This week we continue our walkabout of the major centres of power in the North of Germany that emerged during the 12th and 13th century. We talked about Holstein and Lübeck and now it is time to talk about the march of Brandenburg which means we need to talk about a character that had bit part roles on the podcast for quite some time, Albrecht the Bear. He was one of the longest lasting protagonists in the story of the German Middle Ages, playing a role in the reigns of Henry V, Lothar III, Konrad III and Frederick Barbarossa, though his lasting impact was on the Eastern European stage where he founded the March of Brandenburg, the political entity that through a lot of twists and turns becomes the Kingdom of Prussia and the heart of the Second Empire. So, let’s see what he was up to.

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 106 – How to make a Mark in Brandenburg

This week we continue our walkabout of the major centres of power in the North of Germany that emerged during the 12th and 13th century. We talked about Holstein and Lübeck and now it is time to talk about the march of Brandenburg which means we need to talk about a character that had bit part roles on the podcast for quite some time, Albrecht the Bear. He was one of the longest lasting protagonists in the story of the German Middle Ages, playing a role in the reigns of Henry V, Lothar III, Konrad III and Frederick Barbarossa, though his lasting impact was on the Eastern European stage where he founded the March of Brandenburg, the political entity that through a lot of twists and turns becomes the Kingdom of Prussia and the heart of the Second Empire. So, let’s see what he was up to.

But before we start let me tell you that 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 or on my website You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to Thor E., Andreas S., Evan L. and Zoe S. who have already signed up.

I am sorry but to explain the story of the march of Brandenburg we have to go back to the appointment of Lothar III as duke of Saxony in 1106, again. I know, you must be wondering how often we are going to do this. Is this guy really that important. The more I look into the backstories of the key players in Northern Germany, the more obvious it becomes that yes, Lothar III is really important. I cannot understand why German historians have regarded him as a mere transitional figure between Salians and Staufer for so long.

So, we are back in the early 12th century. Lothar III is consolidating his hold over the duchy of Saxony and part of that was to appoint Albrecht, count of Ballenstedt, nicknamed the Bear as margrave of Lusatia. As you may remember that decision was taken against the will of the emperor Henry V whose job it was to appoint margraves. When this appointment happened Albrecht was 23 years old and had just inherited his father’s lands. The other thing he had inherited from his father was an unquenchable desire to become duke of Saxony. His father, Otto of Ballenstedt had been duke of Saxony for all of six weeks when Henry V deposed Lothar of Supplinburg in 1112 but shortly thereafter reconciled with him.

Just generally Albrecht was an ambitious man, a ruthlessly ambitious man, a man so ruthless, he did not shy away from murder to get what he wanted.

As we said two episodes before, there is no clear rationale why Lothar appointed Albrecht as margrave of Lusatia in 1123, apart from the fact that Lothar may have thought – as Lyndon B. Johnson would say – it is better to have him inside the tent urinating out, rather than outside the tent doing the same in reverse.

The lack of alignment between the new margrave and the duke held at least into the first few years of Lothar’s reign as emperor. Albrecht accompanied his liege lord on a catastrophic campaign into Bohemia that ended with the imperial army comprehensively defeated and in particular Albrecht’s forces wiped out.

Once back home in Saxony, Albrecht began making a bid for the Northern march, the margraviate that lay just north of Lusatia. The Northern Marches had been run by the counts of Stade, a family we had already encountered before. They are the ones who saw themselves ousted by Frederick of Stade, one of their Ministeriales. I talked about that in the episode 103 “All the duke’s men”. However, the loss of control did not involve the Northern March which mostly stayed with the family of the counts of Stade. The fate of this ancient Saxon family was not a happy one. The last branch of the family descended from Rudolf I, margrave of the Northern Marches. Rudolf had regained the ancestral lands of Stade when the usurping Frederick had died. His eldest son, Rudolf II came to an ignominious end in 1128 when his squeezing out of peasants resulted in a peasants’ revolt. His daughter Lutgard first married the count palatinate of Saxony who she was forced to divorce on grounds of being too closely related. Then she married king Eric III of Denmark, called Erik Lamb for being a too mild mannered. That marriage ended when she was accused of adultery, divorced and exiled back home. Finally she married count Hermann II of Winzenburg who so angered the bishop of Hildesheim, he and his pregnant wife were murdered by the bishop’s men.

His second son Hartwig became Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen and will feature in one of the next episodes, which gets us to his last male offspring, Udo of Frecksleben, who should have inherited the Northern March from his murdered brother in 1128.

On what grounds Albrecht believed he had a claim to the Northern March is totally unclear. But as we will see, such niceties never bothered him much. He simply declared he wanted it and that was it. So he entered into a feud with Udo of Frecksleben, a feud Udo did not survive. Albrecht’s men killed him not in open battle or a straight fight man to man but ambushed him in a churchyard and ran him through.

Though seemingly most counts in the period died a violent death, this particular version sat uncomfortably with Lothar who had by now become king. Lothar not only denied Albrecht the Northern March, he even took away his march of Lusatia.

Albrecht now had to grovel and joined Lothar’s campaign in Italy in 1133/34 where Lothar gained the imperial crown from pope Innocent II. Albrecht did apparently quite well in this campaign, or Lothar recognised that he could not keep such a powerful magnate on the side lines for too long. So he was finally granted the Northern March he so desired.

Which gets us to the question, why Albrecht wanted it so badly. The Northern March, like the March of the Billungs north of there had been nothing but a theoretical concept ever since the Slavic uprising in 983. There were theoretically two bishoprics there, Brandenburg and Havelberg, but both cathedrals had been destroyed and whilst the archbishop of Magdeburg kept appointing bishops for both places, neither of them ever was ever able to set foot into these places. There were no castles or estates in the Northern Marches and the land was ruled by Slavic peoples. There were the Heveller whose central place was the great fortress of Brennaburg or Brandenburg and another leader named Wirikind had his seat at Havelberg. The Slavs had suffered setbacks in the mid-11th century when the Lutizi federation had first fought amongst themselves and was then defeated, and their main temple destroyed. But that did not mean there was much income to be had from these territories, apart from the occasional tribute paid by the Slavic rulers.

For any external observer the march of Lusatia that Albrecht lost in 1131 was a much more attractive position than the Northern March. But Albrecht had an ace up his sleeve that not many people knew about. And that has to do with one of the more unusual events in the encounter between Slavs and Saxons.

The Slavic prince of the Hevellers was a man called Pribislav-Henry. Pribislav was obviously his ancestral name, whilst Henry was a name given to him when he was baptised. So Henry-Pribislav was a Christian, though his people mostly remained pagan, quite similar to what Henry, the Prince of the Abodrites had done. He had come to power in 1127 when his predecessor, a certain Meinfried had been murdered. In 1128 Pribislav-Henry stands godfather to Albrecht’s eldest son, Otto and gives the little boy the region of Zauche as a godfather’s present. All that is accompanied by a further, secret side deal. And that deal says that should Pribislav-Henry die without heirs, his lands would go to Albrecht the Bear.

Right. There is remarkably little speculation why Pribislav-Henry would do such a thing. Church chroniclers mention that Henry Pribislav wanted to suppress the pagan beliefs, but that feels a bit contrived since he does no such thing in the 22 years he actually rules the Heveller.

I find the coincidence of the murder of Meinfried and Albrecht’s attempt at gaining the Northern march but killing the incumbent a bit too much of a coincidence. Clearly the Pribislav/Albrecht agreement was the result of a coup.

But it will take 22 years before Pribislav dies and Albrecht is pretty busy in the meantime.

When he becomes Lord of the Northern march in 1134 he goes after the other Slavic tribe in the area, the ones who occupy Havelberg. Their lord, Wirikind had been toppled by his sons who destroyed a church their father had built and reintroduced the pagan cult. That was the perfect excuse for Albrecht to attack and, as the chroniclers said, raided and pillaged until its population was much reduced.

Albrecht took Havelberg and then, like his colleague in Holstein invited settlers from Holland, Flanders and the Rhineland to come to Havelberg. He re-established the bishopric in Havelberg and laid the foundation for a new cathedral. This is the pattern we see him deploying with all his conquests in the Northern March. He pushes the Slavs out and instead invites Christian settlers to come and take over.

We are now in the 1137 and Albrecht is still in the early stages of his career, even though by the standards of the age he is now middle aged. Though he saw great potential in the Northern march, his true ambition was to become duke of Saxony. And the moment to make his claim came at the end of that year. Lothar III died in December 1137. Lothar had not only been king and emperor, but also duke of Saxony.

Lothar had designated his son-in-law, Henry the Proud, duke of Bavaria and head of the house of Welf as the heir to his personal fortune as well as his duchy and his crown. As his nickname suggested, Henry was not a man of high EQ. Many of the magnates who knew him and had journeyed with him on the recent Italian campaign despised him. Nor did they look forward to the prospect of an emperor whose personal power base was as large as last seen when Henry III ascended the throne.

At that point two most probably unconnected events took place. One was that Konrad of Hohenstaufen, nephew of the last Salian emperor Henry V and sworn enemy of the house of Welf organised a coup. He got himself elected by a small number of princes and then crowned by the archbishop of Trier. How he pulled that off is described in more detail in Episode 47 – Conrad’s Coup.

Albrecht the bear had not been amongst the princes who elected Konrad III. There was however a crucial element in this sequence of events that involved the margrave. Part of Henry the Proud’s strategy to get himself elected was to bring together the Saxon magnates and take them as a major voting bloc, together with his Bavarians to an election assembly. As we have seen before the Saxons had a habit to pre-discuss their election strategy before meeting up with the other stems. They had done so in the run-up to the election of Henry II, Konrad II and Lothar III. The idea had always been that their negotiation position was always stronger if they acted as a unified duchy, even if they chose not to participate.

Hence Henry, or more precisely his mother, Richeza the dowager empress called for an assembly of all the Saxon magnates at Quedlinburg for February 2, 1138. It is likely that the assembly was also meant to confirm Henry as duke of Saxony, a position he may or may not have already received from his father-in-law.

Albrecht immediately musters his troops when he hears about this event and takes them down to Quedlinburg. He takes the town and its abbey and blocks access. He declares that he himself has a claim to the ducal title as he is the grandson of Magnus Billung, the last Saxon duke of the Billung house. Plus he was an actual Saxon who had spent most of his life in the duchy. Henry the Proud, he argues may too be a grandson of Magnus Billung, but he had spent all his life in Bavaria and Italy, barely ever visited his mother’s homeland. And even after marrying Lothar’s daughter did he not have any presence north.

The main beneficiary of this inner-Saxon conflict was Konrad III, since the absence of a Saxon contingent allowed him to get crowned a month later. It is hard to piece together what happened next on the level of the kingdom, but suffice to say that Richeza handed over the imperial regalia to Konrad, thereby recognising his imperial title. If the idea was that Konrad should in return recognise Henry as duke of Bavaria and Saxony, the deal did not come together. Negotiations broke down and Henry gathered troops to force Konrad into submission. Konrad managed to escape and immediately declared Henry a traitor for trying to lay hand on his royal person. Henry was divested of his duchy of Bavaria and shortly afterwards of Saxony as well.

Things could not have gone better for Albrecht. His dream of becoming duke of Saxony was in his grasp. And indeed, the grateful Konrad raised him to duke of Saxony.

Henry the Proud, as one can imagine, was not prepared to take it laying down. 12 months ago he was the shoe-in for the imperial crown and instead he now finds himself stripped of all princely titles, a traitor and outlaw. He musters his soldiers and – to his surprise – the magnates who just before were sceptical about his overbearing character and excessive powerbase flocked to his banner. Konrad III in turn musters an imperial army to enforce his ruling over Henry. The two armies meet in Hersfeld.

But instead of mounting their horses and strapping on their armour, the assembled nobility of the empire set up camp opposite each other and envoys pass between both sides. The principals, Konrad III and Albrecht on one hand and Henry the Proud on the other are forced to watch the goings on. As it happens, none of the great princes want this war. They do not want the house of Welf wiped out, making the Staufer as dominant as they feared Henry the Proud would have been. So they negotiated a one-year truce during which the two sides were supposed to negotiate a permanent solution. The end of hostilities was celebrated by drinking the 30 wagonloads of wine the archbishop of Trier had brought along on the campaign.

Once the hungover princes and their men had turned round, all these agreements became null and void. Henry the Proud, barely 30 years old, died on October 20, 1139. Rumours of poison went round immediately, as Henry had been still fairly young and in robust health. When they dug up his body in 1976 they discovered a mesh of tissue and the stones of sloe berries near his pelvis. This suggest he had consumed the berries whole and they had blocked his intestines. Raw Sloe berries are extremely tart and are impossible to slip through undetected. Plus the seeds contain hydrogen cyanide and are known to be poisonous. That suggests Henry had consumed them as an ill-devised treatment against another ailment. So, for once it wasn’t Albrecht himself who killed his opponent.

Henry the Proud left behind a small boy, imaginatively called Henry as well. That should now really be the moment Albrecht gets what he wants. But still, he doesn’t. The little boys mother Gertrud and most importantly, his grandmother Richenza, widow of emperor Lothar III fight for the boy’s inheritance. They bring together an alliance of Saxon nobles that in its later stages even include the two closest allies of Albrecht the Bear. They beat his small army and burn down his castles including his great fortress at Anhalt until only the ancestral seat of Ballenstedt is left. Abrecht flees to the court of Konrad III in 1140, having lost all his ancestral possessions as well as the Northern March.

 In 1142 he concedes and abandons the title of duke of Saxony. Konrad III elevates Henry, the future Henry the Lion to be duke of Saxony. Albrecht gets his family lands back as well as his Northern march. For the next 20 years the east becomes the main focus of Albrecht’s efforts.

His efforts to populate his lands, both the devastated territory in his family possessions as well as the lands east of the Elbe focus on bringing in more and more settlers from the west. Helmond of Bosau is positively giddy with excitement about the achievements of Albrecht’s colonisation. Quote: “strong men came from the Oceans’ shores and have settled in the lands of the Slavs. They have built cities and churches creating wealth beyond counting” end quote.

In 1147 he took part in the Wendish crusade. The split of the crusade into two parts I mentioned before had likely to do with the rivalry between Henry the Lion and Albrecht.  Albrecht’s contingent went to Pomerania only to return without much to show for it. Upon the return journey some members of the crusader army did however stay behind, forced some Slavic villages under their power and created baronetcies around their castles. There they invited colonists, driving the colonisation further east. Some of their names, like Gans, Putlitz and Plotho will reappear regularly in the history of Prussia.

