Episode 17 – The (not yet holy) Emperor Henry II

As Otto III’s dead body is brought home by his friends, all his dreams and policies collapse behind him. The Emperor had died aged 22 without an heir and he had no brothers or even uncles left. So who should be king? Will it be Hermann of Swabia, from the eternally loyal Konradiner family, Otto of Worms, the dead emperor’s closest relative, Count Ekkehard of Meissen, the mighty warrior, Count Ezzo, the nouveau riche husband of Otto III’s sister, or Henry of Bavaria, son of a rebel, grandson of a rebel but great-grandson of king Henry the Fowler and therefore the male heir of the dynasty. How do you become emperor?

Transcript available at https://history-of-the-germans.captivate.fm/

Liked it? Take a second to support History of the Germans Podcast on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Hello and welcome to the history of the Germans, Episode 17: The (not yet holy) Emperor Henry II

I hope you enjoyed the last two episodes where we took a break from the narrative and had a bit of a look around Germany in the year 1000. Now it is time to get back into the story.

Back in Episode 14, Otto III, the madcap holy man intent of the renovation of the Western Roman Empire had died on January 24th 1002 in Paterno in Central Italy. On his death his whole dream collapsed within days. The Romans had already expelled the Germans but now the rest of the Italians rose up and elected a new king, margrave Arduin of Ivrea. Otto’s friends and supporters barely managed to carry his body back home. The funeral cortège was constantly harassed by Arduin’s soldiers, the local minor nobles and the city dwellers until they reached the relative safety of Verona.

From Verona the procession crossed the Alps and arrives in Bavaria in late February/early March. There the procession is greeted by Henry, duke of Bavaria.

We have encountered Henry before. He is the son of Henry the Quarrelsome and the grandson of Henry, brother and bane of Otto the Great. His branch of the family had forever believed that they were the true royal house and that the Ottos had usurped the crown through fiendish machinations at the battles of Birten and Andernach. Their ancestor had been born in aura Regis I.e., when the dynasty’s founder King Henry the Fowler was already king. That should have given him the claim under Byzantine rules, but somehow the crown went to Otto the Great who had been born the son of a mere duke. For 60 years the Henries had tried to claim their ancestral rights by force of arms or crooked conspiracies and never succeeded. But now, with all the Ottos dead and no heir in sight, it is payback time.

So, from Henry’s perspective it is a complete no-brainer. everybody should rejoice in the elevation of the true king, himself, Henry of Bavaria. And so, he asks the assembled magnates and bishops who had accompanied the body of the former ruler to declare him king. Well, he was a bit surprised when they were no enthusiastic hurrahs following that suggestion. Ok, they are a bit shy given the unusual situation. He changed tactics and took each one aside separately and offered them gold and land if they were acknowledging him. Still no luck. Well, if they cannot be bribed, maybe they can be forced. So he made them hand over the imperial regalia, things like the Imperial Crown, the Sceptre, the sword, the coronation mantle etc.

But that is where he hits the next major roadblock. The most important of all the regalia, the Holy Lance was not there. Archbishop Heribert of Cologne, the close friend and advisor of Otto III had been smart enough to send the Holy Lance off to Cologne when the cortege had left Italy. Without the Lance, Henry could not get crowned.

The chroniclers do not tell us why the magnates present at this meeting in Bavaria were so opposed to Henry as king. Thietmar of Merseburg simply stated they believed him to be unsuitable for high office. That is sometimes seen as a reference to Henry’s fragile health, but I am not sure that is the whole reason. Henry was clearly fit enough to run Bavaria, one of the largest duchies. He had also been a commander of the armies of Otto III in Italy.

The problem is more that the people who had accompanied Otto III’s body back to Germany were the most loyal supporters of the dead emperor. Heribert of Cologne, Bernward of Hildesheim, the bishop of Augsburg may have believed that under a king Henry new people would come in and they would lose control of the kingdom. After all the line of Henries have at best been grudgingly loyal to the Ottos and may have very different ideas about how and by whom the empire should be run.

On top of that henry was running a very tight ship in Bavaria. Compared to other duchies, Henry kept his major counts and bishops on a tight leach. That is not something these powerful barons and bishops were keen on for the empire as a whole.

