Episode 98 – The Rift

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This week we are talking about the rift that is opening up between the Saxons and the Empire. For 80 years Saxony had been the centre of imperial power and the Ottonians had been supportive of the Saxon nobles’ policy vis-à-vis the Wends and Poland. All that Is about to change. The new emperor Henry II, though a direct descendant of Henry the Fowler, was no Saxon. For three generations his family had been dukes of Bavaria and all that exposure to the despised southerners had rubbed off. The Saxons were too divided to field their own candidate, but that does not mean they wanted Henry II. And for good reason. The new administration drives a 180 degree turn in imperial policy versus Poland and versus the Slavic tribes in the Marches….


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 98 – The Rift

This week we are talking about the rift that is opening up between the Saxons and the Empire. For 80 years Saxony had been the centre of imperial power and the Ottonians had been supportive of the Saxon nobles’ policy vis-à-vis the Wends and Poland. All that Is about to change. The new emperor Henry II, though a direct descendant of Henry the Fowler, was no Saxon. For three generations his family had been dukes of Bavaria and all that exposure to the despised southerners had rubbed off. The Saxons were too divided to field their own candidate, but that does not mean they wanted Henry II. And for good reason. The new administration drives a 180 degree turn in imperial policy versus Poland and versus the Slavic tribes in the Marches….

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Last week we left off with emperor Otto III travelling to Gniezno and crowning or not crowning Boleslav the Brave as king. What he definitely did was elevating Gniezno to an archbishopric which cut the feet off the archbishop of Magdeburg’s claim to be in charge of all missionary activity in the east. All this was part of a repositioning of the relationship between Poland and the Empire in the wake of the Slavic rebellion of 983 and the formation of the Liuitzi and Abodrites federations that partially united the Slavic tribes between Elbe and Oder. To keep them down the empire was reliant on the duke of Poland. And Poland’s new ruler, Boleslav the Brave used this situation as leverage to move from mere vassal and duke to a new status as a friend and ally of the emperor.

Before we get into the story of how this relationship develops further, there are two other topics we need to discuss. The first is the situation in Denmark and the other is the succession of Otto III.

Let’s start with Denmark. Last time we checked in on them, King Harald Bluetooth had used the chaos following the catastrophic defeat of Otto II at the battle of capo Colonna and the succession crisis following Otto II’s death to retake the Danevirke and throw off the yoke of imperial vassalage.

But Harald Bluetooth could not enjoy his success for long. He had a son who may even have been the godson of Otto I, called Sweyn Otto. That son had been exiled together with his mother when Harald Bluetooth decided he fancied some well-endowed Slavic princess. To no-one’s surprise that turned out to have been a mistake because Sweyn came back several times to claim what he believed to be his rightful inheritance. In 986 he was successful. He defeated his father who died of wounds sustained in the decisive battle.

Adam of Bremen reports that Sweyn, though baptised a Christian, gave up his faith and reverted back to the old gods. Not only that but he also initiated widespread persecution of Christians across Denmark. For that he was punished by the Swedes who – according to Adam von Bremen – conquered Denmark with an army, “in number like the sand on the seashore”. What followed was 14 years of exile that only ended when the Swedish king died and Sweyn returned to Christianity.

That story used to be the generally accepted version but is now debunked. Archaeologists have found several churches built on Sweyn’s command during the period he was allegedly living in exile. There is also no record in Swedish sagas of a conquest of Denmark, something they would surely not have left out. What is more likely is that the archbishop of Hamburg and his chronicler had been upset when Sweyn placed Danish-speaking clerics from England into Danish bishoprics. If that is what happened and indeed these clerics had been responsible for missionary success in Norway and Sweden, then the claim of the archbishop of Hamburg to be the primate of all Scandinavian churches was very much in doubt.

So the more likely scenario is that Sweyn, who is now no longer calling himself Sweyn Otto, but Sweyn Forkebeard ruled continuously from 986 to his death in 1014. If the name Sweyn Forkebeard sounds familiar, the answer is yes. This is the same Sweyn Forkebeard who first raided and then conquered England after king Aethelread the Unready had committed the St. Brice massacres. He is also the father of king Knut who ruled over a Denmark, Norway and England, a veritable Nordic empire.