In 1150 it is finally time for the big transition. Henry-Pribislav, prince of the Hevellers died. As we said earlier on, he had made Albrecht the Bear his sole heir – for reasons unknown. Henry-Pribislav’s widow conceals her husband’s death for several days as messengers hurtle down to Ballenstedt to summon the new prince. Albrecht arrives, armed to the teeth and takes over the Brandenburg.

Brandenburg is not just an important fortress that had stood here for hundreds of years, it is also an important symbol. It was first taken by king Henry the Fowler in the early 10th century and was the epicentre of the Slavic revolt in 983. And even though its ruler Pribislav-Henry had been nominally a Christian and allowed the construction of a church on the outskirts of the town, inside still stood the holy temple of Triglaw, a three headed pagan deity. Bringing Brandenburg under control of a Saxon margrave and replacing a pagan altar with new cathedral was a hugely symbolic event. That was further underlined when work begins on the rebuilding of the cathedral of Havelberg.

When Albrecht arrived, he immediately cleansed the town of quote “heathens who had been known as bandits and idolaters”. How thorough this expulsion was is hard to judge. Probably not that thorough since he left behind a garrison of Saxons and Slavs.

Things seem to have held together reasonably well until 1157. That is when a certain Jaxa or Jasca of Koepenick appears on the scene. Jasca may have been a relative of Pribislav Henry, in any event he made claims for Brandenburg. One has to assume that Brandenburg has as much significance for the Slavs as it has for the Saxons. At some unknown date Jazco bribed the garrison of Brandenburg and takes the great fortress back for the Slavs. Albrecht gathers a large army and besieges Brandenburg. We have no contemporary description of its defences. What is likely is that Brandenburg was constructed in the way Slavic fortresses had been bult for centuries. There is reconstruction of a Slavic fortress at Raddusch between Dresden and berlin. These are built into a wooden frame that is filled with earth from the surrounding mount. These castles had to be rebuilt roughly every 20 to 30 years as the wood deteriorated. These castles despite the somewhat crude construction technique were extremely effective and hard to capture.

Albrecht encircled Brandenburg and only after a long siege did Jazco’s garrison surrender. They were allowed to leave and on June 11, 1157 Albrecht the bear raised his flag on top of the castle. From then on he would use the title margrave of Brandenburg in most of his charters.

In the following decade the Slavic population of Brnadenburg was either assimilated or expelled. In their stead a large number of again, Dutch, Flemish, Rhenish and people from the Harz mountains moved in. In 1165 Albrecht laid the foundation stone for a new cathedral of Brandenburg.

In the meantime he expanded his territory further east. Potsdam and Spandau were his forward positions, the latter is today part of Berlin.

Whilst Albrecht expands and consolidates his territory in his family land and in the Mark of Brandenburg, Henry the Lion does the same with Saxony. His attempts to further centralise the duchy and gather the lands of magnates whose families had died out led to opposition. Finally Albrecht finds some powerful allies against his foe and for a moment his hope to become duke of Saxony after all rekindles. But all these efforts run into the opposition of the emperor Frederick Barbarossa and his longstanding policy to support Henry the Lion in all and everything. The only side-effect of this uprising is the reconciliation between Henry and the Abodrites that allowed the descendants of Niklot to become the dukes of Brandenburg.

In 1170 Albrecht is present at the consecration of the new cathedral of Havelberg, his last recorded act and a suitable one, highlighting both his success in the Northern march and his failure to become duke of Saxony.

Albrecht left behind a truly astounding number of sons, seven in total plus 4 or five daughters. And since he was a nobleman and agnate, but not a ruling king, he split his inheritance amongst 5 of his sons. Two had become clerics, one of whom would become archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen.

His oldest son, Otto inherited the March of Brandenburg. He turned out to be a worthy successor of his father. He continued the policy of bringing in settlers from the West. Under his sons their successors the margraviate expanded north- and eastward. The Margraves took full advantage of the fragmentation of Polish power and expanded their territory well beyond the Oder River and north into Perania. Most of the cities in Brandenburg were founded in the 13th century, including Berlin in 1251. The descendants of Albrecht the Bear ruled the margraviate until 1320 when the last of Ascanian margraves died. Though there were a plethora of other branches of Albrecht’s family, emperor Louis IV, the Bavarian granted the margraviate to his youngest son. His descendants had little interest in what was called the Holy Roman empire’s sandbox on account of its poor soil. Ownership was pushed around between the houses of Wittelsbach and Luxembourg before in 1415 the emperor Sigismund enfeoffed the march to Frederick, Burggraf of the castle of Nürnberg. He was the first of the house of Hohenzollern to rule the march. His descendants inherited the land of the Teutonic knights in Prussia, and as they tried to rise to royal rank, chose the title of King in Prussia to avoid an affront to the emperor.

What made the margraviate stand out though was that despite its rather modest wealth it was one of the 7 Kurfuersten, the Electors who had the right to choose the emperor. Whilst this was only confirmed in the Golden Bull of 1356, the system of electors predates it by more or less a century, making the Ascanian margraves of Brandenburg one of the preeminent imperial princes.

Which brings us swiftly to the other son of Albrecht, his youngest, Berthold. Berthold had received the castle of Anhalt, one of the three main holdings of the Ascanier family. 10 years after the death of Albrecht Berthold will achieve what his father had forever dreamt of. He became the duke of Saxony. In 1180 Henry the Lion’s regime in the stem duchy fell under opposition from his magnates. Frederick Barbarossa had to let his old ally go and the duchy was split up. The archbishop of cologne received Westphalia, the western part, whilst Berthold of Anhalt was nominally in charge of the east. But he did not get much of the lands that Henry the Lion held, not even Luneburg which was originally part of the Billung inheritance and hence part of the ducal estate. In fact the house of Welf, elevated to dukes of Brunswick were infinitely more powerful than poor Berthold. Many of the smaller territories in Saxony gained immediacy, making them imperial princes outside the reach of the duke of Saxony. The only really valuable part of the title was that he too was an Elector. But even though the Ascanier controlled two electoral votes out of seven, none of them ever rose to imperial rank. They compounded their problem by uncontrolled fecundity. A plethora of tiny states were created from the inheritance of Albrecht the Bear. Some, like Weimar, Sachsen Lauenburg and Sachsen Wittenberg died out or transferred to the House of Wettin, the descendants of Berthold, the House of Anhalt lasted as princes of Anhalt-Zerbst, Anhalt-Koethen, Anhalt-Dessau and Anhalt-Bernburg into the 19th century. Their most famous member was in fact a woman, born Sophie of Anhalt Zerbst who married Peter III, Zsar of all the Russians at which point she took up the name Catherine, Catherine the Great.  

The house of Ascania is one of the classic examples of a German princely house that had its greatest moments early on and thanks to constant divisions managed to disappear into insignificance. Next week we will continue our walkabout of the north and the main centres of power that emerged during this period. So next week we will talk about Albrecht’s fellow traveller Konrad of Wettin and the dynasty he founded. That will give us the opportunity not just to talk about an interesting set of characters, but also to clear up, once and for all, why there is not just one Saxony, but lots. There are Sachsen Anhalt, Sachsen-Weimar, Sachsen-Lauenburg, Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha and lots more, most of which aren’t even in the old stem duchy of Saxony but in Thuringia and the Marches. Brace yourself for a lot of geography and a lot of names. Some are quite cool like Albrecht der Entartete (Albert the degenerate in English) and best of all, Friedrich der Gebissene, (That is Frederick the Bitten in English). I will try to keep it concise, but this will be even more of a challenge than usual. So, I hope you will join us. And concentrate, this time there will be a quiz up at the end.

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This week we will look at one of the great mysteries of German medieval history, how Lübeck could become the second largest City in the Holy Roman empire within just 100 years from its foundation. Lübeck lies on a small river, the Trave that goes into a small Sea, the Baltic. Not only is the Baltic comparatively small, the peoples who live on its shores are no slouches. They have been famed for travelling as far south as Constantinople and as far north as Greenland for centuries. So how did the future capital of the Hanseatic League manage to grow so fast? We will go through the different theories and maybe we can find out…

Hello and Welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 105 – The Foundation of Lübeck

This week we will look at one of the great mysteries of German medieval history, how Lübeck could become the second largest City in the Holy Roman empire within just 100 years from its foundation. Lübeck lies on a small river, the Trave that goes into a small Sea, the Baltic. Not only is the Baltic comparatively small, the peoples who live on its shores are no slouches. They have been famed for travelling as far south as Constantinople and as far north as Greenland for centuries. So how did the future capital of the Hanseatic League manage to grow so fast? We will go through the different theories and maybe we can find out…

But before we start let me tell you that 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 or on my website You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to Catherine van B., Mr. F, Victor O. and Rudi.

Last week we took a good look at the County of Holstein and the beginnings of the great migration from the western part of the empire into the lands north and east of the Elbe River. 200,000 people packed their bags and left the overcrowded cities and villages of Flanders, Holland and Westphalia to settle in territories that were either empty wasteland or inhabited by hostile Slavic peoples. In many way these treks resembled the Westward Expansion of the United states in the 19th century. The counts bishops and margraves who controlled the lands in the east sent out agents, so-called locators to recruit settlers willing to go east. The Locators organised the transport and when the settlers arrived, allocated each an equally sized strip of land to cultivate. Sometimes the land needed to be first drained dykes being built or forest had to be cleared. In other cases the settlers took over villages where the Slavic population had been expelled or they were given land next to existing settlements.

One of the magnates who was most active in this process of colonisation was the count of Holstein, Adolph of Schauenburg and his successors who had the decency to be all called Adolph, which makes life a lot easier for your podcaster.

This process of settling peoples from the west in their land was however not limited to the establishment of villages and the development of fields. There was also a big drive to establish or expand cities. There were four different types of city foundations (in inverted commas). The first one was simply to establish a city from scratch in a suitable location. That was actually fairly rare occurrence. As one would imagine, after hundreds of years of settling in the area the Slavic peoples had already identified and occupied the most attractive sites for their cities. So there would usually be at least a Slavic fortification already there. The lord of this fortification would invite tradesmen and merchants to establish a separate town nearby. These towns would have separate fortifications and its population was often a mix of Slavs, Germans and Scandinavians. Then we have the situation where an existing town changed from Slavic to Saxon control and its population and infrastructure would be completely altered. For instance Oldenburg in Holstein had been the main town of the Wagrier. Just as an aside, I have called them Wagrarier in the last episode, which I understand is simply wrong. In german they are called Wagrier and in English I will now call them by their Germanified name. Wagrier. In any event, they will soon exit stage left so it is a bit late for that. Apologies.

Anyway, Oldenburg in Holstein had been taken over by the Saxons when the Wagrier had been comprehensively defeated in 1143 and the town was taken over. Churches were built and settlers were invited to move into the city, marginalising the original population.

And last, but not least you have double and triple cities. That means the original settlement remains its own entity. Then say a town of German merchants is established next to it. Shortly afterwards the bishop sets up his compound with cathedral and bishops palace, again not connected to the other two townships. It was like Buda,  Pest  and Obuda in Hungary that had been separate cities until they were joined together as Budapest in 1873.

The story of Lübeck is a mishmash of all these four processes.

You are well aware that there had already been a place cold Liubice, long before the counts of Holstein were even thought of. This settlement was quite old, founded in 819 by the Abodrites who had been invited to settle here by Charlemagne. Liubice was built on a peninsula formed by the Trave and Schwartau rivers, a few kilometres downriver from where Lübeck is today and 9km from the mouth of the river. Liubice was off to a good start. A road was built south to Bardowick, linking Liubice to the emerging trade network inside the empire. Archaeologists have found evidence that Liubice had trade connections all across the Baltic Sea. However, by the 10th century the settlement had shrunk and may have even been abandoned. A recovery set in during the middle of the 11th century when Gottschalk has new fortifications and a church built. His son, Henry would make Liubice his main residence from where he controlled a territory stretching from Rügen to Holstein. Henry built not just large fortifications, he also invited merchants to settle. The trading route south to Bardowick and north onto the Baltic was resurrected.

But after Henry had died and the land of the Abodrites descended into chaos and civil war, Liubice was burnt to the ground by the Wagriens in 1138.

As we heard last week the Wagriens were defeated and moved into reservations in 1143. And that same year, Adolph of Schauenburg realised that if he could rebuild the trade network of Old Liubice, he would make a nice wad of cash in tolls and duties.

Upon closer inspection it became clear that the location of Old Liubice was not ideal, or more precisely, that there was a more promising location a bit further upriver. This new location, at the confluence of the Trave and the Wakenitz was not only large enough to hold a sizeable city, it also had the great advantage of being part of the count’s personal property.

He built a castle in the north of the peninsula and established a merchant city with a marketplace a bit south of there. This settlement was an immediate success. It is quite likely that the merchants who had lived in Liubice before its destruction in 1138 moved into this new location. But who also came were the merchants who used to trade out of Bardowick. Since Lübeck was now a city under the protection of a Saxon count and not a Slavic prince, there was no need for a separate trading post on the Saxon/Slavic border.

But then the success of the new city became its downfall. Bardowick was part of the personal property of the duke of Saxony, Henry the Lion. And as its trade and its people disappeared off to the upstart town of the count of Holstein, the duke found himself short of cash. The once plentiful tolls and market fees of Bardowick had not just disappeared, but are now finding their way into the count’s purse.

And that cannot be. Remember that the Counts of Holstein had been enfeoffed by Lothar when he was duke of Saxony. The new duke of Saxony is his grandson, the self-same Henry the Lion who just lost a neat little income stream.

Henry the Lion now pulls rank. He suggests to Adolph of Schauenburg that they should share the income from this new city. And as he was at it, why doesn’t he hand over the lucrative salt mine in Oldesloe as well. The count refused, assuming quite rightly that if he agreed, he would lose his share of Lubeck soon enough.

Henry the Lion now prohibited the market in Lubeck and forced all merchants to bring their wares to Bardowick. This edict was effective, and Lubeck emptied out almost as quickly as it had grown up. And in 1157 the remaining building caught fire after which the location was abandoned.