There were already some other contenders coming out of the woodwork offering alternatives to recognising Henry. It is actually quite a long list of contenders.

The most eminent of them was Otto of Worms, the closest relative of Otto III. He was the son of Luidgard, the daughter of Otto the Great.his stint on the ballot did not last long. It seemed that Otto and henry had come to an agreement whereby Otto stepped aside for reasons of age, whilst also receiving the duchy of Carinthia for his son. One down in the first round.

The next one on the list of dukes was Bernward of Saxony, a descendant of Hermann Billung. He had no royal blood whatsoever, but was a recognised leader. Would that be enough? Bernward took one look at the potential mess he could get himself into and decided to step away. That is two down.

Within Saxony there was however a more ambitious man, count Ekkehard of Meissen. He was a celebrated warrior. His most famous feat was the storming of the Castel Sant Angelo in 998, you remember the one where Otto III either used some nifty siege technology or simple betrayal. Whichever it was, Ekkehard was the first man over the parapet. He also had been successful in his campaigns in the east, keeping control of the Slavs east of Meissen, taming the duke of Bohemia and commanding the respect of Boleslav the Brave of Poland. His fame was such that he was recognised by many as duke of Thuringia, a title that had been out of use for 200 years. He may not have any royal blood but he is definitely on the list.

The most serious contender was Hermann, duke of Swabia. Hermann also had little blood relations with the Ottonians, but he made up for that with loyalty. As we know by now, the Konradiner dukes of Swabia are the ones that always come to the rescue when one of the Ottos get into trouble. Hermann of Swabia more than many others represents the continuation of the current regime..

Sorry, we are still not done. There were also the Ezzelinos, the embarrassing nouveau riches of the imperial family. Count Ezzo was a noble who became close enough to the empress Theophanu that she allowed him to marry her daughter. By that time the imperial family had taken in so much of Byzantine traditions that daughters born in the purple would automatically be destined for the church. No mere mortal would ever be good enough to touch them. Well exceptions prove the rule and count Ezzo, maybe by touching young Mathilda a bit before that was suitable got imperial dispensation to marry her. To maintain the status of the bride, Ezzo was granted vast domains, suddenly making him one of the richest magnates in the land. That being so easy seems to have encouraged him to stretch out his dirty paws for the whole thing and he put his name in the goblet.

There were a few more, but since I want to keep you guys on board, I decided to drop them.

Lots to choose from for the magnates, which is not good news for Henry, who still believes the crown is his by rights. No way he will let this last chance his family has to achieve their ultimate ambition slip through his fingers. And if that means he has to play dirty, then playing dirty is what he will do.

The first thing he needs is the Holy Lance. No Lance no legitimate coronation. To get the lance out of its current holder, Heribert of Cologne, Henry takes Heribert’s brother, the bishop of Augsburg hostage. Henry’s grandfather had blinded an archbishop, so there was a serious threat behind the blackmail. And Heribert understood. The Lance was quickly produced, bringing Henry one step closer to kingship.

Then he accompanied the body of Otto III to Augsburg where he had the intestines of his predecessor removed and buried in the church of St. Afra, near the shrine of Saint Ulrich, defender of Augsburg against the Magyars. This act was meant to remind everyone of the great battle of Otto the Great on the Lechfeld where Henry’s grandfather had also played a major role. Basically, he says, look what this dynasty has done for you- recognise me as the heir to all that glory.

Meanwhile in Saxony the Major nobles of the duchy had come together to discuss the succession. There was no consensus amongst the Saxons on who they wanted as the new king. They were treated well under the Ottonians who still saw themselves as Saxons and they ideally wanted their privileged status to remain as is. But there was no natural candidate for that policy. Some supported Hermann of Swabia. There was also Ekkehard of Meissen who was a Saxon, but he was not universally loved in the duchy. So, in the first instance the Saxon nobles agreed to recognise no one, and all attendants, apart from Ekkehard, swore not to support any candidate unless they had agreed as a duchy.

