Episode 97 – Rebellion

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Now that we know the lay of the land it is time for action, and quite some action it will be. The Wends, the pagan Slavic peoples living east of the Elbe who found themselves ever more squeezed by their now Christian neighbours wake up one morning to find their oppressors fatally weakened. Events 2000 km south of Brandenburg create the once in a century opportunity to throw off the yoke of the Saxons. The newly built churches go up in flames and their tormentors flee back across the Elbe. Any plans for retaliation are thwarted by a succession crisis. This loss of control will have a major impact not on German history but will reset the relationship with Poland and Bohemia as well. In the year 1000, emperor Otto III will manifest this new relationship when he visits one of Poland’s most remarkable monarch, Boleslav the Brave in Gniesno. Let’s find out…


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 97 – Rebellion!

Now that we know the lay of the land it is time for action, and quite some action it will be. The Wends, the pagan Slavic peoples living east of the Elbe who found themselves ever more squeezed by their now Christian neighbours wake up one morning to find their oppressors fatally weakened. Events 2000 km south of Brandenburg create the once in a century opportunity to throw off the yoke of the Saxons. The newly built churches go up in flames and their tormentors flee back across the Elbe. Any plans for retaliation are thwarted by a succession crisis. This loss of control will have a major impact not on German history but will reset the relationship with Poland and Bohemia as well. In the year 1000, emperor Otto III will manifest this new relationship when he visits one of Poland’s most remarkable monarch, Boleslav the Brave in Gniesno. Let’s find out…

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Last week we got a rundown of the main neighbours of the North, the Bohemians, the Poles and the Danes. All of these are now Christian and all of them are at least formally vassals of the emperor Otto the Great.

Not all of them are happy about that though. The Danes took the opportunity to rebel when emperor Otto the Great died in 973. Their king, Harald Bluetooth felt safe behind the Danevirke. The Danevirke is a 30km long earthen wall that goes from the old Danish trading port of Haithabu, near modern day Schleswig to the marshlands of the Treene river, effectively blocking access to the Jutland peninsula. This structure had been built and rebuilt several times over and in slightly different locations since about the year 650. The point of it was to defend Denmark against any retaliatory attacks their raids along the coast would trigger, or even more importantly, against a Saxon invasion during times when many of the Danish fighters were out in England or France. And it worked well. Even Charlemagne did not press on beyond the Danevirke after his conquest of Saxony. Most of the 9th and early 10th century the Danes did not see much threat from their immediate south. That changed when Henry the Fowler upgraded the military of East Francia. He and Otto the Great had entered Denmark several times and encouraged/forced the adoption of Christianity.

The Danish king Harald Bluetooth famous not just for his lax attitude towards dental hygiene, wanted to break out of this stranglehold. So he spent much fine gold on reenforcing the defences in the years leading up to 973, waiting for his chance. When Otto the great died in 973, he believes the moment had come. Transition of power from one monarch to the next is always a fraught affair in the early Middle Ages. And Otto II ascent to the throne was no exception.

Otto’s cousin, Henry aptly named “the Quarrelsome”, duke of Bavaria laid claim to the throne. His branch of the family had for a long time believed they had been cheated out of the succession after Henry the Fowler. Civil war was in the air.

And the king of Denmark wasn’t the only one who thought this was the time to shake off the imperial yoke. There are the sons of a former duke of Lothringia who plotted to get back what was once theirs. And the dukes of Poland and Bohemia openly supported Henry’s claim to replace Otto II.

Harold Bluetooth did not officially take part in the rebellion or link up with Henry the Quarrelsome. Still he musters his army and moves south, burning and pillaging as he went. Along for the journey came Jarl Haakon, the ruler of Norway who had become Harald Bluetooth’s vassal.

Despite having his hands full with his cousin, the Bohemians, the Poles and the Lotharingians, Otto II was able to field an army that pushed the Danish and Norwegian attackers back behind the Danevirke. But attempts to break the mighty defences were rebuffed.

According to the Danish sources, it was the betrayal by the Jarl Haakon who left in the midst of the fighting that turned the fortune of war. The Danevirke was broken, and Otto II stood inside the now defenceless kingdom. That brought not only an end to Harald Bluetooth’s rebellion, it also brought Schleswig into the empire.

Just to round off the story, Otto II was able to put down his cousin’s rebellion and forced the dukes of Bohemia and Poland to submit to him again in 978. So all is back to where we were when Otto the Great had died.

