Episode 74 – A Breaking of Oaths

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The kingdom is in turmoil. Two pretenders fight for supremacy. On the one side, Philipp of Swabia, son of the emperor Barbarossa, brother of Emperor Henry VI. and head of the House of Hohenstaufen. In the opposite corner stands Otto IV., son of Henry the Lion, protégé of king Richard the Lionheart and preferred candidate of pope Innocent III. But the main protagonists are the imperial princes who play the two kings against each other for their personal gain, swearing fealty one day and breaking it the next. It only ends with murder most foul.


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 74 – A Breaking of Oaths

The kingdom is in turmoil. Two pretenders fight for supremacy. On the one side, Philipp of Swabia, son of the emperor Barbarossa, brother of Emperor Henry VI. and head of the House of Hohenstaufen. In the opposite corner stands Otto IV., son of Henry the Lion, protégé of king Richard the Lionheart and preferred candidate of pope Innocent III. But the main protagonists are the imperial princes who play the two kings against each other for their personal gain, swearing fealty one day and breaking it the next. It only ends with murder most foul.

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Here we are, in the midst of a civil war. Well, as we will see it isn’t the kind of civil war where two determined sides relentlessly go at each other. It is much more a very prolonged negotiation amongst the princes, interspersed with great festivities, papal bulls and the occasional military campaign that usually stalls before the walls of a mighty city,.

Let us recap the starting position of our two contenders.

There is Otto IV., whose main sponsor is his uncle, king Richard the Lionheart. Richard is enormously rich thanks to the tax income from England and his extensive domains in France.

Richard’s main objective was to get back at the Hohenstaufen who had imprisoned and ransomed him on his return from the crusades. He was also very fond of his nephew and there may be a long-term option that Otto would support him in his struggle with the king of France, Philippe Auguste.

Otto’s second supporter is archbishop Adolf of Cologne. Adolf was less of a supporter of Otto than an opponent of the Hohenstaufen. Why he took so strongly against them is a bit lost in the mist of time. He stood as a candidate for the archbishopric of Cologne against a Hohenstaufen candidate, but he did get through and was invested by Henry VI. He had also opposed Henry VI.’th proposal to turn the empire into an inheritable monarchy, but so had many others. He did not want to elect little Frederick II. but relented in the end and had promised to crown the child. So, all in he wasn’t a friend but not a sworn enemy. In fact, there would have been a good reason for Adolf to oppose a candidature of a Welf prince who would want the old Saxon duchy back, which included Westphalia, the bit that Cologne had received after the fall of Henry the Lion. It looks a bit as if Adolf had accidentally become the focal point of anti-Hohenstaufen sentiment thanks to his lukewarm, but consistent opposition.

The third set of supporters of Otto were the merchants of Cologne, who probably pushed their archbishop over to his side. The merchants were most interested in trading privileges in England. These were extremely valuable as English wool was the raw material that Florentine weavers turned into the most desirable cloth in Europe. And Cologne sat on the Rhine the great traffic artery that sat between these two economic centres. This the time when the great cities of Flanders, Ghent, Bruges and Ypres were vying for that same trade.

These are his core supporters, The English, the archbishop of Cologne and the citizens of Cologne.

Otto’s second layer of supporters were first up his brother, Henry, The Count Palatinate. Henry was the older brother and had inherited the majority of his fathers’ possessions in line with the principles of primogeniture. Otto had only received a brace of castles from Henry the Lion’s vast lands and had to make his own way in life, which was already a bit of a sore point in their relationship. We had met this Henry before. He was the son of Henry the Lion who had deserted his emperor’s army before Naples in 1192, had spread rumours Henry VI. had died and had suggested the princes that they elect him instead.

For political reasons the emperor had forgiven him and for completely incomprehensible reasons, the aristocratic society of the 12th century completely overlooked this truly un-chivalric behaviour.

