Episode 44 – A Saxon Emperor

Lothar III being duly elected and crowned declares a 12 month peace for the whole realm., only to break it himself a few months later.

Frederick of Hohenstaufen, his rival for the crown is unwilling to hand over the crown lands he is still holding. And after gentle insistence did not achieve much, cold hard steel need to be put to work.

In the first 5 years, Lothar is beset with a spot of bad luck. Sieges fail and he even gets beaten by the duke of Bohemia. The Hohenstaufen elect Frederick’s younger brother Konrad to be king. Konrad rushes off to Italy to be crowned King of Italy and even makes a bid for the imperial crown..


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 44 – Lothar III A Saxon Emperor

In today’s episode we look at the aftermath of the turbulent election of Lothar, 3rd of his name. Surely the Hohenstaufen brothers, nephews of the last emperor and heirs to the Salian emperors  are not going to take this lying down.

Family tree

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Last week you heard how Lothar of Supplinburg, duke of Saxony had been elected king of the Romans. Lothar is counted as Lothar III in the list of medieval kings and emperors. If you have listened to the podcasts since the beginning, you know that there was no Lothar so far. We had Henry I, II, III, IV and V, Otto I,II and III, Konrad I and II, but no Lothar. So who was Lothar I and Lothar II? Lothar I was the grandson of Charlemagne who was given that strip of land between what would later be Germany and France and that is named Lothringia, after him. Lothar I was an emperor, so it makes sense to count him in. Lothar II was the son of Lothar I. Now he was king of Lothringia but not an emperor. So why count him in? Well that goes to the heart of the question where Lothringia belongs. Unsurprisingly the historians of the 19th century who were mostly responsible for fixing the numbering thought Lothringia was German and hence our Lothar became known as Lothar III. There you are, the conflicts that caused so much pain in Europe go deep and pop up in the most unexpected corners.

O.K. let’s go back to the story

On September 13th, 1125, Lothar of Supplinburg was crowned in Aachen by the archbishop of Cologne and with the imperial regalia – all good and proper. He and his forefathers had been fighting his predecessors Henry IV and Henry V in a civil war for 50 years. And now he was sitting where they sat, hoping to bring peace to the empire torn apart by war.

Lothar was a very competent politician and soldier. He had already turned the role of duke of Saxony from a merely ceremonial role as it was under the last Billungs into a king-like position. His duchy was tightly run, and imperial oversight was negligible to non-existent. He had achieved a major military success at the battle of Welfenholz that broke the power of emperor Henry V.

And moreover, he had been elected by a great assembly of all the princes of the realm. His elevation was accepted by all, including the leaders of the imperial party, Henry of Bavaria and Frederick of Swabia.

What a difference to the rise of Henry V who had come to power in a coup and who ended his reign disowned even by his closest friends and heirs. Reasons to be optimistic?

Well, no. Lothar finds out quite quickly that being king is not what it was made out to be. First he begins a military expedition against the duke of Bohemia who had refused to swear him fealty. That fails quite miserably with lots of his supporters captured or dead, including his own candidate for the seat of duke of Bohemia. He has to accept the current duke, invest him in his post and trudge home in shame.

Lothar III in the battle of Kulm

Then he finds himself in a pickle about the position of archbishop of Magdeburg. He had supported a candidate who also happened to be his cousin. That candidate had been elected and was already acting as archbishop when another candidate was proposed by some other clerics. Lothar upon gentle nudging by the papal legate accepts a third candidate, Norbert of Gennup also known as Norbert of Xanten. Norbert was the founder of the Premonstratensian order, one of the reformed orders that appeared now as Cluny was fading into the background. Their rule was tough and their abbot even tougher. Apparently his first three disciples did not survive the rigours of Norbert’s extremely austere supplements to the already tight rule of St. Augustin. The Premonstratensians shared some traits with the Cistercians founded by Bernhard of Clairvaux around the same time, but differed in as much as they were canons, i.e., involved in preaching and general pastoral care in the community. Hence becoming a bishop was a conceivable step for Norbert. As it happens, Norbert would become an important supporter of Lothar III, but still the fact remained that Lothar could not push through his candidate for the important see of Magdeburg.  And this pattern continues. The papal legate removes the abbot of the largest of the German monasteries, Fulda and excommunicates a bishop elect of Wuerzburg. These acts, which may or may not have reflected Lothar’s own policy nevertheless look as if he was under the kybosh of Pope Honorius II.