I am not the one to tell this story, I leave that to the History of England, the British History podcast and obviously Mikael Shankman from the Scandinavian History Podcast. And here is the man himself:

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What interests us here is only what Sweyn does on the border in Schleswig. And the answer is – nothing. Adam von Bremen mentions some Viking raids, raids that were so threatening that Bremen received a brand new city wall and the most valuable relics were brought down south. But there is no attempt at pushing the border. Hedeby, the trading city near Schleswig was back in Danish hands and as we heard, the Danish king was no longer a vassal of the empire and the Danish bishoprics were outside the authority of Hamburg. In that scenario Sweyn Forkebeard could see not much point in opening up a new frontier that would only weaken his ability to conquer England.

And on the other side, why did the empire not try to bring the Danish king back to heel? Nobody says anything, but the simple answer is that the delta in military capability on land between the empire and its neighbours was no longer as wide as it had been 50 years earlier. If they cannot tame the Slavs in the Northern Marches, how would they be able to defeat the mighty Danes?

And there was another issue. The empire was disunited. The emperor Otto III had died very young, most likely from a combination of mild illness and excessive religious exertions. He had not been married and had no offspring. He was also his father’s only son whilst his sister and many of his female relatives had joined religious orders. That left only one relative in the male line, Henry, duke of Bavaria, son of Henry the Quarrelsome, abductor of little Otto III and grandson of another Henry, brother and bane of Otto I.

Henry was of the view that he should be elected king and future emperor on the strength of his name and his position as duke of Bavaria. But not everyone agreed. The kingdom of East Francia was still an elective monarchy. Sure, the ruling king could force through the election of his son, as happened the last three times, but a second cousin was a different matter. Multiple candidates threw their hats in the ring. These included the duke of Swabia, Otto of Worms and the son of Hermann Billung, Bernhard Billung who was now duke of Saxony.

Within Saxony there was however an even more ambitious man, count Ekkehard of Meissen. He was a celebrated warrior. His most famous feat was the storming of the Castel Sant Angelo in Rome in 998. We know him for keeping control of the Slavs east of Meissen, taming the duke of Bohemia and commanding the respect of Boleslav the Brave of Poland. His fame was such that he was recognised by many as duke of Thuringia, a title that had been out of use for 200 years. He may not have any royal blood, but he is definitely on the list.

Duke Henry of Bavaria was nothing if not an astute and ruthless politician. He managed to get hold of the imperial regalia, which were a precondition for a valid coronation. To do that he had the bishop of Augsburg taken hostage which given his family’s reputation for blinding bishops was enough to make this bishop’s brother handing over the all-important Holy Lance. That brother was also the archbishop of Cologne which gives him access to the coronation church in Aachen, another important building block in the road to kingship.

What he needed now was some sort of quorum for an election.

Meanwhile in Saxony the Major nobles of the duchy had come together to discuss the succession. There was no consensus amongst the Saxons on who they wanted as the new king. They were treated well under the Ottonians who still saw themselves as Saxons and they ideally wanted their privileged status to remain as is. But there was no natural candidate for that policy.

Henry was not seen as a Saxon despite his heritage. His family had been dukes of Bavaria for three generations. And worse, Henry II had run a tight ship in Bavaria which got the Saxons worried he might suppress their ancient rights and privileges. Some supported the duke of Swabia. And then there was Ekkehard of Meissen who was a Saxon, but he was not universally loved in the duchy. So, in the first instance the Saxon nobles agreed to recognise no one, and all attendees, apart from Ekkehard, swore not to support any candidate unless they had all agreed.

One Saxon noble, Liuthard, however had a firm view that Ekkehard should not become king under any circumstances. He had it in for Ekkehard because of some slight related to a marriage proposal. So, he travelled down to Bavaria to discuss next steps with Henry. These two came up with a plan. They would send two abbesses, Mathilda and Sophie, a sister and an aunt of Otto III to plead Henry’s case in front of the Saxon nobles. These Ottonian abbesses are not to be underestimated. The ladies ruled abbeys that were extraordinarily rich and could raise significant contingents of soldiers. But more importantly, they combined imperial and sacred status. Several of them had become saints after their death, others had been regents during the absence of Otto II and Otto III.

