Episode 62 – The Fall of Henry the Lion

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This episode deals with, guess what, the fall of Henry the Lion from his position as duke of Saxony and Bavaria. The interesting bit is not so much whether it happened, that is pretty obvious, but why it happened. When I learned about it in school, it was seen as the greatest moment of Barbarossa’s career, taking down the eternal rival of the Hohenstaufen family, but today, historians see it very differently. Follow along and make up your own mind.


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 62 – The Fall of Henry the Lion

This episode deals with, guess what, the fall of Henry the Lion from his position as duke of Saxony and Bavaria. The interesting bit is not so much whether it happened, that is pretty obvious, but why it happened. When I learned about it in school, it was seen as the greatest moment of Barbarossa’s career, taking down the eternal rival of the Hohenstaufen family, but today, historians see it very differently. Follow along and make up your own mind. Talking about following along, there is an episode website at historyofthegermans.com/62-2 where you can find the transcript, maps and images that makes it easier to check places and names as you listen to the podcast.

Before we start just a reminder. The History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website historyofthegermans.com. You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to Christopher and Simon who have already signed up.

Last week we watched Barbarossa signing the peace of Venice and prostrate before Pope Alexander III. Whether that was a total capitulation or a decent deal under adverse circumstances we can leave for others to debate endlessly. What it meant though was a complete reorganisation of the political map of the empire. The schism was over Alexander III was now the undisputed pope.

(Venice) Il Barbarossa bacia il piede al Papa – Federico Zuccari – Sala del Maggior Consiglio

The antipope Calixtus the III was convinced of this fact through the thoughtful administration of steel by the ever-belligerent archbishop Christian of Mainz. There was a six-year truce between the empire and the Lombard League that, as we will see next week, ends with a lasting peace and a rearrangement of loyalties amongst the Italian cities. That leaves Sicily where both sides agree to an even longer, a 15-year truce, after reassuring each other that in fact they never had any hostile intent, like never, ever. This must be one of the early cases on cotemporaneous rewriting of history.

And lastly emperor Manuel had been comprehensively beaten by the Turkish sultan Kilic Arslan II at the battle of Myriokephalon which dispatched with the need to sign an actual peace treaty with Constantinople. Apparently the two emperors wrote each other insulting letters, calling each other respectively king of the Germans and king of the Greeks. The Vasilev’s letter was written in gold ink on purple parchment underlining a superiority that wasn’t matched by his military strength on the ground.

Battle of Myriocephalon according to Gustave Dore

As for Barbarossa the peace of Venice was the endpoint of his previous policy to create a Holy Roman Empire that was based on control of Italy including the city of Rome and equivalence of emperor and pope. He now has to go back to plan B, the strategy he had initiated back in 1167 as a fallback for exactly this eventuality. Plan B was to focus on dynastic expansion. That means grow allodial possessions, consolidate territory and raise the status of the House of Hohenstaufen. Basically the plan is to become the biggest territorial prince in the empire. Apart from Plan B his other main to-do was to stabilise the political situation in Germany where his beautifully calibrated  system of checks and balances between the great magnates was about to collapse.

Hohenstaufen, Welf and Ascanier lands around 1175

Ok, but if I still had bruises on my knees from the perennial prostration before my archenemy and a to-do-list consisting of only unpleasant things, I would prefer to hide in the South of France for a few months before I go and face the inevitable.

And that is exactly what Barbarossa did. He went to Provence, which as part of the kingdom of Burgundy was also part of his empire. His destination was the gorgeous and ancient city of Arles. He did not come to see the magnificent arena or the elysian fields with their antique funerary monuments, but the cathedral where he was crowned King of Burgundy. He was the first emperor since Conrad II had acquired Burgundy who got himself crowned and also the first to do it in Arles, the capital of Provence. Why did he do that? Apparently, there was an attempt by Manuel to get back in the game by marrying one of his nieces to the margrave of Provence and Barbarossa had to prevent that. Maybe, but my money is on that he wanted a few months away from it all, a big party and the adulation of his people, as fake as that may have been.