Two more things about Henry. He had become Count Palatinate by seducing and secretly marrying Agnes, sole child of Conrad, half -brother of Barbarossa. Henry VI. had to accept the valid marriage and even enfeoffed the Welf with the Palatinate. And final point, Henry was the initial choice of Richard the Lionheart to be candidate for kingship. The only reason this did not happen was that Henry had been on crusade in the Holy Land when the decision was made. Another sore point in the brotherly relationship.

Another member of this second layer of support was Henry, duke of Brabant. The duchy of Brabant encompassed most of eastern Belgium including Brussels and Antwerp and was in immediate neighbour of the archbishop of Cologne. The duke’s interest lay mainly in the large amount of English money he was offered for his help and a marital alliance whereby Otto was to marry his daughter Maria.

There are some others in this category like Bishop Konrad of Strasbourg who had a long-lasting feud with Philipp’s irascible brother and hence hated all Hohenstaufens and the duke of Limburg and his son, who initially fought for Philipp but were brought into the Otto camp early on in the process.

So, if you look on a map, Otto’s zone of control was in the lower Rhine around Cologne and Brabant, and upriver in the Palatinate as well as the family lands of the House of Welf around Brunswick.

On the other side was Philipp of Swabia.

He too has an inner and an outer circle. But that is where the similarity ends.

Philipps inner circle are the royal Hohenstaufen institutions such as they exist. At its heart sits the duchy of Swabia and the extensive Hohenstaufen possessions that stretch from the border with Bohemia in the east through sways of Franconia, including Nurnberg and Rothenburg to the outskirts of Frankfurt and then southwards through Swabia and Alsace. Part 2 is the royal domain, which comprises a large number of castles dotted across mostly the southern part of Germany, but at this point also include Goslar in Saxony with its great silver mines.

These territories come the imperial and the family Ministeriales. These had already risen to prominence in the last decades of Barbarossa, but now took up key position under Henry VI. and  Philipp. Men like Markward of Annweiler and Heinrich von Kalden who had served in Italy and Sicily. But also Kuno von Munzenberg, a mega ministeriale who owned dozens of castles and even minted his own coins, Eberhard von Tanne, seneschal of the emperors was another one. Ministeriales were at least theoretically, unfree men who had been trained in the use of knightly weapons. By the end of the 12th century, they have become a permanent feature of the medieval German society. Some of them were extremely rich and would even ascend to princely rank, but the vast majority were not much better off than their neighbours in the village. They were much more loyal than the aristocratic vassals, but not absolutely loyal. Even ministeriales are known to betray their lords.

Beyond this fairly compact powerbase, Philipp could count on a few natural allies. There are Bernhard of Anhalt, duke of Saxony, Ludwig, duke of Bavaria and the margrave of Meissen. These men had been the direct beneficiaries of the fall of Henry the Lion and hence could not expect anything good from Henry the Lion’s son. Other southern dukes like the Babenberger in Austria as well as the Zaehringer in Burgundy were linked either by family ties or financial gain.

Beyond that was the wide world of the undecided. Two of those became crucial, Ottokar duke of Bohemia and the landgrave Hermann of Thuringia.

Ottokar’s main interest was the title of king, which Philipp granted him generously at the very start of his reign. Landgrave Hermann was most interested in expanding his territory at the expense of what had remained of the royal domain in Saxony. Basically, these two were available to the highest bidder.

And then we have the foreigners. We already talked about the role the king of England played. But then we have the King of France, Philippe Auguste who was a natural ally of Philipp, because the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And the King of Denmark also gets involved. He wanted the lands of Adolf of Holstein, in the very north of the country. Because Adolf sided with Philip, Denmark sided with Otto.

So that is our chessboard. Otto has English money, Cologne, Brabant and his brother and the Danes. Philipp has French support, his own lands, the royal domain and support from most of Southern Germany.

Next question, what are the weapons.

Sounds like a stupid question but isn’t. Sure, there is military might. Armies are raised and sent against the opponents. But there were no decisive battles or even many battles at all. The two kings will face each other only once and that is very much at the end of the conflict. Mostly what these armies do is go down into their opponents’ territories, burn the fields and make some attempt at besieging the cities but never succeeding. I could take you through the back and forth of the military fortunes, but the detail is excessively dull.

