Episode 18 – Henry II Goes Forth

1002-1018 AD Once king Henry II has established his rule, he has to face up to a new and increasingly powerful rival. Duke (later King) Boleslav the Brave of Poland has created a large and coherent polity to the east of Germany. When he takes over the counties of Meissen and Lausitz and even Bohemia, war becomes inevitable. Hampered by his own barons being tied to Boleslav by political interest and family ties, Henry II shocks the world by getting into an alliance with the pagan Slavs.

In the meantime the Italian nobles have elected one of their own, Arduin of Ivrea to be king, defying Henry’s rule. Henry fights his way to Pavia but after the coronation the locals rebel leading to a massacre and the burning down of the capital of the Lombards.

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Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 18: Henry II goes forth.

I think before I start I should say some big thank you. I am totally amazed that so many you want to spend your time hearing about long forgotten German emperors. I honestly thought I would end up talking largely to myself. And also I want to say a big thank you for all your feedback and encouragement. A special thanks to listener V.D. Who suggested we have a Q&A session at the end of this season. I would be very happy to do it if you send me enough questions.. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and Instagram under some version of History of the Germans. If you do not want to post publicly you can DM me or send an email to historyofthegermans@gmail.com. Let the questions flow.

So, with that, back to the show.

Last week we left Henry II looking at the smouldering ruins of the Schweinfurther’s castles and feeling finally truly in charge of the country. He was the anointed king, all five duchies have recognised him and all other contenders have bent the knee, except for Ekkehard of Meissen, who was conveniently murdered along the way.

That death of Ekkehard might have helped Henry II to rise to the throne, but it did cause a major problem for the new ruler. A problem that will take precedence even over the precarious situation in Italy and some of his grand plans for the internal structure of the realm.

Ekkehard had been the margrave, a sort of count on steroids, of Meissen. You may know Meissen as the birthplace of European porcelain making cute shepherdesses and delicate coffee cups. In 1002 it was first and foremost a frontier town on the Elbe river. East of here is the Lausitz, an area settled by pagan Slavs. This area had been conquered by Margrave Gero in the 960s but had been almost completely lost during the Slavic uprising in 983. Margrave Ekkehard led the reconquest, built a major fortification in Bautzen and pushed the frontier as far as the Neisse river, where today’s border between Germany and Poland is found. By 1002 the region has been regarded as part of Empire and become a county, though most of the population was obviously Slavic and probably maintained a lot of their pagan beliefs. Even today the Lausitz remains one of the centres of old Slavic culture with villages speaking Wendish and trying to maintain their ancient customs.

Ekkehard had operated very much in line with the policy of Otto III, meaning he maintained close relations with the Christian duke of Poland, Boleslav the Brave whose lands were even further east. The strategy since the reign of Theophanu was to attack the Slavs from both sides, the Germans coming from the West and the Poles coming from the East. This close cooperation was underpinned further when Otto III did his famous pilgrimage to Gniezno in Poland where he may or may not have crowned Boleslav as king of the Poles. Ekkehard, as one of the leaders of the German armies in the east had developed close family ties with Boleslav, namely his brother Gunzelin was married to Boleslav’s sister.

When Ekkehard was killed and Henry II was hurtling towards his coronation in Mainz, the county of Meissen became a power vacuum. Boleslav saw the opportunity and jumped in. Boleslav had been keen on Meissen and the Lausitz for a long time. Within days Boleslav had taken hold of the Lausitz, and the town of Meissen, helped by his brother-in-law, Gunzelin. Sorry, I just love saying Gunzelin, what a brilliant name!

Boleslav defended his take-over by saying that he acted on Henry II’s behalf, securing the vacant county against his enemies (whatever these enemies were).

Boleslav came to meet king Henry II in Merseburg. Boleslav hoped to keep hold of all the lands he had occupied, and in particular wanted to be invested as margrave of Meissen. Henry II was not prepared to go all that far. He gave him presents and let him have part of the Lausitz. The compromise over the county and city of Meissen was that it went to Gunzelin, Boleslav’s brother-in-law and at that point his strong supporter. Not everything he wanted, but more than good enough.

