Episode 48 – Conrad’s Conundrum

1144-1147 – Emperor Conrad III may have signed a precarious peace with his greatest opponent, Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony. But the kingdom remains in turmoil. Feuds are everywhere, devastating the land. His half-brother bishop Otto of Freising sees all that death and destruction as a clear portend of the imminent arrival of the Antichrist.

Though Conrad is methodically addressing his underlying weaknesses, he needs a boost to his authority and he needs is quick. The traditional route of an imperial coronation in Rome is a no go for a long list of reasons. In this desperate situation news arrive that the most fragile of the crusader states, the county of Edessa had fallen to the Muslims. Is this the opportunity Conrad had been praying for?

All that plus the usual accoutrements of mad saints, power crazy popes and treacherous nephews…

The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.

As always:

Homepage with maps, photos, transcripts and blog: www.historyofthegermans.com

Facebook: @HOTGPod 

Twitter: @germanshistory

Instagram: history_of_the_germans

Reddit: u/historyofthegermans

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/Historyofthegermans

Liked it? Take a second to support on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans, Episode 48 – Conrad's Conundrum

I apologize for the audio quality in today’s episode. I have an ear infection in my right ear making my delivery even more lopsided than normal. I guess good old Bernard of Clairvaux has cursed me for all the unpleasant things I have said about him.

In today’s episode we examine king Conrad’s options to establish his authority from a weak starting point. By an unexpected set of circumstances, he suddenly finds himself at the head of one of the largest armies a German ruler has fielded in a long, long time, if ever.

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 Carla, Amy and Rich who have already signed up.

Last week we ended with Conrad achieving a somewhat precarious peace with one of his main opponents the duke of Saxony, Henry the Lion. He had been unable to unseat the Welf as dukes of Saxony after 4 years of war and now must accept their almost independent rule in this, the largest of the stem duchies. He did however gain something. Henry the Lion or more accurately his mother as his guardian renounced his claim on the duchy of Bavaria. And then Henry’s mother marries the current duke of Bavaria, Henry Jasomirgott, to seal the peace.

But, as I said last week, despite the peace, Conrad is still a weak ruler. His personal possessions are modest compared to many of his great nobles, not just Henry the Lion but also Henry Jasomirgott, margrave of Austria and duke of Bavaria, Konrad von Zaehringen and even his own brother, duke Frederick of Swabia. He does have control of the royal estates, rights and privileges, but they have already been much diminished after centuries of donations to bishops and monasteries and the recent back and forth of the throne between Staufer and Welf rulers.

The weakness of the ruler meant that the major nobles were pursuing their incessant feuds without much interference from the king. With all the problems of documentation and biased chroniclers, it is difficult to prove that things have gotten much worse compared to previous periods. Otto of Freising thought that these years of war and confusion were a portend of the imminent arrival of antichrist. Indeed, listing the ongoing feuds just during the 1140s makes for grim reading.

If we go clockwise around the realm, starting in Lothringia, we have a prolonged feud between our friend Albero archbishop of Trier and the count of Namur over the rich abbey of St. Maximin. This went on for years and years creating horrible bloodshed. And that even though Albero was one of Konrad’s closest advisers. But neither would he heed calls for peace from his secular overlord, nor did he even bow to the decision of his spiritual overlord the pope. Going round to the North-West, we have the counts of Limburg and the Counts of Loewen fighting over the by now entirely ceremonial title of the duke of Lower Lothringia.

Moving on clockwise to the east, there was a feud between the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen and the duke of Saxony over the rich inheritance of the counts of Stade. A princely court convened by Conrad decided in favor of the archbishop, but that did not stop the young duke Henry the Lion to occupy the lands of Stade with no more than a “what are you going to do about that old man?”.

