The medieval Dukes of Swabia make regular appearances on the History of the Germans Podcast. It is time then to introduce you to their home, Hohentwiel castle.

Hohentwiel sits atop an extinct volcano and dominates the plain around it. It has been used as a refuge since at least the first Millenium BC. A castle there is first mentioned in the 8th century making it one of the oldest castles in Germany. In 915 king Konrad I besieges the Hohentwiel without success – part of his general failure to exert effective control. (see episode 1)

The castle was expanded significantly when it became the seat of the duchess Hadwig (~940-994), wife of duke Burchart III and sister of Henry the Quarrelsome, duke of Bavaria. Hadwig maintained a sophisticated court on the Hohentwiel even after her husband had died.

After her husbands death, her brother claimed the duchy of Swabia for himself or at a minimum for whoever Hadwig would choose to marry. Emperor Otto II refused for fear of his rival Henry the Quarrelsome gaining control of all of Southern Germany, cutting him off from the riches of Italy. Otto II appointed another of their relatives to be duke.

Hadwig did not recognise the new duke and remained on the Hohentwiel effectively controlling a major part of Swabia. She joined her brother in his rebellion of 974/976 and again in his attempt to gain the crown in 983. (check out episode 9 ” A Matter of Habit” and Episode 11 “Woe the Land..”)

Since the castle was impregnable the emperor(s) chose to ignore her even after Henry the Quarrelsome’s rebellions had been squashed. Hadwig had a close relationship the the monastery of St. Gallen and particularly to one monk, Eckehard. She called him to the Hohentwiel to teach her Latin and theology. She later sponsored him to join the imperial court and embark on a great career in the church.

Victor von Scheffel took the story and made it into a love affair where the monk turns from a religious bigot into a liberated poet under the guidance of a well educated and still enticing older woman. The book, published in 1855 became a massive bestseller.

In the later Middle Ages the castles moves through multiple hands before the Dukes of Württemberg make it their main fortress. 18th century defence systems are installed, returning it to its historic impregnability.

The Hohentwiel served as one of the state prisons for the notoriously oppressive principality. The most famous inmate was the father of German constitutional theory Johann Jakob Moser.

In 1801 Napoleon orders the fortress to be destroyed.

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Eadgith (910-946), daughter of King Edward the Elder of England and first wife of Emperor Otto the Great (912-973). According to the chronicler Widukind they had a very close relationship and Otto was devastated when she died in 946. Eadgith had been a major political operator within the future Holy Roman Empire, and like many royal consorts in this period was “sharing in the burden of rule”.

Otto remarried in 952, a decision that destroyed the relationship with Liudolf, his son with Eadgith. Liudolf gathered many disaffected nobles and his rebellion brought the regime of Otto the Great close to collapse. The Magyars invaded in the wake of Liudolf’s rebellion which culminated in the battle on the Lechfeld in 955, one of those important forks in the road in medieval Europe.

Eadgith was buried in the cathedral of Magdeburg, next to her husband, another sign of their close relationship. Her burial place was moved several times. A rather impressive funeral monument was created in the early 16th century, though it was generally believed that the actual bones had been lost. The grave was opened in 2008 and found to contain a lead box with an inscription stating that these were the actual remains of Eadgith. Further detailed analysis revealed that the body found had likely grown up in the South of England, had lived a life of relative luxury, eating well and riding a lot. From that was concluded that these were indeed the remains of Eadgith.

More on Eadgith in the History of the Germans Podcast, specifically episode 5 “The Father, the Son and the Uncle” Links are here:

On this day, August 10, 955 the Magyars (=Hungarians) are comprehensively defeated by Otto the Great (936-972). The defeat brings Otto the imperial crown of Charlemagne and domination of Western Europe. It ends the annual Hungarian raids and ushers in a period of Christianisation of the East as gradually Hungary, Bohemia and Poland join the catholic faith.

The devastation of the civil war of 954 lures in the largest Hungarian army anyone had ever seen anywhere. Enticed by the disinherited sons of former Bavarian dukes, the mighty host makes for Augsburg, a city whose walls are as weak as their defender is steadfast. This time they are here to conquer not just to plunder. Otto has to run hell for leather south gathering an army from wherever he can get his hands on to face the most amazing military of the times on a battlefield of their choosing.

That means apart from his personal bodyguard of Saxons, Otto’s army consisted of 3 contingents of Bavarians under Otto’s brother Henry, 2 contingents of Swabians, led by their new duke Burchard, 1 contingent of Franconians led by, surprise, surprise, Konrad the Red and, even more surprising a large contingent of Bohemians, led by our old fratricidal friend Boleslaus. Given Otto’s army was made up of in total 8 contingents, one of which consisted of allegedly “1,000” Bohemians, it gives us a high estimate of 8’000 men, though it is likely that the number was considerably lower. If we work of the assumption that total Magyar population in Hungary was 60,000 of which 20,000 were fighters, and they would not have sent all of them suggests a high estimate of 10,000 Hungarians. They may have had camp followers and slaves along to operate the siege engines, which suggests the overall army may have been larger. In any event, the Hungarians outnumbered Ottos troops by a margin.

Practically everything that I will say about how the battle unfolded is heavily debated, given that we have only 2 sources close to events and another three written many years later and all five give different accounts. There are also Hungarian chronicles written hundreds of years later.

