Episode 26 – Henry III Comin’ in Smoothly

For the first time in almost 70 years the transition from one king/emperor to the next is smooth. Konrad II was not only one of the most successful medieval rulers, he also managed to live long enough for his son Henry III to grow up to adulthood before taking over.

Henry III is outwardly quite different from his father, well educated, deeply immersed in the concepts of sacred kingship and immensely powerful even before he had become king. But at the same time he shares Konrad’s steely determination and aggressive nature.

Items 1-3 on his agenda are Poland (a mess), Bohemia (a pseudo-Boleslav) and Hungary (an old grudge).

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Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans, Episode 26 – Henry III Comin’ in Smooth

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Henry’s worldview is very similar to Henry II. He sees his role as emperor in providing peace to his people, both from external foes as from internal strife. The king’s main job as a secular ruler is to uphold the law and dispense harsh justice if necessary but show mercy wherever possible.

But the emperor is not just a lay ruler, he is also the vicar of Christ on earth and a sacred individual making him responsible for the wellbeing of the holy church. And that means supporting the movement for church reform that emanated from Cluny and other reform monasteries. Like Henry II, this henry also believes that he has to make sure that prayer is effective, and the sacraments are dispensed by individuals educationally and morally qualified. Behind that is a firm belief that the wellbeing in the afterlife is way more important than wellbeing in the here and now. The emperor as the lord of all he surveys is hence primarily responsible to provide the infrastructure needed to prepare for the afterlife. And that includes competent priests who received their office on merit rather than bribes, who live by the rules of the bible, which includes increasingly the notion of celibacy.

In that latter, theological component Henry III differs from his father. Konrad II, whilst pious, had little time for theological disputations. He spent most of his time on horseback, sword in hand, rushing form one part of the empire to the other bashing heads together. Henry III will do his fair share of travelling and axe-wielding, but his true pleasures lie in reading the bible, prayer and listening to sermons. It is all party, party, party at the court of Henry III.

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Enough with the preliminaries, lets get into the action.

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It is straight onto the desk and item 1 on the agenda.

A you may remember Konrad the II had made a right old mess in Italy in the year before. Konrad had been called to mediate in a conflict between the archbishop of Milan and his vassals where he took the side of the rebellious vassals. That resulted in an uproar by the Italian clergy, which up until then had been the bedrock of imperial power in Italy. Konrad managed to make things really bad by apprehending the archbishop of Milan. At that point all inhabitants of Milan who only weeks earlier were at each other’s throat united behind their archbishop. They may dislike their current archbishop but that does not mean they would let a foreigner run roughshod over the head of their city. Konrad ended up besieging the city of Milan without success. In his desperation he even granted the smaller nobles the right to inherit their fiefs, even the fiefs of the church which brought the red mist down over the Italian bishop’s eyes. The whole thing was quite an impressive blunder given that 4 years earlier the Milanese had been fielding an army to support the emperor’s cause in Italy.

Henry III quickly reversed his father’s policies. He made peace with bishop Aribert and mended the relationship with the bishops. He reverted to the tried and tested imperial policy of granting the bishops fiefs and rights in exchange for support in war. Henry III also relied heavily on the system of Missii, royal envoys usually counts or bishops who come to act on behalf of the king in resolving disputes and allocating fiefs that have become vacant. What he did not manage though was to revoke the vassals inheritance rights his father had so foolishly granted.

That brought stability to the imperial rule in Italy but not to the city of Milan. For the third time in a row bishop Aribert is getting expelled from his city, this time by a rebellion of the lower classes. This had nothing to do with anything Henry III had done but was a clear indication of the shifting economic and demographic environment. When 10 years earlier the big conflict was between the higher nobles, the Capitani and their sub-vassals, the Valvassores, now it is between the third estate against the whole lot of nobles and bishops lording it over them. This is not the first city in Italy where the new class of merchants and artisans demand a role in the management of city affairs, but this is Milan, at this point possibly the largest city in western Europe of almost a 100,000 people.