The merchants who had stayed in Lubeck went to Henry the Lion and said that given they weren’t allowed to hold a market in Lubeck and there was hence no point in rebuilding the city, would he be happy to designate a place where they could hold a market. Henry the Lion tried one more time to convince the count to hand him the now empty and devastated city of Lubeck, but he still refused. So Henry established the Lionstown, somewhere upriver on the Wagnitz. And that is where the merchants moved.

But they quickly found that this location was not suitable. The larger trading ships could not get up the Wagnitz River and it even prove difficult to set up good defences. So Henry went back to his count and this time, in exchange fore some fine gold, the count handed over the site.

In 1159, the merchants, tradesmen and other inhabitants returned and -for the third time in 20 years- rebuilt their town. The bishopric of Oldenburg was moved to Lubeck and Henry the Lion granted it city’s rights. From then the city grows at an astounding pace and by 1300 it was the second largest city in kingdom. Only the mighty and ancient city of Cologne was bigger.

How was that possible? Lübeck was on the Trave River, a river that connected to the still largely empty set of interconnected lakes of Holstein, Mecklenburg and Brandenburg, but not to the great centres of trade and commerce of the south. Downriver was the Baltic sea, a sea whose trade was dominated by Scandinavians, in particular the inhabitants of Gotland. Lübeck was part of the Holy Roman empire, but in the duchy of Saxony, a part where the new emperor, Frederick Barbarossa had not enough influence to protect the burgers against the overreach of the magnates.

So, what was the secret?

For Fritz Rörig (1882-1952) the conclusion was evident. The German merchants in Lübeck were simply smarter than their competitors. They designed a new type of ship, the Cog, that could take larger loads, was made from sawn rather than split timber, hence cheaper to build and were easier to steer than the Knarr, the preferred vessels of the Danish traders. And then, according to Rörig, they were better organised. Rörig established the thesis that this third rebuilding of Lübeck was organised by a consortium of Rhinish and Westphalian merchants. They had been given free rein by Henry the Lion to create the city layout and set the laws for the new settlement.

Though you still find this and other of his hypotheses even in relatively recent books, most of it is now debunked. Cogs have been around since the 10th century and were known to all peoples along the Baltic and North Sea coast. In any event, these designs were relatively easy to copy, so if there would have been some material advantage in the Cog, competitors could and did copy them.

As for the planning consortium, there is simply no evidence for it anywhere. Rörig based his theory on the names of the families living on the main square by the Marienkirche in the 14th century.

And finally, Rörig has become the subject of intense debate over his affiliation with Nazi ideology. Clearly the idea of the German clever Cogs fit very neatly into the fascist world view.

So, if it wasn’t clever Cogs, was it the involvement of the great duke Henry the Lion.

For a long time German historians believed that Henry the Lion had pursued a deliberate policy to sponsor and strengthen the development of cities in Germany. After all he is the founder of Munich and arguably of Lübeck. But more recent biographies like the one by Joachim Ehlers suggest that there was no great master plan. And why would there be. Medieval rulers rarely sat down to strategize with their chancellors or major vassals and certainly did not leave behind strategy papers. Decisions were often driven by who was in the room at any given time, sometimes with long lasting effects. Think of the citizens of Lodi bringing their grievance before Barbarossa in 1153 that kicks off the involvement in Lombardy and determined the imperial position against Milan.

But not having a grand plan does not mean that actions cannot have great impact. We hear that Henry the Lion sent messages to Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Russia personally guaranteeing their merchants protection should they sail to Lübeck. He established a mint and a customs post in Lübeck and granted the city the freedoms that many other great trading places like Cologne, Dortmund and Soest enjoyed. The set of rights and privileges for Lübeck, the Stadtrechte were modelled on those of the city of Soest, at this time one of the most important trading hubs on the route from the Rhineland and Flanders to the North and East.

How important the support of Henry the Lion was became apparent as early as 1161 . In that year the merchants of Gotland and Lübeck had a major falling out. What about is unclear but it was henry the Lion who resolve the issue by guaranteeing the Gotlanders safety and freedom to come to Lübeck whilst at the same time demanding protection for his merchants when they are in Gotland. There had been German merchants present in Gotland before 1161, but after that, we hear of a veritable German trading city springing up in Visby. 

In the middle of the 12th century, the island of Gotland, today a part of Sweden and located halfway up the Baltic Sea had been the centre of Northern European trade for hundreds of years. It had its origins in a great shift in European trading routes during the 8th century. As the Mediterranean came under Muslim control, goods from Byzantium destined for Northern Europe had to be shipped via the great Eastern European river systems from the Black Sea to Baltic Coast. Nowgorod became the great Baltic Port from where the goods were shipped along the Swedish coast to Gotland and then to either the Danish port in Haithabu, near modern day Schleswig where they crossed the Jutland peninsula by land or further up to the Limsfjord which allowed the ships to get into the North sea without having to round the Skagarag. Gotland not only provided a safe harbour en route, but also provided the ships on which the goods travelled. Archaeologists have found literally thousands of Byzantine coins on Gotland.

By the middle of the 12th century the trade with Byzantium via Russia and Ukraine had slowed down dramatically. The eastern luxury wares are now travelling via Egypt and Venice to France, England and Germany. But there are still goods from Russia in high demand. Fur was of particular interest as well as honey and beeswax. Enterprising merchants from Lübeck appear in Nowgorod in the 1170s, apparently in large enough numbers that Henry the Lion signs trading agreements with the prince of Nowgorord. That way the Gotlander were cut out of the trade and Lübeck gained direct access to the lucrative Russia trade.

And Henry helped the city of Lübeck in another way. As you may remember from last episode, the Wendish crusade ended in a resounding mehh. The Abodrites had remained pagan despite some pro forma conversions and a peace agreement between Niclot, the prince of the Abodrites and the Saxon nobles.

As far as Henry the Lion was concerned, this was an unsatisfactory outcome. As duke of Saxony he was also in charge of the Mark of the Billungs, that territory we now know as Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. But as long as Niclot ruled, he had little influence in these lands. In fact the counts of Holstein had closer relationships with Niclot than Henry the Lion. So in 1160 he finally found time to resolve what he regarded as a problem. He called all his vassals, Saxons and Slavs to an assembly in July 1060. As Niclot did not regard himself as a vassal, he did not show. That was the justification Henry needed He announced Niclot to be an unfaithful follower and called for a campaign in the autumn. Niclot tried again to pre-empt the attack and made an attempt to destroy Lübeck which ahd only been rebuilt the year before. That attempt however failed.

The campaign was well organised and Henry arrived with such overwhelming force that Niclot vacated all forward defences and sealed himself into his largest fortress at Werle. There he was besieged by Henry the Lion. Niklpot led a desperate attempt at breaking the siege during which he was captured. His severed head was paraded to Henry’s tent. Upon the news the sons of Niklot, Pribislav and Werislav burned the castle in Werle and disappeared into the woods.

Henry immediately reorganised the land of the Abodrites. Other than in previous campaigns, this was not a raid. Henry intended to fully incorporate the land of the Abodrites into his duchy. He placed his Ministeriales and minor vassals into key positions as counts of Quetzin, Malchow, Ilhow and Schwerin. I guess only the latter name means something to you. Schwerin is today the capital of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and site of one of the most photographed castle in Germany. I am sure you have seen it a hundred times in tourist guidebooks or on Facebook posts. What you may not know is that the enormous statue that towers over the main gate of the castle depicts none other than our friend, the now headless Niclot.

Why is there a statue of Niclot in Schwerin? Didn’t I just say that Schwerin was given to one of Henry the Lion’s vassals an enemy of Niclot. Welll, that has to do with the second part of this story.

The sons of Niclot had escaped and as part of the post-war settlement were given their destroyed castle of Werle back. But that was clearly not enough for them. They came back in 1163 to regain their ancestral land, supported by the duke of Pomerania. We will talk about Pomerania in more detail soon, so just leave it here that the duke of Pomerania was a Slavic ruler based east of the land of the Abodrites.

They waged a brutal campaign, directed in particular at the German settlers Henry’s men had called to live in this new territory. Pribislav burned down Mecklenburg killing everybody there and moved on to the castle of Ilow. There he hoped the Slavic population inside the castle would help him. However the German commander had all the women and children brought before him and threatened to burn them as a last act should Pribislav overcome the walls. Pribislav was unable to take the castle. He was more successful in Quetzin and Malchow where he promised the garrison free retreat if they surrender immediately.

Only Schwerin was still held by Henry the Lion when he appeared in Malchow in 1164. He had mustered a fresh army and also secured the help of king Waldemar I of Denmark. To show how serious he took this, he had the brother of Pribislav hanged for all the defenders to see.

In  the early morning of the 6th of July 1164 the army of the Saxons and Danes is woken by squires running into the camp announcing the arrival of the Slavs. Rising from their beds without time to put on armour or mount their horses the Saxons face up to Pribislav and his allies. Count Adolph of Holstein and count Reinhold of Dithmarschen try to hold the gat of the camp but are overthrown and trampled into the dust. Their sacrifice did allow two other counts to muster 300 armoured knights who rode at full tilt into the camp breaking the Slavs’ attack. When Henry the Lion finally appeared on the battlefield the fighting was almost over. The Saxons had won, but at a horrendous price. Henry and his much diminished forces followed the enemy to Pomerania, but did not force them beyond Stolpe. Henry claimed that he had to go back as a delegation from the emperor in Constantinople had arrived in Brunswick – yeah, absolutely. That is the reason to leave. Henry and Waldemar signed peace agreements with Pribislav, the Poemranian duke and other Slavic lords. As a result of this peace the Danish king gained several vassals in Pomerania whilst Henry was put back to the status quo ante. Pribislav was even allowed back into Werle.

By 1167 as Henry the Lion is getting under pressure from the other Saxon magnates, he enters into an alliance with Pribislav. Pribislav formally converts and becomes a vassal of Henry the Lion. In exchange he becomes the prince of Mecklenburg, Kessin and Rostock. His descendants became the dukes of Mecklenburg who regained Schwerin in 1358. They rebuild the castle in a weird and wonderful mixture of styles between 1822 and 1851. The great statue of Niklot was added in 1855, still waving his sword in the general direction of Lübeck.

because the great beneficiary of all this malarky was Lübeck. Finally the city was no longer surrounded by hostile Slavic peoples who had attempted and sometimes succeeded in burning down the city at least four times in the last 40 years. Instead their neighbours are now followers of their great benefactor, the duke Henry the Lion.

To go back to our initial question, why did Lübeck grow to become the second largest city in the kingdom, arguably, Henry the Lion clearly had something to do with it.

But making sure you can travel safely across the Baltic and being safe from attack by immediate neighbours were necessary, but not sufficient conditions for the astounding expansion of the city on the Trave River.

That next big leg up came not from a German, but from a Dane.

In 1180 Henry the Lion had lost the duchy of Saxony, not necessarily because of his refusal to support the emperor Barbarossa, but more because of strong opposition from the other Saxon magnates, namely the Ascanier, descendants of Albrecht the Bear and the archbishop of Cologne who split the old duchy amongst themselves. As we know, Barbarossa did not gain much in that final dismemberment of the mightiest of German duchies. Well except for one thing, the city of Lübeck. Lübeck had initially supported henry the Lion, but when the emperor appeared with his army before the walls of the city, they had second thoughts. They surrendered and Barbarossa made Lübeck an imperial fief. That gave Lübeck an elevated status as a free imperial city. Plus, because Barbarossa and his successors were spending most of their time down south, they could pretty much do what they wanted. In 1201 they even went so far as to falsify the charter Barbarossa had given them, adding a few more rights and privileges they fancied. That they later presented to Frederick II who reissued the charter confirming all sorts of entitlements they never actually had.

But before that happens, something else is going on. And that has to do with the golden age of the Waldemars. Denmark had faded into the background in our narrative, largely because the country had spent almost fifty years in a constant succession crisis. They went through 8 kings in succession, who spent most of their time fighting cousins and half-brothers for the throne and usually died a violent death. All this ended with king Waldemar I, the great (1154-1182) who brought peace to the kingdom thanks at least partially to the good offices of his best friend, Absalon, the bishop of Roskilde. Waldemar was the son of Knut Lavard who we have met in passing when he was prince of the Abodrites. This is not the place to go through all of his achievements. Go to the Scandinavian History Podcast if you want to know more. What matters for us here is that Waldemar gained a foothold in the land of the Abodrites during Henry the Lion’s campaign of 1160. Other than Henry, Waldemar remains engaged in the Wendish lands. In the 1170s he invades and occupies Ruegen. Then he extends his power to Pomerania. His son, Waldemar II, the Victorious builds on his father’s success. He is massively helped by the succession crisis in the empire when Philipp of Swabia and Otto IV fight over the crown. Waldemar sides with Otto IV and attacks Holstein whose Count, we are now at Adolph III, had sided with Philipp. At the battle of Stellau in 1201 Adolph is defeated and captured. In captivity he renounced the county of Holstein and is released. He goes home to Schauenburg, never to return.   

Holstein was now Danish, as was Hamburg which Waldemar had occupied after one of his cousins and a claimant to the Danish throne had become archbishop. In 1216 he became duke of Pomerania, courtesy of emperor Frederick II. And Lübeck, Lübeck recognised Waldemar in 1201, as soon as the Count of Holstein had lost his battle.

Waldemar then became a great supporter of the city. He confirmed the city’s rights and privileges, the ones they had all made up themselves. We hear that the city now has a council that determines its affairs, passes its laws and passes judgement.

But not only that. Waldemar helps the Lübeck citizens to set up another trading post within the city of Riga that he had just conquered during one of the earliest Baltic crusades. That boosts the city’s trade with Russia.

Then there is the herring trade. Given that lay piety had been on the rise for a century or more, the population of europe took to eating fish of Fridays. But where do you get enough fish to feed say a city like Cologne or Regensburg that are a long way from the sea. The answer was salted or dried fish. And one of the richest fishing grounds was Scania in Southern Sweden. The herring who can be caught there had to be salted to be preserved, and that is where the traders from Lübeck come in. They are bringing the salt from the rich salt mines in Luneburg, Salzwedel and Oldesloe to Scania and take away the salted fish to sell down south.

Which gets you to the billion dollar question. Why did Waldemar, who at that point controlled Scania and Lübeck allowed that trade to happen. Denmark already had a great trading city, Haithabu, which by now had migrated to Schleswig. Why not use this harbour, unload the herring, transport it across the Jutland peninsula and put it back on a ship that takes the fish down the Rhine and Main to the landlocked masses craving their Friday fish.