Markus Brunetti, Arles Cathedral St. Trophine, 2015. One of the greatest photography artists. check him out here: https://www.yossimilo.com/exhibitions/markus-brunetti-2015-09

From Arles he and his wife Beatrix travelled north on the Rhone River to Vienne, where Beatrix was crowed Queen of Burgundy. That was a pretty poor consolation prize given she had just unceremoniously been made a non-empress by the Peace of Venice. Pope Alexander III had offered to crown her empress again if she came down to Rome but that was apparently not on the cards. Barbarossa had sent Christian of Mainz to ensure Alexander III could get back into Rome as per the stipulations of the peace, but he did not go himself nor take his wife there to be crowned.

Kingdom of Burgundy

This may be the reason for the separation of the imperial couple that now follows. For the next 6 years we only have three documented incidents of both of them in the same place. It seems that Beatrix stayed behind in her ancestral Burgundy leaving her husband to face the music alone. It might also have simply been the case that after 11 pregnancies and a life in the saddle following her husband across the alps five times she simply had enough and retired to her own domains.

When Barbarossa returned to Germany in October 1178 he entered into to use a technical term,  veritable shitstorm. His entire domestic policy framework was collapsing in the wake of the peace of Venice.

Before we go into the events of 1178 to 1181 itself let us take a look back at German domestic politics. We have spent so much time in Italy these last few episodes that we have sort of lost track of what happened north of the Alps.

Just to recap – Barbarossa’s rise to power in 1152 was such a towering success because he managed to reconcile the major families who had driven the civil wars during and following the Investiture controversy, the House of Welf, the Babenberger, the Zaehringer and obviously the Hohenstaufen themselves. Each was given something tangible in exchange for voting for Barbarossa and for keeping the peace afterwards. The Zaehringer were made the rectors of Burgundy a not very well defined viceregal position, the Babenberger were made Dukes of Austria with almost complete autonomy and the greatest prize went to the House of Welf, Barbarossa’s uncle Welf VI was given the Lands of Matilda and the duchy of Spoleto and Henry the Lion was given the duchy of Bavaria on top of his duchy of Saxony. Lastly most of the Hohenstaufen lands went to Frederick of Rothenburg, the oldest son of king Konrad III who would have had a strongest competing claim on the crown.

That created a very nicely balanced environment. The emperor himself had very limited own allodial land, making him a credible arbiter between the princes and reduced the risk of territorial conflict with an individual one. Amongst the princes, the Welf were the most powerful, but not more powerful than the combined force of the other three. Plus Welf VI was more closely attached to his nephew Barbarossa then to his other nephew Henry the Lion.

But time keeps moving forward and a couple of things happened. First up, Barbarossa began to suppress the Zaehringer who had always been fierce local rivals of the Hohenstaufen in Swabia. Their big knock back came when Barbarossa married Beatrix which gave him control over the most significant territory in Burgundy, the France Comte. And the in 1162 Frederick convinced henry the Lion to divorce his wife Clementia of Zaehringen thereby breaking the alliance between the House of Welf and the Zaehringer. Despite this disregard for his interests and honour Duke Berthold of Zaehringen would continue to serve Barbarossa in his campaigns, which indicates how severely the Zaehringer position had been diminished.

As for the Babenberger dukes of Austria, they were left alone to pursue their interests in the east, namely in Bohemia, Poland and Hungary whose dukes and kings were regularly furnished with Babenberger wives and when needed Babenberger soldiers.

That brings us to Henry the Lion. As time went on past 1155, Henry the Lion became a major pillar of the regime. When Barbarossa needed support for the sieges of Milan and Crema, henry the Lion was right there with 1200 knights and their retinue. The Welf was also willing to press his old family connections to the papacy, the courts of France and England and even to Constantinople into Barbarossa’s service. In 1165 when Barbarossa tried to create a marriage alliance with England, the Lion effectively stood in as a proto-son of the emperor and married Matilda, daughter of King Henry II.