Again, the Milanese ask for mediation by the emperor and Henry III takes a more delicate approach than his father. Through a combination of carrots and sticks he gets the nobles to come down from the castles and horses and agree a new way of communal living in the city based on a city constitution. Within a hundred years most Italian cities will have constitutions that give its most important burghers participation in city affairs.

Apart from this patch-up job, Italy did not feature highly on the imperial agenda of the first few years. Most of Henry III’s energy in the first 5 years was taken up by the empire’s neighbours to the east, Poland, Bohemia and Hungary.

Poland as you may remember from previous episodes had tumbled into some sort of anarchy after the deposition of Miesco II. Konrad II and the grand prince of Kiev had decided to split the Polish kingdom into three parts given to the three remaining members of the Piast family. One of these was Kasimir, son of Miesco II and his wife Richeza, a German of the highest aristocracy and granddaughter of Otto the great. Kasimir had a difficult time in Poland and had to regularly ask for asylum in Germany where he effectively grew up.

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This time Kasimir succeeded. He could establish some form of central government and embarked on the long and arduous process of putting Poland back together again, which is why he is known to Polish history as Kasimir the Restorer. In exchange for his generous help, Kashmir recognised Henry III as his overlord, confirmed vows made by his predecessors Miesco II and Bezprym

Sending Young Kasimir off to remake Poland was however not sufficient to put Bretislaus of Bohemia back into his box. Henry III mustered an army almost as soon as he heard about Bretislaus invasion of Poland. War is avoided in the last minute when Bretislaus sends hostages, including his son promising to come to Germany and give homage to Henry III as well as to “perform what was commended of him. That however turned out to be a lie. Breteslaus saw no need to submit to this fresh and untested king. Instead, he used the time to strengthen his defences, made a deal with Hungary and expand his military awaiting Henry III in the following year.

At least initially Bretislaus plan worked and Henry III’s army perished in an attempt to take a border defence. The losses must have been very severe. The chronicler Hermann of Reichenau reported that the king departed with a loss of very many knights and princes and with his purpose unfulfilled. Even worse, he had to hand back the hostages in exchange for his captured men, making him look really weak and incompetent.

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This time Henry III was cleverer. Instead of attacking the border defences he snuck into the country by an unfrequented route with one army, whilst the margrave of Meissen came by another route further east and the margrave of the Eastern March came up from the south. Once Henry was in Bohemia, Bretislaus ran out of options and had to give in. He came to a royal assembly in Regensburg and renounced his acquisitions in Poland except for Silesia for which he paid tribute. He made an oath of fealty and Henry III accepted him as his vassal. That was the end of Bretislaus dream to become the next Boleslav the Brave.

One of the things that hampered Breteslaus in his last campaign was the loss of Hungarian support. In his first round King Peter Orseolo of Hungary had come to his aid and attacked the Eastern March, aka Austria. This time he could not, since King Peter Orseolo himself had been expelled from his country.

There is an obvious question here, which is, who is king Peter Orseolo. Even if against all the odds you do not speak Hungarian you would know that this is not a Hungarian name.

The confusion is all my fault – as usual. Though Hungarian affairs have popped up regularly these last few episodes I have put off bringing you up to speed about the fascinating History of Hungary.

Now we can no longer postpone and it is time time to bring us all up to speed with Hungary again. Last time we took a closer look at Hungary was just after the battle on the Lechfeld in 955 which brought an end to the Magyar incursions. After the defeat Hungary reconsolidated during the long reign of prince Geza (972-997). Geza decisively shifted Hungary towards Christianity and in particular favoured Western Christianity over the Greek version. This religious distinction had an underlying political and ethnic dimension as well. After the emperor in Constantinople had subjugated the Bulgars, Hungary had a border with Byzantium in the South and the Empire in the West. As tensions between the west and the east intensified, the country balanced on a tightrope. The southern and eastern part of the country, the so-called “black” Hungarians leant towards Constantinople, whilst the so-called “white” Hungarians leant towards Roman Christianity and the Ottonian emperors. This conflict and the still resistant pagan population led to regular revolts and uprisings.