A bit further east, Albrecht the Bear was constantly fighting with someone or other – he just could not help himself. Moving south from Saxony, we have Bavaria, where a brutal feud between the bishop of Regensburg and the duke Henry Jasomirgott raged for almost a decade. Despite the horror and destruction this caused, nobody bothered to write down what they were fighting over. The lands around Regensburg were utterly destroyed so that as the chronicler said, “not even a single church remained standing”.

The other parallel feud in Bavaria was between again the duke Henry Jasomirgott and Welf VI, uncle of Henry the Lion. Welf VI had been defeated at Weinsberg, but he was still going. He now makes the case that after his nephew Henry the Lion had given up his claim on Bavaria, the duchy should now by right be his.

What makes this particularly challenging for Conrad was that Welf VI had support from a most unexpected corner. Conrad’s nephew, Frederick, son of the current duke of Swabia had joined him in his feud. This young man had already gained a formidable reputation for military prowess when he captured the count of Dachau during a battle in the Regensburg feud.

Frederick, who you will hear an awful lot more about as we go along, was in a unique position. On his father’s side he was a nephew of king Konrad III. But his mother was Judith, daughter of Henry the Black, sister of Henry the Proud and aunt of Henry the Lion. She was a Welf which made young Frederick a nephew of Welf VI and a cousin of Henry the Lion, Conrad’s most implacable adversaries.

Frederick joined his maternal uncle Welf VI in his fight against the duke of Bavaria and by extension, against his paternal uncle King Konrad III. This alliance between a major Hohenstaufen prince with a Welf had caused 19th century historians serious headaches. The neat storyline had always been that Hohenstaufen and Welf have been fighting tooth and nail over the imperial throne for a century, breaking Germany into a thousand pieces in the process. A Guelph is a Guelph, and a Ghibelline is a Ghibelline.

Reality it turns out was a lot more complex than that. We tend to reflexively regard the male line as the dominant driver of family allegiances in the Middle Ages. We look at the great families, the Plantagenets, the Capetians, the Valois, the Visconti or the Piasts. These are inevitably defined in the male line. But many of these family groupings were named by later historians who wrote their histories in a period when paternalistic perspectives were dominant.

And that goes in particular for the Hohenstaufen. As I mentioned before, contemporaries rarely referred to them by their ancestral castle. They were more often called Waiblinger after their matriarch Agnes of Waiblingen, the daughter of emperor Henry IV and mother of Konrad III. She was of so much illustrious blood than the modest Staufer lords. Hence that is where they looked for their ancestry.

Preferring the maternal line is not an exception for the Hohenstaufen alone. If we go back further, the first of the Salian rulers mostly referred to their descendance from Gertrud, wife of Konrad II and mother of Henry III who could trace her lineage to Charlemagne, rather than their descent from the more nouveau riche Ottonians.

Hence when it came to family loyalties, young Frederick is likely to have put as much weight on his ties to the incredibly ancient Welf family than to his relationship with his uncle the King. What is likely to have tipped the balance was that Konrad gave huge preference to his half-brothers, the Babenbergers. They were given the greatest honors, the duchy of Bavaria, the Count Palatinate on the Rhine and a set of bishoprics. The Babenberger influence also affected foreign policy towards Poland and Hungary with sometimes negative implications for the authority of the crown. The king’s nephew, young Frederick was not singled out for any preferential treatment.

I guess you have by now figured out who this Frederick is. Let me give you a clue. He is ginger and has a luxurious beard. Yes, he is the man who would become known as Frederick Barbarossa, the best-known figure of the German Middle Ages.

For now, what we need to know is that in this frail kingdom of Konrad III, not even his nephew Barbarossa is wholeheartedly on the king’s side.

To complete the rundown of feuds, Barbarossa manages to create his own fight with duke Konrad of Zaehringen. The Zaehringer, nominal dukes in what is today Baden and German-speaking Switzerland had been staunch supporters of king Konrad. Barbarossa managed to break that alliance as he attacked them and even took the castle of Zaehringen the ruins still stand above the city of Freiburg. Not that. Conrad had enough trouble already.