When the abbesses showed up at the gathering of the Saxon magnates, they were initially treated with all the honours becoming their status. But after they had made their mission clear, Ekkehard and his supporters stopped being nice. They sent the ladies up to their room without dinner and took their place at the feast. That was worse than impolite, it was a mistake. You cannot treat the imperial ladies like that. His fellow Saxon were so wound up by that snub,  Ekkehard was made to leave the gathering with his prospects now much diminished. He headed for Aachen, where Otto IIIs body was to be buried and, where in all likelihood, a royal assembly would gather to elect a new king.

En route to Aachen Ekkehard stayed at the Pfalz in Poehlde. In the night four armed men attack his sleeping quarters. They enter the antechamber and kill two of his attendants. Ekkehard wakes up and tries to raise his guards by making a fire and opening the window. All that does is alert the attackers to his whereabouts.  They break down the door, kill more of his knights and finally one throws a javelin that brings the mighty warrior down.  When he lies on the ground the assailants pile in, cut off his head and gruesomely mutilate his body before retreating. That crime shocked his contemporaries and raised many questions.

The assailants claimed it was revenge for the mistreatment of the imperial ladies at dinner. There was also some blood feud going on between Ekkehard and one of his assailants. But some things point to Henry as well. The assailants were relatives of Henry’s wife Kunigunde, of which there are admittedly many. Now I do not want to point the finger at anyone here, but that smells a bit off.

Killing Ekkehard created not just a moral but also a military problem. Ekkehard and his reputation as an invincible warrior had been key to holding down the Slavic tribes around Meissen and keeping the dukes of Bohemia in line. Ekkehard also maintained great relations with Boleslav the Brave of Poland. With his death that whole power balance collapsed, adding another big headache to whoever would become king.

With Eckhard out of the way, Henry outfoxed the duke of Swabia, managed to rustle up enough magnates to call it a quorum for an election and got the archbishop of Mainz to crown him. All that had happened without any involvement of Saxons though.

Hence the magnates of Saxony met for the third time to discuss the succession, this time in Merseburg. Henry appeared in person, wearing the royal robes and crown, thereby indicating that he did not come for election but for allegiance. The Saxons yielded, but only after having secured their ancient rights and privileged access to the king. Henry received another, this time only a ceremonial coronation. Henry and his wife moved on from there to Paderborn, which is still in Saxony. Here his wife, Kunigunde was formally crowned, which is another faint attempt by the Saxons to retain the right to determine who is king and queen of the land.

But we are now off on the wrong foot. The close link between the imperial family and Saxony is broken. Which gets me to the third topic I wanted to cover in this episode.

The great Saxon nobles, their duke Bernhard and Ekkehard of Meissen had operated very much in line with the policy of Otto III, meaning he maintained close relations with the Christian duke of Poland, Boleslav the Brave whose lands were even further east.

Following the great Slavic uprising of 983 the military strategy was was to attack the Slavs from both sides, the Germans coming from the West and the Poles coming from the East. This close cooperation was underpinned further when Otto III did his famous pilgrimage to Gniezno in Poland where he may or may not have crowned Boleslav as king of the Poles. Ekkehard, as one of the leaders of the German armies in the east had developed close family ties with Boleslav, namely his brother Gunzelin was married to Boleslav’s sister.

When Ekkehard was killed and Henry II was hurtling towards his coronation, his march of Meissen became a power vacuum. Boleslav the Brave saw the opportunity and jumped in. Boleslav had been keen on Meissen and Lusatia for a long time. Within days Boleslav had taken hold of the Lausitz, and the town of Meissen, helped by his brother-in-law, Gunzelin. Sorry, I just love saying Gunzelin, what a brilliant name!

Boleslav defended his take-over by saying that he acted on Henry II’s behalf, securing the vacant county against his enemies (whatever these enemies were).