It is one of those questions for which we have no real answer. All that we know is that during the reign of Waldemar more and more trade is diverted from Schleswig to Lübeck.

One reason that could explain the relative decline of Schleswig could be the closing of the Limfjord. If you look on the map you can see that just at the top of the Jutland peninsula is a system of lakes and rivers that allows boats to pass from the north sea to the Baltic without having to go through the Skagerak, the dangerous narrows at the entrance of the Baltic sea. This connection is open today and was open until the 12th century. Just around the time we find Lübeck ascending the Limfjord closes. Though I understand most of Schleswig’s trade was by land across the peninsula, some of it may have been seaborn, destined to go via the Limfjord. That may have been what made Schleswig more attractive and its loss made it more of a straight fight.

The other advantage the Danish merchants had was privileged access to the English market. When Canute had been king of England, Danish traders were granted the same rights as local merchants, paying the same fees and duties. Foreigners paid more. When Lübeck became part of Denmark, these privileges extended to them and hey presto, another relative advantage of Schleswig gone.

So by the middle of the 13th century Lübeck has grown to occupy the whole of the river island.  

Beautiful furs are coming in from Russia, beeswax and Honey from Nowgorod, Amber from Prussia, Fish from Scania and by now rye and wheat from the Baltic shores. All these are bought by Luebeck merchants and sold on to their end customers. The goods are taken off the cogs they came on and transported by road to the Elbe River, either to Lueneburg or to Hamburg. Then they are again put on ships and either go north along the North Sea coast to the mouth of Rhine River, to Flanders or to England. Or they go south on the Elbe to Magdeburg where they are loaded on carts and go on to the Hellweg, which connects across Westphalia from Paderborn via Soest and Dortmund to Duisburg where one can find shipping to Cologne or further south. But the trade isn’t just one way. Cloth from Flanders, wool from England, wine from the Rhine and Mosel, weapons and metal goods from all over Germany come up on the way back. Lübeck ends up in the middle of all of this and becomes richer and richer.

In 1227 Lübeck again ditches its master who had lost a crucial battle against the Saxons. From then on the city remains free and independent, able to join others in what we call the Hanseatic League.

But before we get into the meat of the story of the Hanseatic league we still have to finish off the story of the duchy of Saxony. So next week we will spend a bit of time on the Margraviate of Brandenburg, how it came about and why this time the Slavic ruler does not found the dynasty that rules it. And, if I am well organised, we will get at least the first half of the story of Henry the Lion in.

I hope you will come along for the ride.

Before I go, let me thank all of you who are supporting the show, in particular the Patrons who have kindly signed up on It is thanks to you this show does not have to do advertising for products you do not want to hear about. If Patreon isn’t for you, another way to help the show is sharing the podcast directly or boosting its recognition on social media. If you share, comment or retweet a post from the History of the Germans it is more likely to be seen by others, hence bringing in more listeners. My most active places are Twitter @germanshistory and my Facebook page History of the Germans Podcast. As always, all the links are in the show notes.    

In today’s episode we finally get closer to the history of the Hanseatic League. We will take a closer look at some of the fundamental changes in the Saxon policy towards the east that were ushered in during the reign of Lothar of Supplinburg and shaped events for a long period thereafter. It is in these decades that the Saxon magnates will realise that raiding and plundering of the lands east of the Elbe is no longer the financially most attractive option. A great organised migration from the overpopulated Rhineland, Holland and Flanders into Northern Germany begins.

What we will look at specifically is the county of Holstein and its brand-new counts, the lords of Schauenburg. These ambitious and proactive family will develop these lands and found or re-found two of the most significant cities of the Hanseatic league, Lubeck and Hamburg.

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 104 – The Making of Holstein

In today’s episode we finally get closer to the history of the Hanseatic League. We will take a closer look at some of the fundamental changes in the Saxon policy towards the east that were ushered in during the reign of Lothar of Supplinburg and shaped events for a long period thereafter. It is in these decades that the Saxon magnates will realise that raiding and plundering of the lands east of the Elbe is no longer the financially most attractive option. A great organised migration from the overpopulated Rhineland, Holland and Flanders into Northern Germany begins.

What we will look at specifically is the county of Holstein and its brand-new counts, the lords of Schauenburg. These ambitious and proactive family will develop these lands and found or re-found two of the most significant cities of the Hanseatic league, Lubeck and Hamburg.

But before we start let me tell you that 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 or on my website You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to Anders B., Sherrylyn B., Felipe A. and Andreas A. who have already signed up.

Last week we talked about Lothar of Supplinburg and how he transformed the political structure of the duchy of Saxony, turning it from a loose federation under a nominal duke into a much more centralised entity. Part of his success was down to his HR policy. He installed loyal men into key positions, often by disregarding the wishes of his emperor Henry V who he had comprehensively defeated at the battle of Westenholz.

These men, and at this stage they are all men, will found dynasties that will determine the fate of Northern Europe for centuries to come. And these are Konrad of Wettin, whose family will become the electors of Saxony and ultimately kings of Poland, Albrecht the Baer, who will create the margraviate of Brandenburg and whose family, the Ascanier or dukes of Anhalt will rule lands in Sachsen Anhalt until 1918, Henry the Proud, head of the house of Welf whose family will be best known to the Anglo Saxon listeners as the kings of Hannover and then the kings of England. The fourth of these men was Adolph of Schauenburg who was given the county of Holstein, and Holstein is what we will talk about today.

Geographically Holstein is the lower part of the Jutland Peninsula, that piece of land that separates the North Sea from the Baltic. Its southern border is the river Elbe and its northern border is the river Eider, or in terms of cities, it stretches from Hamburg to Kiel and from Lubeck to the North Sea coast.

Holstein first appears in the historic records when Charlemagne shows up in the 770s. The people who lived North of the Elbe were the most obstinate of the Saxon tribes. To break their resistance Charlemagne had large numbers of them deported into the south. If you see names like Sachsenheim or Sachsenhausen in Franconia, these may be places where these unfortunates have been brought. Then Charlemagne invited the Slavic Obodrites, specifically the tribe of the Wagrarians to settle in Holstein. In 811 Charlemagne had confirmed Denmark in its control of Schleswig, the territory north of the Eider River. The Wagrarians were supposed to form some sort of buffer state against an invasion by the Danish Vikings.

However, by 814 some of the Saxons had returned and Holstein was split between the Wagrarians and other Obodrites in the eastern parts and the Saxon population in the west. Between them lay what Adam of Bremen called the Limes Saxoniae. That was a bit of an exaggeration suggesting a sort of Hadrian’s wall similar to the Roman Limes that separated the Roman empire from the Germans. In reality it was just a no man’s land between the two populations made up of bogs and thick forest with barely any walls or fortifications.

The Wagrarians were part of the Abodrites Federation, the same federation you may remember that was led by our friend Gottschalk. These Federations are relatively loose arrangements and as we will see the Wagrarians were not always aligned with the other Obodrites.

As for the Saxons in the western parts of Holstein, they comprised three distinct groups. There were the Holsten who gave their name to the county, then the Stormarns who lived around Hamburg and the Dithmarscher who settled along the North Sea coast.

These groups had retained their ancient Germanic traditions well into the 12th century. That means that instead of succumbing to the feudal order under some count or baron, the free peasants of Holstein bowed to no one. They organised their society through the ting where all decisions were taken, and temporary military leaders were chosen should the need arise. This system of a free peasant’s republic persisted in Dithmarschen until the late 16th century. Dithmarschen is today a part of Holstein, but had remained under the rather theoretical overlordship of the counts of Stade and later the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen until the 16th century, not the Schauenburg counts of Holstein.

Interspersed within the western part of the county were some castles initially built and maintained by the dukes of Saxony and now enfeoffed to the Shauenburgs.

In terms of towns or larger villages, there was Hamburg. But at the time, Hamburg, despite being formally the seat of an archbishop was not much to write home about. The first archbishop, Ansgar had built a wooden cathedral, but in the subsequent centuries the settlement had been regularly attacked and burned down by Vikings and Slavs, so that the population had shrunk to maybe a few hundred huddled around the sole church that stood on what is today the Domplatz.

The major trading centres in the region were Stade, on the western shore of the Elbe and hence not in Holstein and Haithabu, the Danish trading port just outside modern-day Schleswig, i.e., also not in Holstein.

The major settlement of the Wagrarier was Oldenburg and it seems that Ploen had also become at least a large village. And finally as we have heard in the episode about Gottschalk and Adalbert, the son of Gottschalk and his successor as leader of the Abodrites, Henry had based himself in Liubice, or old Luebeck, a Slavic settlement at the mouth of the Trave River just outside the modern city of Luebeck.

As for the relationship between all these groups, we can read in Helmond von Bosau that the Saxon communities in Holsten and Stormarn would regularly come to the aid of Henry, the prince of the Abodrites in his conflicts with other Slavic tribes, be that the Wagrarians or the Rani. The Rani, inhabitants of the island of Ruegen had replaced the Lutizi as guardians of the most important shrine of the pagan deities and general shield bearer of the old gods.

In 1111 this patchwork of peoples and castles was granted to Adolph of Schauenburg as the County of Holstein. He was a nobleman from further south. Their castle, the Schaumburg lay between Minden and Hannover.

The County of Holstein was, to use modern management speak, an opportunity. Not only did the new count have to deal with the Slavic neighbours, the hostile Wagrarians who had just killed his predecessor as well as Henry, the powerful prince of the Abodrites. On top of these two he also had to contend with the local Saxon population that had as much desire to subject themselves to some southern aristocrat as their Slavic neighbours. In terms of resources, he had a handful of castles and that was pretty much it. And before I forget, his other neighbours, the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen and the King of Denmark both did not much like ducal authority in their backyard either and that animosity extended to the duke’s vassal, the count of Holstein.

At this point the question for our brand-new count is, what shall he do. Until now the standard strategy for a count put in charge of a territory bordering the Slavic lands was simple. Raise an army or failing that a band of thugs and go burning and plundering in the east.

This has been going on for nearly 200 years now and the strategy has run its course. There is only so many times you can steal the same man’s purse. Economic activity and population in the Slavic territories has likely shrunk under the permanent onslaught. In particular after the defeat of the Lutizi in the 1060s the Saxons had taken the last large remaining stores of gold held at the temple in Radegast. The only large temple and treasure left was now the one on Cap Arcona on the island of Ruegen. Helmond of Bosau tells us that Henry, the prince of the Abodrites had already picked up some of that treasure when he forced the Rani of Ruegen to part with 4,400 mark of silver to avoid their destruction. Plus Ruegen was a long way from the border and any attack required the consent of Henry, who was after all a Christian and technically an ally.

Not only were there no more valuables to be found, the slavery business was also struggling. The end-markets, the Muslim kingdoms in Spain and the court of Constantinople had had begun their 300-year long fight for survival. The former from the Reconquista as small Christian kingdoms led crusades south, and the latter from the dual pressure of Turkish tribes and Frankish crusaders. There was simply not much money available for such fripperies as a root and stem eunuch.

And then we have the gradual Christianisation of the Slavs which made it harder to justify the constant raiding. There is a new generation of missionaries heading east. The first waves led by Adalbert of Prague and Bruno of Querfurt had often been very brief and ineffective affairs. Its protagonists seemed keener on a spectacular martyr’s death than on actual conversion of the heathens.

This next group is better organised and more focused on getting the job done. Two men stand out here, and they could not be more different. On the one hand there is the bishop Otto of Bamberg, scion of the dukes of Meranien. He took it upon himself to convert the Pomeranians, or so we are told. There are some doubts a grand prelate like Otto would actually have spent years going from hovel to hovel convincing the victims of chivalric brutality that Christianity is the religion of forgiveness and love. This work was probably done by members of his church whose names are lost to history. Still he staged two missionary journeys into Pomerania accompanied by 20 priests and a large retinue that so impressed the locals, 22,000 of them took baptism in one great session in 1128.

His counterpart was Vizelin, a man, as Helmond of Bosau writes, who was born to parents who were distinguished more by the probity and goodness than by nobility of birth. Translate – poor people. Vizelin had studied in Minden and Paderborn, had led the cathedral school in Bremen and went to France to further his studies. Vizelin’s first posting as a missionary was in Wippendorf, a nominally Christian village near the no-man’s land that Helmond of Bosau described as an empty wasteland full of misguided half heathens. Vizelin founded a monastery there that he called new minster or Neumünster the name the city has to this day. Vizelin and his comrades did proper missionary work. Preaching relentlessly and where possible protect their flock from attacks.

Vizelin had initially put his hopes in Henry the prince of the Abodrites who was a Christian and hence sympathetic to missionaries. But Henry died before Vizelin really got going and the two sons of Henry began a civil war that killed both of them. After the last member of the family, a small boy, was murdered Knut Lavard, one of the claimants to the ever-disputed Danish throne brought the Abodrites under his control. That did not last long either since Knut too was murdered in the endless Danish succession wars. At that point the Abodrites split up, one part, the Wagrarians were led by Pribislav and the other, based around Mecklenburg by Niklot. Neither of them were Christians and so missionary work slowed down.

In his last act in Holstein, Vicelin convinced the emperor Lothar to build a castle in Segeberg. This castle, one of only three mountaintop castles in Schleswig Holstein became the key military position from where the counts of Holstein controlled their territory. After that Vicelin departed to proselytise amongst the Hevellers in the Northern Marches.

So, thanks to the efforts of Otto of Bamberg, Vicelin and presumably hundreds of unnamed others, the Slavic peoples of the north gradually became Christians making it increasingly difficult to justify attacks on them.

With the plundering model becoming less and less attractive, the question arises, what to do in its stead. For the counts of Holstein and many other territorial lords in the east, the answer came from events elsewhere and well outside their control.

By the 12th century the great economic boom that started around 950 through a combination of climate change and improvements in agriculture is slowly petering out. Not that things got worse, just they did not get better at the same rate they did before. Or more precisely, economic growth did not keep pace with population growth. That means cities and villages are still growing in wealth and power, merchants got rich and tax income for the bishops and princes was still expanding, but the average income per head of population did not.