Broadly speaking the fighting breaks down into four main theatres of war.

The surroundings of Strasbourg get devastated by Philipp in an attempt to move bishop Konrad into his camp. That is successful at least temporarily.

The other is Holstein, which is invaded by the Danes. They chuck out count Adolf who had to retire and Holstein remained Danish for 25 years. This one went to Otto.

The third theatre of war was the lower Rhine and specifically the surroundings of Cologne. Philipp would bring up an army, devastate the surrounding lands, but the walls of Cologne usually held firm and Philipp had to go back, either because winter was coming or because he was called into that other key battleground, Saxony, specifically Brunswick, capital of Otto IV. and Goslar, the loyal imperial city. Neither Brunswick nor Goslar could be taken by their respective besiegers.

With Saxony the big undecided piece, the Landgrave of Thuringia whose lands were just south and east of there, became the lynchpin. Both Philipp and Otto courted him, and he exploited the situation to the max. In total Hermann changed sides 5 times throughout the 5 years of the main conflict. He would declare for Otto when Philipp was otherwise engaged, capture a few royal castles and cities and when Philipp shows up, he would swap sides and revert to being a loyal imperial vassal in exchange for keeping these castles and cities. Three rounds of that and the Landgraves were properly rich.

But the military was only one side of the battle. The other was public relations. Philipp went on a massive spending spree, inviting all his followers and the undecideds to splendid royal assemblies. We can name 630 individuals who have come to his court, though in reality it would have been a lot more. He staged 28 of those, often outside his direct zone of influence.  

And for those he put on a great show. He would appear wearing the true imperial crown, by now believed to be the crown of Charlemagne, as well as the Holy Lance and all the imperial regalia. His wife the gorgeous and exotic Irene would parade next to her husband in her byzantine finery. And after the official ceremonies it was party time.

The court of Philipp of Schwaben was one of the first in Germany to sponsor the Minnesaenger, the German version of the Troubadours. Minnesaenger would write mostly songs about courtly love, but also romances like the Parzival of Hartmann von Aue or Tristan and Isolde by Godfrey of Strasburg. Minnesaenger would not only write of love and chivalric quests, they can do politics too. The most famous of them was Walter von der Vogelweide, and that is the one Philipp attracts to his court.

And Walter delivers. He writes several poems to praise Philipp and to diss his enemies. One of those is about the most splendid royal assembly in Magdeburg over Christmas 1199. I will read it to you, though be warned, my skills in Middle high German are non-existant:

Ez gienc eines tages, als unser hêrre wart geborn

von einer maget, die er im ze muoter hât erkorn,

ze Megdeburc der künic Philippes schône.

da gienc eins keisers bruoder und eins keisers kint

in einer wât, swie doch die namen drîge sint,

er truoc des rîches zepter und die krône.

Er trât vil lîse, im was niht gâch,

im sleich ein hôhgeborne küniginne nâch,

rôse âne dorn, ein tûbe sunder gallen.

diu zuht was niener anderswâ,

die Düringe und die Sahsen dienten alsô dâ,

daz ez den wîsen müeste wol gevallen.

Roughly translated it says something like that:

On that day, when our Lord was born of a virgin whom he chose to be his mother, there walked in Magdeburg King Philip, glorious to behold. There walked an emperor’s brother and an emperor’s son in one robe, although they are three persons; he carried the real sceptre and the real crown. He walked along very slowly in complete tranquillity. After him walked a high-born queen, rose without thorn, dove without gall. The decency of the whole world was united there. The Thuringians and the Saxons performed their court duties there in such a manner that even the most discerning could be highly satisfied.

These events and the sponsorship of poets in the midst of war had previously been seen as wasteful spending, but it was probably worth a lot more than a battalion of knights. If you were one of the undecided princes in the civil war that could not be won militarily, where would you tend to go, to the one who keeps his purse closed tight and seems to have no friends, or the one where everybody goes and who wines and dines you?