Norbert von XantenNo

But the even bigger issue was the inheritance of Henry V. As we mentioned before, Frederick of Hohenstaufen had been made the heir of Henry V. That means he should receive all of Henry V’s personal lands and possessions. What he was not to receive were the crown lands Henry V held ex officio. And that is a problem. After 100 years of Salian rule and a register of deeds that could at best be described as sketchy, stripping out the private from the crown lands was neigh on impossible.

And to be fair, Frederick of Hohenstaufen having been so elegantly outmanoeuvred by Lothar and Adalbert at the election was in no hurry to hand back the crown estate to its rightful owner.. Even before Roman law became again widespread, Possession was 9/10th of the law. In particular when that possessor in question carries a long sword and sits on a stone castle. Lothar’s requests to hand over the royal lands was met with either a) an enthusiastic “of course”, but that particular piece of land come in via a bequest from great, great aunt Margery, or b) just give us a moment, my chancellery is working its way through the documents, we will be done in a jiffy.

According to the chronicler Otto of Freising, the Staufer did not see the point in negotiating honestly with the other side as long as they are being advised by the archbishop Adalbert of Mainz. Mainz, he said was a leech who would not stop sucking out the lifeblood of the House of Hohenstaufen before they were bone dry.

Lothar quickly tired of this game and declared the ban on Frederick even before the year 1125 was out. Frederick had by now received reinforcements in the form of his brother Konrad who had spent the last few years on Crusade. With that the civil war resumed, though this time instead of an emperor in the South trying to subdue rebels in the North, it was an emperor in the North trying to subdue rebels in the south. In a time without canon but with stone walls around castles and cities, that subduing business was a difficult one.

An imperial attempt to break the Staufer stronghold of Nuremberg failed miserably. The imperial troops had to flee when the Staufer army arrived to relieve the siege.. Most shamefully the imperial troops had to leave their provisions and equipment behind. The two brothers pursued the imperial army as far as Wuerzburg. And there we have the same thing, though in reverse. The rebel army sits outside the walls but cannot take the city.

To pass the time, the Staufer put on some entertainment. They held a tournament outside the walls which was the first reported tournament in Germany. How old tournaments are is unclear. The German Tournament books of the 16th century claim that the first tournament rules had been drafted by King Henry the Fowler in the 10th century. French tradition traces them back to a certain Godfrey de Preuilly who died in 1066. The first mention of the word tournament in an official charter dates from 1114, so this event before Wuerzburg may well have been one of the first real tournaments in Germany. This tournament was most likely a melee or buhurt, rather than the joust we normally associate with medieval tournament. A melee is basically a free for all where two teams of knights either on horseback or on foot would crash into each other with the objective of capturing opposing fighters and ransom them or take their armour. It is basically a pub brawl with weapons, which may not always have been blunted.

Despite this display of high chivalry, or maybe because the knights were tired from beating up each other instead of the enemy, Wuerzburg did not fall.

Despite the failure to take Wuerzburg, the Hohenstaufen are now riding high. And so, they do what every self-respecting rebel needs to do, they elected an anti-king. Since their party consisted of the Hohenstaufen and nothing but the Hohenstaufen, the anti-king would have to be, obviously, a Hohenstaufen. Frederick as the older brother and as duke of Swabia the most senior should have been the anti-king, right.

Well, he was not. There are two reasons cited why that did not happen. One was that Frederick had suffered a serious injury to his eye at some point during the fighting of the last 2 years. Losing eyesight had historically disqualified even direct heirs from kingship, which is why the Merovingian and Byzantine rulers had a habit of blinding their opponents. Frederick still had the use of one eye, which in this rather weird system of ableist rankings allowed him to remain duke, but apparently not king.

