Episode 99 – Follow the Money

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This week we stumble into the next imperial succession where the Saxons are again standing on the side lines. On paper the new guy, Konrad II was a man after their own heart, fearsome warrior untroubled by bookish learning, but he was also a sponsor of the church. His son, Henry III was even more so, and there are many reasons why the Saxon magnates did not like the ecclesiastical princes. And it is not just about them greedily gobbling up lands and privileges, but they are also hitting them where it hurts most – the economy, stupid…


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 99 – Follow the Money

This week we stumble into the next imperial succession where the Saxons are again standing on the side lines. On paper the new guy, Konrad II was a man after their own heart, fearsome warrior untroubled by bookish learning, but he was also a sponsor of the church. His son, Henry III was even more so, and there are many reasons why the Saxon magnates did not like the ecclesiastical princes. And it is not just about them greedily gobbling up lands and privileges, but they are also hitting them where it hurts most – the economy, stupid…

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Last week we saw a rift opening up between the Saxon magnates and the emperor Henry II. Henry II had called an end to the longstanding policy of a close alliance between Poland and the Empire. The ruler of Poland, Boleslav the Brave had built an empire that at some point included the Marches of Lusatia and Meissen as well as Bohemia. Henry II opposed him and, in this struggle, allied himself with the Liutzi, a federation of pagan Wendish tribes. This deeply irritated the Saxon magnates who by now had forged close links to the Polish nobility and its ducal house. Henry’s campaigns ultimately failed and in 1018 he had to conclude the peace of Bautzen that confirmed Boleslav’s control of Lusatia, Moravia and Silesia though not the core of Bohemia and Meissen. Boleslav the brave then turned east and conquered Kiev on behalf of his son in law, Sviatopolk the Accursed. Though he did not stay long and mostly came for the plunder, it was still quite cool.

What was not quite as cool was that Boleslav the brave decided that he was now big enough to go up one rank on the feudal hierarchy and crowned himself king of Poland. That was simply unacceptable to the emperor, not the king bit, but the bit of doing it without imperial permission.

However emperor Henry II was unable to do anything about it, largely because he was now dead, which gets us to the next succession crisis.

Emperor Henry II, like his predecessor Otto III had no children, none at all. In fact the Ottonian family had manged to get so haughty, they had decided not to let any of their daughters get married to mere mortals but made them brides of Christ, living their lives as eminent abbesses. And as for sons, they were so thin on the ground that there was simply not a single descendant of Henry the Fowler in the male line anywhere.

And that makes for a free election, where in principle any magnate with a reputation for brutality in war and regular donations to the church could throw in his hat. And one of those would then be elected by the dukes, counts, bishops and abbots of the kingdom. This election took place in Kamba on September 4, 1024. Here is the interesting thing. The Saxons do not show up for the election.

Instead the Saxon magnates had held an assembly a few weeks earlier where they decided to stay neutral. None of the chroniclers explains why they did that and Wipo, the usually best informed of them does even say the Saxons had been at Kamba, though we know they definitely were not.

Why would they do that? This has to do with the way a royal election is designed. It is not an election as we know it where two or more candidates canvass for votes and one of them ends up getting more votes than the competition. No, the idea of a medieval royal election is to identify and then confirm the candidate who is already chosen by God. That means the magnate would discuss the merits of the various candidates in the run-up to the actual voting process, but the vote itself had to be unanimous. That created a huge bandwagon effect since the vote was public and was done in order of seniority. The first to vote was the archbishop of Mainz. Bearing in mind that the vote had to be unanimous it meant that once the archbishop had cast his vote everyone else falls in line behind him.

 That must have created a game of three-dimensional chess for the participants. As the fortunes of the different candidates are in flux there is a point in time where throwing your weight behind the ultimately successful candidate is the best strategy to get favours from the future emperor. But if you leave it too late, the benefits of doing so diminish as the future winner is less and less dependent on your support.

That is the moment where the supporters of the defeated candidates leave the assembly. That did mean the winner is voted for unanimously, but he still needs to consolidate his reign. Those who had left will now negotiate terms of their submission to the new ruler, which is a way to get at least some of their rights and privileges confirmed, or if one is very powerful, even granted new ones.

