy as well.

Stay tuned, things are hotting up.

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See you next week.