Episode 43 – All Change All Change

The time of the Hohenstaufen remains the by far best known period of German medieval history.

The age of the Hohenstaufen does however not begin with a Hohenstaufen emperor. Though Henry V, the last of the Salians declared Frederick of Hohenstaufen his heir, the crown ultimately goes to Lothar of Supplinburg, enemy of the Salians.

Find out below how that could happen.


Hello and welcome back to the Season 3 of the History of the Germans – The Hohenstaufen

I hope you had an enjoyable festive season and feel reinvigorated to dive into another period of German history. I definitely am. I know that six weeks is a long break but I have not been idle.  Books had to be read, podcasts and radio shows needed to be listened to, scripts had to be written. I hope you will find that the wait was worth it.

Halfway between Berlin and Frankfurt stands the Kyffhauser Mountain. In a grotto underneath it, legend says, the emperor Frederick Barbarossa sleeps with his army of knights and their horses ready to strike when the right hour comes. Above him are the ruins of the castle of Kyffhauser, one of the largest fortresses built in the high Middle Ages, and over these ruins stands an 81m tall tower, the Kyffhauser memorial. It was inaugurated on June 18th, 1896 to commemorate not Barbarossa, the red beard, but Barba Blanca, the White Beard, Emperor William I who together with his chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, had unified Germany. On this, the third largest German memorial you find the emperor Barbarossa shown in his grotto, his red beard grown through the table, whilst above him, on his mighty horse, rides the new emperor who fulfilled the dream of national unity of the German people, allowing Barbarossa to finally get his well-deserved eternal rest.


Most historically interested Anglo Saxons have heard the word Barbarossa before, even if they have no interest in medieval history at all, thanks to Operation Barbarossa, the codename of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union.

After the war, the medieval rulers of Germany were too tainted with nationalism and their instrumentalization by the Nazis to feature highly in the national narrative. But not the Hohenstaufen. Between March and June of 1977 675,000 people visited the Alte Schloss in Stuttgart to see an exhibition entitled “Die Zeit der Staufer” (the Time of the Hohenstaufen in English). Over 1,000 items from 17 countries were on display, with the Kappenberg Kopf, the image of emperor Frederick Barbarossa, this episode’s artwork as its star exhibit.

Nobody expected these numbers of visitors for what was just 3,000 square meters of exhibition space. At peak times there was barely a square meter per person. People fainted in the low and badly ventilated rooms. They sold 150,000 copies of the enormous four volume exhibition catalogue, one of which to my father who proudly displayed it in his office for 40 years and is now in a box en route over to mine.

By 1977 the most popular Hohenstaufen was no longer Barbarossa but his grandson Frederick II, the stupor mundi, the wonder of the world. He was the antithesis of nationalist Barbarossa, he lived most of his life at the cosmopolitan court of Palermo, spoke Arabic, tolerated Muslims and Jews, negotiated rather than fought his way into Jerusalem and had a scientific mind that made him a great ornithologist. He foreshadowed modernity and the open and liberal society of Western Germany, now Germany’s destiny.

Frederick II fascinating as he definitely is, may not have been a modern, renaissance man. Barbarossa as a codename for a campaign into Eastern Europe shows once again a total lack of historic knowledge in Nazi circles. Barbarossa had at best a marginal interest in the eastern expansion of the empire.

Well, and then there is the grotto where Barbarossa allegedly slept. That same Barbarossa who drowned in front of his entire army in the small river Saleph in Turkey and whose remains were carried around for months afterwards. That Grotto turned out to be a Bronze age religious site, possibly dedicated to a female fertility goddess. Human remains found on the site suggest human sacrifices if not cannibalism.

Kyffhäuser memorial

All these evocations of the great Hohenstaufen emperors may well be false exaggerations, but they show one thing, the Hohenstaufen have always been fascinating and their great emperors, as well as the not-so-great ones have shaped Germany. Whether they meant to do that or meant to do it in the way later generations believed they did is for you to decide. I stick with my favourite historian Gregory of Tours who said already in the 6th century, “a great many things happen, some good, some bad”.