And that was the calculation of the Saxons even before the election had begun. They might have wanted to put forward their own candidate, but they probably could not agree on one amongst themselves. Their duke, Bernhard Billung was the most powerful, but did not have the kind of tight control over the duchy that for instance Henry II had over Bavaria. And there were now other, powerful magnates, including the three margraves of Meissen, Lusatia and the Northern March and the counts of Stade and Ballenstedt. Without a united vote for one Saxon candidate the best option was to stick together as one powerful block that would then extract concessions from the new ruler.

And that they did. Saxony was confirmed in its special status as it had been when Henry II had to do the same thing 20-odd years earlier. What that special status was is not quite clear. But you can assume that given the imperial archives were patchy to say it politely, there is a good chance the Saxons were able to extract special freedoms beyond whatever they traditionally may have had.

In summary, the Saxons recognised the fact that they no longer determined who was king, but at least they got a good deal out of the election process – or so they thought. And what made the deal even more attractive was that the new emperor was in their eyes a major upgrade on Henry II. The new guy, Konrad II was the diametrically opposite of his predecessor. Where Henry II was of fragile health, Konrad was a bear of a man, Henry was a bookish man, originally destined for the church and an accomplished theologian, Konrad’s main communication tool was the sword. And he was lucky.

His first win came when Boleslav the Brave died shortly after Konrad II had ascended the throne.  and was succeeded by his son Miesco II who had himself crowned in December 1025 in Gniezno. But Miesco II was no Boleslav the Brave.  

In 1028 Miesco II resumes the attack and retreat strategy his father had excelled at. His aim was to compel Konrad II to grant him the margraviate of Meissen and/or hand over the bits of Lusatia he did not yet control. But he lacked his father’s panache. He never brings a full-sized army down that could defend any positions taken. Instead Miesco’s modest forces run back home as soon as Konrad II appears. Miesco II then lures the imperial troops into the endless swamps and forests of Poland where their horses are useless and armour cumbersome. That is sort of smart as a way to defend territory, but no way to expand it.

Success eluded him. Whilst his father managed to put the fear of God into all his neighbours, expanding Poland at the expense of the empire, Bohemia and the Kievan Rus, his son lacked the authority required. Furthermore, he was not the only son of Boleslav. His brother -and I will now properly embarrass myself- called Bezprym had contested his father’s will and fled to Kiev.

At that point the empire, the Bohemians and the Kievan Rus formed a powerful coalition to take back the lands Boleslav had conquered. The Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus attacked Poland from the North with the intention of putting Bezprym on the throne. The duke of Bohemia came from the south taking back Moravia and the emperor took back the county of Lusatia that Henry II had to grant to Boleslav.

In 1031 Miesco II was expelled from Poland and his half-brother Bezprym was put on the throne by the Grand prince of Kiev. Bezprym immediately reconciled with the emperor by sending him the royal insignia of Poland thereby renouncing the royal title. However, his reign did not last long. There are reports of riots caused partially by Bezprym’s persecution of Miesco’s followers and he was murdered after just a year. Miesco II came back to Poland in 1033 on the promise to end hostilities against the empire. He submitted to Konrad at a royal assembly in Merseburg where he gave up his pretensions of kingship and reverted to being a mere duke and gave up all claims on Lusatia and Meissen.

Konrad ordered Poland to be split up amongst the three surviving members of the Piast dynasty. That separation did not last long as Miesco II’s two contenders met a violent end. But after the upheaval of the last decade, order was almost impossible to restore. The peasants revolted and aristocrats expanded their positions. When Miesco II died, his wife and little son, Kazimir, fled to the court of Konrad II. Poland was no longer a major political factor in the East.

Management of the Polish border was given to the last descendant of Margrave Eckard of Meissen, also called Eckard. He is most famous for being married to Uta von Ballenstedt, whose sculpture on the cathedral of Naumburg is one of the most recognisable pieces of medieval art. In the 1930s she was appropriated both by the Nazis as the ideal Arian woman and by Walt Disney as the Evil Queen in Snow White. When Umberto Eco was asked which woman of European art, he would be most like to spend an evening with, he replied: In first place, ahead of all others, Uta of Naumburg”.