The empire was not just Germany, there is also Burgundy and the Kingdom of Italy.

In Burgundy the word of Konrad counted for even less. He had appointed the lords of the mighty castle and tourist trap extraordinaire of le Baux to be counts of Provence. The counts of Barcelona disagreed with the King of the Romans and, well they won. The counts of le Baux were beaten, and Provence drifted even further out of the empire.

In Italy war was virtually permanent. The emerging city states were constantly at each other’s throat. Pisa versus Lucca, Florence versus Siena, Verona against Padua, Vicenza against Treviso, Milan versus Cremona, everyone against little Crema and then greater campaigns in various alliances and iterations. What made them so persistent was down to the use of mercenaries. Mercenaries have the unpleasant habit of devastating the countryside when not gainfully employed. If they happened to be close by, the city fathers were given the choice between sending them off to hurt these despicable Pisans/Luccans/Florentines/Paduans or whoever you just had beef with, or leaving them unpaid, roaming your countryside.

If Konrad’s rule was indeed weak, much weaker than say Lothar III, it was not all his fault. He was a brave fighter and reasonable military tactician. His real problem was twofold. On the one hand the resources from his own and the crown lands were only a fraction of what Lothar III had at his disposal. That reduced his ability to subdue any opposition by force. On the other hand, he struggled to project much soft power. His authority had begun to suffer as he had not yet achieved an imperial coronation or any equivalent increase in status.

Konrad did work hard on the resource issue. He aggressively expanded the royal domain that had seen many properties dissipating into the hands of the princes. He re-established the imperial chancellery that had gone into disuse under Lothar III. The chancellors would review the ancient charters to chase up royal rights and privileges that had fallen into disuse. Thanks to a lucky inheritance, he added an area in Northern Bavaria on the border to Bohemia into the family fortune. And finally, Konrad supported the growth of cities, most prominently Nurnberg, which became his favorite residence. Cities often accepted financial obligations in exchange for trading privileges, the right to build bridges or establishing a mint. In the long run the cities’ contributions would become a key source of funds for the royal purse.

Conrad also tried to expand his clout through a proactive marriage policy. An advantage of having 20 siblings by the same mother meant Konrad could spread his family wide. One sister to the duke of Poland, one to the King of Hungary and another to the duke of Upper Lothringia. His greatest coup on the marriage front was negotiating the engagement of his sister-in-law, Bertha to the youngest of the four sons of emperor John II Komnenos, the ruler of Byzantium. Note that in the wake of the first crusade Byzantium had experienced a genuine renaissance in its fortunes. The emperors Alexios and John II were extremely competent rulers who had been able to regain land along what is now the Turkish coast and even establish strong positions on the Anatolian plateau. Not that Byzantium was back to its heydays in the 10th century, but they were definitely back in business. If you want more detail, the History of Byzantium episodes 224 and following are an excellent way to follow the story from the Byzantine perspective.

John II Komnenos died unexpectedly in 1143 and even more unexpectedly his youngest, Manuel assumed the throne after his oldest brothers had died. Manuel was suddenly emperor and a marriage to just the sister-in-law of the King of the Romans would have been below him. The status gap is bridged when Conrad formally adopts Bertha as his daughter and some time later the two sides agree a formal alliance that may or may not have included an agreement to throw in Southern Italy as Bertha’s dowry.

Thanks to these efforts, his resources were improving steadily, but far too slowly, Konrad needs a boost to both his real power and his soft power. And he needs it now.

There were couple of options for that.

The first one is something Konrad himself had already tried 15 years earlier, establishing royal authority in the rich lands of Italy, in particular taking possession of the lands of Matilda of Tuscany.

Number 2 was the most tried and tested one, traveling to Rome for an imperial coronation.

And by now there is a third one, one that is still comparatively new, and that is the support of the Latin kingdoms in the Holy Land.

As we will find out later, there is actually a fourth option for the Hohenstaufen to increase their tangible and soft power which at this point would have been seen as completely outlandish. But it will be the one the later emperors of the house of Hohenstaufen will base their policy on.