The region where this was most impactful were Flanders, Holland and the Rhineland. These regions had already been fairly well developed at the beginning of the millennium and by the early the 12th century they reached the end of the line. Most of the forests had been cut down and turned into fields. Wherever it was possible land had been reclaimed from the sea, the swamps had all been drained and the riverbeds straightened. Farmers were using modern ploughs and horses and field management had been refined.

At the same time the traditional landowners who had seen their holdings fragment be it by inheritance, donations to the church or simple mismanagement were replaced by more entrepreneurial ones who reconsolidated holdings and expelled smallholders wherever they could generate more income than the rents they collected. By the 1100s we find a huge population of landless paupers in the western parts of the empire who are living day by day, eating only when they find work.

Bad harvests and freak weather events such as the flooding of the recently reclaimed Dutch lowlands could quickly turn a precarious situation into catastrophic famine. People are leaving their homes to seek new lands where they could farm and feed their children. Hearing of the vast and by now almost depopulated rich farmland in the east many are prepared to leave to seek their fortunes.

The first wave of migrants we hear about dates back to 1106. The Archbishop of Hamburg, Frederick I signed an agreement with a group of settlers allowing them to take land between the Weser and Elbe Rivers. This was uninhabited swampland that was regularly flooded when the tidal Elbe and Weser rivers breached its banks. The Dutch and Flemish immigrants had experience with building dams and ditches and the idea was that they could drain these lands and make them fertile.

The deal sets out that each settler would get a very long and thin strip of land, 140m wide and 3,400m long. This he would hold as a tenant with the right to pass the tenancy to his descendants. The initial rent was extremely generous at just one penny a year and they were released from paying the tithe at least for a time. Where exactly this group went is not explicitly stated but may have been either in what is today called the Alte Land near Hamburg or the mouth of the Weser downriver from Bremen, a region that is still today called Hollerland and where later settler’s contracts have been agreed.

The settlers were allowed to live by their own rules, had their own lower jurisdictions, their own priests and probably maintained their language. Many terms they used in particular as it relates to agriculture and the construction of dykes and ditches remain in the lower German dialects to this day, as do the shape of the fields.

These early waves may have been initiated by the desperate people in Holland or Flanders, but the territorial rulers in the east quickly realised how profitable these new settlements could be and set up a veritable immigration pipeline.

The lord would identify a suitable piece of territory, initially lands that had lain fallow for a long time, either because nobody had ever lived there, or the previous Slavic inhabitants had been wiped out in one of the incessant raids of the last centuries. They would then send agents, so called locators to the large cities in the west and recruit settlers for this territory, offering terms not dissimilar to what had been offered by archbishop Frederick. The locator would organise transport and – once they had arrived – the allocation of the strips of land, the supply of materials and seeds, the design of the villages etc. These guys would then either appoint or become a Schulze, a sort of lower magistrate/mayor of the settlement who would dispense lower justice and collect the rents and tithes for their territorial lord.

If you find villages not just in Holstein that have a first name and -dorf at the end, such as Petersdorf, Sipsdorf, Lubbersdorf, these are typically named after the locator who had brought the settlers there.

The settlement process in Holstein started on the Elbe River as Dutch and Flemish immigrants drained the swamps on the Northern shore. They built dykes for instance in Vierlande south of Hamburg that turned this empty stretch into a breadbasket famous for its fruit and vegetables. Other centres of colonisation were in the no-man’s land between the Holsten and the Slavs, around Segeberg, Neumuenster and Oldesloe. After the Slavic Wagrier had been comprehensively defeated in the 1140s, the colonisation moved further east. The first settlements there were around Eutin and Lutjenburg. Oldenburg in Holstein had been an old Slavic settlement and you may remember that Gottschalk established a bishopric there that had to be abandoned after his fall. The bishop now returned, and a new church is constructed.

After 1160 recruitment spread wider and locators were sent into Westphalia and Eastphalia as well as the low countries. TheWestphalians settled further south around Ratzeburg.

A church tax inventory gives an idea of the scale of the change. In 1194 the bishopric of Ratzeburg counted 35 villages as payers of tithes in its area. By 1230, 35 years later, this had risen to 125. In the next 70 years it would grow by another third.

All this gets us to the question to what extent these settlements were created at the expense of the Slavic population who had lived there before, a question that is obviously highly contentious.

As far as we can see the population density in Holstein was very low at the start of the 12th century. This was frontier country and as we said, there was a large strip of no-man’s land between the Saxon and the Slavic peoples. And there were large areas that were continuously flooded and hence had not ever been used for agriculture. These latter territories are genuinely new lands not taken from anyone. As for the no-man’s land there are two ways to look at it. One way is to argue that these places were empty before the colonists arrived. The other is to say that the constant raids and attacks were the reason population density was low and that these lands were empty.

And finally, we can find German villages with names that indicate they had initially been founded by Slavic peoples. Charles Higounet counted as many as 50 out of the 125 villages that were mentioned in the Ratzeburg register of 1230. We also hear that the count Adolph II of Schauenburg had granted the Wagrarians the island of Fehmarn and territories near Oldenburg as a sort of reservation, suggesting they had been expelled from their homes. And finally we find villages with names that start with wendisch-such and such, which indicates that these were Slavic villages within areas now mainly inhabited by German speakers. And finally we find evidence that in some villages Slavs and Germans lived side by side.

I have seen commentators comparing the colonisation of the lands north and east of the Elbe to the colonisation of the American west. And there are some similarities, namely the organisation of the treks, the allocation of equal strips of land to the settlers, the perception that the land was empty and the creation of reservations for the indigenous population. But there are also material differences. One fundamental one is that both Slavs and Germans were a settled people making a living from agriculture. Hence what we do not have is an equivalent of the destruction of the herds of American Bison as a means to starve out the locals.

That does not mean that there weren’t periods the process of eastern colonisation in the 12th century descended into outright genocide. One of those was the so-called Wendish crusade of 1147, initiated by the famous Saint Bernhard of Clairvaux, very much my candidate for Worst Saint ever. The background to the Wendish crusade had been political. Lothar III’s successor, the new king, Konrad III had taken the cross in 1146. His reign was dominated by his conflict with the House of Welf, led by Henry the Lion, the new duke of Saxony.

Konrad III could not dare to leave for the Holy Land whilst his adversary remained in the German lands. On the other hand, Henry the Lion had no desire to serve under a king he despised and had deprived him of his ancestral duchy of Bavaria. To break the gridlock, Bernhard devised a separate crusade for Henry the Lion and the Saxons to go and convert the heathen Slavs. That crusade, called the Wendish Crusade would keep both sides apart and busy.

What distinguishes this effort from the previous raids into Saxon territory was the instruction Bernhard of Clairvaux, via his pope Eugene III issued to the crusaders. The crusaders were to receive the same absolution for all their sins on condition that they would not make peace until (quote) “either the heathen cult or its nation has been utterly destroyed”. That is different to what we had before. Before the raids were done for plunder and as Adam of Bremen stated, there was no mention of Christianity or conversion at all. Saint Bernhard’s instruction is an order to force conversion by the sword and where there is resistance to kill those who refuse. Forced conversion is by the way uncanonical. Hence catholic sources had tried to re-interpret these instructions as solely an obligation to break the nations, i.e., the political infrastructure of the Wends. I doubt that is what Bernhard meant, but then I am biased against pretty much everything he stands for.

If you want to contemplate whether this makes a difference, here the definition of genocide as set out by the UN: (quote)

“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group
  2. Causing serious bodily harm to members of the Group
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”


The crusade started slowly. Many of the participants, including our friends, Albrecht the Baer, Konrad von Meissen and Adolph of Schauenburg were hesitant. Part of that hesitation was because the whole policy framework had already shifted, and they all had arrangements with their Slavic neighbours. Mostly they were paying tribute and had promised not to attack the new settlements. Adolph of Schauenburg had gone furthest and had signed a treaty of friendship with Niklot, the prince of the Abodrites. Now he tried to find a way through his commitment to the crusade and his obligations to Niklot. In the end he could not avoid the war. Niklot struck first and destroyed some settlements of Westphalian and Dutch settler in Holstein. It seems that Niklot himself had held back, but the Christian Holstens and Stormarn peasants were taking the opportunity to get rid of the new arrivals.

When the crusade finally sets off, they split into two groups. One, led by Konrad von Meissen and Albrecht the Bear headed for Pomerania. They besieged Dobbin with not much vigour and then headed for Stettin. However, bishop Adalbert of Pomerania, one of the missionaries who had come there with Otto von Bamberg convinced the crusaders to abandon the siege so as not to jeopardise the hard work of the saintly bishop. So the they lifted the siege and went back home. In total this part of the crusade had lasted just a few weeks.

The other contingent led by Henry the Lion went down to besiege Dobin, a castle Niklot had built as a stronghold for his people. Then something very, very unusual happened. According to Helmond of Bosau the vassals of Henry the Lion went to their duke and said: “Isn’t this our own land that we are burning down and our own peoples who we are fighting? Why are we acting as if we were our own enemies, destroying our own incomes?” And that was it. This is one of the vanishing few instances in history where rational economic thought beat religious fanatism. I have been wrecking my brain for another case where an army sent out to fight for whatever ideology is held back by the simple realisation that their quest creates more harm than good.

So, the Saxons signed an agreement with Niklot. Niklot found some volunteers who were willing to endure some water being spilled over their head and some prayers mumbled and hey presto, the crusaders declared victory and went home.

From that point onwards, the process of colonisation goes into overdrive. It is not just the Saxon magnates who give lands to immigrants from the west, Slavic princes as well as the dukes of Poland understand the huge benefits these energetic and skilled peoples can bring to their lands. At risk of receiving another 1-star review bemoaning me referencing modern politics, here is just another example for the fact that immigration is one of the most efficient engines of economic growth.

Again, let’s talk about the scale of the move. Historians estimate the total number of migrants moving east between 1106 and 1250 at around 200,000. That is followed by a second wave of a further 200,000 who go further afield, from as far south as Transylvania to Lithuania in the North.

This feels like a small number compared to the roughly 5m Germans who emigrated to the US between 1820 and 1900, but those made up less than 10% of the total German population. The medieval migration east is estimated to have involved about 7% of the empire’s population north of the Alps. This makes it one of the greatest migrations in Europe between the Dark Ages and the 19th century.

I am so sorry. This episode has gone on for quite some time now and I will now not get to the re-founding of Luebeck and Hamburg. So we will do this next week, which isn’t so bad because it gives us a chance to talk about King Waldemar of Denmark and his best mate Absalom inadvertently giving Luebeck its first break as well as the origins of the duchy of Mecklenburg.

I hope you find this interesting and are going to join us again. If you have comments on these episodes, for instance want me to go faster or slower, leave a comment on my website or in the Q&A option on Spotify.

Before I go, let me thank all of you who are supporting the show, in particular the Patrons who have kindly signed up on It is thanks to you this show does not have to do advertising for products you do not want to hear about. If Patreon isn’t for you, another way to help the show is sharing the podcast directly or boosting its recognition on social media. If you share, comment or retweet a post from the History of the Germans it is more likely to be seen by others, hence bringing in more listeners. My most active places are Twitter @germanshistory and my Facebook page History of the Germans Podcast. As always, all the links are in the show notes.    

This week we talk about what happens after the fight for independence is won. As had happened countless times before in history, precious freedoms gained in bloody struggles can be lost easily in the subsequent peace, not to the old adversary, but to new, homegrown usurpers. That is at least one way of telling the story, the other being, that every major political upheaval is followed by a period of consolidation that embeds the gains made and truncates the excesses that appeared during the revolutionary period.

Something like that happened following the Saxon wars when Lothar of Supplinburg, a hitherto minor count from Westphalia is raised to ducal authority in 1106. Before he took the reins of the duchy, Saxony had turned into a free for all. Whenever a rich count or margrave fell victim to the various dangers a civil war generated, his cousins and peers would race to first seize his wife or daughter and then use their claim to grasp as much of his property as possible. A process not much more dignified than the opening of the doors on a Black Friday pre-pandemic.

Lothar established a central authority for the duchy that calms things down considerably. It is during this time that four of the five great princely dynasties in the North get established, the Welf, the Wettins, the Ascanier and the counts of Holstein. The rise of these four was however not a given. There were others, like the counts of Stade and Wiprecht of Groitzsch whose burning ambitions came to nought as they stumbled in the race between reproduction and their near inevitable violent death.

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 103 – All the Duke’s Men

It is so nice to be back. Crossing the Atlantic was a great adventure, but I still missed the Podcast and you, lovely listeners, a lot. I had a lot of time thinking about whether I want to change anything about the podcast, and I have concluded to not change a thing. All will plough on as before. Upon my return I went straight to the British Library and hurrah, no more tinned episodes, but all freshly baked and sweet smelling.

This week we talk about what happens after the fight for independence is won. As had happened countless times before in history, precious freedoms gained in bloody struggles can be lost easily in the subsequent peace, not to the old adversary, but to new, homegrown usurpers. That is at least one way of telling the story, the other being, that every major political upheaval is followed by a period of consolidation that embeds the gains made and truncates the excesses that appeared during the revolutionary period.

Something like that happened following the Saxon wars when Lothar of Supplinburg, a hitherto minor count from Westphalia is raised to ducal authority in 1106. Before he took the reins of the duchy, Saxony had turned into a free for all. Whenever a rich count or margrave fell victim to the various dangers a civil war generated, his cousins and peers would race to first seize his wife or daughter and then use their claim to grasp as much of his property as possible. A process not much more dignified than the opening of the doors on a Black Friday pre-pandemic.

Lothar established a central authority for the duchy that calms things down considerably. It is during this time that four of the five great princely dynasties in the North get established, the Welf, the Wettins, the Ascanier and the counts of Holstein. The rise of these four was however not a given. There were others, like the counts of Stade and Wiprecht of Groitzsch whose burning ambitions came to nought as they stumbled in the race between reproduction and their near inevitable violent death.

But before we start let me tell you that 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 or on my website You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to Jeff M., Michael M, Robin R., and Claude L. who have already signed up.

Last time we ended with the death of Ekbert II, margrave of Meissen, an event that brought the Saxon wars against emperor Henry IV to an end. 15 times the emperor had taken an army into Saxony and 14 times he was unsuccessful.  Though Henry IV could claim victory in this his last attempt after the leaders of the rebellion had sworn allegiance to him, in reality, it was the Saxons who had achieved their political objectives.