Despite its artistic importance, this is not the most significant thing about Eckard II of Meissen. He was one of the most important military commanders on the border and a close associate of Konrad II and later his son Henry III. He was a man of his time and as such willing to use violence, even against members of his own family. In 1032 his brother in law, Dietrich, count of Wettin had taken over the margraviate of Lusatia in recognition of his deeds in the war against Miesco II. That sealed his fate. Eckart II too had been keen on becoming margrave of Lusatia and so simply killed his brother-in-law. Konrad II recognised this transaction and Meissen and Lusatia were united under the murderous Eckart II. But the margraviate of Meissen will not remain in Eckard’s family, mainly because he and the alluring Uta did not produce any offspring. After some back and forward twists the margraviate will end up in the hands of Dietrich’s descendants, the house of Wettin who will elevate it to the level of a kingdom and hold on to it until 1918.

The story of the House of Wettin is likely to be the subject of a separate episode. Therefore we should for now go back to the early 11th century.

The issue with the countries on the eastern side of the empire is that they are a system of communicating vessels. If one goes down, another goes up. So as Poland went down, Bohemia ascended. The duke of bohemia, Udalrich, had benefitted materially from Miesco’s weakness and recaptured Moravia, which had been lost to Boleslav the Brave 20 years earlier. He even managed to capture Miesco when he had to flee from his half-brother.

This rise in Bohemian power caused concern in the empire, so when by 1033 Miesco and Poland had become embroiled in their internal fighting, Konrad sent an army under the nominal command of his son Henry III to Bohemia. Udalrich had to submit to Konrad who deposed him. Bohemia was split up again and Udalrich was replaced by his brother, another Jaromir, whilst Moravia was given to Udalrich’s son, Bretislav. By 1034 Konrad changed his mind upon pressure of Bohemian magnates and gives Udalrich the duchy to rule jointly with Jaromir. No prizes for what happen next. Udalrich takes over the whole of the duchy and blinds his brother Jaromir. That is not quite what Konrad wanted, so he would have invaded Bohemia again had not the sudden death of Udalrich solved that problem. Udalrich’s son, Bretislav, was made duke of a now reunified Bohemia. He paid homage to Konrad, provided hostages and promised to help with an expedition against the Slavs.

Bretislav became one of Bohemia’s most powerful rulers. He would attack the divided a Poland and steal the relics of St. Adalbert from Gniesno. This led to a repeat of the process, I.e., the next emperor Henry III intervened . In 1047 Bretislav was forced to make peace with the Poles which put this conflict to bed.

To round off the early Salian activity in the north, we need to talk about Denmark.

Last week we heard how Swen Forkbeard and his son Canute created a Viking empire that span Denmark, England and Norway. Konrad was able to establish a positive relationship with king Canute when the two met at his, i.e., Konrad II’s coronation in Rome in 1027. Canute had gone to Rome on some pilgrimage and by sheer coincidence was there at the same time. The two rulers seemed to have hit it off, both being men of the sword. As part of that alliance Canute accepted that the Danish bishoprics returned back under effective control of the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen after 2 decades of English influence.

This bromance culminates 8 years later in the marriage of Konrad II’s son, Henry III to Canute’s daughter Gunhilda who was called Kunigunde in Germany. The marriage was important enough for Konrad that he offered a truly royal present to king Canute, the county of Schleswig.

That is a pretty good track record for Konrad II. His management of the Eastern frontier was so effective that his son, Henry III could focus on issues in Italy, Lothringia and Hungary without having to think too much about how to deal with Bohemians, Poles and Danes.

Which begs the question why the Saxons did not like Konrad II and his son Henry III, and I mean not even one tiny bit. And there were a few reasons for that level of upset.

The first had to do with Goslar. Goslar was originally a possession of the Ottonians but had come to the Salian emperors when the Ottonians died out. Goslar was incredibly important as it held the largest silver mine in Europe at the time. Henry II had already built an imperial palace there in 1005 and Henry III hugely expanded the structure. Goslar became the closest thing to an imperial capital the medieval rulers ever managed. The Pfalz itself was and still is an impressive edifice. And next to it stood the convent of St. Simon and St. Jude, which under Henry III was the permanent seat of the imperial chancery. Until then the chancery had been travelling with the emperor on its perennial move from one Pfalz to the next. By creating a permanent seat, the chancery was able to establish proper reliable archives. And once they had reliable archives the magnates could no longer show up with some forged document that claimed they owned this or that manor house, bridge toll or salt mine without running the risk that the chancery would dig up their corresponding copy that said none of the sort.