Before we start just a reminder. The History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website historyofthegermans.com. You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to Camilo, Hans and Sean  who have already signed up.

Let’s start with Episode 43 – All change, all change

We are in the year 1125 and again, things are not going well. Emperor Henry V is dying in the palace of the bishop of Utrecht. With him the Salian dynasty comes to an end. Over the course of the 100 years of Salian rule the empire had taken some serious knocks. The Ottonian/Salian model of Imperial Rule is broken. The Emperor is no longer the Vicar of Christ on Earth who can depose and invest popes at will. Instead, the Pope claims to be the emperor’s overlord. He calls him the rex Teutonicum, the king of the Germans, relegating him from mighty Caesar to being just another king, like the King of France, the King of England or the King of Hungary.

The bishops and abbots who have been given so much of the royal lands and privileges are no longer at the emperor’s back and call. Where will the food, money and troops come from an emperor needs. The Saxon heartland of the Ottonians and its rich silver mines in Goslar are no longer firmly in the royal demesne.

The stem duchies are no longer the main tool to exert power over secular lords. . Saxony is outside imperial control and Bavaria an inheritable possession of the House of Welf. Swabia is split into three, only one part being under control of its duke, the dukes of Lothringia have even less control of their duchy. The main political structures are now the princely territories, which they hold in their own right, not in the name of the emperor.

Moreover, the Princes assert that they collectively represent the kingdom, not the emperor. They demand to be involved in all major decisions and that only they  would sit in judgement over their peers. They, not the emperor brought about the Konkordat of Worms that supposedly ended the Investiture Controversy. The Emperor has become just the representative of the realm, a realm ruled by the princes. And as such, the princes have the right to elect their ruler freely, based on his ability and “humility”, not based on inheritance rights, as they had laid out already in 1077. 

And the country is on its knees. 50 years of almost uninterrupted civil war have depleted food production and trade. The Peace of God that Emperor Henry III had been able to declare and maintain in the early days of Salian rule is no more. It is replaced with lords feuding from their many, many castles that had sprung up as constant reminder of the weakness of the central power.

And new players have joined the game. First the rich merchant cities who were the real winners of the crusades, first ripping off the knights for their passage and then using them to open up trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. And the Kings of France and England, previously of not really on the top table of Western European politics are consolidating their power and ask – “who made the Germans the judges of the nations?”

Therefore, there is a real question,  what is an emperor for? What should his role be going forward? Where will the resources come from to fulfil that role? Do we need one at all, now that the pope is the Vicar of Christ on Earth whose feet the kings are to kiss?

There are essentially three strategies the emperor can deploy to re-establish control, all of which will be tried these next few centuries.

Strategy 1 is “back to ancient glories”. That means bring back the old Ottonian/Salian system of a command monarchy. Regain  control over the church by massaging the rules under the Wormser Konkordat to breaking point whilst at the same time subduing the princes by force.

Strategy 2 is management by cooperation. A bit like the first Ottonians long, long ago, the emperor can let the princes take part in government, seek their consent for all major actions. And once you have the on side, you gradually erode their position.  That worked really well under Henry the Fowler as he could rally the princes behind a great objective, the defeat of the Hungarians. In the 12th century the emperors will try new objectives.  The crusades, the eastern expansion of the empire and taking control of the wealth of Italy.

And finally, there is Strategy 3, which I would call the French option. The emperors can use their position to grow their territorial holdings. That means conquering their territory one castle at a time, taking over every vacant fief for themselves and never enfeoff anyone outside the immediate family. That is how the Capetians gained control of France from even less auspicious beginnings.

Alright, this is the game. So, let’s see who will be the first player of this game and what strategies he will deploy..

Emperor Henry V, last of the Salians still lies dying in Utrecht in May 1125. At his bedside were apart from the obligatory bishops, the empress, Matilda, only daughter and heir of Henry I King of England, as well as his oldest nephew Frederick of Hohenstaufen, Duke of Swabia.