The conflict that began as far back as 1075 had always been more about limiting royal power in the duchy, than about removing Henry IV from the throne. Yes, the Saxons had supported the deposing of Henry IV at Forchheim, had sworn allegiance to the anti-king Rudolf von Rheinfelden and aligned themselves with pope Gregory VII and the reformers. But at the heart of the conflict had been the resistance against royal encroachment into the richest parts of the duchy as symbolised by the Harzburg. On that count, the Saxons were entirely successful. Henry IV never again set foot in the duchy and his position in the Harz mountains eroded quickly. Only Goslar itself remained imperial.

The solution was a face-saving compromise. Henry IV was technically the overlord of Saxony but had no material influence in the affairs of the duchy. To make this solution work on a day to day basis, a political buffer was created between the emperor and the Saxon magnates.

This political buffer had a name, or in fact two names. Hartwig of Magdeburg and Henry the Fat, Count of Frisia. These two men’s job was to keep the emperor and the magnates apart. They would formally swear allegiance to Henry IV and do all the required kneeling and nodding. At the same time they reassured the Saxons that none of the Imperial orders had any actual effect on the ground.

Hartwig and Henry were ideally suited for this job. Hartwig had been one of the leaders of the Saxon rebellion and a firm supporter of the Gregorian reforms. Henry was the eldest son of Otto von Northeim, the hero of the initial decade of the war as well as being the largest magnate in Saxony. At the same time these two managed to gain the confidence of Henry IV, reassuring him that the Saxons would remain outwardly loyal.

Having a feudal layer between the king and the counts is nothing new. When the Carolingian empire shuffled off into the eternal sunset of history exactly such a structure had emerged, the stem duchies. Duchies were a middle layer between the king and the counts and knights below. A duke would exercise some of the royal prerogatives, such as guaranteeing peace, dispensing justice, leading the ducal contingents in war and holding regular ducal assemblies.

Saxony was such a stem duchy and still had a duke. Which gets us to the now obvious question, where is the duke of Saxony in all of this? Shouldn’t this be his job?

Well, there is a duke of Saxony, Magnus Billung. But as you may remember, the Billungs had never risen to being proper stem dukes. The dynasties’ founder, Hermann Billung had ruled the duchy only on behalf of Otto the Great and it seems his successors struggled to shake off this inferior status. The Billungs were rarely called upon to dole out justice, assemblies were called with and sometimes without the duke and military leadership these last decades rested with Otto von Northeim and other magnates, not with the duke Magnus,

On top of that you had the system of margraviates along the eastern border. Margraves had a special status, being direct vassals of the king or emperor, not of the duke. With five margraviates in the duchy and those held typically by the most powerful families, ducal power was constitutionally curtailed.

And then you had a solid dose of bad luck. Magnus Billung had joined and to a degree led the Saxon rebellion. But he somehow managed to get captured again and again. Sure, the Saxons were duly enraged by the imprisonment of their duke and felt honour bound to free him. But whilst he was in prison, they still needed a leader, which is how the military and political role of the duke transferred to Otto von Northeim. Magnus became more and more marginalised and focused on his perennial feud with the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen. The final blow to his reputation came when he defected to Henry IV early on in the final struggle.

Duke Magnus died in 1106 without male offspring and his only brother had died long before, bringing an end to the Billung dynasty. Despite the ineffectual role Magnus had played as duke, the institution was not completely obsolete. So a new duke needed to be found.

Magnus had left behind two daughters. One, Wulfhild, had married Henry from the House of Welf, nicknamed the Black, the second son of the duke of Bavaria. Though we associate the house of Welf very much with Hannover, Braunschweig and Lueneburg and ultimately the crown of England, in 1106, the Welf had no material possessions north of the Main River. Their power base was in Swabia, in the duchy of Bavaria and in Northern Italy. As a second son Henry the Black only held some family possessions whilst the title of duke of Bavaria and all the rest was held by his brother Welf V. His only claim to get into the upper echelons of aristocratic society was via his wife’s connections. Which is why Henry the Black threw his hat in the ring to become duke of Saxony.

The other daughter of duke Magnus was Eilika, a rather formidable woman who, judging by the scarce sources available, asserted her rights forcefully. In the context of the times that suggests she took up arms against whichever neighbour had stood in her way. Her martial prowess may have got something to do with the fact that she was the great-granddaughter of the axe-wielding saint-king Olaf II of Norway. Sorry, I am getting carried away with my excitement to get closer to the Scandinavian part of the story. But before we get there, we have to plough through a bit more German genealogy.

So, the formidable Eilika married Otto von Ballenstedt. This count was part of the highest ranks of Saxon nobility, related to all and sundry, though up to that point his family, soon to be known as the Askanier, had not held positions as margrave or duke. The most famous of the Ballenstedts was Uta, the medieval pin-up on Naumburg cathedral. Being perennially on the cusp of becoming an imperial prince with a direct vassalage to the emperor fuelled the Ballenstedts’ ambitions and the death of good old Magnus gave Otto hope he might finally rise in his station.

So, the two sons in law of Magnus Billung would very much like become duke, sport an excessively noble line and are recognised as competent military leaders. But they are not the most powerful men in the duchy. These were still the great margraves, in particular Henry of Eilenburg, from the family of Wettin who had taken over the Margraviate of Meissen after the death of Ekbert II, the counts of Stade who held the Northern March, Wiprecht of Groitzsch we will hear about in a moment, the recently created landgraves of Thuringia and probably some others I have missed out.

I could not find any detailed accounts of the election/selection process for the new duke of Saxony, but my assumption is that given the complexity of the situation, the lack of one obvious claimant and the relative insignificance of the role meant, the Saxons had to go to the ultimate arbiter of decisions in the empire, the emperor himself. What facilitated that decision was that the hated Henry IV had just been deposed by his son, Henry V. Henry V had been the champion of the princes against his father and had been supported by many of the magnates of Saxony. Check out Episode 39 if you want to hear more about that.

This unusual combination of circumstances is the only way to explain why the Saxons -after 30 years of war against the central power- would let the emperor decide who will become their duke. What was even more surprising than the fact they let the emperor have a say in such an important decision was Henry V’s choice for the role, Lothar of Supplinburg.

Lothar was the son of a rather obscure count in the Harz mountains. In the older literature his father is described as a minor nobleman, which is not quite correct. He was a member of the high aristocracy of Saxony, related to the counts of Walbek and the counts of Querfurt. His mother, Lothar’s grandmother had married the duke Ornulf of Saxony after his grandfather’s death. Lothar’s father augmented his possessions by abducting and then marrying Gertrud, the daughter of the Bavarian counts of Formbach. The Supplinburg that Lothar is named after came in the dowry of his mother. So, a family of ancient origin and on the rise, but not exactly in the top five.

Lothar was born in 1075, the same year his father died in the battle of Langensalza on the side of the Saxons. In that same year 1075 his mother married again, this time the duke of Lothringia, who had fought against her now dead husband on the side of emperor Henry IV at the same battle. As ever, it is unclear whether she – and her inheritance – were parts of the spoils of war, or whether she had a passionate longing for the duke. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, he was known as “Theorderic the Valiant” after all.

We also do not know what happened to little Lothar in the aftermath of his father’s death and his mother’s shotgun wedding. He might have gone to Lothringia with his mother, which meant he would have been raised at the ducal court in Namur. Or alternatively he would have been raised by his grandmother at the court of Magnus of Saxony, or finally he may have been raised by servants at the castle of Supplinburg which he was named after, or a combination of all three.

We hear that in 1088, aged 13 he takes over his father’s role as a count in the Harz mountains. Then it gets dark again. In 1101 he is mentioned as an attendant in a grand assembly of Saxon nobles and in 1104 he is found in the entourage of Henry V. He is now 29 years old, presumably rising in the imperial hierarchy and growing his lands and possessions. When Henry V rebels against his father, Lothar becomes one of his key supporters who might have been the one who convinced the Saxon magnates to support the young price.

At this point Lothar had hugely increased his wealth and position as he had married the richest heiress the country had on offer at the time, Richenza. Richenza is the daughter of Henry the Fat who had inherited the lion’s share of his father, Otto of Northeim’s lands. She is also the daughter of Gertrud, the heiress to the fortune of Ekbert II, margrave of Meissen and count of Brunswick.

Whatever the exact mechanics, but in 1106, Henry V selects Lothar von Supplinburg to become duke of Saxony. With his elevation to duke of Saxony Lothar also acquires the old Billung possessions around Luneburg and the march of the Billungs. Over the next decades Lothar of Supplinburg, modest count from the Harz mountains, became, not only duke but also the by far largest landowner is Saxony. In 1117 his mother-in-law died and the county of Brunswick comes to Richenza. Around the same time Richenza’s brother and sole male descendant of Henry the Fat died resulting in most of the Northeim inheritance coming to Lothar. Basically by 1120 most of the territory that would later make up the kingdom of Hannover had come together in Lothar’s hands.

Backed up by his enormous wealth and burning ambition, Lothar began to restore the ducal institutions. Because the Saxons had removed any direct imperial influence inside the duchy and the Billung’s power such as it was had faded, there had been a vacuum in the duchy where the ruler should be.

There was no justice, there were no regular assemblies, no truce of god. This absence of a final decision authority, may it be an emperor, a duke or an assembly meant that disputes could not be resolved and often lingered on for decades, if not centuries. These disputes were sometimes about some perceived slight to a man’s honour, but mostly they were about land and wealth.

The Saxon aristocracy had intermarried to an astonishing extent as we have heard in the section about Lothar’s family connections. Add to that a near constant civil war that claimed the lives of many wealthy knights and counts well before their time. As they died young, they often left no male heirs behind, or the heirs were small children. In that case their inheritance is in play. As you may remember when we talked about the Hohenstaufen and earlier about Konrad II, the notion of inheritance and clan affiliation were still cognatic, i.e., weren’t strictly a function of being the eldest son of the eldest son. Inheritance and family association could be transferred in the female line, as had been the case of the impressively fecund Agnes of Waiblingen.

Therefore any greedy neighbour or cousin will pounce on the wife and daughters of a recently deceased rich count as a means to strengthen their claim. We hear of women being married off, like Lothar’s mother, as soon as the last verse of her husband’s funerary mass had been sung. Three or more marriages were not uncommon. And where the bride was unwilling or the negotiations went on for too long, ardent suitors are known to have kidnapped their future wife and run away to the medieval equivalent of Gretna Green.

And even if the lord managed to live to the ripe old age of fifty and had been blessed with a brace of strapping sons, that wasn’t much better. According to tradition, the lands were split between the brothers who turned against each other as soon as the old man had settled down to watch the radishes grow from below. Great territorial fortunes are gathered and lost at an astonishing speed and with ruthless brutality.

This fluid situation allowed even men from outside the close-knit Saxon aristocracy to rise to astounding heights.

One of them was Wiprecht of Groitzsch. He came from an ancient Slawic family, that -like Gottschalk, the prince of the Abodrites – had converted to Christianity. He swapped his father’s possessions for the castle of Groitzsch, south of Leipzig. This swap turned out to be a bad deal since he faced severe local opposition, forcing him into exile in Bohemia. There he became a close friend and adviser of duke Vratislav of Bohemia, the closest ally of Henry IV during the Saxon wars. He gained a reputation as a fearsome warrior and accompanied the emperor on his subsequent campaigns in Italy. The annals of the Pegau Monastery report that he attacked the papal forces with just his shield and was the second over the walls of Rome in 1084. He is also supposed to have knocked out a male lion with his bare fists. All these manly feats gained him the hand of the beautiful Judith, daughter of the duke of Bohemia. She brought him the counties of Nisani and Budisin, modern day Dresden and Bautzen, not far from Groitzsch which he regained and fortified. He further added lands in a series of local feuds that included the destruction of the city of Zeitz and the burning of its cathedral. After Judith had died, Wiprecht married Kunigunde of Weimar, and with her a claim to Weimar inheritance. Kunigunde had already been widowed twice, another example of the process I described above. Wiprecht tried to tie down the inheritance even further by marrying his son to Kunigunde’s daughter.

That way Wiprecht managed to expand his territory to the point it covered a large chunk of the modern-day state of Saxony. As was typical for a man of his time, he was ravaged by guilt for his attacks on the church. To atone for his sins he went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain from where he returned with a priceless relic and the intention to found a monastery. In 1091 he established a Benedictine abbey in Pegau close to Groitzsch, one of the oldest monasteries east of the Elbe. Wiprecht was a pioneer not only in that respect but was also amongst the first to invite colonists from the western parts of the empire to settle in the Marches. By the time Lothar became duke, Wiprecht had risen from minor Slavic ruler to being one of the great Christian magnates of Saxony.

Another, even more unusual story is that of Frederick, Count of Stade. Frederick was born not as a member of the ancient family of the Udones, the counts of Stade since time immemorial, but as the son of an English noblewoman who had fled after the battle of Hastings and was shipwrecked on the North Sea coast. That calamity turned her into the property of the count of Stade who married her to one of his Ministeriales. Ministeriales are, as you probably know by now, unfree men trained in knightly warfare that territorial lords used extensively as soldiers and administrators. Frederick was hence born a serf. He received the same training as a knight, preparing him for his role as a Ministeriale. He quickly rose through the ranks and the reigning count Udo entrusted him with the management of the county of Stade whilst he was busy with his margraviate, the Northern March.

Stade is today a delightful city of 50,000 inhabitants, downriver from Hamburg, Germany’s largest port. The port of Hamburg was only founded in 1189 which meant that until then, Stade was the largest harbour in Germany. That made the county of Stade strategically important and very rich. It stretched along the Elbe River and west towards Bremen.

Count Udo of Stade died in 1106, leaving behind a four-year old son, Henry. Henry’s uncle Rudolf acted as the guardian for the little count, whilst Frederick remained as manager of the county. Rudolf and Frederick did not get on to say it politely. When Frederick tried to buy his freedom for 40 marks of silver, Rudolf thwarted this attempt. As a consequence Frederick and Rudolf began an open feud. Each gathered allies. The emperor Henry V sided with Frederick, in part because he hoped to gain more leverage into Saxony. Imperial leverage in Saxony wasn’t something Lothar could tolerate since part of his job was to continue as the buffer between imperial power and the Saxon magnates. In 1112 Lothar apprehends Frederick whilst he was on his way to the imperial court where he had filed a complaint against Lothar. That was a blatant display of disrespect for Henry V who had guaranteed safe passage to Frederick. In retaliation, Henry V deposed Lothar as duke of Saxony and replaced him with Otto von Ballenstedt, one of the ambitious sons-in-law of old duke Magnus.