Henry the Lion and Matilda with their respective parents and grandparents

This loyalty was amply rewarded. Henry the Lion received support in taking over inheritances such as that of the count of Winzenburg, he was granted the advocacy over the immensely rich monastery of Reichenau and, just to underline his exalted position, the right to invest bishops in his Northern German territories. That right had been reserved for the emperor and as we know fought over extensively.

This obvious preference for Henry the Lion was rubbing many of the more junior princes up the wrong way. Most opposed to the Lion was Albrecht the Baer, Margrave of Brandenburg who had claimed the duchy of Saxony during the time of King Conrad III and whose territories grew thanks to his ruthlessness and military capabilities. He was by now a significant player, at least on par with the Zaehringen dukes. His interest constantly clashed with Henry the Lion, but he made little progress on that side because Barbarossa kept supporting the Lion.

Samed map again – the lands of Albrecht the Baer are Ascanier (pink) bordering Welf lands of Henry the Lion.

The other party that was growing in stature were the archbishops of Cologne. First Rainald von Dassel as Barbarossa’s closest advisor helped increase the standing of the archbishopric. More significantly was however Phillip of Heinsberg, his successor. Heinsberg was a member of the high aristocracy with extensive connections in Saxony. He had also headed the imperial chancery after Rainald von Dassel was elevated to the archbishopric of Cologne. Hence, he was very close to Barbarossa. And as time went by, became much closer to the emperor than Henry the Lion.

Elke Wetzig (Elya) – File:Grabmal_Philipp_von_Heinsberg_Kölner_Dom_0622.jpg

We see the finely balanced political structure of 1155 is starting to get distinctly lopsided by the mid-1160s. The Zaehringers are on the way out and the Babenbergers disengaged. Henry the Lion is becoming ever more powerful thanks to imperial sponsorship. And Henry made sure it was visible to everyone. He had himself an enormous palace built in what is now the city of Brunswick, a palace  larger than the imperial palaces Barbarossa had erected in Gelnhausen and Kaiserslautern. Outside the priory church of Brunswick he displayed a gilded bronze sculpture of a lion 1.8m high, 2.8m long weighing 880kg. This sculpture was a masterpiece of medieval metalwork modelled on such famous animal sculptures as the Capitoline wolf in Rome or the lions of St. Mark that Henry might have seen during his Italian campaigns. This Brunswick lion was the symbol not of the duchy as such, but of the duke himself. This whole idea of stylising himself as a lion, symbol of a strong ruler since antiquity was an affront, not just to the emperor, his overlord, but his Saxon nobles as well.

The Brunswick Lion Copyright: Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum Braunschweig Museumsfoto: Claus Cordes

At the height of his powers in Saxony Henry the Lion held a concentrated territory around Luneburg and Brunswick, as well as lands in the Harz mountains and in southern Saxony. He was advocate of over fifty churches including the bishoprics of Bremen, Osnabrueck and Verden and the imperial abbey of Corvey. Approximately 400 lineages of Ministeriales, i.e., unfree servant knights, obeyed him directly. His longer-term plan was to make the whole duchy of Saxony his territory. For that he needed to make the local counts and knights his direct vassals so that every time the line dies out, he can confiscate their land for his own allodial property. Essentially he is inserting himself between the Saxon nobles and the emperor.

Things almost blew up as early as 1163 when Albrecht the Baer managed to bring together a coalition of Saxon nobles, including the imperial brother-in-Law, landgrave Ludwig von Thuringen, several other Saxon counts and the Babenberger network, i.e., the king of Bohemia, the Margrave of Steier and the Duke of Austria.  Only personal intervention of by the emperor broke this conspiracy.