Henry V and the Empress Matilda – daughter of the King of England and adversary of King Stephen during teh Anarchy

Whilst he lay dying, he gave advice on the state of the realm and after taking the last sacrament, entrusted his wife, Matilda, in the care of his nephew who he made the heir of his personal possessions. But he did not designate him as his successor. He ordered the crown regalia to be brought to the secure castle of Trifels, to be handed to whoever the princes would now elect to succeed him.

The Trifels

A few weeks later many important princes and bishops came together for the funeral of Henry V in the enormous cathedral of Speyer, the great symbol of Salian ambitions. Most of those present had been supporters of the dead emperor. In principle they could have elected a new king right there. They were in the Duchy of Franconia, where elections were traditionally held, they had all the necessary archbishops, the archbishop of Mainz, who traditionally manages the elections and the archbishop of Cologne who could perform the coronation. They could even get the imperial regalia from Trifels – it was all there. But they did not. Instead, they sent out an invitation to all the princes of the realm to come to the city of Mainz on St. Bartholomew’s Day, the 24th of August

That invitation was issued and signed by the bishops and princes who had been present at the funeral including the heir to Henry V’s fortune, Frederick of Hohenstaufen, duke of Swabia. We have one of these invitations, the one for Bishop Otto of Bamberg, a former chancellor of the emperor and great missionary in Pomerania. In the invitation the signatories open by saying they could have indeed elected a new king, but felt it was unseemly to do so without many of the important princes, like himself present. And they go on to say that “mindful of the oppression under which the Church and the kingdom have hitherto suffered”, he should “invoke the help of God so that, when a new king is installed, he may so provide for his Church and the kingdom that the latter may henceforth be freed from the heavy yoke of servitude and may live in peace according to its laws.”

Speyer Cathedral

Remember, this is a letter sent from the former allies of the dead emperor to another of his followers. And for that, it sounds pretty damning about the previous regime. Oppression, yoke of servitude are not the terms you would use to describe life under a successful ruler.

We are lucky to have an anonymous eyewitness for the election so that we get a much more detailed report of the actual election process that we ever had previously, even though the writer is clearly biased.

At the end of August 24 bishops including the archbishops of Mainz, Cologne and Salzburg, in other words half of the imperial  episcopate gather in Mainz. The great princes of the realm arrived with their retinue and camped outside the city along the river Rhine.

On the city shore of the river, we find the camp of Lothar of Supplinburg, duke of Saxony with his nobles, then, further upriver, Margrave Leopold of Austria, head of the House of Babenberg and next Duke Henry of Bavaria Head of the House of Welf. Duke Frederick of Swabia’s camp was on the opposite shore, in part because the citizens of Mainz were not best enamoured of the duke who had besieged the city before.

Before we get into the election proper, I should probably provide a quick rundown who these people are. The last episode was published 6 weeks ago, and names can easily get forgotten.

Amongst the bishops we have Adalbert of Mainz. He used to be the chancellor, closest friend and adviser of emperor Henry V until he was given his reward for loyal service  the seat of the archbishop of Mainz, the most senior of the German bishops. Similar to the more famous Thomas a’ Beckett, Adalbert rapidly changed perspective once he had taken the episcopal throne. He joined the camp of the Gregorian reformers, attacked Henry’s style of government and, tried to expand his territory at the expense of imperial lands. In all he became one of the emperor’s most implacable foes. Other than Thomas a ‘Beckett nobody rid the emperor of this troublesome priest. Instead Adalbert will die in his bed, safe in the knowledge that the archepiscopal see will go to his nephew.

Seal of Adalbert I of Mainz

The most powerful of the secular princes was Lothar of Supplinburg. He had been made Duke of Saxony by Henry V in 1106 as a reward for joining the coup d’état against Henry IV. Lothar greatly reinvigorated the role of duke of Saxony thanks to his personal charisma and political instinct. He also benefitted from a string of lucky inheritances from his wife. That brought him possession of the extensive lands of our old friend Otto von Northeim as well as another important Saxon clan. In another tale of terrible ingratitude Lothar clashed almost immediately with Henry V and together with Adalbert became the head of the opposition. In 1115 he inflicted a severe defeat upon the emperor at the battle of Westenholz. After that imperial influence in Saxony disappeared. Being free from any form of imperial oversight, Lothar was able to award the important marches of Meissen and Lausitz to the House of Wettin and the House of Ascania respectively. These awards further strengthened his hold over Saxony.