A brief military campaign followed that Lothar lost. Lothar had to submit to Henry V on his knees and -since this was the first disobedience – was reinstalled as duke. Frederick was freed and returned as vice-count in charge of the county of Stade, albeit still an unfree Ministeriale acting on behalf of little Henry.

In 1115 Frederick swapped sides and struck up a friendship with Lothar. Lothar now supported him against young Henry. When Lothar becomes emperor in 1125 Frederick was released from serfdom and in 1135, once Henry had died, was formally enfeoffed with the county he had controlled for 25 years. But upon his death his little empire unravelled. The county was returned to the Udones, the family that had ruled it for centuries.

This is the kind of environment Lothar of Supplinburg inherits. It isn’t exactly a free for all. There are some rules, such as, you need some sort of justification for your claim, even if it is down to kidnapping a twice widowed second cousin, but largely it is “might is right”.

How he resolves the situation is difficult to nail down. I have just spent a bit more than a day reading Ruth Hildebrand’s book about Lothar as duke of Saxony and I can confirm that we really do not have much to go on in the sources. What is indisputable though is that by the time Lothar is elected emperor in 1125, he is by far the most powerful duke of Saxony since Ottonian times. And this is not just down to the force of his personality since the ducal position remains dominant under his two successors.

In my assessment there were two things that helped him establish his position, the first was taking the lead in the Saxon opposition against the emperor Henry V, and the other was his ability to place competent and loyal people into key positions.

As for the military leadership, we have just heard that Lothar clashed with Henry V over the county of Stade and lost. But that was a temporary setback, so temporary, it barely lasted a month.

By 1115 the honeymoon period of emperor Henry V’s reign was over – even though he does not yet know it. Henry V had returned from Rome in 1112, freshly crowned and after having forced the unlucky pope Paschalis II to make all sorts of concessions. Riding high, he resumed the policy of his father, trying to create a coherent royal territory, administered by his ministeriales. This time his focus wasn’t Saxony, but along the Rhine River, bringing him in conflict with his former friend, the archbishop Adalbert of Mainz. He also clashed with the archbishop of Cologne and the city itself. Finally, Henry’s support for Frederick in Stade was seen as part of a larger plan to expand imperial power into Saxony itself.

The Rhineland and Saxony erupt in rebellion literally days after Lothar had kneeled before the emperor. On February 11th, 1115 an imperial army, led by the general Hoyer von Mansfeld takes the field against the rebel forces, outnumbering them 5 to 3. The battle was in equal measure brutal as it was decisive. The general Hoyer von Mansfeld fell whilst attempting to break the centre of the rebel forces. Thereafter the imperial troops lost cohesion and turned to flight. Whether Lothar did indeed lead the rebel forces, or he just ended up being the last of the magnates left alive after the fighting, Lothar was credited with this success, which raised his profile enormously. Helmold of Bosau reports that following the battle Lothar convinced all the princes of Saxony to swear oaths to support each other against any potential retaliation by the emperor Henry V. That seems to have involved princes who had been neutral or even supportive to the imperial cause such as Frederick of Stade who now switched to the ducal side. After Westenholz Lothar had become the military leader of the duchy.

The other reason for his success was a great HR policy. His first major appointment was count Adolf of Schauenburg as count of Holstein. The Schauenburgs were an aristocratic clan based in Westphalia. Not top drawer, but like Lothar’s own family, they have been around for a long time. The county of Holstein on the other hand was a relatively new invention. These lands, roughly between Kiel, Hamburg and Bremen were in part inhabited by Slavic people who were part of the Abodrites federation and the Holstens, a Saxon subgroup who lived in peasant republics unwilling to recognise any count or duke above them. Interspersed were castles established by the Billungs. Lothar had initially placed a man called Godfrey in charge of these defences and given him the title of count of Holstein. How fragile his position was is explained in a story that Helmond of Bosau tells. In 1111 a band of Slavic raiders had come to plunder Hamburg, at the time not much more than a small agglomeration of wooden shacks surrounding a church. The count arrived on scene and surveyed the damage. Egged on by the locals who call him a coward he pursues the raiders who lure him into a trap. The raiders fall upon him as he is crossing a large, wooded area. All the local peasants found afterwards were the remains of his 20 companions and the headless body of the count. If a count can taken down by common rabble one has to wonder about the strength of this new institution.

That will change quite significantly under the Schauenburgs. Like Wiprecht of Groitzsch, they are pioneers in the colonisation of the former Slavic lands and founders of important cities that will take a lead role in our story, namely Kiel, Lubeck and Hamburg. When they are done, no Slavic raider would dare to attack Hamburg again.

The next major appointment was Konrad of Wettin as Margrave of Meissen. You may remember that after the death of the rebellious Ekbert the margraviate of Meissen had gone to Henry of Eilenburg who was already margrave of Lusatia. Henry died in 1103 fighting Polabian Slavs and his son and heir died in 1123 without having produced any offspring. That renders two margraviates available, margraviates that are strategically important.

A margrave is an imperial prince and hence has at least formally to be enfeoffed directly by the emperor. And that is exactly what emperor Henry V does. He gives both margraviates to Wiprecht of Groitzsch, you remember, the Slavic lord who had felled a lion with his bare hands. Apart from being of herculean strength, Wiprecht had also been loyal to the imperial family for decades, had large possessions in the marches and has proven to be a competent manager. By all accounts a sensible choice.

But Lothar was not happy with the appointment of a Salian loyalist in this crucial post. He allied with Conrad of Wettin, the closest relative of Henry of Eilenburg and elevated him to be Margrave of Meissen. This was an unprecedented act. Lothar had no right to make any such appointment. As duke he wasn’t even the feudal overlord of the margrave. But hey, Lothar had by now the full support of the duchy and though Wiprecht put on a good fight, Conrad and Lothar defeated him. Wiprecht died in 1124 from wounds he received when he tried to extinguish a fire with his bare feet. From then on Conrad was de facto Margrave of Meissen. Wiprecht had left behind a son and successor, Henry who died 7 years later without being able to enforce his claim to the margraviates. The great territory of the counts of Groitzsch was then snatched up by his enemies, the same Conrad of Wettin.

As for Eilenburg’s other margraviate, that of Lusatia, Lothar gave that to Albrecht, the son of Otto of Ballenstedt and Eilika Billung. Albrecht was not necessary a loyal follower, but he needed to be appeased. As we have heard, Otto of Ballenstedt had taken on the mantle of duke of Saxony for a brief period and that claim had now gone to Albrecht. Granting Albrecht the title of Margrave was a way to partially compensate him. That did work. Albrecht was content to be elevated to imperial prince and became a close follower of Lothar.

We have introduced Albrecht and his father Otto as counts of Ballenstedt because that was the name by which they were known at the time. However the clan would change its name to the latinised form of another of its possessions, Aschensleben and will be known from then on as the Ascanier. The Ascanier would rule a range of principalities, including the state of Anhalt until 1918.

The combination of massive personal possessions, military leadership and putting loyal followers into key positions allowed Lothar to also take over the control of the church. He is again usuroing royal privileges when he influences the selection of bishops in Saxony. In defiance of the just recently agreed concordat of Worms, Lothar effectively chooses the bishop of Halberstadt against the wishes of the cathedral chapter. As we will see church power in Saxony is a lot weaker than in the rest of the empire. The two archbishoprics, Hamburg-Bremen and Magdeburg are way poorer than the mighty and ancient seats of Cologne, Mainz, Trier and Salzburg. Moreover, they are subject to constant harassment and as we will see soon, find their property alienated to the rising territorial powers.

By 1125 Lothar has become the undisputed ruler of Saxony, the by far largest of the German duchies. And he was not just nominal lord of this territory but had real control, more control than any of his predecessors since Otto the Great ever had. In 1125 Lothar is elected King of the Romans and is crowned emperor in 1133. We have covered the story of his interesting reign, his struggle with the Hohenstaufen and his ambiguous relationship with the popes and Bernhard of Clairvaux in episodes 43 to 46. Have a listen just in case you want to hear more about what was ging on in the wider European context.

Once Lothar is elected King and later crowned emperor Saxony finds itself in a situation that at least on the face of it never wanted. There is now significant imperial influence in the duchy and the emperor is directly controlling a large, coherent territory right in their midst. This fact got lost in the exuberance of Lothar’s election and the idea that once more the emperor is one of them and the Saxon magnates have great influence at court. The imperial army is now stacked with margraves and counts from Saxony, families that haven’t sent contingents down to Italy for almost a century.

Will this last? It depends on who follows Lothar as duke of Saxony and as emperor. You remember the tumultuous election of Lothar III in Mainz? Where at the last minute the duke of Bavaria, Henry the Black switches side and instead of supporting the imperial nephew and his own son-in-law Friedrich of Hohenstaufen he tilts the election in Lothar’s favour. In exchange for this move, Henry gains the hand of Gertrud, the only child of the aging emperor, for his son, Henry the Proud. Gertrud’s inheritance is truly enormous. All the lands the Billungs, the Brunones and the Northeims had gathered over the centuries will now go to the House of Welf. And the Welf themselves aren’t exactly poor. Henry the Black is already duke of Bavaria and count of Este in Italy. His son will add to that the lands of Matilda of Tuscany making him the by far most powerful magnate in the empire. And he will also claim the title of duke of Saxony.

I know, this was a blizzard of confusing names and you will be wondering whether you should write them down somewhere just in case we need them later. No, not to worry. You will not have to write them down because some, like Wiprecht of Groitzsch and Frederick of Stade disappear down the orcus of history. But others, namely Adolf von Schauenburg, Conrad von Meissen, Albrecht the Baer, Henry the Proud and the dynasties they created will stick around. They will get their own episodes shortly, because these dynasties and the territories they created will last for the next almost 800 years and will shape not just Saxon, but German and European history going forward.

Next week we will start with the counts of Holstein and the start of the eastern colonisation that will get almost 7% of the empire’s population to pack their bags and go east. And we will hear about the foundation of two of the major Hanseatic cities, Lubeck and Hamburg. I hope you will join us again.

Finally, I just want to thank you guys for the support to the podcast whilst was away. So many nice posts and comments on Twitter and Facebook. Thank you, thank you! It makes all the difference. As you may know the platform algorithms are driven more by subscriber growth than by downloads which means that to keep the History of the Germans visible on something like Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Podcast Addict requires a constant flow of new listeners. And the place to find new listeners is either through word of mouth from existing listeners or social media. So thanks so much for your support and I promise not to disappear for six weeks ever again.

And last but by no means least thanks to all of you who have become Patreons during this time. I always appreciate and even more so when it was clear that not much in terms of bonus episodes would be produced whilst I was away. So thanks again.

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I recently went to Rome – mostly as a romantic getaway – but also to get a better idea what Rome would have looked like to the medieval emperors who came down to be crowned by reluctant popes. A lot of the main historic sites have been fundamentally remodelled (St. Peter, St. John Lateran, Santa Maria Maggiore), but more survives than one thinks.

The first thing to remember is that by the time say Henry IV or Frederick Barbarossa come to Rome, many of these churches are already unfathomably old. The first great period of church building in Rome was during the fourth and fifth century. Emperor Constantine funded the construction of the two great basilicas of Old St. Peter and the Basilica of the Lateran. But as the share of Christians in the population grew from 15-18% under Constantine to being the vast majority by late fifth/early 6th century, new churches needed to be built all across Rome.

These early churches were mostly new built over virgin land or land previously used for residential or industrial purposes, not over existing pagan temples. The building was usually in the form of an ancient Roman basilica. These basilicas were originally secular buildings used amongst other things to hold court cases with the judge/governor/emperor sitting in the apsis dispensing justice.

There is one still extant imperial basilica, in Trier that dates from the time of Constantine.

Basilica Trier

In early Christian churches, the judge’s seat was replaced with the altar but otherwise the architecture remained the same. And this apsis was than lavishly decorated with mosaics, depicting Christ in the place where the emperor would usually have sat. This mosaic here is the oldest and most beautiful in Rome dating back to around 390 AD.

Santa Prudentia (Rome)

Imagine you come from say a great Carolingian monastery like Corvey with beautiful early medieval interior decorations, and then you look at this. Nobody during this period was able to create such natural expressions or depiction of movement. It must have been a complete shock to see…

The Basilica of Santa Sabina

The best way to get an impression what these early churches looked like is to visit Santa Sabina on the Aventine hill. The church was built between 422 and 432 and is largely unchanged in its structure today.

If you stand inside you can experience what a space like old St. Peter would have felt like. Not at all dark and “medieval”, but bright, symetric with clean lines. Windows were in clear glass, letting the bright Roman sun into the building. All eyes look down towards the Apsis where all teh important things, like teh coronation is happening.

Santa Sabina, Interior

Though Santa Sabina does no longer have the brilliant Mosaics that once covered its apsis, it has another, truly astounding piece of decoration, its doors, which are original from the 5th century.

Santa Sabina doors (~430 AD)

Let me repoeat this. This is a set of cedar doors made in ~430 AD. The image cannot really convey what they look like. The wood is still shiny, the carving beautiful and detailed, as if no time had passed.

I know the doors in the Pantheon are older and larger, but still, these must be the second oldest doors still in operation anywhere in the world. And if you go to Santa Sabina, you share the space with some Dominican friars, the kids from the primary school opposite and a small number of full-on history geeks (Birkenstocks and all) – well worth it (also got a great view over the city from the park).

The Mystery of the Destruction of Old San Clemente

The next church to look at is San Clemente, which is interesting for two reasons. The first one is its marvellous mosaic that covers the whole of the apsis.

San Clemente Apsis Mosaic (c. 1200)

This work of most likely Byzantine artists is a little younger than the others we will be looking at here but it contains such marvellous little details that again display the incredible craftsmanship of these unknown artists.

The church of San Clemente is full of other fascinating things,  such as the grave of Saint Cyril and a beautiful renaissance chapel to Santa Catarina.

But the most interesting stuff is underground. San Clemente was built over what was initially a private house, then became an industrial complex, some argue the mint where the empire would strike its coins. It at least in part became an apartment block with a sanctuary for the cult of Mithridates in its centre. By 392 all these buildings had been filled in and a church built on top.