Well, yes and no. Otto II was no Otto the Great. Despite his initial success he found himself humiliated in 980 when king Lothair of West Francia suddenly attacked Aachen where the imperial family had just sat down for dinner. Otto II and his glamorous wife, the empress Theophanu escaped by a hair’s breadth. These and other misadventures began to undermine the credibility of the regime.

The biggest blow came in 982 when Otto had taken the largest army ever put up by the Ottonians to conquer Southern Italy. At the battle of Capo Colonna or battle of Stilo as some called it, the imperial forces were practically wiped out. They counted 4,000 fallen men, amongst them the duke of Benevento, the bishop Henry of Augsburg, the Margrave Gunther of Merseburg, the abbot of Fulda and a further 19 counts.  That cut deep into the military capabilities of the still young empire.

This defeat and the loss of his army was the moment so many had waited for, and none more so than the Wends. The rebellion began on July 29, 983 with the murder of the garrison and the destruction of the Cathedral of Havelberg, in the Northern March.

According to the chronicler Helmond von Bosau the trigger for that rebellion was the unwarranted mistreatment of the Slavs, in particular the Abodrites. The Abodrites are a federation of several Slavic tribes who live in the March of the Billungs, across Holstein and Mecklenburg. They had become Christian after the battle at the Raxa River where the leader of the Obodrites had his head put on a spike and 700 of his soldiers had been executed. This convinced the brother of the now headless prince of the Abodrites to become Christian. How sincere that was I leave to you to judge.

His son Mistivoj thought he would give this Christianity thing a real go. He saw how the Poles and Bohemians had been integrated into the political system of Christian Europe and risen in stature and power after taking the plunge. Not only did he convert and regularly paid the oppressive tributes, but -according to the chronicler – he also participated in imperial campaigns in Italy. To further enhance his status he had asked the duke Bernhard Billung for the hand of his daughter in marriage. As the nuptials approached the duke became evasive. Finally Dietrich von Halvensleben, the margrave of the Northern Marches shouted out that “the daughter of a duke should not be given to a dog”.

Dietrich von Havelberg who must have been a pretty nasty piece of work if even Thietmar accuses him to have brutally oppressed the populace in the Northern March

Mistivoj was not only deeply offended but also realised that his reconciliatory approach had failed. He meets up with the leaders of other Slavic tribes and they decide to strike. First, they attack Havelberg and 3 days later the cathedral of Brandenburg goes up in flames. The graves of the previous bishops were opened, and their bones scattered, the church treasures stolen and they “brutally spilled the blood of many”. But the biggest point of consternation for Thietmar and the Saxons was that all the population, even those who had converted, supported the uprising.

Meanwhile Mistivoj had less garrisons to burn in his own lands and so crossed the Elbe and attacked the core of the Saxon duchy. His troops burn Hamburg to the ground, kill the priests and take many home as prisoners. They even progressed as far as Magdeburg though the margrave Dietrich, the same who had caused so much anger, was able to put them to flight.

What happens next is hard to piece together from the sources. It seems the leaders of the border counties and the bishops finally gather troops to stop the flood of raging pagans. Battle is joined near Stendal and the Slavs are allegedly beaten comprehensively. I say allegedly because after the battle the Saxon troops move back behind the Elbe River and effectively abandon the Slavic lands to their people who continued in their pagan beliefs. In my book that would mean the Slavs have won.

Once the immediate catastrophe was averted, the Saxons call for their mighty emperor to come up and help sorting things out. Otto II had survived the carnage at the battle of capo Colonna by swimming out to a Byzantine merchant ship – but that is another story you can find in episode 10.

In 983 he held an assembly in Verona where the Saxon leaders attended. How much help they found there is a bit unclear since the key decisions taken there had nothing to do with Saxony. One of these decisions was to elect the 3-year-old son of Otto II as king and successor to his father.

Otto III travelled north to Aachen for his coronation as king. This took place at Christmas 983. If you go to Aachen cathedral you can still see a railing that had been put up in front of Charlemagne’s  throne to stop the imperial toddler from falling to his death.

Otto III did escape death on that day, but his father wasn’t so lucky. He had died in Rome in Mid-December, likely from exhaustion, frustration and the generally unhealthy conditions. Messengers with the bad news nocked on the doors of the cathedral just as the last of the Te-Deums was sung.

Like the death of Otto the great, the death of Otto II triggered a wave of rebellions, only worse this time. The Slavs are already in full-on riot mode. The next to smell the coffee was king Harald Bluetooth up there in Denmark. He saddled up again, retook the Danevirke and burned the additional castle Otto II had built for its defence. Schleswig too was lost.