The other reason to go with Konrad was that he had not sworn allegiance to Lothar III. He had left the country after a partial solar eclipse in November 1124 which frightened him so much, he felt the urge to go to Jerusalem and atone for his sins most of which involved stealing property from the bishop of Wuerzburg.

That meant he had not been in Mainz on election day in August 1125 and had not bent the knee to Lothar III. When he finally returned, he joined the war between his brother and the emperor that was already in full swing.

What this elevation to anti king was supposed to achieve is a bit unclear. There were no major dukes or princes present at this election and Konrad could not even find a suitable bishop to crown him. Hence his kingship was only mentioned in an aside by the family chronicler Otto von Freising.

The only immediate reaction was the excommunication of the Staufer brothers, first by the German bishops and then by Pope Honorius II himself. By now being excommunicated had become a natural state of affairs for the supporters of the Salian/Hohenstaufen leadership. This was the second time he was excommunicated and as before, it did not bother him much.

In the new year the Staufer army moved on to Speyer, which they took easily, probably because the population of the city had benefitted from the huge funds spent on building the enormous cathedral and so had always been supportive of the Salians. Frederick of Swabia leaves a strong garrison in the city which proves necessary as Lothar will begin a siege shortly afterwards.

Before Lothar begins this siege however, Konrad implements his most ambitious plan yet. He realises that he has few allies in Germany and his crown is still not a real one. His idea is to go down into the rich lands of Italy where he may find some supporters. He might even get hold of the famous wealth of the great countess Matilda of Tuscany who had bequeathed her enormous holdings to Henry V and hence to him, Konrad.

This, as we will find out, will be a key plank of Hohenstaufen policy. Get rich in Italy to strengthen the position in Germany.

Konrad’s trip was off to a good start. He crosses the alps and finds the Milanese extremely supportive. Milan was not only the largest city in Italy, if not in western Europe, it was also involved in a heavy rivalry with the papacy. Milan’s bishops trace themselves back to Saint Ambrose, the church father who actually brought a Roman emperor to his knees in the 4th century whilst the Roman had to make up a fake document claiming emperor Constantine had handed his crown to the pope after being healed from leprosy or some such nonsense. .In the eyes of the Milanese their archbishop equal to the pope. They felt that the expanding papacy was threatening their traditional rights. Hence taking in the excommunicated Konrad was right up their street.

Not only that, but the Archbishop of Milan also crowned Konrad as king of Italy in June 1128. Konrad  then embarks on a journey across Lombardy where he is gladly received by the people and the nobility – or so they say. Most of his “rule” of Italy seemed to consist in capturing and imprisoning bishops and executing opposing counts.

Konrad even begins a journey to Rome to acquire the imperial crown, which –  it has to be noted – Lothar III has not yet received. As I am writing these words it suddenly strikes me what the point of all this gallivanting around Italy is. There was no chance in hell that Konrad could get hold of the Imperial regalia and the correct Archbishop to be properly crowned in Aachen. If he stayed in Germany he would never become the legitimate king. But, if he could receive a formally correct coronation as emperor, Konrad would outrank Lothar III, a mere king. And then he would be in with a chance.

But the expedition stalls. There is not a lot of detail available, but it seems the Lombards apart from the Milanese may not have been as overjoyed to join the Hohenstaufen Banner as it was initially made out. Konrad also struggles to get the former vassals of the Countess Matilda to recognise him as her heir. There is a story that the Milanese were prepared to pay one of these vassals a large sum of money for the great complex of fortresses around Canossa. That plot only failed because the wife of that vassal was so appalled by the idea, she told the other Tuscan lords who then scuppered the deal.

By the end of 1129 the luck of the Hohenstaufen is turning. This change in fortunes had a lot to do with Lothar hammering out his association with the House of Welf. The head of the house of Welf, Henry the Black had supported the election of Lothar in 1125 maybe because Lothar promised his daughter in marriage or maybe not. In 1127 the marriage finally takes place. Henry the Black’s son, another Henry with the nickname “the Proud” takes home the lovely Gertrud and her even more alluring inheritance. As the older Welf had died in 1126, Henry the Proud was now duke of Bavaria and was either already or would be in the near future duke of Saxony. Moreover, he would consolidate in his hands as private property the rich lands of the Welf in Swabia, the ducal lands in Bavaria, the inheritance of the Billungs around Luneburg and upon Lothar’s demise the vast possessions of Lothar himself. Henry the Proud had a lot to be proud of.