What happens next is disputed. As Boleslav departed from Merseburg, he and his entourage are getting ambushed by an unidentified group of knights. Boleslav gets severely injured in the melee and just about gets away with his life. The reason he survived was an intervention by duke Bernward of Saxony who was also a supporter of Otto III’s policy of friendship with Poland and was a a relative of Boleslav..

Did Henry order the ambush? Boleslav definitely believes that to be true and on his way home sacked the town of Strehla to make his point. The German chronicler, Thietmar of Merseburg explicitly said that it happened without Henry’s knowledge. Thietmar suggests the attackers had to defend the honour of the king since Boleslav and his men had refused to leave their weapons at the door when they had come into his presence.

There might be no evidence of Henry II’s involvement, but whoever attacked Boleslav would not have dared doing that against the will of the king. And the king did not identify and punish the perpetrators. Not the act of a friend and ally.

That raises the question why Henry II reversed the policy of close friendship and coordination with Poland that all previous Ottonian emperors had supported.

The fact that Boleslav stood with his brother-in-law Ekkehard in his bid for kingship is unlikely to be a reason for a deep rift between the two rulers. Henry II was perfectly happy to work with Heribert of Cologne who had actively promoted the candidacy of Hermann of Swabia.

Henry II bigger concern was the emergence of a hugely powerful new polity on his eastern frontier. Under Boleslav, Poland had become an increasingly coherent state, was expanding northwards and eastwards and the meeting of Gniezno had shown that the ruler of Poland had large resources at his disposal.

There is also a question about how useful the German/Polish alliance against the Slavs still was. As the pagan Slavs living between Poland and Germany were squashed harder and harder, at some point they would be wiped out and then Poland and Germany would come face to face on a new border. What then? If Poland had become too strong in the intervening period, Germany’s expansion would be blocked, removing a major source of tribute and plunder needed to keep the magnates on side.

That concern of rising Polish power increased further due to instability in neighbouring Bohemia. In 999 another Boleslav, Boleslav III (937-1037) called the Red had become duke of Bohemia. He was a weak ruler who quickly got into conflict with his stepbrothers Jaromir and Ulrich. Boleslav III had Jaromir castrated, and the two brothers fled into exile at the court of Henry II in Bavaria.

Before Henry II could intervene on their behalf, Boleslav III was deposed by a certain Wlodowej, a relative of the ducal family. Boleslav III fled to his relative, Boleslav the Brave of Poland.

The usurper Wlodowej died a few months later, allegedly because he could not go an hour without a drink. The two brothers returned with Jaromir been made duke. That lasted a few months before Boleslav III returned with support of Boleslav the Brave.

After the Polish Boleslav had returned home the Bohemian Boleslavinvited all the major nobles of the duchy to dinner and – since they had supported either Wlodowej or Jaromir or were otherwise irritating, had them all killed. That did not go down well with his people and they called on Polish Boleslav for help. Polish Boleslav lured Bohemian Boleslav into a trap and had him blinded and imprisoned. Boleslav the Brave made himself duke of Bohemia.

If that was not enough, Boleslav was strengthening his relationships with the Saxon magnates including by marrying his daughter to Hermann the son of Margrave Ekkehard. That gradually turned into a broader alliance of “Friends of Boleslav” that even included the duke of Saxony himself.

Bohemia, which was part of the empire, under the control of an already exceedingly powerful duke of Poland would have been unacceptable, even if the duke of Poland had been a faithful vassal. And a faithful vassal he clearly was not. When the Schweinfurther rebelled against Henry in 1003 as we heard in last episode, Boleslav the Brave popped up right by his side.

War had now become inevitable.

The first leg of the war was aimed at crushing the Schweinfurther. As we heard in the last episode, that was quite successful and Henry destroyed many of his opponent’s castles.