In 1166 things finally get out in the open. The moment looks right since Barbarossa is down in Italy with one of the largest armies he ever fielded, the army that will eventually perish in Rome.  The Saxon counts led by Albrecht the Baer and the archbishop Wichman of Magdeburg besiege Henry in his castle in Haldensleben – unsuccessfully. Whilst this is going on, the archbishopric of Cologne joins the conspiracy. This happened with the full consent of Rainald von Dassel who was then archbishop, which is interesting in itself given how close Rainald is to Barbarossa.

When the emperor returns in 1167 he brings the conflict to an end essentially by putting his entire weight behind Henry the Lion. As the chronicler Helmond of Bosau says: ”fear of the emperor stayed the hand of the Saxon princes”. We talked about that in Episode 59.

Henry repays the imperial support in creating peace by picking another fight with the princes, this time over the election of the new archbishop of Bremen. Again, Barbarossa supports Henry’s candidate, even over the son of Albrecht the Baer. Nothing it seems can get between the emperor and Henry the Lion.

But something does. I believe there are three parallel and intertwined developments.

The first one is Barbarossa’s plan B. He is building out his own allodial property, pretty much like all the other princes. The deaths of 1167 create a whole avalanche of inheritances, many of which the emperor now grabs using the power of his office. That knocks off one of the last legs of that equilibrium of 1155, the impartiality of the emperor.

Secondly there is the small matter of Barbarossa’s defeats, first in 1167 and then in 1177, which undermine his prestige.

The last key development is that Henry the Lion and Barbarossa are drifting apart.

When Barbarossa cleared out his enemies between 1167 and 1172, the Lion, instead of helping to organise a new expedition to Italy,  disappears off on pilgrimage for a year. By the way I have produced a whole episode on that journey to Jerusalem for the Patreon feed if you are interested.

Artwork for Patreon episode showing one of the treasures Henry brought back from the East.

Then there is the issue of  the inheritance of Welf VI. The old rascal had initially promised his lands to Henry against a sizeable payment but that fell through when the lion thought the old guy would snuff it soon, so no need to hand him the cash now. Barbarossa stepped into the breach and snatched the lands from under his nose. That was the first but not the last time Barbarossa decided issues of allodial lands in his interest against the Lion.

The Lion’s response was not to offer Barbarossa support on his Fifth Italian expedition. Some argue that the Lion could not send his soldiers to Italy when his enemies were set against him. I find that deeply unconvincing. If he can go on a trip to Jerusalem for a year, he may as well go to Italy or at least send some troops to support his benefactor. And then there is the famous encounter at Chiavenna where Barbarossa allegedly begged Henry on his knees for support. If that had indeed happened, the enmity between Barbarossa and Henry was set when he returned to Germany in October 1178. But even if that was not the case, the old alliance between the two cousins had some serious cracks.

Alleged kneeling of Barbarossa before henry the Lion in 1176 at Chiavenna

In the meantime, some people have stepped into the open position of best friend and supporter of the emperor, and these were the archbishops of Cologne, Mainz and Magdeburg. They provided the 1000 knights that perished in Legnano and they were the ones who helped negotiate the peace of Venice. Two of them, Cologne and Magdeburg had interests in Saxony and had been involved in the uprising against the Lion in 1166.

And these three now sit at the source of all ecclesiastical power, i.e., they are negotiating with pope Alexander III about who remains of the schismatic bishops and who does not. And they have a carte Blanche from the emperor. And guess what, the first to drop by the wayside are the archbishops of Bremen and the bishop of Halberstadt that have been put in place on the Lion’s behalf. Not much he or Barbarossa can do about that.

In 1178 the old bishop of Halberstadt that the archbishops of Cologne and Magdeburg had just brought  demands that  all the lands that his predecessor had given over to the Lion are to be returned. That triggered a number of other disputes including one between the Philipp Archbishop of Cologne and Henry over the inheritance  of the count of Assel. That led to a spiral of claims and counterclaims across Saxony that turned into open warfare by the summer of 1178.