Boleslav came to meet king Henry II in Merseburg. Boleslav hoped to keep hold of all the lands he had occupied, and in particular wanted to be invested as margrave of Meissen. Henry II was not prepared to go all that far. He gave him presents and let him have part of the march of Lusatia. The compromise over the county and city of Meissen was that it went to Gunzelin, Boleslav’s brother-in-law and at that point his strong supporter. Not everything he wanted, but more than good enough.

What happens next is disputed. As Boleslav departed from Merseburg, he and his entourage are getting ambushed by an unidentified group of knights. Boleslav gets severely injured in the melee and just about gets away with his life. The reason he survived was an intervention by duke Bernhard of Saxony who was also a supporter of Otto III’s policy of friendship with Poland and also a relative of Boleslav.

Did Henry order the ambush? Boleslav definitely believed that to be true and on his way home sacked the town of Strehla to make his point. The German chronicler, Thietmar of Merseburg explicitly said that it happened without Henry’s knowledge. Thietmar suggests the attackers had to defend the honour of the king since Boleslav and his men had refused to leave their weapons at the door when they had come into his presence.

There might be no evidence of Henry II’s involvement, but whoever attacked Boleslav would not have dared doing that against the will of the king. And the king did not identify and punish the perpetrators. Not the act of a friend and ally.

That raises the question why Henry II reversed the policy of close friendship and coordination with Poland that all previous Ottonian emperors had supported.

The fact that Boleslav stood with Ekkehard of Meissen in his bid for kingship is unlikely to be a reason for a deep rift between the two rulers. Henry II was perfectly happy to work with Heribert of Cologne who had actively promoted the candidacy of the duke of Swabia.

Henry II bigger concern was the emergence of a hugely powerful new polity on his eastern frontier. Under Boleslav, Poland had become an increasingly coherent state, was expanding northwards and eastwards and the meeting of Gniezno had shown that the ruler of Poland had large resources at his disposal.

That concern of rising Polish power increased further due to instability in neighbouring Bohemia. In 999 another Boleslaus, Boleslaus III (937-1037) called the Red had become duke of Bohemia. He was a weak ruler who quickly got into conflict with his stepbrothers Jaromir and Ulrich. Boleslaus III had Jaromir castrated, and the two brothers fled into exile at the court of Henry II in Bavaria.

Before Henry II could intervene on their behalf, Boleslaus III was deposed by a certain Wlodowej, a relative of the ducal family. Boleslaus III fled to his relative, Boleslav the Brave of Poland.

The usurper Wlodowej died a few months later, allegedly because he could not go an hour without a drink. The two exiled brothers returned with Jaromir been made duke. That lasted a few months before Boleslaus III returned with support of Boleslav the Brave.

After the Polish Boleslav had returned home the Bohemian Boleslaus invited all the major nobles of the duchy to dinner and – since they had supported either Wlodowej or Jaromir or were otherwise irritating, had them all killed. That did not go down well with his people, and they called on Polish Boleslav for help. Polish Boleslav lured Bohemian Boleslaus into a trap and had him blinded and imprisoned. And then Boleslav the Brave made himself duke of Bohemia.

If that was not enough, Boleslav the Brave was strengthening his relationships with the Saxon magnates including by marrying his daughter to Hermann the son of Margrave Ekkehard. That gradually turned into a broader alliance of “Friends of Boleslav” that even included the duke of Saxony himself.

Bohemia, which was part of the empire, under the control of an already exceedingly powerful duke of Poland would have been unacceptable, even if the duke of Poland had been a faithful vassal. And a faithful vassal he clearly was not.

War had now become inevitable.

The area Henry II had to defend against a potential Polish attack stretched pretty much the full length of today’s Germany, from Hamburg in the far north to Passau in the far south. Moreover, the friends of Boleslav controlled most of the northern end of that border. They may not fight the king directly, but they would pass on information to Boleslav and hold back their troops. The only people Henry could trust in this conflict were the bishops and his Bavarians. In that situation Henry II did something very, very unexpected.

Henry II went into an alliance with the Liutzi, the federation of pagan Slavic tribes who lived in what is today Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. These peoples have been defending their way of life against Saxon incursions since at least the 920s.