Apart from great festivities, the other element of soft power were marriage alliances. Otto had the advantage of being himself available, a trump card he used to tie the duke of Barbant to his cause. Philipp was already married but four daughters to offer. These were put in play at various points to different German magnates, and at some point even to a papal nephew.

As for money Philipp can match the English funds thanks to the treasures his brother had sent up from Sicily, the 150 mules worn down by the weight of gold and precious stones. But Otto is no slouch either. We know a little less about the splendour of his court since he did not pay the right poets, but when English money was still flowing, he sure must have put on great performances.

And that gets us to the other theatre of this conflict, the one that did not involve any Germans. And that is the first hundred years war between England and France. That is ongoing and will be ongoing for most of the Middle Ages. And it is also where some military events do have a decisive impact on German affairs.

The first happened in March 1199 below the walls of the small and barely defended castle of Chalus-Chabrol near Limoges, central France. Richard had attacked the castle as part of a pointless feud with the viscount of Limoges. In the fighting a bolt from a cross bow hit the king’s shoulder. The wound turned gangrene and a month later, Richard, Coeur de Lion was dead, not before forgiving the crossbowman who had shot him – chivalric knight to the last.

Richard’s brother and successor, John lackland had much less interest in German affairs or fondness for his nephew. The great supply of cash from England dwindled and when John made peace with Philippe Auguste in 1204 it ceased altogether.

In the absence of English money, Otto became more and more dependent upon support from pope Innocent III. As I mentioned last week, Innocent took his sweet time with taking a decision. When he did, in 1201, he came down very much on Otto’s side. He had negotiated with Philipp as well and as guardian of young Frederick had at some point contemplated pushing his wards claim.

Innocent’s main interest in the conflict was to protect and expand the papal territories. In the aftermath of the death of Henry VI. almost all of Italy had risen up against the imperial administrators.

I did say last week that Philipp had stood at the empty crib in the castle of Folignano where little Frederick was supposed to have been. That I admit was a bit of artistic license. Philipp never made it to Folignano. His journey ended in Montefiascone, north of Rome as local lords encouraged by the news of Henry VI.’s death besieged him. Philipp had to hack his way home through Northern Italy, barely making it. In this context I just want to say that I indeed used a bit of I feel not very foul language and some of you found it unnecessary. I personally saw it as a good way to express the distress I think Philipp may have felt at that moment. But I understand that some of you prefer it if I refrain from such terms and I will do my best to stick to it. Though note that German is a language of prolific and inventive swearwords and where the use of them is evidenced or used in literature, I will use it.

Going back to Italy. In the chaos after the death of the emperor, pope Innocent managed to get hold of key positions, including the duchy of Spoleto, the mark of Ancona, the pentapolis around Ravenna, parts of Emilia Romagna and again, the lands of Matilda. Protecting those from imperial power became one of his key political objectives. Hence Innocent support for Otto was made conditional upon recognition of the papal gains and a solemn promise never to seek the Sicilian crown. Philipp had not been prepared to make such concessions.

On the face of it papal support did not produce much. In particular the German bishops remained loyal to Philipp. They write to the pope stating that it is their prerogative to elect the emperor and that his holiness should stay out of the discussion.

Only one bishop was affected by papal support for Otto IV. and the subsequent excommunication of Philipp, and that was his own chancellor, Konrad von Querfurth. Konrad had been a Hohenstaufen loyalist, former chancellor of Henry VI. and had played a major role in the conquest of Sicily and the crusade. His change of allegiance from Philipp to Otto was less for reasons of the afterlife but was bought with the bishopric of Wuerzburg, something the chancellor very much desired.

The defection of Konrad was a major blow both militarily and politically. It potentially opened a new theatre of war, now much closer to the Hohenstaufen homelands. But Philipp got lucky. Konrad had got himself in trouble in his new post. He had levied a tax on his Ministeriales and they weren’t happy about it. One of them, Bodo of Ravensburg killed the episcopal administrator who was collecting the tax. Konrad then pursued Bodo for murder to which Bodo responded by killing the bishop himself. That solved this problem.