When Barbarossa holds court in Speyer in November 1178 having returned from his year in Provence, he is immediately confronted with the dilemma. At Speyer both Philipp of Cologne and Henry the Lion, the two arguably most powerful princes and the ones Barbarossa owes most gratitude demand justice. They were combative and both utterly convinced of their standing with the emperor.

Speyer cathedral

Barbarossa refuses to adjudicate right now on the grounds that a proper court has not been convened nor the preparations for the proceedings completed. He proposes another imperial diet in Worms in January 1179 to discuss and hopefully resolve the issues.

Despite being formally summoned Henry the Lion does not show at the diet in Worms, which is the usual way for a major aristocrat to make clear that he does not recognise the claims as valid. That being said, it is often also a sign that the absent party is doubtful it still enjoys the imperial grace. Phillip of Cologne does show up, indicating that he has a lot more confidence in his standing with Barbarossa.

Another court date is set for June 1179 at Magdeburg, Henry is summoned and again Henry does not show up. Now Barbarossa is getting seriously irritated. Not showing up on the second summons is a serious disregard of imperial authority. The imperial honour is diminished and needs to be restored.

Barbarossa puts Henry into the ban as a means to force him to appear at the next imperial diet. Under normal circumstances at this stage of the proceedings there cannot be any more personal interaction between the banned individual and the emperor until the rebel has bent the knee. It is an indication of how much Barbarossa wants this issue to go away that he nevertheless seeks out Henry at his nearby castle at Haldensleben. He offers to put an end to all of this against the payment of 5000 mark of silver. That is a significant amount of money, but Henry is rich, and it relieves him from having to go through the normal reconciliation procedure which involves at least kneeling before the emperor and begging for forgiveness. But even now Henry keeps misreading the situation and refuses.  

Haldensleben is just 15km from Magdeburg

Why? Maybe he thought that his rise to the dizzying heights of dual dukedom and vast territories was all his doing. It would not be the first time that a powerful man forgets who helped him up there. Or he thought that it is finally the day when he, Henry the Lion, grandson of emperor Lothar III will finally overcome Barbarossa, a mere great-grandson of an emperor.

Family tree of Hohenstaufen adn Welf (part 1)

Having seen his most generous offer refused, there isn’t anything left to do. Barbarossa returns to his court in Magdeburg and together with the princes, he outlaws Henry the Lion on June 29th, 1179. A last summons is issued for the court at Naumburg in July, but again Henry does not appear.  In August Henry gets prescribed by the court of princes and they deprive him of his duchy of Saxony and declare that another man is to be put in his place.

Henry opens hostilities. His campaign in 1179 is quite successful. He beats Cologne in a battle near Osnabrueck. By September 23rd he breaks into Halberstadt, burns it down, including its venerable cathedral, and captures the bishop. He occupies the castle of Sommerschenburg, home of another one of the important Saxon families who opposed him.

Schloss Sommerschenburg in ~1860

The princes raise another army of 4000 mercenaries and they again besiege Haldensleben and again fail to take it. Now the bickering begins between the conspirators, in particular because Phillip of Cologne had assumed command against the opposition of the margrave of Meissen, who, he is certain, would have done a much better job. After they lifted the siege Henry marches before Magdeburg as a show of force. The year 1179 ends victorious for Henry.

A full imperial diet meets again in Wuerzburg in early 1180 which culminates in what called the Gelnhausen charter. The Gelnhausen charter does holds great significance for Germany, one as a constituent document for the structure of the Holy Roman empire, and secondly for one of the longest sentences in the middle ages, in Latin by the way, not German.