One Saxon noble, Liuthard, however had a firm view that Ekkehard should not become king under any circumstances. He had it in for Ekkehard because of some slight related to a marriage proposal. So, he travelled down to Bavaria to discuss next steps with Henry. These two came up with a plan. They would send two abbesses, Mathilda and Sophie, a sister and an aunt of Otto III to plead Henry’s case in front of the Saxon nobles. These Ottonian abbesses are not to be underestimated. These ladies ruled abbeys that were extraordinarily rich and could raise significant contingents of soldiers. But more importantly, they combined imperial and sacred status. Several of them had become saints after their death, others had been regents during the absence of Otto II and Otto III.

When the ladies showed up at the gathering of the Saxon magnates, they were initially treated with all the honours becoming their status. But after they had made their mission clear, Ekkehard and his supporters stopped being nice. They sent the ladies up to their room without dinner and took their place at the feast. That was a big mistake. You cannot treat the imperial ladies like that. Ekkehard was made to leave the gathering with his chances much diminished. He headed for Aachen, where Otto IIIs body was to be buried and, where in all likelihood, a royal assembly would gather to elect a new king.

En route to Aachen Ekkehard stayed at the Pfalz in Poehlde. In the night four armed men attack his sleeping quarters. They enter the antechamber and kill two his his attendants. Ekkehard wakes up and tries to raise his guards by making a fire and opening the window. All that does is alert the attackers of his whereabouts. They break down the door, kill more of his knights and finally one throws a javelin that brings the mighty warrior down. When he lies on the ground the assailants pile in, cut off his head and gruesomely mutilate his body before retreating. That crime shocked his contemporaries and raised many questions.

The assailants claimed it was revenge for the mistreatment of the imperial ladies at dinner. There was also some blood feud going on between Ekkehard and one of his assailants. But some things point to Henry as well. The assailants were relatives Henry’s wife Kunigunde, of which there are admittedly many. Now I do not want to point the finger at anyone here, but that smells a bit off.

Killing Ekkehard created not just a moral but also a military problem. Ekkehard and his reputation as an invincible warrior had been key to holding down the Slavic tribes around Meissen and keeping the dukes of Bohemia in line. Ekkehard also maintained great relations with Boleslav the Brave of Poland. With his death that whole power balance collapsed, adding another big headache to whoever would become king.

Anyway, another one down, but two more to go, Ezzo and Hermann of Swabia.

By March the body of Otto III had finally reached Aachen where he wanted to be buried. Henry had not come along but remained in Bavaria readying his supporters. At the funeral there were many magnates present plus an archbishop, Heribert of Cologne as well as the two other contenders, Hermann of Swabia and Count Ezzo. It seems Ezzo and Hermann came to some sort of arrangement, so that Ezzo now supported Hermann of Swabia.

The majority of the magnates present in Aachen swear an oath to support Hermann’s claim. But they do not formally elect Hermann and most importantly they do not consecrate and anoint him. The reason they could not do that was that they had the wrong archbishop, the one from Cologne, not the one from Mainz, and, crucially, they did not have the imperial regalia, in particular they did not have the Holy Lance.

These were still with Henry. And now he makes his big move. There is one person in the game we have not talked about yet. The archbishop of Mainz, Willigis. Willigis had already been kingmaker for little Otto III and had been regent during Otto IIIs minority. He sat on the council with first Theophanu and then Adelheid, effectively ruling the country. But after Otto III had taken over, Willigis was pushed aside and replaced by Heribert of Cologne. Willigis sulked back home in Mainz and started building an enormous church on the plan of old St. Peter in Rome, only bigger and better.

Willigis had always been one of the most astute political operators during the Ottonian period. After Otto II died he kept a neutral stance until he saw Henry the Quarrelsome’s plans going down the Swanny and jumped onto the Theophanu/Adelheid boat just at the right time. This time around he did it again. Keeping a watchful eye on the contestants he placed his bet late, but definitely not too late. And this time he held more of the chips, since he was the only archbishop who could legitimately crown a king. In April he came in firmly on Henry’s side.

He let Henry know, that if he can make it over to Mainz with the imperial regalia and a set of nobles that look remotely like a quorum for an election, he would crown him. Now to get to Mainz from Bavaria you need to do one thing, cross the Rhine river, a piece of information not lost on Hermann of Swabia who began patrolling the river north and south of Mainz, waiting for Henry to show up. And Henry indeed showed up at Worms with his supporters. When he saw Hermann on the opposite shore, he decided not to cross. He announced that it was hopeless and that he was heading back towards Bavaria. Hermann, thinking he had won, retired to Swabia awaiting prolonged negotiations over the handing out of the regalia.

Well, Hermann had not read up his history and forgotten that the Henries were a crafty bunch. Rather than going back to Bavaria as Henry had made Hermann believe, he turned back to the Rhine once the coast was clear, crossed over and rushed to Mainz. There his supporters, basically the Bavarians and his wife’s clan, the Luxembourgers, elected him king and Willigis had him crowned in his shiny new cathedral.

If you ask Henry, he now has achieved 2 ½ of the requirements of becoming king. He was the direct male heir of the dynasty and he had been anointed and consecrated by the correct archbishop with all the necessary regalia, including the Holy Lance. Ok, the election was a bit dodgy but that can be fixed, right?

The first place to go to fix it is Saxony. The Saxon nobles have declared themselves neutral and, given the last 4 king-emperors were Saxons, believe they are the ones who should have the ultimate right to designate the new king.

The magnates of Saxony met for the third time to discuss the succession, this time in Merseburg. Henry appeared in person, wearing the royal robes and crown, thereby indicating that he did not come for election but for allegiance. The Saxons yielded, but only after having secured their ancient rights and privileged access to the king. Henry received another this time only a ceremonial coronation. Henry and his wife moved on from there to Paderborn, which is still in Saxony. Here his wife, Kunigunde was formally crowned, which is another faint attempt by the Saxons to retain the right to determine who is king and queen of the land.

Now Henry has support from his Bavarians, the Saxons and the family of his wife in Lothringia. And that is where he travels next. Extensive negotiations with the Lothringian magnates ensure count Ezzo also completely rescinds his claim. Archbishop Heribert of Cologne caves as well and guides Henry up on to the imperial throne of Charlemagne in Aachen.

By now we should be done. Ekkehard of Meissen is dead, Otto of Worms, Bernhard of Saxony and Count Ezzo have all thrown in the towel. There is however still the obstinate Hermann of Swabia. Hermann had for some reason decided to fight Henry by sacking the city of Strasburg and harassing its bishop. As so often with medieval warfare, one struggles to see the tactical benefit of a fight in the deep south west of the country when the enemy is up in the north east. The most remarkable titbit about this sacking is the bishop of Strasbourg himself. He is the first member of the Habsburg family to grace this podcast. Apart from getting sacked, the only other thing he is famous for is laying the foundation for the cathedral of Strasburg. Not the most significant of the Habsburgs, but the first.

Back to Hermann of Swabia. Once Henry had gained the three main duchies and travelled in triumph through Franconia, Hermann knew that there was no point in any further fighting. He bent the knee and with that act, in early October 1002, 9 months after the death of Otto III the realm had a new uncontested king, Henry II.

What is remarkable is that that the institutions of the realm had worked fairly effectively. Apart from the pointless sacking of Strasburg and the murder of Ekkehard, the transition was comparatively bloodless. What made it so was that, in this time of piety and veneration, the fact that Henry managed to get himself anointed with the right piece of kit completely superseded the lack of an election or broad support. Sure, the magnates would have very much preferred to sit down and discuss the merits of the different candidates, but once there was one who had the blessing from above, democratic legitimacy was no longer required.

Henry II is now king, but who is he? We have heard of him several times during the last couple of episodes, but I haven’t given you a full picture yet.

Henry II was born most likely in 973 as son of Henry the Quarrelsome and his wife Gisela, the daughter of the king of Burgundy. He is barely a year old when Otto II has his father imprisoned on counts of treason. The next 10 years Henry the Quarrelsome will remain locked up and his son is brought up, first by the bishop of Freising, and then by the bishop of Hildesheim.

Henry enters the cathedral school in Hildesheim and is promised to the church. That might have been his parents’ decision who had given up all hope of future royal or ducal titles, or, what is more likely, Otto II had forced them to make him and his brother churchmen to put an end to the constant rebellions of the Henries.