Henry II is otherwise very much the Christian ruler who derives his authority from God directly. Him allying with pagans upsets a lot of people, not least the missionaries like Brun of Querfurt who wrote a very unusual letter of complaint to his theocratic ruler.

Despite being unable to rely on the battle-hardened Saxons and morally in the wrong, the initial campaign was successful. Henry expelled Boleslav from Prague by circumventing the Poles major forces and put Jaromir back on the ducal throne.

In a next step he confronted Boleslav at a place called Krossen, where Boleslav had to flee, leaving a lot of his train behind, but without much loss of actual soldiers. Henry II progressed further into Poland and besieged Poznan, one of major towns. But in the end, he could not take it and with his army weakened by hunger and disease, the two sides concluded a peace agreement in 1005.

This process would repeat itself several times over the next 13 years. Henry II would build up his forces, invade Poland, get stuck in the vast territory and finally agree a truce. That truce would last as long as it took Henry to gather new forces to make another run at it.

As time went by, Henry began to gradually replace unreliable counts and margraves along the border. Namely our friend Gunzelin, the brother-in-law of Boleslav was removed as the margrave of the crucial March of Meissen. His successor was Hermann, the oldest son of the murdered Eckart.

 Henry also tried to strengthen the power of the bishops in Saxony by handing them more and more resources. He -amongst other things – recreated the bishopric of Merseburg resolving an issue that had been undermining royal authority for the last 25 years.

One problem was that Boleslav was extremely well informed of what went on in Germany thanks to his network of supporters in the highest ranks of society. Every one of Henry’s moves, Boleslav could counter, and when that failed, he just disappeared into the depth of Poland where Henrys army would falter.

In 1013 both sides became pre-occupied with different things and made an attempt at a more lasting peace. Boleslav promised to be a faithful vassal of king Henry in exchange for being allowed to keep hold of what he had acquired, i.e., Lusatia, Silesia and some other parts of Bohemia Jaromir had been unable to recapture.

But that did not work either. Boleslav failed to send troops for Henry’s campaign to Rome which made him an unfaithful vassal. Henry invited Boleslav to a royal assembly in Merseburg to witness the submission of other unruly vassals before the emperor. That involved kneeling barefoot in front of the emperor wearing a hare shirt. To Henry’s surprise the proud duke of Poland did not fancy that, and hostilities resumed.

After another three-year campaign that was fought brutally across Poland, eastern Germany and Bohemia, Henry realised that he could not beat Boleslav. The two parties concluded a peace agreement signed at the castle of Bautzen, a final humiliation for Henry since Bautzen was on Imperial territory. Henry did not even bother to attend the ceremony. Boleslav had won almost everything he set out to gain, except for Meissen itself and the core duchy of Bohemia. That, together with his success against the Kievan Rus almost double the size of his realm. In the mind of many historians, Boleslav, and his father Miesco I, were the founders of Poland, turning a loose federation of independent groups into a coherent powerful state that was now largely independent from the empire. As a last act, in the period of uncertainty after Henry IIs death, Boleslav had himself crowned king of Poland, a process that had begun 25 years earlier with the “act of Gniezno” when Otto III may or may not have put his imperial diadem on Boleslav’s head.

If we look at the reign of Henry II, something has fundamentally changed in the relationship between the Saxons and the empire. Until now Saxony was the heartland of the empire, it’s rulers had been their men and they had chosen who succeeds. That was no longer the case at the death of Henry II. Moreover, imperial policy and Saxon policy was no longer in synch. There is now a rift between the Saxon magnates and their interests and the imperial interests on the other side. This rift will only deepen under the next two rulers, Konrad II and Henry III, something we will look at next week. I hope you will join us again.

And in the meantime, if you want to hear more about the tumultuous rise of Henry II to the throne check out or listen again to episode 17.

Before I go, let me thank all of you who are supporting the show, in particular the Patrons who have kindly signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans. It is thanks to you this show does not have to do advertising for products you do not want to hear about. 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. As always, all the links are in the show notes.    

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