Henry II (1002-1024)


Henry II (1002-1024) -  History of the Germans
Henry II (1002-1024) – History of the Germans

The last of the Ottonians, though much more akin to the Salian emperors who follow in his wake. After a complex route to kingship, Henry focuses on the war with his increasingly powerful neighbour to the east, Boleslav the Brave of Poland. He shocks his contemporaries by entering into an alliance with the pagan Slavs against a Christion ruler. Though he has to ultimately concede defeat he did strengthen the internal structure of his kingdom by further expanding the Imperial church system.German History from the Coronation of King Henry the Fowler in 919 CE to German Reunification in 1990 in weekly chronological 20-30 min episodes. As Gregory of Tours (539-594) said: “A great many things keep happening, some good, some bad” .

Episode 17 – The (not yet holy) Emperor Henry II
byDirk Hoffmann-Becking

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

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

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Episode 17 – The (not yet holy) Emperor Henry II
Episode 18 – Henry II Goes Forth
Episode 19 – Henry II and the House of God

30 second summary

Henry II descendant of the line of Henry the Quarrelsome is last of the Ottonians. He captures the crown in a daring raid on the royal insignia and the bishop of Mainz leaving other, slower contenders in his wake. As king, Henry focuses on the war with his increasingly powerful neighbour to the east, Boleslav the Brave of Poland. He shocks his contemporaries by entering into an alliance with the pagan Slavs against a Christion ruler. A deeply pious man he turns his realm into a “House of God” and when he died childless he passed his entire wealth on to the church of Bamberg, making it one of the richest bishoprics in the land.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week we will see how Henry II goes about sorting out the internal structure of the Reich. We will also see how he manages the eastern frontier where Boleslav the Brave of Poland, the one that Otto III had made a friend and ally of the Romans, had become overwhelmingly powerful. And the situation in Italy remained chaotic with an Italian king openly defying Henry’s authority. I hope you are going to join us again next week. Ad in the meantime, if you enjoyed this episode, why not tell other people about the podcast, on social media, in the review sections of Apple Pocdcasts and others, or old school, when you are chatting with your friends, something we hopefully can do  a lot more often now…

Episode 18 – Henry II Goes Forth

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

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

So, with that, back to the show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War had now become inevitable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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About Me

I am a history geek with no academic qualification in the field but a love for books and stories. I do this for fun and my personal self-aggrandisement.

I have been born, raised and educated in Germany but live in the UK for now over 20 years with my wife and two children. My professional background is in law, management consulting and banking. History has always been a hobby as are sailing, travelling, art, skiing and exercise (go BMF!).

My view of history is best summarised by Gregory of Tours (539-594): “A great many things keep happening, some good, some bad”. History has no beginning and no end and more importantly, it has no logic, no pattern and no purpose . But that does not mean there isn’t progress and sometimes we humans realise that doing the same thing again and again hoping for a different outcome is indeed madness. The great moments in history are those where we realise that we cannot go on as we were and things need to change. German history – as you will hopefully see – is full of these turning points, some good, some bad!

Hope you enjoy the Podcast