Pfalz Gelnhausen, Barbarossa’s Imperial palace

It justifies the deposition of Henry the Lion and reads as follows:

Quote: Wherefore let the generality of the present as well as future subjects of our empire know, that Henry the former duke of Bavaria and Westphalia, for the reasons that he gravely oppressed the liberty of the churches of god and of the nobles of the empire, occupying their possessions and diminishing their rights, – on account of the urgent complaints of the princes and very many nobles, inasmuch as being summoned he scorned to present himself before our majesty; did, both for his contumacy and for scorning the Swabian princes of his rank, incur the sentence of our proscription. Then as he did not desist from raging against the churches of God and the rights and liberties of the princes and nobles, being cited by the lawful triple edict, according to feudal law, before our presence, as well as to answer for the injury to the princes as for the repeated contempt shown to us, and, chiefly, for the evident crime of high treason:-for the reason that he absented himself and sent no one to respond for him he was judged contumacious; and, for the future, as well the duchy of Bavaria as that of Westphalia and Angaria, and also all the benefices which he has held from the empire were, in a solemn court in Wuerzburg by unanimous sentence of the princes declared forfeit by him and adjudged to our jurisdiction and power” end quote.

This translation is by the way from John B Fried’s most beautifully written and most detailed biography of Frederick Barbarossa. This book has become an indispensable companion in the preparation for this series and I want to thank Dale Holzwart for pointing it out to me. Thanks a lot Dale.

Available here: https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/Frederick-Barbarossa-by-John-B-Freed/9780300122763

So, what does this very long sentence mean. Despite professor Fried’s deft translation, it remains confusing.

Only the last bit is comparatively clear, the princes have unanimously declared his duchies and all other fiefs he is holding from the empire to be forfeit. That means he loses all assets and resources he is holding through his office, such as the lands and privileges associated with being duke of Bavaria. What he does not lose is his private, or allodial possessions.

What is harder to get your head around is the legal argument why he loses it. There seem to be three arguments intertwined. One is that he had “gravely oppressed the churches and nobles”, the second is contempt of court as he had not appeared despite triple summons and lastly, there is the mention of the “evident crime of high treason”. The last argument is the least convincing. The use of the word “evidently” is a good indicator of total absence of evidence. That leaves the first two, oppression and obstinate refusal to appear in court. The document supposes that there is an established procedure to deal with someone who breaches the peace, and that is to be brought before the court to be judged. Failure to appear upon the third summons automatically results in being outlawed and all fiefs forfeit.

That sounds pretty sensible and straightforward, but according to both Fried and Goerich these are legal frameworks introduced with this document rather than well established precedents. This elaborate argumentation did not just satisfy the need of an increasingly literate and legal world, it also had a practical component.

Under established procedure a rebellious vassal who rebelled for the first time could usually expect to be readmitted to the imperial favour after suitable penance. In that case most of his previous position would be restored to him. That was an unacceptable risk for the princes. They needed to be sure that the Lion would never come back as duke of Saxony.

Therefore, the Gelnhausen document established the royal court’s decision as final. And to cement the decision even further, the duchy of Saxony is being split. The western part, Westphalia was given to the archbishop of Cologne, thereby dramatically increasing the diocese resources. And the eldest son of now deceased Albrecht the Bear, Berthold of Anhalt is made duke of the somewhat smaller Saxony. Other fiefs go to the remaining conspirators, including margrave Otto of Meissen from the house of Wettin. Another son of Albrecht, Siegfried receives the archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen.

The break-up of Saxony created three duchies, Westphalia (pink), the Ascanian Saxony (green) and late rteh Welf duchy of Brunswick.

That was the duchy of Saxony, but what about the other one Henry held, the duchy of Bavaria? That went to none other than our old friend Otto von Wittelsbach. All of Bavaria, no, not all of Bavaria. As with Saxony bits and bobs were cut off. The Margrave of Steier became the duke of Steiermark, independent of the Wittelsbachs. The same goes for the counts of Andechs who became dukes of Meranien again, independent of Bavaria.