Geza’s son who was initially called Vajk took over in around 997. Vajk had been brought up in the Roman Christian tradition and had been married to Gisela, the sister of Emperor Henry II.

Transition was anything but smooth and his first act was to use soldiers sent by Gisela’s father to besiege and capture his uncle Koppany who had claimed the throne. Koppany was hung, drawn and quartered and parts of his body were sent around the realm pour decourager les autres.

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Despite the clear religious orientation towards Rome, Hungary still had to balance its link to the West with maintaining good relations with Byzantium. It seems that Hungary would at times provide troops to help with Byzantine efforts to subjugate the Bulgarians.

Hungary found itself in a situation not dissimilar to Venice as the link between west and east. Both were sort of rooted in the Western empire and were catholic, but also had close links to the empire in Constantinople. Venice began creating a string of ports along the dalmatian coast, whilst Hungary controlled much of the hinterland of these ports. Though the two states could not be more different, one a sophisticated, independent city republic built on international maritime trade and the other a nascent medieval kingdom created by steppe nomads, they formed a close alliance. Stephen married his sister to the Venetian Doge Otto Orseolo.

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Konrad II did not like this treaty one bit and it resulted in the dismissal of Henry III’s tutor and guardian, Egilbert of Freising who I mentioned earlier this episode.


Meanwhile in Hungary the situation became complicated. The closest relative of Stephen in the male line was a man called Vazul (my pronunciation is likely totally wrong so forgive me). Vazul was believed to harbour pagan sympathies and Saint Stephen rejected his claim and appointed his nephew Peter Orseolo as heir.

Vazul was obviously unhappy about that and got into conflict with Saint Stephen. Whether he made an attempt to have him murdered is unclear, but Saint Stephen had him seized and killed anyway. According to some sources the saintly ruler had his enemy’s ears filled with molten lead – a sort of discount version of the poring of molten gold down Crassus’ throat. Vazul’s three sons, Levente, Andrew and Bela were expelled from the kingdom.

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In foreign policy he took an active stance against the empire and in particular Henry III, presumably because the Salians had forced him and his father into exile. He supported Bretislav of Bohemia in his raid on Poland and used the opportunity to invade Bavaria and Austria. Given this policy was quite successful it would have likely continued if peter could have managed his domestic issues more successfully.

His key policy was to increase the royal demesne at the expense of Hungarian nobles and magnates. He overstretched it when he seized the lands of the royal widow, Gisela the wife of Saint Stephen and imperial princess. That pushed the party of Stephen into the opposition who deposed Peter and replaced him with another nephew of Stephen, Samuel Abas.

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However, Henry mounted a surprise attack by his armoured riders having shipped his army across the river Raab. The large Hungarian army turned to flight or surrendered right there and then. King Peter was reinstated as king and Samuel Aba was captured and killed shortly afterwards.

With this battle of Menfo Henry III had achieved a clean sweep of the eastern frontier. The rulers of Poland, Bohemia and Hungary are now all vassals of the empire. This completes his father’s policy that started with breaking the empire of Bolelsav the Brave. Savour the moment, because only 2 years later king Peter is deposed again and presumably killed. His successor, Andrew, a son of Vazul who had been so cruelly killed by the saintly King Stephen will take over.

He and his successors will no longer make the mistake of letting an imperial army loose inside their kingdom. Despite all their internal squabbles the Hungarians will strengthen and man their border defences making all subsequent attempts to invade futile.

But this is two years down the line. Right now Henry is the master of the East, duke and lord of Burgundy and Southern Germany. Two items are still outstanding before he climbs to the absolute high point of the medieval empire, asserting control over The last two remaining duchies, Lothringia and Saxony and the big Biggy, reform of the Papacy. Some or maybe all of it will be in next episode.

I hope you will join us again. And in the meantime if you enjoy the podcast why don’t you tell your friends about it. If they want to check it out, send them to my website historyofthegermans.com or my Facebook page History of the Germans Podcast. Thanks a lot for doing that.

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