Lothar von Supplinburg

Almost as important and as powerful as Lothar was Henry the Black, Duke of Bavaria. Henry was the head of the House of Welf. Remember that name, you may hear it many more times before this podcast is out. The Welf are one of the oldest families in the realm, tracing themselves back to the court of Charlemagne. They had been kings of Burgundy until that branch died out in 1032. My favourite empress, Adelheid was a Welf. They were a truly pan-European family with major holdings in  Italy and Germany. In Italy they held the March of Este later known as the duchy of Ferrara. Henry the Black’s brother was the 18 year old Welf V who had married the then 44 year-old Countess Matilda of Tuscany. Though he did not inherit a dime from her, the Welf still believed they had a right to the extraordinary wealth of the Canossa family. In Germany they held two areas, one was the family lands on the eastern side of Swabia centred around Ravensburg and they were dukes of Bavaria. Initially the Welf had been enemies of Henry IV who had deposed them as dukes of Bavaria. In 1198 the Salians and the Welf reconciled and as part of the deal Henry IV made Bavaria and inheritable fief of the Welf family. Just as an aside, another great female monarch is a Welf, my sovereign lord, Queen Elisabeth II of England.

Henry the Black

The next guy camped along the River Rhine is Count Leopold of Austria from the House of Babenberg. Even though he is only a count and not a duke, he is still on the top table. The Babenbergers were nearly as ancient a family as the Welf. They were given the Eastern Marches in 976, which was the medieval equivalent of a hospital pass. The Eastern Marches were the lands bordering Hungary, which the Hungarian had turned them into their forward defences. For horse archers like the Hungarians, the ideal forward defence is entirely empty steppe without trees, walls or any other impediments to their fast horses. And that is what the Eastern march looked like. Over a century of careful husbandry, the Babenbergers turned this desert into the Garden of Eden that is today’s Austria – o.k. mild exaggeration. But nevertheless, it was a huge success for the family, made them rich and powerful and crucial in all dealings with the Bohemians and Hungarians. The Babenbergers had also sided with Henry V in the struggle between father and son in 1105 and were rewarded with marriage to none other than Agnes, the emperor’s sister, making Leopold one of the closest relatives of the last of the Salians.

Which brings us to Leopold’s older half-brother, and last of the great secular lords camped along the river, Frederick of Hohenstaufen, Duke of Swabia.

Frederick was the oldest son of the aforementioned Agnes. Agnes, often called Agnes of Waiblingen was tough as nails. She had been 14 when she was married to the first Hohenstaufen duke of Swabia, also called Frederick. She gave him 11 children. When she was married to her next husband, the Babenberger, she was 33, but notwithstanding her age, bore him another 11 children or possibly 18. She miraculously survived that and died aged 71 in Klosterneuburg near Vienna.

This marriage had been the making of the House of Hohenstaufen. Until then Frederick had been a count or even maybe just a knight in Swabia with a few possessions in Alsace. Henry IV picked him to fight his civil war against the Welf and another Swabian family, the Zaehringer in the Southwest. To give him the necessary pedigree and presumably necessary resources, he made him Duke of Swabia and gave him his oldest and as it turned out, only surviving daughter in marriage. As an aside, whilst we call the family the Hohenstaufen after their ancestral castle of Stauff near Goppingen, they would call themselves Waiblingen after the possessions of Agnes. And that is why in Italy the imperial party is called the Ghibellines, the only way an Italian can say Waiblingen.