If Lothar and Henry weren’t enough to bring down the Hohenstaufen, Lothar managed to bring many of the important families of Southern Germany into his camp by awarding new innovative titles. The Duke of Zaehringen, an eternal enemies of the Hohenstaufen from the South of Swabia became Rector of Burgundy, a newly invented title of unclear significance. It was valuable to the Zaehringer though as they could use it as a vehicle to expand into what is today French speaking Switzerland. Lothar created a number of Landgraves. This title describes a count who is not subject to ducal authority, but reports directly to the emperor, so called imperial immediacy. These titles were granted, amongst other to the Habsburgs, then a clan of middling counts in Alsace and the Ludowigers in Thuringia.

If the Hohenstaufen had any friends left, it was their half-brothers, the Babenbergers in Austria, but they were far away on the other side of the lands of the Welf.

With Konrad’s Italian expedition stalling and most leading families in his camp, Lothar was able to roll up the Hohenstaufen positions, first in Alsace and then Franconia. They took Speyer at the end of 1129 after a long siege. Frederick of Hohenstaufen’s wife Judith and his eldest son, also Frederick, had been left in Speyer to strengthen the morale of the troops. When Lothar’s troops broke in, Judith and Frederick escaped with their lives only because Judith pleaded with her brother, Henry the Proud. At the same time several Lombard cities declared for Lothar III and the archbishop who had crowned Konrad is excommunicated.

Konrad returned to Germany probably in 1130 having achieved precisely nothing during his stay in Italy. Nuremberg fell to Lothar that same year.. After that the game was basically up. Friedrich and Konrad will however keep going for another 4 years. In 1134 Lothar takes the heavily defended city of Ulm, the true centre of Hohenstaufen territory, it is truly over. First Frederick and then Konrad put on the hair shirt and kneeling barefoot, ask for imperial forgiveness. That they receive on extraordinarily generous terms. Both receiving their family lands in Swabia, Alsace and Franconia back and even some of the harder to detangle imperial fiefs. Konrad is singled out and must serve in Lothar’s army as his bannerman, but that is pretty much it.

By 1134 Lothar is the first German ruler since 1056 who controls the whole of the kingdom, from the Danish border to the alps. That is no mean feat, even with a strong starting position as Lothar had. One of the reasons it worked so well was that Lothar managed to avoid conflict with the church. As we have heard he usually deferred to the papal legates when it came to important decisions and, as we will see next episode, pursues a conciliatory approach towards the papacy.

But before we go down to Italy as we  always have to, we should talk about one important shift in, I am not sure we can call it imperial policy but lets just say policy of the realm.

Since as long ago as 983 the eastern borders of the empire have been fixed. You may remember that Otto the Great had been very ambitious in the east and tried to push the borders from the Elbe to the Oder River. He had founded bishoprics in Brandenburg and Havelberg.  But all that came crashing down under his son Otto II when the Slavic population of the lands east of the Elbe rebelled. The churches were burnt down, and the locals went back to their ancestral pagan beliefs.

From that time onwards the area east of the Elbe was contested between the local princes, the Dukes and Kings of Poland and the Saxon lords. The empire claimed these areas as its own and had declared them Marcher counties, namely Meissen, Lausitz, Northern March and March of the Billungs. The population was however overwhelmingly Slavic and mostly pagan. All the marcher lords did there was pillaging and demanding tribute.