But the papal support had one great advantage. Ever since Gregory VII. the papacy had declared its right to release people from their solemn oaths. The concept that oaths are inviolate are at the heart of the political system of the Middle Ages. Vassalage is the exchange of vows, one to support the lord and the other to protect the vassal.

You may remember the speech that Otto von Northeim made in 1073 gathering support for an uprising against emperor Henry IV. There he had to go to extreme lengths to justify why he was no longer bound by his oath. Here is what he said after having first listed Henry’s innumerable crimes against the freedom of the Saxons:

Quote: “Perhaps you, as Christians, are afraid to violate the oath with which you have paid homage to the king. Indeed, to the king you have sworn. As long as he was a king to me and acted royally, I also kept the oath I swore to him freely and faithfully; but after he ceased to be a king, the one to whom I had to keep loyalty was no longer there. So not against the king, but against the unjust robber of my freedom; not against the fatherland, but for the fatherland, and for freedom, which no good man surrenders other than with his life at the same time, I take up arms, and I demand of you that you also take them up. “ end quote

130 years later the Landgrave of Thuringia and King Ottokar of Bohemia will swear individual detailed oaths to Philipp to support him. The oaths are made over important relics and the princes pre-agree to the most severe temporal and spiritual punishments in case of a breach of this oath. Hostages are exchanged to ensure compliance and in the case of Ottokar, he marries a daughter of Philipp. But the ink is barely dry on the document and both of these change side, not for the greater good of the realm or to escape unbearable servitude, but for short term territorial gains. And they are not afraid of any punishment since the pope immediately releases them from their oath.

This devaluation of solemn oaths is another element in the shift in political and social culture, away from the ideals of the Middle Ages. Just as the troubadours and Minnesaenger celebrate the ideals of chivalry, the reality becomes more and more Machiavellian.

This change of sides by Thuringia and Bohemia in 1203 coincides with Danish conquest of Holstein and puts Philipp under enormous pressure. His campaign against Thuringia fails and he finds himself besieged inside the city of Erfurt. At the end of 1203, Philipp flees from Erfurt and Otto IV. writes triumphantly to pope Innocent III that he expects to have Philipp defeated by the end of next year.

In 1204 Philipp makes a last desperate attempt and goes straight for Otto’s headquarters, the city of Brunswick. And that is where Otto makes his fatal mistake. Brunswick was initially owned by Otto’s older brother, Henry, the Count Palatinate. Otto had taken it over since in it lay the great palace of Dankwarderode, the magnificent construction of their father, Henry the Lion that rivalled any imperial palace. The loss of Brunswick was the last straw for Henry. He had already seen his own principality, the Palatinate, being occupied by Philipp’s troops. And now after all the pain he had experienced in the service of his younger brother, he, the eldest son, was now to give up his family inheritance. Henry snapped and switched sides, joining Philipp.

And then archbishop Adolf of Cologne, the one guy who had kicked off the conflict also switched to Philipp. He may have worried about the overbearing nature of the young Welf who might still hanker after Westphalia or it was a more prosaic donation of 5000 mark of silver that changed his mind.

This is also the time English money stops coming.

Only the city of Cologne is still with Otto.

In 1205 Philipp can eventually heal the defects in his initial coronation. He is crowned again, this time in the right place, the palatine chapel in Aachen, by the correct Archbishop, Adolf of Cologne.

From there it should have only been a question of time before Otto finally gives up. There are two more battles between Otto and the citizens of Cologne on one side and Philipp and his superior troops on the other. Otto loses both of them and is even gets injured in one of them.

Heinrich von Kalden, the great leader of Philipp’s armies finally arranges for the two kings to meet to resolve their differences. Philipp offers Otto great terms. Otto was to marry Philipp’s daughter, become duke of Swabia and King of Burgundy if he gives up the claim on the imperial crown. But Otto refuses. Even when pope Innocent III urges him to accept, he still refuses.