Frederick turned out to be one of the few appointments of the Salian rulers who actually remained loyal to the end. Having been successful at holding Swabia in the first phase of the civil war, Frederick became the natural choice as commander in chief of the imperial troops in Germany during the long absences of the emperor in Italy. This role as the greatest of the imperial paladins was richly rewarded in land and privileges.

The Hohenstaufen success nearly came unstuck during Henry V’s coup. The elder Frederick would likely have sided with the father against the son and would have lost. But he did something extremely astute, he died. His eldest son, The Frederick of Hohenstaufen who is now camped outside Mainz was only 14 when Henry V took the throne. Henry V had him kidnapped right when the rebellion began so that young Frederick did not have to take sides. After the dust had settled, our Frederick continued the family tradition and became a trusted supporter of the emperor. He and his younger brother Konrad were running military campaigns for Henry V and again held the home front when the emperor was in Italy. These years in the imperial service had been extremely lucrative for this family of the middling aristocracy. Their wealth was further increased when Henry V made them the heirs of the Salian lands around Worms and Speyer. By 1125 Frederick of Hohenstaufen and his brother Konrad held Northern Swabia, most of Alsace as well as lands in Franconia along the Rhine and Main Rivers down to Nuremberg.  

Map of Germany showing the Hohenstaufen lands in yellow

I have put a map on www.historyofthegermans.com which may or may not be useful. What you see looks more like your crazy aunt had made a patchwork quilt from the multicoloured bedsheets your three dogs have torn to shreds. Check for the yellow bits, these are the lands of the Hohenstaufen – significant but not exactly dominating..

These are the people getting together on August 24th, 1125 to elect a new king.

Adalbert, the archbishop of Mainz was in charge of proceedings. When he opened the assembly in the great hall of the episcopal palace, he quickly realised that with such a large number of electors an open debate would go nowhere. So, he ordered to form a committee that should prepare a shortlist or ideally agree on one single candidate. This committee consisted of 40 members, 10 each representing the stem duchies of Saxony, Franconia, Swabia and Bavaria. Interestingly the Lotharingians were not invited, nor was the duke of Bohemia who in the 14th century would become one of the 7 electors.

The committee leaves to debate in a separate chamber. When they come back to the assembly, they present a shortlist of three candidates. The two closest relatives of the deceased emperor, Frederick of Hohenstaufen and Leopold of Austria. And then the great adversary of the previous emperor, Lothar of Supplinburg, Duke of Saxony.

Two of those were in the room, Leopold and Lothar. Frederick of Hohenstaufen had stayed outside the town, allegedly because he feared to be attacked by the citizens of Mainz who he had besieged some years hence. That was his first mistake. You see, as soon as their names were called, both Lothar and Leopold gave some great Oscar speeches insisting on their knees and under tears that they are unworthy of the honour and that they could never, ever accept it.

Frederick is in his camp outside the walls and all he hears is that he is on the list and that the other two have refused the honour. He instantly forgets his fear of the citizens of Mainz and jumps on the next horse riding as fast as he can to the palace of the archbishop.

Upon entering the room he looks around in in vain for the cries of acclamation he was expecting. Instead, he watches archbishop Adalbert rising from his seat and asking each of the candidates in turn whether they would accept whoever the assembly would elect and swear fealty to him. Lothar repeats his request not to be elected and promises to respect the election. Leopold is next and he too swears to respect the selection. Even more, he says that he actually really does not want to be king. Finally, we get to Frederick, who seems to have a blond moment. He clearly does not get what is going on. Why are Lothar and Leopold insisting that they do not want to be elected, when he knows full well that at least Lothar wants to? What is the process by which you get elected after withdrawing from an election. He is confused. And so, Frederick says something like, I first need to check this with my associates, and I get back to you.

What he does not understand is that the princes want their king to be humble. Not wanting the job is the key criteria to getting the job. The princes want someone who is going to leave them alone to do their feuds and grow their territories. Someone who does not have a son to create a new dynasty. Did I mention that Lothar did not have a son? Well, he doesn’t. He is 50 years old, his wife is 38 and will live for another 16 years. Chances are, there will not be a Supplinburg dynasty. The other two are younger, sons of the exceptionally fecund Agnes and have brothers and nephews galore. Choose one of them and their family will sit on every fief that comes free.