The battle begins two days earlier on August 8th, with the siege of the city of Augsburg. The city nearly fell on their first attempt when they pressed on the eastern gate in large numbers. However, armoured knights stationed in Augsburg scored a success when they killed one of the Hungarian leaders. Shaken by this loss, the Hungarians retreated. With the Hungarians back in their camp, the citizens of Augsburg worked through the night strengthening their weak defences, building palisades and digging trenches.

On the morning of the 9th the Hungarians come back, now fully equipped with ladders and siege engines. I guess moral in the city was severely dampened when they saw the great host arriving.

But no major attack takes place. What had happened? One of the last surviving members of the rebellious former Bavarian ducal family had come to the Hungarian camp and told them that Otto’s army had arrived. The Hungarians sat down for a war council and decided that if they beat the field army first, the city would fall immediately thereafter – so no need to continue the siege. In the afternoon the Hungarian army moved off onto the Lechfeld, a large floodplain of flat gravel near Augsburg to offer battle. The terrain suited them and their fighting style plus they had won a battle there before in 910. Their horses could move rapidly over the full range of the plain. Otto had no choice but to accept the battlefield. If he had tried to lure them into a more suitable terrain for his army, the Hungarians would have simply ridden away and evaded battle.

Next morning, the 10th of August 955, the feast day of Saint Lawrence, Otto took his troops down to the Lechfeld. He had lined up his eight detachments as follows. The first three battlegroups of Bavarians were in the front. Then came Konrad the Red’s Franconians, followed by Otto himself with his bodyguard. Then the 2 divisions of Swabians and finally the Bohemians with the baggage train. During the march down he kept his troops within the cover of a wooden area to avoid being pelted by Hungarian arrows.

Whilst Otto’s soldiers snuck through the bushes to avoid being shot at, they did not see that the Hungarians had gone behind his army and attacked the rear guard. That was very successful. The Hungarians captured the baggage train, dispersed the Bohemians and caused heavy damage to the two Swabian columns that had marched just ahead of the train. But once they had captured the baggage, their discipline broke down. That allowed Konrad the Red to bring down his Franconians, fall on the plundering Hungarians, beat them back and free their prisoners. When Konrad and the Swabians re-joined the army, it nevertheless became clear that the Hungarians had inflicted major damage with three out of his 8 columns seriously weakened. Otto then addressed his troops. He said: “As we all know they fight almost without any armour and, what is our greatest relief, without the help of the lord. Their only shield is their bravery, whilst we can hope for the protection of the lord. We, as masters of all Europe, would have to be ashamed were we to surrender now. We rather want to die in glory than being beaten by our enemies, taken away in servitude or even be strung up like feral animals” Basically he says – we have the better armour, we have the help of the lord and guys, if you do not get yourself in gear, we will all be strung up like rabid dogs. That seems to have worked. Though the first item on the list was probably the most important. The fighting style of the Magyars was horse-based archery. The riders would attack and then feign retreat. With their fast horses they would create a gap over the pursuers until they are at perfect shooting distance for their composite bows.

The maximum impact was achieved by shooting volleys of arrows into the sky that would come down on the attackers like hail. The ideal distance to achieve that was somewhere between 200 and 500 metres. Had the enemy come closer the Hungarians had to shift to individual point-blank shots, which were less efficient and if the enemy got even closer it was down to hand to hand combat.

Henry the Fowler had proven that an army of heavy armoured riders could break a Hungarian force. The way to do that is to get through the death zone of 200 to 500m from the Hungarian lines without getting killed and crash into the lightly armoured horsemen at full tilt. Once amongst them, the knights with their strong armour and huge swords could easily slaughter the lightly armoured Hungarians.

And that is likely what happened at the Lechfeld. The Hungarians feigned retreat, but Otto’s highly trained personal troops and the battle-hardened Bavarians pushed through the death zone at speed, crashing into the Hungarian lines. There might have also been a flank attack by the armoured riders who were defending Augsburg. These knights had left the city the night before to join up with Otto but had not found him in the dark. When they saw Otto’s troops attacking the Hungarians dead ahead, they joined the melee from the sides causing more chaos in the Hungarian lines.

There are other theories, one of which is that after the raid on the train, the remaining Bohemians crossed the river Lech and attacked the Hungarian camp. The Hungarians than raced to the ford at Augsburg to protect their plunder. When they got stuck on the river crossing, Otto and the Bohemians fell on them from both sides. In later Hungarian chronicles the defeat is blamed on sudden rainfall. German chroniclers mention excessive heat so that there may have been a summer thunderstorm later in the day. What makes the difference between the battle on the Lechfeld and the battle of Ried in 933 is that this time the Hungarians did not escape. At Ried, the Hungarians could just turn their horses around and run back to Hungary. This time their route had been blocked. Bridges were either taken down or well defended and fords guarded. After the battle, the Hungarians split up into smaller groups which were picked off one by one, probably mostly by the Bohemian troops of Boleslav, though the Saxon chroniclers prefer to credit the Bavarians. Most were captured and their leaders were hanged. That ended the Magyar threat for good.

The victorious army hails Otto the Great as emperor on the field of battle like the Romans of antiquity have done. The actual coronation will take place 7 years later in Rome. This and what happens next is in Episode 6 of the History of the Germans Podcast available on this website as well as on Apple Podcasts, SPotify or wherever you get your podcasts from.