When Konrad III looked at the options in 1144, neither looked particularly promising.

The “Lands of Matilda” option was a bit of a red herring as he had found out during his earlier attempt in the 1130s. The situation in Tuscany was extremely complex with cities and major lords being somewhere between unreliable and hostile. In reality, the hoped-for benefits of ownership did not justify the expenditure to establish a regime in Tuscany. And let’s not forget, the lands of Matilda were technically the inheritance of Henry the Lion. And this young duke of Saxon was already chafing against the agreement whereby his mother had given up the duchy of Bavaria on his behalf, a mother who was by now dead.

A trip to Rome was even less promising. Pope Innocent II had been a supporter of Konrad’s and had helped him on the throne. But by 1144 he was no longer that useful, in part because he was dead. But more importantly, because he managed to have himself beaten and captured by Roger of Sicily almost immediately after his ultimate entrance into Rome. In the subsequent peace treaty Innocent II had to recognize all of Roger’s royal titles and give up claims to Capua. That meant Rogers territory stretched now all the way to the Roman campagna.

And on top of that, the citizens of Rome had finally chucked out Innocent II’s successor, pope Lucius II and had created their own commune, led by a newly established Senate. That commune was led by Giordano Pierleoni, the brother of Pope Anaclet II.

To go down to Rome for a coronation, even if Conrad would have been comfortable leaving the fragile situation in Germany was a massive challenge. He could not bring a real army, which meant Roger II could prevent a coronation if he wanted to, and as their relationship was less than cordial, he had good reason to do so. And even if Roger could be placated, there were still the citizens of Rome who would need to be subdued. Again, that was something even his predecessor Lothar III had shied away from at his last journey despite having much larger forces.

Rome is a no go.

In the middle of this thought process news arrive that the crusader state of Edessa had fallen to the Muslims emir of Mosul. The fall of this crusader state had come as a shock to the West.

Since the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 news from Outre Mer had generally been positive. The crusaders had been able to extend their territory bit by bit thanks to knights coming over for a gap year to fight and pray. The great military orders of the Templars and Hospitallers had prospered and turned into a sort of standing army. Italian maritime republics provided naval support and. helped acquiring the port cities. The situation was seen as stable and most crusading efforts were directed to the Spanish Reconquista.

But the situation on the ground was somewhat different. There were four crusader states stretching along the coast of the Levant. The Kingdom of Jerusalem occupied roughly what is today Israel. The county of Tripoli stretched out north from there roughly where Lebanon and the cost of Syria are now. Further north was the principality of Antioch in what is today southern Turkey and then even further northeast away from the coast lies the county of Edessa in what is today the border area between Turkey and Syria, close to Aleppo.

These two outposts, Edessa and Antioch were a long way from Jerusalem. Moreover, they were not only contested by the Muslims, but also by the Byzantines. Both Antioch and Edessa had been part of the Byzantine empire before the battle of Manzikart. When the first crusade travelled through Constantinople the crusaders had sworn to return all conquests inside the pre Manzikart borders back to the Vasilev. Well, that never happened. Instead, Antioch and Edessa became lordships of Norman rulers, another set of Hautevilles, close relatives of Roger II of Sicily. This geographical and political fragility meant the fall of Edessa was always a highly probable event. It could maybe have been avoided if the prince had become a vassal of the Byzantine emperor as was promised just a few years earlier. But he did not.

In 1144 Edessa stood alone. When the count and his army were out fighting elsewhere the emir of Mosul, Zengi attacked. He entered the city after a very brief siege. Relief from Jerusalem and the returning count arrived too late. Zengi had taken full control and all the Latin Christians in the city had been massacred. The count recaptured the town briefly the following year after Zengi had died. But Zengi’s son Nur Ed Din returned, broke through the walls and then razed the city to the ground. According to the Christian chronicles Nur Ed Din killed the remaining Greek and Armenian male Christians and sold the women and children into slavery. Muslim sources say that the victors were magnanimous and left the population unharmed. Whoever was right Edessa, one of the jewels of the Byzantine empire site of the grave of the apostle Thomas and home of the very first Greek Icon, the Mandylion never recovered.

In the aftermath the crusader states were in shock. It became clear that the drip, drip of new fighters was not enough to regain Edessa and secure Outre Mer. The queen of Jerusalem, Melisande sent envoys to pope Eugenius III, successor to the luckless Lucius II, begging for help. Help not just in form of a few knights but help on the scale of the first crusade.

We are so used to numbering crusades that we forget that nobody in 1144 thought that another crusade would ever be needed. We captured Jerusalem and that was that. But as the understanding sinks in that Jerusalem is inherently fragile the cycle of crusades kicks off.

Pope Eugenius was keen to help, if alone to increase his own standing. Like Urban II in 1095 he was not in control of the city of Rome and needed a boost. But the question was, who should he ask to go?

King Roger II of Sicily would be the natural candidate. The Norman king had an army and by now a navy, he had experience and a great track record in fighting the Muslims first in Sicily and by now in North Africa. And the prince of Antioch was his cousin. But as far as the pope was concerned, he was a most unreliable customer. He was not even willing to get the pope installed in Rome and the last thing the papacy wanted was for the Normans to take control of the crusaders, making them the masters of the Mediterranean eclipsing the Byzantines.

The Spanish kingdoms were next on the list, but the Reconquista had recently begun to stall. The rulers of Muslim Spain and Morocco had just been replaced by a much fiercer and militarily more capable dynasty, the Almohads. So, they had their hands full.

That brings you to the Long-Term ally of the main crusader states, king Louis VII of France. For our British listeners, Louis VIIs is the husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine. He is the man she will ultimately leave because of his unnatural proclivity to pray nonstop and instead marry king Henry II of England creating the Angevin empire and the two sets of hundred-years’ war. Going on crusade was right up Louis VII’s street. But his subjects were a lot less enthusiastic. At the first attempt only a handful of bishops indicated willingness to go.

And it is in this situation when the true leader of Europe in this period enters the stage, our old friend Bernard of Clairvaux, silver tongued preacher and allegorical bride of Christ. As I said before, I find it very difficult to get my head around the level of influence this man had at the time. But the facts speak for themselves. When Louis VII, most pious king could not make a single one of his great vassals to sign up, St. Bernard brought them all on board. He preached at a meeting in Vezelay in March 1146 that ended with men crying, “crosses, give us crosses”. Quickly all the material to sew on crosses had been exhausted and St. Bernard threw off his outer garments to be turned into even more crosses. Bernard wrote back to pope Eugenius III “You ordered, I obeyed.; I opened my mouth; I spoke; and at once the crusaders have multiplied to infinity. Villages and towns are now deserted. You will scarcely find a man to seven women. Everywhere you can see widows whose husbands are still alive”. As I said, I do not get it.

As with the first crusade, the mass hysteria could not be contained in France. Within weeks it reached the cities on the Rhine valley and a fanatical Cistercian by the name of Rudolf began inspiring massacres of Jews. That is when Bernard of Clairvaux does something useful for a change. He races over to Cologne and shuts down the pogrom.

As he moves across the border, he goes on preaching the crusade in the German lands. In November 1146 he finally meets Conrad in Frankfurt and asks him to join the crusade, but Conrad does not commit. Bernard then decides to preach a bit more in the Southwest, in Freiburg, Basle, Schaffhausen and Constance. Enthusiastic crowds follow every word, though he has to use an interpreter. At Christmas 1146 Bernard meets up with Conrad again, this time in Speyer. He berates him to take the cross telling the king that Christ will ask him at the final judgement “man, what ought I have done for you that I have not done” listing all the benefits he accrued to him, the crown, the honors, his health and strength in battle. And what have you used these for? Nobody has ever spoken Conrad like that and, stunned, he gives in and takes the cross.