Lothar changed that approach right from his first day as duke of Saxony. Instead of demanding tribute, he encouraged the colonisation of these lands with Christians from the West. In 1108 a Magdeburg clergymen tried to encourage settlers from Flanders and Holland to come to the Northeast. He wrote that “these Slav heathens are terrible men, but their lands are rich in meat, honey, flour, birds, and if properly cultivated would be fruitful like no other”.  This promise of great riches and the opportunity to receive absolution for killing the heathens was extremely compelling. As we talked about before, the 11th to 14th century was a period of great population growth driven by economic expansion. This growth was in part achieved by internal colonisation, i.e., the clearing of the great forests that covered most of western Europe and improvements in agriculture. Some areas like Flanders, Holland and the lower Rhine had made rapid progress early on and internal colonisation was almost complete. With opportunities to set up your own farmstead shrinking at home the second sons and daughters without dowry set off for the new lands in the east. And as an additional benefit the colonist were largely released from the bonds of serfdom

At the same time missionary activity in the east intensifies. The already mentioned archbishops Norbert of Magdeburg and his Premonstratensians are active in the Northern marches. Bishop Otto of Bamberg is focused on Pomerania, which lies east of the Northern marches where he allegedly converted 22,000 heathens in one day. The grunt work however is done by individual clergymen, mostly monks who travel unaccompanied into the heathen lands to preach and to establish churches and monasteries. That was a lot less glamorous than the mass baptisms of the great ecclesiastical lords. One missionary called Vicelin who later founded the monastery of Neumunster described his early days on the road  as “a time of tiring and unsuccessful work, and of continual trials…pillage, arson, imprisonment of his companions, wounds and death”. It seems the Slavs had not forgotten the brutal conversion tactics of Hermann Billung and Margrave Gero.

These more peaceful endeavours were flanked by military expeditions. As duke of Saxony Lothar had led several military excursions into the land of the Abodrites, which is today’s Mecklenburg. Amongst others he conquered the island of Ruegen.

Once he had taken the crown, he took advantage of some family quarrels within the Danish royal house to bring this kingdom into vassalage to the empire. To do that Lothar had to bring his army up to the Dannevirke, one of the most astounding military facilities in Europe. It is a 30km long continuous line of fortifications made from earth, timber and increasingly stone that the Danes used as their main line of defence from the 8th century until 1864. Danes thought it unbreakable until taught otherwise by Prussian canon.

Once the Danish king had been subdued despite his great wall, Lothar took his troops into Slav lands. This expedition differs from previous raids where German lords would extract tribute and plunder from the locals. Lothar is looking for permanent control. He builds a castle in Segeberg to establish control over the lands acquired in this raid.

But Lothar’s most lasting impact on the history of the eastern expansion was his HR policy. Even before he had become emperor, he installed the House of Wettin in the March of Meissen and the Ascanier in the Lausitz. The counts of Schauenburg were given Holstein which they began to populate with colonists from Germany and Flanders.

The best known of these early expansionists was Albrecht called the Bear, head of the Ascanier clan. He was a ruthless and impatient man who did not mind accelerating inheritances by the occasional murder. He will appear at times in our narrative, but the important point for you to remember is that Albrecht would found the Margraviate of Brandenburg the state that would later be known as Prussia. 

Albrecht the Bear doing what he does best..

This colonisation of the east is a major plank of German history for the next 300 years but plays at best a tangential role in the story of the Hohenstaufen and their successors as Holy Roman Emperors. Hence, I will dedicate a separate season to this process which will include the histories of the Teutonic Knights and the Hanse. So, if you miss the North in our narrative, be patient. It is coming.

For Lothar this sponsorship of the eastern expansion and the award of opportunities to the great Saxon families is one of the reasons his domestic position remained largely untroubled after the Hohenstaufen had been subdued. Even the thickest thug realises that expanding territory against a largely defenceless opponent is a lot more rewarding than feuding with your castellated neighbour or your emperor who may retaliate and devastate your own lands. One of Lothar’s most famous successors, Frederick Barbarossa, will draw an important lesson from that.

So far so good. Our friend Lothar III seems to be doing quite well. The realm is under control and the mighty lords have been given something to do that is not fighting each other. That leaves the other key area of medieval politics, the church. Here Lothar’s track record has come in for a lot of criticism. Next week we will look more closely whether he was indeed a Pfaffenkoenig, a papal pet or a smart operator who distinguished between meaningless symbolic acts and hard political advantages. I hope to see you then.

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