All the parties can agree to is a truce. But the route ahead is now clear. Otto’s claim is defunct. His support is gone. Cologne had opened its doors to Philipp. Philipp is gathering a large army to dislodge him from his last remaining positions around Brunswick. His future is bleak, he will either have to go into exile or end his days on one of his father’s castles, alone and friendless.

On June 21st, 1208, Philipp is celebrating the marriage of his niece, the daughter of his brother Otto of Burgundy to the duke of Andechs-Meran in Bamberg. It is again, a splendid occasion. Many of the imperial princes have come, and the groom’s brother, the bishop of Bamberg had celebrated a great wedding in the marvellous cathedral the current bishop was constructing over the ruins of Henry II’s House of God.

At the end of the church service Philipp retires to the cooler rooms inside the episcopal palace. There he had asked his physician to bleed him. He was alone with just his chancellor and his Lord High Stewart, Henry of Waldburg. At the ninth hour, Otto von Wittelsbach, the count palatinate of Bavaria enters the royal chambre alone. Philipp welcomes him and even as Otto unsheathes his sword, the king still believes that all Otto wants to do is display his skills with the blade as he had often done before.

But not today. “This will not be a game for you today” the count screams and cuts straight through the royal jugular. The High Stewart tries to intervene but is struck down. Otto and his men can flee. 

Philipp of Swabia is dead. The first royal assassination since Merovingian times and one of only two in the Holy Roman empire.

And in this power vacuum steps, his opponent, Otto IV. as the anointed king. Almost immediately all imperial princes recognise Otto IV. as the rightful king and heir.

Philipp’s wife, the majestic and tragic Queen Irene flees to Swabia, to a monastery close to the family seat of the Hohenstaufen.  There she dies 2 months later in childbirth.

The civil war is over. One question remains, why did Otto von Wittelsbach kill his king?

The contemporaries ascribed the murder to injured honour. Otto von Wittelsbach had been promised a daughter of King Philipp in marriage. This offer was made shortly after the king had to flee from Erfurt when his chips were down, and he needed Otto’s support. But when things had improved, Philipp cancels the marriage agreement and offers the girl to someone else.

Is that indeed what happened? A recent essay claimed that the act was part of a wider conspiracy that included the groom, the duke of Andechs, his brother, the bishop of Bamberg and the duke of Bavaria. All these men were loosely related as members of the wider house of Wittelsbach and had their power base in what we now see as Bavaria. It was suspicious that both the duke of Andechs and his brother, the bishop fled immediately after the murder.

But this theory is widely dismissed, in part because the evidence it was based on was badly put together. And further it is very unclear what benefit these protagonists would have drawn from killing Philipp. As things stood the conflict between Welf and Waiblingen was a honeypot for the magnates. As long as it continued, they could demand money, titles, marriages and privileges in exchange for their continued loyalty. Killing one of them would bring back tighter, more centralised royal power.

But if Otto acted alone, what does that mean. Was he simply a particularly prickly man who could not control himself. Or was he acting within the context of the honour code of the times.

German historians of the period have recently focused more and more on honour as a broader social concept. They conclude that the concept of honour, i.e., the loss or gain of reputation within the aristocratic class is crucial to maintaining political and economic positions. A lord who cannot defend his honour risks losing his vassals and subsequently his military and financial resources.

I am not qualified to really give an opinion on that. But I notice that broken marriage agreements are quite common as alliances are shifting back and forth. We have already talked about the devaluation of oaths and the machiavellisation of society. Hold that against the one isolated case of royal assassination and my money is on Otto being exceptionally prickly or has indeed suffered a massive humiliation by Philipp.

Otto never got to explain his actions. Heinrich von Kalden, most feared of the Hohenstaufen Ministeriales, hunted him down, and in a barn somewhere in Bavaria cut off his head and threw it into a river.

Next week we will see how Otto IV. the only Welf on the imperial throne will fare. Let is find out what is left of the royal infrastructure and income after 10 years of handouts to imperial princes? And most crucially, will his alliance with Innocent III hold against the political train tracks of the empire?

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