Henry is a bookish boy who enjoys his studies of theology and seems content to become a canon and maybe a bishop later. Things go up in the air in 983 when Otto II died, and his father is released from prison. His father, Henry the Quarrelsome’s attempt to gain the crown failed as we heard in episode 11. During his father’s uprising the future king Henry II stayed with his mother and possibly his little cousin Otto III at Merseburg. He stays there for the 2 years it takes his father to make peace with Theophanu, a time during which one would assume the family remained anxious about what will happen next. Little Henry is about 12 or 13 years old when his father is reinstated as duke of Bavaria. Hefinally experiences settled family life for the first time, or what goes for settled family life in the 10th century.

His further education is handed over to bishop Wolfgang of Regensburg. Wolfgang was one of the great proponents of the reform movement that we mentioned in last episode. He cleaned up the rich monasteries of Regensburg and forced the monks and nuns back into tight adherence to the rules of St. Benedict – forcing them to do a bit more manual labour and less frolicking about. All this happened with enthusiastic support from Henry’s parents and later from Henry himself.

We have seen already with Otto III that piety can be a defining trait of rulers in the 10th and 11th century. Henry’s interest though was much more in reforming the church, the bishoprics and monasteries, whilst Otto’s piety was more self-centred. If you like, Henry wanted the whole of the church to be pure to ensure salvation for all, whilst Otto III wanted to be pure or purify himself to get himself into Paradise.

But Henry did not just focus on spiritual education. His father seems to have involved Henry in the administration of the duchy from an early age. When he is 21, a document refers to him as “condux”, a joint ruler together with his father.

Under Henry the Quarrelsome and then his son the duchy of Bavaria has become a very tightly run operation. We can see that from the so-called Ranshofen Resolutions. In these the ducal assembly sets out rules about serfs running away from their villages. This is not just interesting as it suggests there were labour shortages which means economic growth and hence peasants were able to improve their lot. It is also interesting because the punishments for the lord who harbours the fugitives were so harsh. It could go as far as revoking the whole feoff of the lord. These decisions were all to be made by the duke himself, even if it was a feoff of say a bishop or count.

That and other documents suggest the duke of Bavaria was able to keep the peace in the land, stop feuds, prevent the building of castles and be the ultimate judge in disputes between his nobles. He could remove counts who failed in their duties and replace them with loyal supporters, something we know the king-emperors were no longer able to except for special circumstances.

That depth of rule had been lost since Charlemagne and no other duke -as far as we know – had similar control. It may also explain the hesitancy of many fellow magnates during Henry’s bid for kingship. They feared an extension of Bavarian practices would undermine their position – and they may be right about that.

When Henry’s father died in 995, Henry is 22 years old. The chronicles, most of which written later, report that The Quarrelsome had made his son promise to support Otto III in all and everything and not ever to rebel, something he sincerely regretted having done.

That is obviously propaganda. As the son of a rebel and the grandson of a rebel, Henry needed a narrative that made him look not only as the legitimate heir by inheritance from Henry the Fowler, but also the heir his predecessor, Otto III would have chosen. During Henry II’s reign a number of chronicles are written that justify his claim by both his royal descent as well as his loyalty to Otto III. One of these stories is that in the year 1001 German nobles allegedly planned an insurrection, but Henry refused to join them so that it petered out. We also find Henry regularly supporting Otto III’s adventures in Italy and he is there when the whole edifice comes crashing down. His soldiers defend the funeral cortege in its hazardous journey back to Verona. He has Otto’s intestines buried in the church of St. Afra in Regensburg. And throughout his reign he will constantly refer to his cousin Otto III as the senior and most noble emperor etc. pp.

What he really thought about Otto III we will never know. But given Otto’s father had caused all sorts of hardship and insecurity to his family whilst he was a child and he had grown up with the notion that his family was the only really deserving royal family, he is unlikely to have started out with a positive pre-disposition. From his own policies we can conclude that he found Otto’s madcap adventures in Italy pretty pointless. So, he played the long game. Pretend he loved the pious dreamer on the imperial throne and wait for it to all crumble to nothing. Ok, I am putting thoughts in his mind for which I have no evidence but give me a break. Unless medieval basic psychology is something fundamentally alien, he must have hated that godly teenager.