If that professionalization of imperial administration was irritating, two more things enraged the nobles. Firstly Konrad II and then Henry III spent a lot of time in Saxony which meant that the Saxons were constantly required to feed the emperor and his vast entourage. Saxony became the imperial kitchen which constantly produced meals for free. That sounds petty, but the imperial court could easily count 1,000 individuals which makes a say 2-week stay ruinous for the count or bishop who has to host them.

The other was that Goslar was a mere 20km from the traditional Saxon palace at Werla. Werla was a large palace covering nearly 20 hectares enclosed by a stone curtain wall with two or more gates, several towers, two palaces, one of which had an underfloor heating system etc., etc. pp. This was a place of Saxon pride and a demonstration of its ancient power. By building out Goslar, the Salians cut Werla out of the equation. The place emptied out and by the 15th century had entirely disappeared.

The Ottonians had stayed there 14 times, but Henry III never came to Werla to pay his respects to the ancient laws of the Saxons. He always stayed in Goslar and almost as a deliberate snub, summoned the magnates of Saxony come to his splendid new palace.

A professional chancery, constant demand of food and the snubbing of their ancient traditions were issues that irritated the Saxons but would not yet have driven them to distraction. What got them truly riled up was that Konrad II and even more so Henry III were consolidating political control within and over the duchy.

This was done in two ways. The first was to consolidate power around Goslar with the intention to build the very first territorial power base in the empire. This process started under Henry III but accelerated under Henry IV, which we will discuss in more detail next week.

The other leg was the aggressive sponsorship of the church. It is under Konrad II and Henry III that the Ottonian-Salian imperial church system reached its zenith. The basic concept was that the church infrastructure was used as part of the imperial administration. Bishops would receive not just money and lands but would take over entire counties to administer on behalf of the emperor. In return for this generosity the church would be obliged to provide the emperor with material resources, in particular provide soldiers and their supplies beyond the traditional vassalage obligations. The emperor could exert significant power over the bishops as he de-facto decided who would be placed on the episcopal throne. In the case of Henry III, he even did this with the popes themselves.

The expansion of the church power concerned the Saxon nobles. Every time another county or large farm was moving across into church ownership, it was another county or farm that could no longer be bought, inherited or taken by force. And the bishops took a proactive part in the imperial policy to curb feuds. Henry III had declared a Peace of God in 1043 that severely limited the opportunities for magnates to rob their way to riches.

And there is something else the Saxon magnates took issue with, and that was the church’s attempt to convert the Slavs in the Marches. There is a section in Adam von Bremen where he explains the animosity between the duke of Saxony, Bernhard Billung and the archbishop of Hamburg Bremen.

(Quote) “From the time the duke was installed in his post, the discord between the two houses, that of the archbishop and that of the duke never stopped. The duke attacked the king and the church, whilst the archbishop fought for the well-being of the church the fealty to the king. This conflict, that had remained hidden for long grew and grew to infinity. Duke Bernhard having forgotten his grandfather’s humility and his father’s piety pressed the Abodrites so hard for money, that they in their despair returned to their pagan beliefs…(end quote). Adam von Bremen then accuses the duke of further crimes including high treason and the destruction of churches.

But what I found interesting was this point about pushing the local Slavic people back into paganism. At a later stage Adam will get more explicit and say that duke and archbishop had opposite perspectives as regards the policy towards the Slavs. The archbishop cared mostly about gathering souls for Christendom. The duke on the other hand cared only about the tribute according to Adam von Bremen it was “the avarice of the duke that prevented the conversion of the people.”

That does not seem to make much sense. Why would the duke, a pious Christian no doubt, want to prevent the spreading of the gospel? The answer is the economy – stupid.

As long as the Slavs remained pagan, the margraves could demand tribute. How much tribute was in the hands of the margraves since pagans had no legal standing in court. And pagans do not pay the tithe to the church, leaving more to give to the duke. And if the Wends were unwilling or unable to pay the tribute, the dukes and margraves were entirely in their right to raid and plunder their lands without breaching the peace of God.

And there is another reason why it may be opportune for the Saxon nobles to keep the Wends pagan. And that has to do with the slave trade. The church had banned the enslavement of Christians, even recently converted Christians. And slaves were the most profitable business on the border. If the bishop gets to convert all these Hevellers, Abodrites and Liutzi, there is no longer a reservoir of potential slaves. One would have to go to the land of the terrifying Pruzzi to find more of them, and that is a long way and dangerous. The Pruzzi had recently killed their second missionary saint, Bruno of Querfurth, presumably also because he was carrying the books they so despised.