Getting at Boleslav himself was more difficult. The area Henry II had to defend against a potential Polish attack stretched pretty much the full length of today’s Germany, from Hamburg in the far north to Passau in the far south. Moreover, the friends of Boleslav controlled most of the northern end of that border. They may not fight the king directly, but they would pass on information to Boleslav and hold back their troops. The only people Henry could trust in this conflict were the bishops and his Bavarians. In that situation Henry II did something very, very unexpected.

Henry II went into an alliance with the Liutzi, a federation of pagan Slavic tribes who lived in what is today Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. These peoples have been defending their way of life against Saxon incursions since at least the 920s.

The German chronicler Thietmar of Merseburg gives us a remarkably sympathetic description of their culture and their religious centre which he called Rethra, Riedegost or -for fans of Tolkien – Radegast.

Their holy of holies was a triangular building with three doors, built deep inside a holy forest. The building can be entered by all through two of the three doors. The third door is reserved to a special caste of priests. It opens onto a path that leads to a lake, that according to Thietmar, was “utterly dreadful in appearance”. The outer walls of the building were adorned by marvellous sculpted images of the gods and goddesses. Inside, in the centre was skilfully made shrine that was standing on a foundation composed of the horns of animals. There were full sized free standing sculptures of the gods, each inscribed with their name and clothed with helmets and armour. There was a senior god Thietmar calls Swarozyc, though other sources call him Radogast, the same as the name of the place.

The Liutzi had a priest class whose role was preside over the drawing of the lots to make major decisions. The process was divided in two parts. In part one the priests would throw the lots and divine from how they lay what they believed the correct decision was to be. Next, they would bring in the sacred enormous horse that would walk over the lots and thereby declare its reading of the omens. Only when the priests and the horse agreed would the decision be implemented. If they disagreed the proposal is rejected. And if the omen suggested that internal warfare was imminent, a giant boar would emerge from the lake.

The temple at Radegast was not the only one, but the most sacred. There were other religious centres for the different tribes in the federation. These tribes would take their decisions, namely about war and peace jointly and unanimously. Unanimous the decision might be, but there was a rule that anyone who opposes the decision in the assembly was beaten with rods until he agrees and if he opposes after the assembly, he loses everything, either by burning or confiscation. Clearly it does not always pay to be contrarian.

Part of the decision over war and peace was to determine what offers have to be made to the gods in case of a successful completion of the campaign, which according to German chroniclers could include a human sacrifice -though that is likely to be propaganda.

By 1002 these peoples had sustained relentless attacks from both Saxony and Poland for nearly 20 years. Both the Saxons and the Poles believed them to be their natural enemy and found their religious beliefs abhorrent.

These are the guys that Henry II calls upon for help against Boleslav the Brave. As you will hear, henry II is otherwise very much the Christian ruler who derives his authority from god directly. Him allying with pagans upsets a lot of people, not least the missionaries like Brun of Querfurt who wrote a very unusual letter of complaint to his theocratic ruler.

Despite being unable to rely on the battle-hardened Saxons and morally in the wrong, the initial campaign was successful. Henry expelled Bolelsalv from Prague by circumventing the Poles major forces and put Jaromir back on the ducal throne.

In a next step he confronted Boleslav at a place called Krossen, where Boleslav had to flee, leaving a lot of his train behind, but without much loss of actual soldiers. Henry II progressed further into Poland and besieged Poznan, one of major towns. But in the end, he could not take the town and with his army weakened by hunger and disease, the two sides concluded a peace agreement in 1005.

This process would repeat itself several times over the next 13 years. Henry II would build up his forces, invade Poland, get stuck and finally agree a truce. That truce would last as long as it took Henry to gather new forces to make another run at it.

As time went by, Henry began to gradually replace unreliable counts and margraves along the border. Namely our friend Gunzelin, the brother-in-law of Boleslav was removed as the margrave of the crucial county of Meissen. Henry also tried to strengthen the power of the bishops in Saxony by handing them more and more resources. He -amongst other things – recreated the bishopric of Merseburg resolving an issue that had been undermining royal authority for the last 25 years.

One problem was that Boleslav was extremely well informed of what went on in Germany thanks to his network of supporters in the highest ranks of society. Every one of Henry’s moves, Boleslav could could counter, and when that failed, he just disappeared into the depth of Poland where Henrys army would falter.

In 1013 both sides became pre-occupied with different things and made an attempt at a more lasting peace. Boleslav promised to be a faithful vassal of king Henry in exchange for being allowed to keep hold of what he had acquired, i.e., the Lausitz, Silesia and other parts of Bohemia Jaromir had been unable to recapture.

But that did not work either. Boleslav failed to send troops for Henry’s campaign to Rome which made him an unfaithful vassal. Henry invited Boleslav to a royal assembly in Merseburg to witness the submission of other unruly vassals before the emperor. That involved kneeling barefoot in front of the emperor wearing a hare shirt. To Henry’s surprise the proud duke of Poland did not fancy that and hostilities resumed.

After another three year campaign that was fought brutally across Poland, eastern Germany and Bohemia, Henry realised that he could not beat Boleslav. The two parties concluded a peace agreement signed at the castle of Bautzen, a final humiliation for Henry since Bautzen was on Imperial territory. Henry did not even bother to attend the ceremony. Boleslav had won almost everything he set out to gain, except for Meissen itself and the core duchy of Bohemia. That, together with his success against the Kievan Rus almost double the size of his realm. In the mind of many historians, Boleslav, and his father Miesco I, were the founders of Poland, turning a loose federation of independent groups into a coherent powerful state that was now outside any feudal obligation to The empire. As a last act, in the period of uncertainty after Henry IIs death, Boleslav had himself crowned king of Poland, a process that had begun 25 years earlier with the “act of Gniezno” when Otto III may or may not have put his imperial diadem on Boleslav’s head.

Apart from the resistance of the Saxon nobles, the moral headwind from the alliance with the pagan Slavs, the relative incompetence of Jaromir and the size of Poland, another reason for Henry’s failure in the east was that he had a number of other issues on his plate.

One of these issues was king Arduin of Italy. You may remember that when Otto III had died in 1002, his political construct for Italy collapsed. The Italian nobles elected one of their own, Margrave Arduin of Ivrea, a relative of Berengar II to be king of Italy. Arduin instantly embarked on the policy his electors wanted him to pursue – rolling back the power of bishops.

The Ottonian rule in Italy had relied very much on support from bishops, similar to the situation in Germany. The Ottonians, in their role as kings of Italy, would allocate land and resources to the bishops in exchange for these resources being available to the emperor when he comes down to Italy to fight either the pope or Byzantium or both. Apart from the bishops the Ottonians had relied on a select few of immensely powerful magnates, namely Hugh of Tuscany and the dukes of Spoleto. But the majority of the middling levels of the aristocracy regarded the Ottonians as foreigners and an impediment to their position. Furthermore you have emerging urban elites whose main objective is to keep central power weak by constantly shifting allegiance from one side to the other.

That meant that Ottonian rule could not sustain itself. The bishops and a select few magnates is not enough to keep order in a kingdom as fragmented as Italy and full of still large defendable cities. Unless the imperial representative in Italy is as well connected as Adelheid, you have to rely on brute force, which means soldiers from the north. The issue with them is that they may be available for a campaign, but feudal obligations were such that keeping an army in the field permanently was effectively impossible. If the emperor was in Italy in person, he could often hold things together, even when the bulk of the army was back home in the north. When he was not there, the Italian aristocracy began to jump on the bishops and take all that imperial generosity off them. Arduin himself what been one of the most aggressive. He did not stop at taking the bishop of Vercelli’s land, but in 997 took the bishop’s head as well. That was still under Otto III’s rule and Arduin was excommunicated, his lands confiscated and he was offered to go into a monastery. Otto III forced the aristocrats to hand back their booty to the bishops and monasteries.