Electing someone who consistently claims he does not want to be elected is procedurally difficult, as we will now see.

The next morning the electors meet again, though this time both Frederick of Hohenstaufen and Henry the Black Duke of Bavaria are not at the assembly. Adalbert, archbishop of Mainz asks Leopold and Lothar again whether they were serious that they do not want to be king and are happy to accept whoever is elected. As they do so, they have now effectively renounced their candidacy and join the ranks of the electors. We are back to square one and a new list needs to be drawn up.

As that dawns on the electors, the mood changes. Several of Lothar’s supporters shout “Lothar should be king”. They raise Lothar – who still insists he is not worthy – onto a shield and parade him around the room whilst singing praise the lord. Some bishops and princes, in particular the Bavarians are enraged by this deviation from procedure and threaten to leave the session. Adalbert has the doors barred stopping people from leaving. Everybody is shouting at everybody until the papal legates and some of the more level-headed princes calm everyone down. They point out what would happen if the Bavarians would leave the assembly – no valid election means no emperor and hence anarchy. The Bavarians say that they are not willing to move to an election without their duke, Henry the Black from the House of Welf.

Archbishop Adalbert had the Duke of Bavaria called and he enters the assembly to effectively make the decision. It is all down to him.

What are his loyalties, where are his interests? Frederick of Hohenstaufen is sure This is the turning point that will bring him the crown. After all, Henry the Black is his father-in-law. In 1121 Frederick had married Judith, Henry the Black’s daughter. That was part of an ever-tighter alliance within the old emperor Henry V’s camp. Henry and Frederick had fought together, had played together and had become related by marriage. Henry is in the bag.

When Henry the Black entered the assembly our eyewitness reports “the spirit of the holy ghost descended on the assembled princes, and they were in one mind to elevate the – drumroll – most worthy blessed duke of Saxony, Lothar to be their king.

The Hohenstaufen will never forgive the Welf for this betrayal. Hi Welf, Hi Waiblingen will be the war cry resounding throughout the empire, in Germany, in Burgundy and most often in Italy for the next 150 years. Though the two families did occasionally reconcile and not every member followed the family  whip, the name of Welf remained the symbol of anti-imperial, pro-papacy policies. Waiblingen, the possession of the unnaturally fruitful Agnes became the rallying cry of the imperial party. Italian cities in the Middle Ages will fill up with slender fortified towers making them look like giant hedgehogs. Each tower was the fortress of a family who would still identify either as Guelph or as Ghibelline long after the emperors have stopped coming down to Rome and the popes had left for Avignon. By the 14th century these are cultural divisions rather than political ones – does that sound familiar?

Back to 1125, Why did the Welf betray his Hohenstaufen son-in-law? Well, it might have been the Holy Ghost that inspired the Bavarian duke’s change of mind. Or it might be that Lothar despite having declared his reluctance to become king so convincingly had actually smoothed the election by offering his daughter Gertrud, his only child in marriage to Henry’s son, Henry the Proud? We do not know. What we do know is that Henry the Proud married Gertrud, the by far richest heiress in the land, bringing with her the duchy of Saxony, and we know that the Welf voted for Lothar of Supplinburg.

The princes now all acknowledged Lothar and even Frederick recognised him as his king after three days of hesitation. Lothar scheduled his coronation for Christmas 1125 in Aachen and declared a peace for the whole of the empire for a full year.

And so, in 1125 the age of the Hohenstaufen does not start with a Hohenstaufen, but with King, later emperor Lothar III, a Saxon duke and leader of the opposition against the Salians and the Hohenstaufen.

Next week we will find out how the two brothers, Frederick and Konrad take this setback and whether Lothar of Supplinburg can bring the long-desired peace to the empire. I hope to see you there.

And in the meantime, should you feel like supporting the show and get hold of these bonus episodes, sign up on Patreon. The links are in the show notes or on my website at historyofthegermans.com.


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