„Pfalzgrafs Otto von Wittelsbach Belehnung mit dem Herzogthum Bayern 1180″; Entwurf und Ausführung Clemens Zimmermann

Distributing the spoils is all fine and good, but what about the military situation? 1179 wasn’t much of a success for the opposition against the Lion and the spring of 1180 wasn’t much better. Henry managed to capture Landgrave Ludwig von Thuringen, one of the main conspirators.

Things only turned for the princes when the emperor himself took up arms. This clear sign that the emperor had dropped his old favourite and was now threatening any supporter of Henry with the loss of their fiefs changed the picture. More and more of Henry’s vassals and even his loyal Ministeriales changed sides, growing afraid they could lose it all. A number of important fortresses fell to the imperial army and by the end of 1180 Henry’s power was confined to the lands north of Brunswick and the castle of Haldensleben.  Haldensleben was surrounded by the forces of archbishop Wichman of Magdeburg and since the castle could not be taken by force the bishop dammed up the local river and simply flooded it. Haldensleben surrendered on May 3rd, 1181 and was destroyed. Nothing remains of this once almighty fortress. The summer campaign of 1181 started in earnest when Barbarossa appeared in Saxony in June 1181. He pushed Henry out of Brunswick and pursued him to Luneburg, from where the Lion escaped again, this time north to Stade on the Elbe River. Henry realised his position had become untenable and mustered a ship that was to take him to exile with his father-in-law, the king of England.

Map highlighting the key locations of the fighting. Haldensleben is the dot close to MAgdeburg

Barbarossa took his host to Lubeck on the Baltic Sea, the furthest north he would ever travel in his realm. The modern city of Lubeck had only been founded in 1143 but was the absolute boomtown of Northern Germany. Its geographic location as a link between the Baltic and Germany made it the lynchpin for trade with Scandinavia and Russia. Henry the Lion acquired the city in 1158 and turbocharged development by granting it a range of trade privileges. In 1160 the city was given a constitution that established a ruling council of 24 members of the major merchant families, a constitution that remained well into the 19th century. In 1163 it became a bishopric when the bishop of Oldenburg transferred to Lubeck.

Given all this support, Lubeck was one of the last remaining places loyal to Henry. The citizens are now in a difficult situation. Imperial power that far north had been almost entirely absent for centuries. Opening the gates to Barbarossa bears the risk that once he goes back south, he will forget about them, and their position would be eroded. So, they asked the emperor for permission to consult with Henry before surrendering. Barbarossa allowed it and Henry told the citizens to open the gates. Barbarossa was massively taken with Lubeck and made it a free imperial city, independent of the local princes, and a few years later granted them territorial rights that further stabilised the rapid development. This intelligent balancing between the House of Welf, who, surprise, surprise will come back eventually, and Barbarossa allowed the city to continue on its path that would make them one of the leaders of the Hanseatic League, the subject to our next season.

With that the war was over. Henry the Lion submitted and was brought to the imperial camp in Luneburg. From there he was escorted by archbishop Wichman of Magdeburg to Erfurt, where he prostrated himself before Barbarossa on November 11, 1181. Frederick lifted his cousin Henry up and, flooded with tears, gave him the kiss of peace..

But, though all the formalities of submission were adhered to and by the traditions of the time, a first-time offender would receive his position back, he did not. As the chronicler Arnold of Lubeck reported, Barbarossa had sworn an oath to the princes, not to let Henry back into his positions without their unanimous consent. He was allowed to keep his allodial lands around Brunswick and Luneburg but the princes did not dare to let him stay in Germany.  Henry the Lion and his wife Matilda had to go into exile to the court of Henry II, King of England.

That is the fall of Henry the Lion.

When I learned about in school, it was described as Barbarossa’s final triumph. The great struggle between Welf and Hohenstaufen, between Guelph and Ghibelline had seen the greatest of the Welf defeated. It was Barbarossa’s revenge for the humiliations of his father at the election of 1138, and his uncle Konrad III at the hand of Henry the Proud and his own at Chiavenna. But this story has now been pretty much completely debunked. Barbarossa may have lost confidence in the support of Henry the Lion after his refusal to help in 1174 but he did not pursue a policy to bring him down. That was very much the princes doing. They were the ones who found the double duke unbearably powerful. As we have seen, Barbarossa had even tried to prevent the downfall by offering to take him back against payment of 5000 mark of silver. Instead of being Barbarossa’s greatest moment, it was probably his deepest defeat. He was no longer able to protect his cousin or even offer clemency when it was all over. After the defeats in the fifth Italian campaign and the peace of Venice he had become the plaything of the Princes. The clearest sign that his power had diminished was that Barbarossa himself received practically nothing of the spoils of this war. No way was he able to annex the two duchies of Bavaria and Saxony for himself in the way the French king Phillippe Augustus did with Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Touraine and Poitou after the defeat of John lackland. The tears that Barbarossa cried when he raised Henry the Lion up in Erfurt were not so much tears of pity for his cousin but for his own weakness, that is at least what Knut Gorich believes.  

The scene as depicted in the city hall of Erfurt

The other important impact of the fall of Henry the Lion was the settlement of the political landscape and constitution of the empire.

The precedent of Henry the Lion not only established under which circumstances a fief could be lost, but also that this fief had to be regranted to another prince within a year and a day.

With the break-up of Saxony and Bavaria, the old stem duchies of the Ottonian times no longer functioned as a mid-layer between emperor and counts. A new layer has been established the Reichsfurstenstand, the imperial princes. An imperial prince is someone who owes allegiance only to the emperor, he or she is reichsunmittelbar, a direct vassal of the empire. These were the dukes, but also the counts palatinate, the landgraves and margraves. Other counts are of a lower rank as they are in vassalage to an imperial prince. Bishops were in the majority imperial princes, as were the abbots and abbesses of the imperial monasteries.

This has two effects. No longer can an emperor demand suit from all the knights and counts in the land. He can only call on the imperial princes as those are the only ones with direct feudal obligations to him. Secondly, the princely ranks are becoming a closed shop. If an imperial princely position becomes vacant, it has to go to another prince which means it is staying within the network of the highest aristocracy. No longer can an emperor appoint a duke or margrave at will.

Families who have made it onto the list of Imperial princes by the 1180s will continue to be dominant for the next 700 years. The Ascanians ruling Saxony and Brandenburg, the Wettins, running Meissen and Lusatia, the Wittelsbach in Bavaria and the Palatinate, the Zaehringer whose junior line will keep Badenia and the House of Welf that will return as dukes of Brunswick and later kings of Hannover. Some like the Ludowiger and Andechser will gradually vanish, and the Habsburgs and the Hohenzollern will make it to the top table. But it is getting harder.

The Holy Roman empire is gradually taking shape. And that is where we should leave it for this week. Next week we will look at the resolution of issues in Italy, in particular the political shifts there that will dominate most of Hohenstaufen policy of the next couple of decades, and maybe we get to talk about the build-up to the Third crusade. I hope to see you then.

Lastly, let me thank all of you who are supporting the show, in particular the Patrons who have kindly signed up on patron.com/historyofthegermans. It is thanks to you this show does not have to start with me endorsing mattresses or meal kits.. If Patreon isn’t for you, another way to help the show is sharing the podcast directly or boosting its recognition on social media. If you share, comment or retweet a post from the History of the Germans it is more likely to be seen by others, hence bringing in more listeners. My most active places are Twitter @germanshistory and my Facebook page History of the Germans Podcast. Quick thank you to SteveAshville on Reddit who posted a super nice comment. So thanks a lot Steve and all of you who seconded his shout. As always, all the links are in the show notes. 

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