This time the new emperor will not come up to Jutland for a long time. The rebellious duke Henry the Quarrelsome of Bavaria who had languished in jail for the last years was released as soon as the news of Otto II’s death had arrived. He is in Utrecht just two days ride from Aachen. He gallops down and seizes the royal child. As the closest male relative, he claims guardianship and the regency.

For many of the nobles Henry, despite his somewhat uncouth way of assuming control might look like a sensible solution. As the borders are on fire, who would want to put their faith onto the hands of a child. The duke of Bavaria was an experienced war leader and may well be the right person to protect the realm.

But not everyone is on board with Henry. The child’s mother, the empress Theophanu and its grandmother, the empress Adelheid were working together with the future pope Sylvester II to build up opposition against Henry’s plans. Many of the great nobles and bishops are concerned about the life expectancy of little Otto, who was after all their anointed king. An accidental fall down the stairs or a sudden illness is all that separates the Quarrelsome from the throne.

To make sure he can suppress any opposition Henry gathers allies to his cause. One is the king of West Francia, Lothair, who like any French king before him and any French king after him, wants Lothringia back. So Henry promises him the whole duchy in exchange for support. And two others he gathered to his side, the duke of Bohemia, Boleslaus II and the duke of Poland, Miesco I. We do not know what he promised them, but it is likely a material easing of their duties as vassals to the royal house.

The key to his success lay in Saxony. Saxony is where the risk of invasion is highest, and hence the willingness to accept Henry should be strongest. It is also the largest duchy and home of the imperial family.

When Henry popped up in Saxony in February 984, support was initially quite strong. He had by now dropped the pretext of guardianship and regency but was openly seeking the throne either for himself or together with little Otto. But during the subsequent few months his followership began to crumble. In part that may be due to his personal behaviour. In a famous scene he refused to show mercy to two Saxon counts who had approached him barefoot and begged his pardon. That was not very kingly.

But what must really have gone down the wrong way was that Henry invited not just the dukes of Poland and Bohemia to his election assembly in Magdeburg, but also the Mitsivoj, the deeply offended leader of the Abodrites who had only months earlier burned and pillaged the archbishopric of Hamburg. To top it off, duke Bolelslaus of Bohemia had taken possession of the March of Meissen whilst he was en route down to this assembly.

Whether it was their presence, the behaviour of Henry or the oath they had sworn to little Otto III a number of Saxon magnates, namely the duke Bernhard of Saxony, son of Hermann Billung, the margraves Dietrich of the Northern March, Bio and Esiko of Merseburg and Count Eckehard, the future margrave of Meissen as well as Bernward, future bishop of Hildesheim left the assembly and swore to oppose Henry’s claim to kingship.

Henry tried to bring them to submit through the display of military might but failed to intimidate them. That was a major blow to his claim. He could not deploy his military power against these men because that would have kicked off a civil war that the foreign foes would have exploited, which in turn would have undermined the underlying logic of his candidature. Henry then wanders off to find support in Bavaria and Franconia but the momentum is lost. There were another complex sets of backs and forths, but in the end Henry gives in and Theophanu becomes regent. We went through that is some detail in episode 11 which is by the way super interesting.

What is important here is that the Saxons had made again clear that they are the heart of the Ottonian system of government and that they have the final say who becomes king. Or at least that is what they believed.

Resolving the succession crisis did not mean that the threats on the border were resolved. What follows is a bit repetitive and goes roughly as follows:

Every year the Saxons raid into the lands of the Wends, specifically into the March of the Billungs and into the Northern March. They burn and pillage and then they go home. The following year they do the same and the year after, again, the same thing. They often organised these campaigns in collaboration with the duke of Poland, Miesco who would come in from the east. As you may see on the map, both of these marches were trapped between Poland and Saxony. In 986, little Otto comes along for one of these campaigns and allegedly captured Brandenburg, but the year later it is back in the hands of the locals.

Either before or during this period several of the smaller Wendish tribes joined together into the Liutzi or Lutici federation. They inhabited the Northern March as well as the eastern part of the March of the Billungs. They often ally with Mistivoj’s Abodrites who live in Holstein and Mecklenburg and the Hevellers based around Havelberg.

The Abodrites, Liutzi and Hevellers had by now largely reverted to their pagan religion. Their most important religious centre though was called Rethra, Riedegost or -for fans of Tolkien – Radegast. We know that Rethra was located within the territory of the Redarii, one of the federated members of the Liutzi, but we still have not found its exact location or any remnants of it.