Yeah, sure. All that was needed was a bit of a talking to by a saintly monk and hey presto the king goes off on crusade.

Most modern historians regard this whole set of events as an elaborate stage show.

Conrad was very keen to go. As I said some 15 minutes ago, he really needed something to boost his authority. A crusade was like manna from heaven for our starving king.

The reason he could not jump right in was simple, if he would take his household troops down to Jerusalem, his enemies would wipe out what was left of royal power behind his back. And he was actually in the middle of a war with Poland and with Hungary. No, the only way he could go on crusade was if all of his enemies came along.

And that is why Bernard of Clairvaux did preach in the beautiful towns of Souther Swabia. He was there to meet up with Welf VI and Frederick Barbarossa. He knew that convincing them was a precondition for Conrad to join. We do not know what Bernard offered but the two princes took the cross.

If these two came along, then Conrad’s next worry were the Saxon lords, in particular Henry the Lion. And even for that Bernard found a solution. Henry did not want to go to Jerusalem, at least not in an army under the command of Conrad. Sensing Conrad was under pressure, he also formally declared his renunciation of the duchy of Bavaria null and void. Bernard contained that problem by ensuring a formal decision on Bavaria would be taken after the king’s return from Jerusalem and, to pass the time, Henry should undertake a crusade against the Slavs in the North. Bernard quickly procured a papal bull from pope Eugenius and hey presto, the Baltic crusades are under way.

It is not clear how Bernard managed to extract that bull out of pope Eugenius because he was not best pleased with the saint’s activities in Germany. Eugenius was still sitting outside the walls of Rome where now a certain Arnaldo of Brescia was holding court. Eugenius wanted Conrad to come down to Rome and sort it out, not go on a crusade. But, Bernard says he was possessed by the Holy Spirit and got carried away in his sermon. And so, like any king, emperor and as we now see pope, he had to bend to the will of the ascetic abbot of Clairvaux.

There is an interesting theory about why Bernard of Clairvaux put so much effort into getting Conrad to come on crusade. He may have been influenced by the so-called Sibylline oracles, a weird mishmash of Greek, Roman, Gnostic, Jewish and Christian beliefs and prophecies, compiled sometime in the 6th or 7th century. One of the verses refers to a C. rex Romanorum who would conquer the whole world, drive the heathens back into their box and bring about universal worship of the cross. For Bernard C. must stand for Conrad – obviously not Constantine. As I said, I do not get why he was so influential. The guy is mad.

These are unusual times when mad ideas flourish. Our otherwise sober chronicler Otto of Freising thinks the whole crusade is unnecessary as the Prester John, a Christian ruler in India and Persia was already his way to relieve the Holy Land. Otto is the first to ever mention Prester John. Where he got this information from is unclear – one can only assume he had done his own research.

Despite his half-brother‘s objections, in May 1147 Konrad, the weakest king of the Romans to date goes off on his great campaign that is supposed to bring him glory and finally control of his realm. He leads one of the largest armies the medieval empire has ever fielded. Steven Runciman estimated it to be 20,000 men, though it could have been triple that, adding in all the civilian hangers-on. Contemporary chroniclers talk about a mind boggling number of 900,000. Many of his great magnates are with him, most prominently Welf VI, young Frederick Barbarossa, after his father’s death duke of Swabia, Henry Jasomirgott, duke of Bavaria, the duke of Bohemia and the duke of Poland. Many a bishop is with him, including his half-brother, Otto of Freising. The route they envisaged led through Hungary down to Constantinople. From there Conrad plans to cross the Anatolian plateau and get down into the Levant via the Cilician gates. They set off just 3 weeks before King Louis VII of France, hoping to cover themselves with glory before the other crusaders arrive.

Next week we will see how Conrad and his mighty army will fare as they retrace the steps of the first crusade. I hope you will join us.

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.

Leave a Reply