One big influence on our new king and future emperor is his wife. Henry had married Kunigunde, either around 996 or in the year 1000. Kunigunde is the daughter of count Siegfried of Luxembourg, one of the most powerful magnates in Lothringia. The Luxembourgs are a family we will hear a lot more about in our story. For now what matters is that the Luxembourgs are part of a clan that stretches across Germany with possession all over the country. I did not mention their support in Henry’s dash for the royal coronation, but it was very important. Bavaria alone would not have been enough to get him there.

Kunigunde was another one of these empresses like Adelheid and Theophanu who were explicitly described as “sharing in the imperial authority”. Even by these standards Henry and Kunigunde were a formidable couple. They often shared the burden of actual rule by splitting the work up, Henry fighting in the West whilst Kunigunde was holding the East.

Despite this close personal bond they could not have children. Henry declared this publicly already in 1007 after less than 10 years of marriage, and – contrary what you would expect in the middle ages – did not blame it on her. As a consequence, Henry picked up the mocking name of Henry the lame, as in lame of loin. His supporters turned the story around and claimed that he and Kunigunde had never consummated their marriage to preserve her virginal state, as a step to future holiness. That latter notion is unlikely since there are chartas where Henry explicitly states that he “recognised her in the flesh”. Best guess is that Henry was unable to sire children for whatever medical reason. The childlessness of the couple will drive a number of their decisions as we will see.

Kunigunde’s direct role was as the de facto royal administrator for the duchy of Bavaria. As I said, Bavaria was Henry’s main powerbase, and he had no intention of letting it go – full stop. But the idea of the king directly running one of the duchies had become a genuine no-no by the year 1000. The aristocrats had enforced an unwritten rule that vacant duchies needed to be awarded to someone else, usually one of the leading nobles of the duchy. And that even applied to Henry whose family had held Bavaria on and off for the last 50 years.

The largest of Henry’s Bavarian vassals, and therefore first in line to become duke was the count of Schweinfurth. It may well be that Henry had explicitly promised him the duchy to get his support for the bid to become king. Whether or not he had, when the Schweinfurther asked for what he believed was his right, he was told not yet, but that Henry would call an assembly of the Bavarian nobles to elect a new duke. When asked when that assembly would take place the answer was a touch too vague for the Schweinfurther’s taste.

Henry was playing for time, time he used to hollow out the duchy. He passed proprietary monasteries and ducal castles into the royal demesne, carved out the duchy of Carinthia and gave it to a guy called Conrad, we will meet again later. As the Schweinfurther saw his prize thinning down by the day he saw no other solution than to rebel. He teamed up with members of his own clan, some Saxon nobles and even the king’s brother, Brun. He also added an international dimension by teaming up with the Polish duke/king Boleslav the Brave.

The Schweinfurther might have thought that this little bit of sable rattling would jog things along, as it might have done with previous incumbents on the royal throne. But not so with Henry II. Henry II had seen how powerful a streamlined operation like his duchy of Bavaria could be and wanted the whole country to run like that.. He came down on him with the full might of the royal army and the count had to pack his bags quickly, fleeing across the border to Poland. Henry began to systematically flatten his opponent’s castles. With the Schweinfurther gone and the duchy hollowed out, Henry put his brother-in-law, another Henry in charge of the duchy. But that henry was not even able to reside in the splendid capital of the duchy, Regensburg, but had to set up his own new administrative centre. The true ruler of the duchy was instead his sister, the wife of Henry, the formidable Kunigunde. She resided in Regensburg and through her own private possessions, the royal monasteries and the bishops effectively ruled the duchy.

This rebuttal of aristocratic claims will become a key feature of Henry II’s reign. He is trying to make that next step of using control over church resources to enforce the royal power over the barons, counts and dukes, a process that had been extraordinarily successful in the duchy of Normandie.

Next week we will see how Henry II goes about sorting out the internal structure of the Reich. We will also see how he manages the eastern frontier where Boleslav the Brave of Poland, the one that Otto III had made a friend and ally of the Romans, had become overwhelmingly powerful. And the situation in Italy remained chaotic with an Italian king openly defying Henry’s authority.

I hope you are going to join us again next week. Ad in the meantime, if you enjoyed this episode, why not tell other people about the podcast, on social media, in the review sections of Apple Pocdcasts and others, or old school, when you are chatting with your friends, something we hopefully can do a lot more often now…

Leave a Reply