The above applies only to the March of the Billungs and the Northern March, modern day Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Brandenburg. In the two marches further south, Lusatia and Meissen the situation was materially different. Yes, there were serious rebellions as well. But thanks to the focused approach of Margrave Gero and his successors these marches had been much deeper penetrated by Saxon forces. There were multiple strong fortifications from where the occupiers could keep the Slavic population under their control. Hence down south the margraves could hold firm, the bishoprics stayed, and the Slavic inhabitants were made to maintain the Christian religion.

Things were so stable that Margrave Hodo of Lusatia seems to have had enough spare capacity to attack the Liutzi from the south. In Meissen the new Margrave, Eckhart I had taken over in 985. Eckhart was one of the most ambitious and proactive military leaders during this period. He had to fight on two fronts. On one side he had to get the locals back into submission but om top of that he had thrown out the Bohemians who had captured Meissen during the uprising of Henry the Quarrelsome.

Part of this success was down to a falling out between duke Miesco of Poland and duke Boleslaus II of Bohemia. Until now the two dukes seemed to have worked hand in glove in their attempts to get out from under imperial control. But once Otto III and his regency was established and the crisis resolved, they went at each other’s throat. This was mainly down to Boleslaus’ business model that was based on regular raids into enemy territory, which included Silesia where Poland pursued a similar policy. The conflict got so heated, the Christian Boleslaus was happy to go as far as entering into an alliance with the rebellious pagan Liutzi, as long as that kept Miesco busy. For the Saxons this struggle had the advantage that the Bohemians did not have enough resources to hold on to the March of Meissen.

If you look at it from a height of 10,000 feet, the political framework has markedly shifted. The March of the Billungs and the Northern March are no longer under direct Saxon control. The local tribes have lined up in two more powerful federations, the Abodrites and the Liutzi. The two southern marches are still held, but are under risk of attacks from the Bohemians, possibly in alliance with the Liutzi. And on top of that the mainly Slavic population is not best disposed towards their Saxon overlords.

That forces the local magnates into ever-closer alliance with duke Miesco of Poland. The Poles can provide coordinated attacks into the lands of the Wends and at the same time hold the Bohemians in check. These alliances are getting underpinned by marriages. Duke Miesco I marries Oda von Haldensleben, the daughter of margrave Dietrich of the Northern March. In turn the polish duke’s daughter marries Gunzelin the brother of Margrave Eckart of Meissen. And there were many more these personal and political links that will only grow stronger from here onwards.

Whilst the links between Saxon magnates and the Poles tighten, the link between the empire and Poland becomes looser. In a clever move, Miesco gave the whole of Poland to the Pope in 991 or 992. By doing that Miesco weakens the religious oversight of the archbishopric of Magdeburg, which is an important step in the disassociation between Poland and the empire.

These developments culminate in the famous journey Otto III undertakes to Gniezno in the year 1000. The background to the journey is Saint Adalbert of Prague or Vojtech in Czech. Saint Adalbert was a member of an important Bohemian family and became bishop of Prague at a very young age.

Despite his noble birth and elevated position Adalbert rejected all forms of comfort and luxury. Instead he pursued an ascetic life of prayer. He had to leave his seat as bishop of Prague because the local magnates did not take kindly to his excessive piety, or more precisely his idea that the wealth of the church should serve the poor. It also did not help that Adalbert’s powerful family was opposing duke Boleslaus of Bohemia. Things had come to a head when Adalbert tried to stop the mob from lynching a woman accused of adultery by sheltering her in his church.

Adalbert fled to Rome and did what he really wanted to do, which is commit himself to prayer and extreme forms of ascetic exercises as a monk. But that was not to be. He was dragged in front of a church Synod because as a bishop he was not allowed to abandon his flock for the delights of regular prayer, fasting and self-flagellation. Under canon law the link between a bishop and his diocese was an eternal bond like marriage that could not be broken. And that went both ways, i.e., as long as Adalbert was alive no new bishop of Prague could be appointed. That is why Adalbert’s superior, the Archbishop Willigis of Mainz insisted on Adalbert going back to Prague. Willigis did not care much that Adalbert would almost certainly be killed upon arrival, since like all the other members of his family who had been massacred by the duke.  Quite frankly that was all for the better, as far as Willigis was concerned since he could then appoint a new, more reliable bishop.

Otto III met Adalbert at the synod and almost immediately formed a close bond with the holy bishop. Through his intervention Adalbert’s condemnation was commuted into a missionary assignment with the Pruzzi. These are a pagan tribe that lives north-East of Poland and has so far been untouched by Christianity. As it turns out Adalbert’s chances of survival had not improved significantly in this new challenge. The Pruzzi aren’t Slavic but Baltic people who spoke Old Prussian, vaguely linked to Lithuanian and Latvian. They also did not like foreigners very much. And what they liked even less apparently was books. So when Adalbert got to his first village in Prussia and started preaching and reading from the bible, the local chieftain hit him over the head with an oar since he thought he was calling down demons. Things did not improve from here and a few weeks later a local mob led by a pagan priest attacked Adalbert and his small group of followers whilst they were lying on the grass having a snack. His head was cut off and put on a pole – with a small p.