This church was redecorated in the 9th and then in 11th century. And then something strange happens. The whole church is getting destroyed, filled in and a new church is built on top of it around 1099 to 1120.

All these underground structures have been excavated and can be visited., something well worth doing. If you go, buy the ticket online before you enter the church, it is 2€ cheaper and connection is better outside.

During the excavations they found part of the fresco decoration of the church that was destroyed, depicting the story of Saint Clement. And that is where the mystery starts.

San Clemente Lower Basilica – the Rescue of a Child

Initially people thought the church was destroyed during the sack of Rome by Robert Guiscard in 1084, which I talk about in Episode 36: (

But they could not find any signs of burning so the suggestion was the lower church had been deliberately destroyed. But why? Some argue it was because the street level had risen and so the old church was constantly flooded.

Image of Saint Clement Lower Basilica

But there could be another reason. The images in the old chapel depicted the Saint Clement, which in the 1080s was a dangerous name. As you know Henry IV had elevated Wibert of Ravenna to be antipope Clement III. Painting a church with the deeds of the antipope’s namesake was an affront. And moreover, who was the titular deacon of San Clemente in the 1080s? Hugh Candidus, or Hugh the White. You remember him? He is the cardinal who fell out with Gregory VII and alleged the pope was living in sin with Matilda of Tuscany and was up to all sorts of shenanigans (check out Episode 35).

Hence pope Gregory and his successor, Pope Paschalis II who was deacon of San Clemente after Hugh the White  had motive and means to literally bury the antipope Wibert and his enabler Hugh the White. If that is true, it would be a rare case of church destruction on ideological grounds.

San Cosmas and Damian vs. Castor and Pollux

The foundation of this church was in 527, when Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths , and his daughter Amalasuntha arranged the donation of two buildings on the Forum to the Church under Pope Felix IV. These building were the Temple of Peace and the “temple of Romulus”

Three interesting observations can be made about this. Firstly, the king was consciously not acting in his own name, but as the agent of Emperor Justinian I in Constantinople. Modern historians may have pretended that the Roman Empire came to an end in the West in 476, but the inhabitants of Rome were not aware of this fifty years later. Secondly, the area of the Roman and Imperial fora was still functioning as part of the city and had not yet fallen into complete ruin. Thirdly, this was the first Christian church to be founded in the area. Again, despite modern popular historical imagination, much of the nobility of Rome was still hostile to Christianity in the 5th century and this may have prevented the provision of churches in the cultic centre of the city before this one.

The new church was not a titulus or a monastic church, but was a diaconia. This meant that it was a centre for the Church’s charitable activities such as helping poor people. When the pope united the two buildings to create a basilica devoted to the two holy Greek brothers and doctors, Cosmas and Damian, he may have been wishing to continue the free public medical services formerly based in the Temple of Peace. There may also have been a deliberate contrast with the ancient pagan cult of the divine twin brothers Castor and Pollux, who had been worshipped on the other side of the Forum in the Temple of Castor and Pollux.

The whole structure was changed many times and today the entrance is no longer on the Forum but from the Via dei Fori Imperiali which has its advantages, i.e., no entrance fee. Go there, even if all you need is shelter from the August heat. It has a lovely shaded little cloister.

But that is not the only reason you may want to get there. The apse of the new church was decorated with a mosaic, representing the parousia (coming at the end of time) of Christ. This work was immensely influential, and art historians have been able to trace its inspiration in mosaics in later Roman churches. It stands nowadays as one of the foremost examples of the old Classical style of depiction starting to mutate into the (then novel) Byzantine style.

San Cosmas & Damian

The mosaics are masterpieces of 6th century ecclesiastical art. The apse mosaic is especially fine, but you need to remember that you should be standing seven metres lower than you actually are, in order to see it as the creators intended. There is a coin-operated light for it at the head of the center aisle in front of the alter.

In the middle is Christ at his parousia, or Second Coming as triumphal judge at the end of time. He is standing on the red clouds of dawn, and is dressed in golden robes with a single monogram I which stands for either Iesus or Imperator. In his left hand he holds the rolled-up scroll of the Torah, which only he is able to interpret. To the left is St Paul, and to the right is St Peter. They are introducing SS Cosmas and Damian to Christ, and it is not possible to tell which is which because the mosaicists followed the tradition that they were identical twins. They are carrying martyrs’ crowns. To the far left is Pope Felix IV, who as founder holds a model of the church; this figure was restored in the 17th century. The reason for this is that Pope Gregory XIII saw fit to alter the figure to show Pope Gregory the Great in the previous century, and a very bad job was done. The Baroque restorers put it right. To the far right is the martyr St Theodore. The figures stand in front of a river labelled Iordanes (Jordan) and are flanked by palm trees.

Note the phoenix on the left-hand palm, a symbol of the resurrection.

San Cosmas & Damian Phoenix

Below Christ is another representation of him, this time as the Lamb of God accompanied by twelve sheep representing the Apostles. The Lamb stands on a hill with Jerusalem on the left and Bethlehem on the right, and from the hill flow the twelve Rivers of Paradise labelled Gion, Pison, Tigris and Eufrata (Euphrates).

Santa Prassede and the running pope

After the destruction of Rome during the Gothic wears (535-554) the city’s population collapsed. The low-lying areas were gradually abandoned and became hotbeds of malaria and other diseases.

There was no longer the money to build splendid rectangular basilicas on brownfield sites. The church began to invade the now abandoned pagan temples, using fallen masonry to create new structures. These are often oddly shaped and Roman columns protrude from the walls.

When pope Paschal I (817-24) began the construction of Santa Prassede, he did intend to create a classic basilica, but it did not really work. the surveying during the construction was seriously badly done and the edifice is “wonky”. The nave walls and colonnades are not parallel, neither are they straight. The transept is not at right angles to the nave’s major axis, and neither are the façade and the atrium.

But it is still standing and it houses one of the greatest early medieval interiors in Rome. Two 9th century mosaics stand out, those on the triumphal arch in the centre of the nave.

The overall theme is the Second Coming of Christ and the End of Time, based on the description given in the “Apocalypse of St John” (Book of Revelation).

On the triumphal arch, the one closest to the nave,The Heavenly Jerusalem is depicted as a walled and gated enclosure with its golden walls set with jewels. In it, Christ accompanied by two angels is venerated by two queues of apostles and saints; to the left, the first two are Our Lady and St John the Baptist, and to the right the first is St Praxedis. At the ends of the queues are Moses and Elijah. The city gates are guarded by another pair of angels, and a further two escort more saints through flowery meadows, with the right hand group led by SS Peter and Paul.

Below this composition, on either side of the arch, are two crowds of people holding crowns and palm branches. These are the multitude of the martyrs. 

And then there is the Apse Mosaic – just look at it

And if you look for some historic context, here is a tale from 1118

The papacy had recovered from the depth of its depravity in the 10th century thanks to a string of powerful popes, namely Leo IX, Gregory VII and Urban II. By 1111 the tide was however turning. Pope Paschalis II made a most unexpected offer to emperor Henry V to return all the lands and privileges the church had received over the centuries in exchange for the emperor no longer interfering with church affairs. That backfired terribly as literally everybody hated the idea, except for the pope and the emperor. Paschalis lost all authority in Rome. The two great Roman families of the Frangipani and the Pierleoni began fighting over control of the seat of Saint Peter.

When Paschalis died in 1118 the Frangipani made their move. The cardinals had elected the former pope’s chancellor as pope Gelasius II. On the day of his election, the Frangipani captured him, put him into a windowless cell and tortured him mercilessly. Censius Frangipani allegedly hissed at him like a giant snake, grabbed the pope by the throat, struck him with his fists, kicked him, drew blood with his spurs and dragged him away by his hair. Had he not been rescued by a mob paid for by the Pierleoni, Pope Gelasius would hold the record for the shortest Pontificate. This way he lasted a year and a bit. In his last months he could not hold the Vatican and hence celebrated mass at the church of St. Prassede, an amazing and truly ancient but size wise very modest building. If you are in Rome, go there it is a wonderful refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Anyway, whilst saying mass he was attacked by Censius Frangipani again and only escaped on a swift horse. His attendants found him hours later sitting in a field, muttering incoherently – still wearing his papal vestments. Gelasius had enough. He left Rome to travel to France and died in the safety of the abbey of Cluny.

His successor Calixtus II was able to regain some semblance of control, but the next election, Honorius II ended with even more bloodshed.

If you want to follow the whole story, including detail about the divisions in the church and the city of Rome around 1130, listen to Episode 45 of The History of the Germans or read the transcript, both available here:…/episode-45-triple…/

Santa Prudenziana

My greatest find on the whole trip was however Santa Prudenziana. Santa Prudenziana, if she existed, was the sister of Santa Prassede but her church is even more undeservedly overlooked.

And overlooking it is easy. The church sits in a non-descript street below Santa maria Maggiore and is itself a couple of metres below street level. The façade is less than impressive and I would have instinctively walked past had I not looked for it.

But this is a true treasure trove. This basilica is recognised as the oldest place of Christian worship in Rome, dating back potentially to the time of the Apostles but more convincingly to the time of pope Pius I (140-155). The popes would reside in this complex until Constantine offered them the palace of the Lateran in 313.

In around 390, the church received its mosaic, which is of prime importance, not just because of its beaty, but also because of its subject.

The magisterial figure of Christ, seated on a gilded throne embossed with jewels and cushioned with purple fabric, recalls ancient representations of Jupiter. The apostles are dressed in togas, like Roman senators. Such images reflect the fundamental change in the role of the church. No longer a persecuted minority that has to hide from authority, Jesus (or god) is now in charge, determines the order man has to live by. You can see visually how the church goes from providing spiritual guidance to being an unquestionable authority, a process we have heard so much about in the podcast.

Image of mosaic in Santa Prudenziana

Today this tiny church is serving the global community of Catholic Filipinos, the largest Christian community in Asia.

I could go on for hours from here. And maybe I will write another post looking at secular medieval buildings in Rome. But if you ever go, sure, do all the classic Roman and renaissance things, but if you have a bit of time on your hand, check out these treasures. They are so worth it. (and also listen to the History of the Germns Podcast – also worth it)

It is hard to believe, but the last years of Henry IV’s tumultuous reign still held one final humiliation that capped the pain this man had already endured.

And that despite a period of relative stability which began after his return to Germany in 1097. Henry IV had accepted that his rule could not be one more than a First amongst Equals. He reconciled with his enemies in Swabia and Bavaria, largely by bribing them with valuable crown lands and settled into his new favourite residence in Mainz. The only one he did take issue with was the archbishop of Mainz for his involvement in the murder of the Jewish community under his protection.

He even attempted a lasting reconciliation with the Gregorian papacy admitting to having broken the unity of the holy mother church. But the new Pope, Paschalis II was not playing ball, leaving this issue as an open wound…long after the antipope Clement III had died.

The internal weakness of his regime became apparent when one of the guests at his imperial assembly in Regensburg ends up murdered by Ministeriales…..

Another Key Protagonist in the Investiture Controversy
Anno was a bit of a new man, coming from a more modest background than his peers amongst the great archbishoprics of the realm. And that meant he was out to get even bigger.

His main target was the land held by the descendants of count Ezzo north of Cologne. The Ezzonen/Ezzonids as they were called were one of the great magnate families regularly being elevated to dukes of Bavaria or Carinthia and were hereditary Counts Palatinate with possessions along the Rhine and Ruhr valley. When Anno comes on the stage, tensions were already running high between bishops and counts.

God knows who provoked who, but in 1060 the Count Palatinate Henry plundered the episcopal lands and besieged Cologne itself. Anno seems to have set up his defences well and the count had to retreat. Anno followed him and locked him into his castle at Cochem.

Count Henry, scion of one of the most powerful families in the land and a man who not too long ago was seen as a potential king should the Salian house die out, could not get his head round being beaten by some country parson with a fancy hat. He went mad, like completely mad and decapitated his wife. Before he could go after his son, the castle guards opened the gate and let Anno’s troops in. Count Henry’s little son survived and became a vassal of the church of Cologne. With that the archbishop of Cologne took over from one of the richest and most powerful magnates in the land. The archbishopric of Cologne is to this day one of the richest dioceses in the world.

Anno’s main role was however in imperial politics. In 1061 the empress Agnes had created a papal schism that threatened the reputation of the empire as a champion of church reform. The magnates led b Anno believed that she needed to be neutralised before any more damage could be done.
In April 1062 the court stayed at the imperial palace of Kaiserswerth, today a part of Duesseldorf. The palace stands right by the Rhine River and at the end of the feast Archbishop Anno of Cologne invited the 12-year-old king Henry IV to check out his new luxury boat that was moored in the centre of the stream. As soon as young Henry came on board, Archbishop Anno of Cologne gave the order to raise the anchor, Anno’s soldiers surrounded the young king, and the rowers began pulling away towards the city of Cologne 20 miles upstream. Henry IV realised he was being abducted and jumped overboard. Unlike his ancestor Otto II, Henry could not swim. He would have almost certainly have drowned in the cold and fast flowing river that day, had not count Ekbert jumped after him and dragged him out.

Anno and his co-conspirators made it to Cologne and formed a new imperial government. The new government put an end to the schism of Cadulus. But it was too late. The imperial reputation was broken. The church reform movement looked to the popes and cardinals to bring about change. Anno of Cologne may have chaired the initial synod that ended the schism, but he soon found himself on the back benches. Pope Alexander II and the archdeacon Hildebrand were now in charge. From now on, no medieval emperor will ever have the influence over the church that Henry III had in 1046.

And Kaiserswerth had another effect. The young Henry IV will never forget how he was betrayed by his magnates. He would not believe that the dukes, counts and bishops of his realm would ever give him advice that was anything but driven by self-interest.

And Henry IV retained a deep hatred for the hijacking Archbishop Anno of Cologne. On March 29,1065 Henry IV celebrated his Schwertleite at the cathedral of Worms, a ceremony that declared him formally an adult. As soon as he had been girded with a sword, he pulled it to go after Anno of Cologne. Only his mother’s quick intervention saved the archbishop’s life.
There is a lot more to say about Anno of Cologne, namely his role as regent between 1062 and ~1068 and the rebellion of the citizens of Cologne in 1074. We will get there on the History of the Germans Podcast, probably in the next episode.

The podcast is – as always – available on my website and links to Apple, Spotify etc. are here: