Episode 27 – Peace in Our Time

The main role of a medieval monarch is to bring peace to his subjects. Peace is not so much absence of major international conflict, but protection from feuding lords. Whilst in France central power is far too weak to maintain any semblance of order giving rise to the Peace of God movement, the empire under Henry III can rely on its monarch to fulfil his role.

But his rule is not without tension. The dukes of Saxony and Lothringia are moving into opposition to the king and emperor who falls severely ill in 1045.

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Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 27 – Peace in our time

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As a medieval emperor Henry’s job is not only to expand the reach of Christianity, but also to bring peace and justice to his lands. The monarch’s obligation to bring peace is one of the distinguishing features between the dark ages and the Middle Ages. A dark ages king was expected to provide opportunities for plunder and tribute, whilst in the Middle Ages the population has settled down and cares more about safety and security than about raping and pillaging.

In the 11th century the call for peace gets louder and louder, in particular in France. Peace is not so much the absence of large international war. What the population suffered most from were the incessant feuds between rival lords. When two rival lords had a disagreement, they rarely went into trial by combat to see who was the stronger. No, no, no, that was actually dangerous. The better solution was to burn down the rival’s fields and murder his peasants. Unarmed peasants could not inflict much harm on an armoured rider and when the rival lord comes with his equally well-equipped men, you can always race back into the safe stone castle you had just built.

The simple equation is more stone castles equals more feuds equals more peasant misery. A king who wants to have peace in his lands needs to do one thing first and foremost, which is preventing his nobles from building castles. In an ideal world only the king would build and man castles. However, the 11th century is far from being an ideal world.

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His brother was one of Henri’s less pressing problems. He also had to deal with his overbearing magnates. The two most irritating ones were the counts of Anjou and the counts of Blois Champagne who would usually fight each other. Count Fulk III the Black of Anjou was famous for building castles. He is said to have built almost 100 castles mostly in stone, the ruins of which are still terrifying. Then you had the dukes of Normandy and the dukes of Aquitaine who were a bit further afield from Henri’s direct zone of control, but often intervened in the struggles. New powers rose as well like the counts of Flanders and the Count of Holland. But even the magnates were not able to maintain order much beyond their castle walls, which meant every little count, baron or castellan built his own castle(s) and went merrily along brutalising the villeins.

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According to the monk Adhemar, these events were religious festivals where the bishops would whip the crowd into a frenzy through a generous display of relics and calls upon the saints to intervene. The warriors in presence would then declare their intention of making war on those who violate the peace of God.

These attempts of pitching an army of saintly warriors has more than the whiff of crusaders to it and indeed the Crusader movement incorporates elements of the Peace of God movement and develops them further by sending the most violent and aggressive lords out of the country.

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The Treuga Dei was needed most in the parts of France where central power was weakest. The dukes of Normandy whose duchy was tightly run were able to maintain public order by themselves without having to take recourse to the church.

Equally the empire did not feel the need for a Treuga Dei. The central power was strong under Henry III and entirely capable to prevent feuds and control the construction of stone castles.

Henry III however borrowed some elements from the Treuga Dei movement.


The last sentence is what matters most in that description- confirmed by edict. In other words, Henry III did order peace or more precisely banned feuding by secular law. There were only two rulers at this point who had enough centralised power to do that, the duke of Normandy and the Emperor.

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The situation is somewhat different in the Northern duchies of Upper and Lower Lothringia and Saxony.

Let’s start with Saxony. Saxony was the heartland of the Ottonians. The success of the early Ottonians had clearly rubbed off on the Saxons in general and they saw themselves very much as the nucleus and foremost tribe in the empire Otto the great had created. After the Ottos had died out, the Saxons did not directly participate in the election of the last kings. Instead, Henry II and Konrad II had to come to Saxony after their elections and negotiate a separate acclamation. That acclamation was granted in both cases in exchange for recognition of ancient rights and probably the issuance of new privileges.

That already set Saxony apart. The other difference was the role of the duke. You may remember that Otto the great had made his old comrade in war, Hermann Billung, duke of Saxony. That elevation had initially been more of a governorship. Hermann Billung was to take orders from Otto in respect of the duchy and the main ducal lands, including the immensely valuable silver mines in Goslar remained in the personal possession of the Ottonians. Furthermore, Saxony had some immensely wealthy and powerful counts, such as the Margrave Gero and then later the Margraves of Meissen. One of the Margraves, Eckehard had even tried to become king and died under suspicious circumstances as we heard in episode 17.

Therefor ethe dukes of Saxony were less powerful within their duchy, operating more like Firsts amongst Equals. On the flipside the protection of the ancient rights of the Saxons meant that the Billungs could make their duchy an inherited fief, whilst all other duchies were offices the king could -in principle – assign to whoever he wanted.

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The other royal initiative was to expand the Ottonian heartlands in the Harz mountains. Henry III aggressively sponsored Goslar where he built his new imperial Pfalz. This building actually still stands today, another impressive testament to the great building boom of the Salian period. Furthermore, he also established a very special monastery in Goslar, the Priory of Saint Simon and St. Judas. This priory became a sort of stationary imperial chancellery. The main chancellery travelled with the peripatetic emperor, but some of its members would stay in Goslar. The members of the chancellery and the priory were trained to become bishops or abbots taking up the key positions in the imperial church. Under Henry III we are reaching the zenith of the Imperial church system we have discussed so many times in recent episodes.

Goslar was a provocation to the Saxons. Not only was the regular presence of the king an expensive exercise since the neighbouring counties had to provide the food to the court, it was also an affront to ancient Saxon rights. The Saxons would traditionally hold their assembly at the ducal palace in Werla, a place that no longer exists 20km from Goslar. Werla was a large palace covering nearly 20 hectares enclosed by a stone curtain wall with two or more gates, several towers, two palaces, one of which had a heating system etc., etc. pp. This was a place of Saxon pride and a demonstration of its ancient power. By building out Goslar, the Salians cut Werla out of the equation. The place emptied out and by the 15th century had entirely disappeared.

To cut a long story short, Henry III had it in for the Saxons and in particular its dukes, the Billungs.


Arnold is made to accuse Thietmar openly which results in another trial by combat. There is no evidence on either side, so God is to decide. Thietmar is happy to go along, maybe less on grounds of actual innocence but more on his recognised prowess with the sword. Anyway, the Lord reveals that Thietmar was lying by means of Arnold’s sword sticking between his rips.

There is no record of how Bernhard II explains the situation to his overlord, but not much happen to him. Henry III may not yet have enough assets in place to take the duke of Saxony on directly.

There is a prologue to the story. A few years later Thietmar’s son captures his father’s killer and has him strung up between two dogs. That gets Henry III involved again. The son is exiled for life and his lands are given to the bishop of Halberstadt, further undermining ducal power in Saxony.

Apart from this attempted murder the Saxons held still and watched the erosion of their ancient rights and privileges with growing contempt and anger as long as Henry III lived.

Lothringia is another case again.

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Gozolo’s success was a double-edged sword for his family. On the one hand he was successful in removing Odo, whose lands were divided amongst his sons. On the other hand, now the emperor no longer needs a strong Lothringian duk to fight the count of Champagne. In fact, the emperor wanted the exact opposite. He, and that is our friend Henry III now, he wanted a weaker duke who owes his office to him, the king.

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That came as a huge surprise to Godfrey, known as Godferey the bearded. As ever so often there are no contemporary pictures of Godfrey the Bearded but the 19th century went to town on his beard. I will put some of the best images on the blog.

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Godfrey simply could not understand why this was happening. Hadn’t his father and he himself served the Salians faithfully, spilled their blood to bring down the mighty count Odo? Had Lothringia not always been one entity since its creation in 843 with the recent division just a matter of administrative ease?

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As we know there is now only one thing for Godfrey to do – rebel. The fighting was ferocious, and Lothringia was beaten up severely. Henry III ultimately prevailed even though he did have to fight in Hungary and Burgundy at the same time. Godfrey was taken to the castle of Giebichenstein, the state prison.


Another odd move was to enfief the count of Flanders with lands on the Schelde river and around Valenciennes. That irritated Godfrey, whose land it was, but the counts of Flanders were an ambitious lot with great plans, none of which involved strengthening the empire.

Inbetween the defeat of Godfrey and the re-organisation of Lothringia two things happen, one definitely significant, the other possibly important.

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Henry III should have got married quickly after that, but for some reason this did not happen. It took 5 years before he arranged the marriage with Agnes of Poitou. As I mentioned before, Agnes was the daughter of the duke of Aquitaine and the stepdaughter of the count of Anjou. That brings Henry great contacts in France but also some headaches.

As most nobles of that period, Agnes and Henry III were too closely related to get married according to canonical laws. The marriage immediately attracts criticism from the reform church, including from the influential abbot Siegfried of Gorze. Being French did not help either as some of the older curmudgeons disliked the fancy French dresses, haircuts and armour.

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Cluny was different. If you asked Cluny for help to sort out your monastery or create a new one, they would require you to make it a daughter house of the Monastery of Cluny. That means it’s abbot reports to the Abbot of Cluny, who in turn reports to the pope. That in turn means the secular lord who held the monastery as an Eigenkirche until then, loses it to the abbot of Cluny.

A high price to pay for reform, but one the lords of France had been happy to pay, probably because their list of sins was so long. In Germany Cluny had made inroads, in particular with empress Adelheid, but were held back by the later Ottonians and Konrad II. Agnes opened the doors wide for the abbots of Cluny. Abbot Hugh of Cluny, known as the great, which makes him I think the only abbot who is called the great, anyway, Hugh of Cluny becomes godfather of Henry III’s son and heir.

There we are. You may not be aware, but in this short episode we have met some of the dramatis personae that will lead us to that great medieval turning point, the road to Canossa. Agnes of Poitou, Adalbert of Hamburg-Bremen, Bernhard, duke of Saxony, Godfrey the Bearded and the great abbot of Cluny. Some people are still missing for the great play, but they will make their appearance next episode, when Henry III will take down three popes with one shot. Yes, it is time for our favourite pastime, an expedition to Italy. This expedition will be the most important imperial coronation journeys to Rome, not just for German history, but for the history of the papacy as well.

Stay tuned, things are hotting up.

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See you next week

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