Meanwhile old Miesco of Poland had died and the duchy had gone to his son, Boleslav, known in Poland as Boleslav Chrobry or Boleslav the Brave. He would become one of the most celebrated Polish rulers. Boleslav had welcomed Adalbert and had provided him with a military escort to the border. But not any further. Boleslav the Brave of Poland is terribly embarrassed about the death of the emperor’s friend and mentor. He promptly ransoms the body of Adalbert as well as his surviving brother from the Pruzzi. He brings the body of Adalbert to Gniezno (Gnesen in German) where he is buried in the main church.

When Otto hears about the death of his spiritual guide, he is profoundly shaken and blames himself for having encouraged him to go to Poland in the first place. And so he develops the idea of wanting to go to Gniezno and pray at the shrine of now Saint Adalbert.

But this is not only a spiritual journey. At least on the side of Boleslav the Brave this is an eminently political event. And it should also be on the side of Otto III. The relationship between Poland and the empire needs to be put on a new footing. The previous model of the duke of Poland as a vassal in the same way as say the duke of Swabia was a vassal no longer worked. On the other hand, letting Poland wander off into the sunset as an independent state was also not conceivable.

What follows was likely a misunderstanding on both sides.

Otto III arrives in Poland in the spring of the year 1000 and is welcomed by Boleslav the Brave, duke of Poland. Boleslav pushes the boat out big time for his important visitor. He has his soldiers and nobles arranged in long columns in a field like an enormous choir. His subjects were told to put on all the bling they could find, cloth embroidered with precious metal, fur and shiny armour. This event is basically the Polish equivalent of the field of cloth of gold.

But it is much more than that. According to Polish chronicles Otto III found what he saw far exceeds the rumours he had heard of Boleslav’s wealth and power. And then, upon consultation with his great men, Otto III declared that such an eminent man should not be called merely a count or duke but should be elevated to the royal title. Then, taking the imperial diadem from his head, Otto placed it on Boleslav’s head in a bond of friendship. And then he gives Boleslav a replica of the Holy Lance with a small shard of the nail of the cross in it.

The German chronicles are not completely in line with this. They do record a splendid reception by Boleslav, a bond of friendship and an elevation of Boleslav to become a “friend and ally of the Roman people”. But crucially they do not record a coronation or any other form of elevation to kingship.

This question whether the ruler of Poland has a royal title and what exactly his relationship to the empire is, will dominate the next century of Imperial-Polish relationship.

But – weird as that may sound – the coronation or not coronation wasn’t the main event.

After the great gathering Otto and Boleslav proceed to Gniezno, the place where Saint Adalbert is buried.  When he sees the city from afar, Otto gets off his horse, takes off his shoes and his imperial clothes and humbly walks into the town barefoot. At the church he is received by the bishop of Poznan who guides him in, the emperor kneels down in front of the sarcophagus of his friend and mentor, weeps profusely and prays for god’s grace through the intercession of the martyr.

Upon rising Otto declared the elevation of the church of Gniezno to an archbishopric. You may remember that duke Miesco had given the whole of Poland to the Pope as a donation. That had already weakened the link between the archbishopric of Magdeburg which was technically still in charge of Polish bishops. By creating the archbishopric of Gniezno, Otto III removed Poland from the control of the archbishopric of Magdeburg for good. The only level of hierarchy above the archbishop of Gniesno was now the pope.

The brother of Adalbert who had been ransomed by Boleslav is made the first archbishop of Gniezno and thereby the first primate of the Polish church. It also means that Poland is now separate from the Empire in terms of ecclesiastical organisation, which makes it easier to become independent in its secular relationships. You see the difference when you look at Bohemia or Czechia, where the bishop of Prague remains subordinated to Magdeburg for longer allowing the empire to integrate the Czechs.

There we are in our story. The two Northern marches are lost. Poland is rowing away fast from imperial control. What we have not talked about are our friends the Danes – quite a lot going on there too. That we will talk about next week. The other thing we will talk about next week is what happened after Otto III died. His successor is none other than the son of Henry the Quarrelsome, and he, the emperor Henry II will take a very different approach to the eastern border, an approach that will drive a first wedge between the Saxons and their emperor. I hope you will join us again.

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