In 1002 when Otto III died, Arduin came back out of his hidy hole, became king and began a new cycle taking land and privileges away from the bishops and giving it to his fellow aristocrats. Some bishops like Otto III’s chancellor for Italy joined Arduin to preserve their rights and their heads, whilst others opposed and often ended up fleeing north to Germany.

What facilitated Arduin’s rise to power was the death of Hugh of Tuscany, the big supporter of Ottonian policy. His heirs had split up the inheritance and none of them was either as powerful or as loyal as their predecessor had been.

Removing Arduin was one of the top priorities for Henry II once he had assumed control of the kingdom in October 1002. Because he had to deal with the Schweinfurther himself, Henry sent the duke of Carinthia and technically the ruler of Verona down to sort out Arduin. But he was not up to the job and his army was broken up coming down the Brenner pass.

In 1004 Henry II came himself. If you know the Brenner pass, you know that there are several locations where the valley narrows, creating excellent defensive positions. One of those is the Chiusa di Ceraino just north of Verona, which Arduin’s troops held. Henry II managed to circumvent them by sending some troops up side valleys and then fall on the enemy’s flank and back. That not only opened the way into Italy, but also compelled Arduin to flee.

On Mai 14th Henry II reached Pavia and was crowned by the archbishop of Milan with the iron crown of Lombardy.

His rule over Italy was however short. During the night of the coronation the people of Pavia rose up against their new king. This is an early indication that the urban population in Italy, as Thietmar said, “preferred the laxness of king Arduin”, i.e., wanted a weak central government.

Their uprising was a bit premature. With the German army occupying the city, the revolt ended in a massacre. Finding their king besieged in the royal palace in the centre of town, the German soldiers storm the gates, free the king and proceed to pillage, rape and finally burn down the whole city.

There you have it. The Furor Teutonicus, the German Fury is back. After that, Henry did not stay long in Italy, and it would be another 10 years before he would return.

Henry did not bother much with Italy. Some historians believe he had seen Otto III’s travails first hand and wanted to avoid the risk of deep entanglement in the complex Italian politics for no real gains. That may be, but there is also the fact that he had the much more pressing issue of Boleslav the Brave to deal with as well as number of domestic issues we will get into next week.

With Henry gone, Arduin immediately returns and whatever authority Henry may have had in Italy evaporates. He would still issue charters and grant rights in Italy, but what they are worth is questionable.

The longer Arduin stayed on the throne, the more Henry’s authority eroded. There is now a question on what grounds Henry claims any authority in Italy. Yes, he was crowned by the archbishop of Milan in the cathedral in Pavia with the correct crown, but so was Arduin.

You may remember that Otto II had tried to forge the German and Italian kingdoms into one entity, where the German and Italian magnates would jointly elect the king and a German and an Italian archbishop would jointly crown the new ruler, in that case Otto III.

By taking a separate coronation, Henry II had essentially broken that notion of an integrated superior realm. He had not proceeded to Rome to be crowned emperor, which would have strengthened his legitimacy.

In that dilemma he, or more likely one of his chancellors, comes up with a new concept. Initially Herny II would sign his charters as King of the Franks and the Lombards, in the same way Charlemagne did before he became emperor. But by 1007 Henry assumes a new title “King of the Romans”. This “King of the Romans” title is sort of an “emperor in waiting”. He is not yet crowned emperor by the pope, but he is already in charge of the empire, which means both Italy and Germany, as well as all the other territories that were part of the empire at the time, namely Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Austria, Switzerland, Czech republic and large parts of Eastern France etc.

This title, “King of Romans” stuck and was in use until 1806. It was most relevant for those kings that never make it to Rome to be crowned. You can have an empire ruled not by an emperor, but by a king. It is also the reason why there is no “King of the Germans” ever. I know that I sometimes talk about the German kingdom or that such and such has become king of Germany. What I mean by that is the kingdom of East Francia, which is one of the three kingdoms that make the empire, East Francia (aka Germany), the Lombards (aka Northern Italy), and at a later stage Burgundy (aka Provence and Eastern france).