If you look at it this way, quite a lot of things start to make sense that I could not quite get my head round the first time. It explains why the Saxon nobles actively undermined Henry II’s alliance with the Liutzi – the alliance had taken the Liutzi out of the pool of potential slaves and targets for pillage. It explains why they never established garrisons or rebuilt the bishoprics in the Northern marches or the March of the Billungs after 983. They should have been able to since their military expeditions were mostly successful.

And it explains another story that I never quite got my head around. It relates to a war with the Liutzi in 1033.

In the years before the conflict, the Liutzi had been paying their tribute as was ordered and had been living peacefully, minding their own business.

That changed when a Saxon Count named Liudger was killed by the Slavs together with 40 of his comrades. The Slavs claimed that it was the Saxons who had provoked the fight, and they had only acted in self-defence.  As there were no Christian witnesses, the emperor, on advice from his princes, proposed to determine the veracity of the respective claims through a trial by combat.

The Saxons put up a fighter who was full of the Christian faith, but, as the chronicler Wipo said, did not take seriously that God is the truth and decides all and everything in his proper judgement. The heathens on the other hand put up a fighter whose one and only focus was the truth. The Slav fought hard and fair until the Christian defender was hit and fell. The judgement was clear for all to see, the Liutzi had not given any reason for the Saxons to attack them. So the Saxons had to abandon their expedition. To pacify the border, Konrad built a strong fortification at Werben on the Elbe River.

The following year war finally broke out. This time the Saxon say that the Liutzi had taken the castle of Werben by treachery and killed or captured the garrison left there by Konrad. That may have been true, or we have an early version of the Gleiwitz incident. Left with no option, Konrad mobilises his army and enters the territory East of the Elbe River. As his army marches around in the lands of the Liutzi, they burn and devastate the lands until only the strongest fortifications and towns remain in the hands of Liutzi. Everything else is carried away by the raiders.

No wonder the Wends feel little warmth to their oppressors and, if they have to die anyway, prefer to do it believing in the old gods. The churchmen have a lot of sympathy for their plight and work on preventing these raids. The dominant church figure in Saxony after 1043 is Adalbert, archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen who embodies this spirit perfectly.

Adalbert was from one of the major Saxon clans, the counts of Goseck. His brothers became the counts palatinate of Saxony, which means they were the counts administrating the royal territories within the duchy. Adalbert and his brothers were very much the eyes and ears of Henry III in the duchy.

Adalbert had a very close relationship with Henry III. Like the emperor he had great ambitions. Adalabert saw himself and his archbishopric as the patriarch of the north, tasked with bringing Christendom to all the shores of the Baltic. That included being the superior of all the bishoprics in Denmark, Norway, Sweden as well as any future bishoprics to be established there or in what is now Finland, Russia and the Baltic states. His ambition was to convert the souls and make himself their spiritual guide. Raiding and rounding up of women and children as slaves did not feature in his plans.

In 1047 the Saxons in general and their ducal house, the Billungs had enough of Goslar, of centralisation, of disregard for their ancient traditions, but foremost for the preferment for the church that was getting in the way of their livelihood.

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

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

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

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

By the time Henry III died in 1056, the rift between the Saxons and the imperial Salian house has deepened to the point of open enmity. Only the undeniable strength of Henry III, the arguably most powerful medieval emperor of all time holds things in check. But nobody lives forever, and when Henry III leaves behind a small boy as his heir and an inept regent to run the empire for the next decade, the Saxons are getting ready to strike. How that works out we will hear next week. I hope you will join us again.

And in the meantime, if you want to hear more about the reign of Konrad II and Henry III listen again to episodes 22 to 29.

And another thing. As you hear this I will be sailing somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. If you want to follow along, you can do so on a website and app called Marine Traffic. Search for sailing vessel Purple Rain under French flag. What this journey means, apart from working like a dervish to get enough episodes recorded to cover the time, it also means that my marketing efforts trickle down to zero. Hence I would hugely appreciate if you were to help promote the show. Why not send  a link to the History of the Germans to a friend or family member who might be interested, write a comment on one of my older posts which tends to revive them or even write your own post on social media. That would be massively appreciated, as would obviously signing up on Patreon at patreon.com/historyofthegermans.

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