As we are talking about titles, another thing that comes up all the time is the “Holy Roman Emperor”. That word, to the extent it was ever really used, came only up in the 12th century. In the Ottonian period the title is simply Imperator or Augustus or Caesar, the latter word ultimately becoming the German work Kaiser. Being Emperor or Roman Emperor is not linked to a territory, which is obvious, since large parts of the area the Ottonians ruled had never been part of the Roman empire. Being emperor is more of a rank and a mission than a title. The rank is to be a unique monarch above all other kings, as the Roman emperor was always above mere kings in rank, whether they were his subjects or not. The mission is to protect and expand Christianity together with the Pope. In the same way the spiritual authority of the pope is in principle global, so is the imperial mission also global. In that sense, the empire is holy, but at this point it is not the Holy Roman Empire.

Going back to Henry II the trick with calling himself “King of the Romans” worked only so far. By 1012/1013 the situation had become untenable. Henry needed to be.crowned Emperor and quickly.

Meanwhile in Rome things had moved on. After Otto III had fled the city, the Crescenti had returned into their position as makers of popes. After the death of Sylvester II in 1003, they had run through John XVII, John XVIII and finally Sergius IV, called Buccaporci, pig’s snout for his unfortunate looks. All three are utterly insignificant puppets of the Crescenti. Though Otto III had killed the previous Crescenti praefect in the most gruesome way, the popes had maintained a reasonable relationship with Henry II. They acceded to most of his requests, but only on the assumption that he would not come anywhere near Rome.

In 1012 John Crescentius and Sergius IV both died within days of each other, very much suggesting foul play. That suspicion hardens when we hear that in the rioting that typically follows a papal death, the Theophylacts, eternal rivals of the Crescenti, took control of the city and the papacy. They make one of their number pope, who assumes the name of Benedict VIII.

Benedict VIII had been a layman before he was rapidly consecrated as a priest and then pope. He was an accomplished military man who smoked out the remaining Crescenti supporters who had also chosen one of theirs as pope. Benedict VIII was so successful that the Crescenti pope, Gregory VI had to flee to Germany. There Henry took him in, removed his papal vestments and told him that the best thing for him to do is go into a monastery and stay there for the rest of his life.

The Theophylacts were a lot more positively inclined towards the Ottonians, mainly on account of none of them having been killed by a German. That and the refutation of anti-pope Gregory made Benedict VIII willing to crown Henry II if he could make it to Rome.

That was less of a problem than last time. Arduin did not want or could not take a stand on one of the Brenner narrows and even offered to hand over the crown in exchange for the right to keep just Ivrea, an offer Henry rejected. Arduin got out of Henry’s way. Henry went down to Rome, gets himself and his wife Kunigunde, crowned, holds a synod where he creates the schism between the eastern and the western church over something called the filioque – I could explain, but hey.. and that is it. He is back in Bamberg in June 1014 – just 7 months after setting off. He really did not care much about Italy.

As soon as Henry was back home, Arduin came back, but, in a deviation from standard procedure, the Italian bishops managed to get him down. Arduin gives up and joins a monastery. His sons and nephews keep up the fight, but before it completely escalates the parties agree some sort of compromise. By 1016 Henry is finally sort of ruler of Northern Italy.

And that is where we should probably leave it for today. Next week we look a bit closer at how Henry manages domestic affairs. How he creates his kingdom as a “house of God” ruled by bishops, abbots and the emperor as the head of Christendom. We will talk about the conflict with the high nobility that he makes worse by doggedly pursuing a very wide definition of incest. And finally, listener K.K., we will talk about Bamberg, Henry’s great gift.

I hope you are going to join us again. And if you like the podcast, please let other people know, be it on social media, the podcasting review sections or old school, by talking to friends or family who may enjoy this sort of thing

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