The year is 919 AD and things are not going well. The mighty empire of Charlemagne has splintered into a multitude of puny kingdoms. Its feeble rulers are being pushed around by their formidable barons. The frontiers are breached. In the north the Vikings and Danes are ransacking towns and villages along the coasts and even deep inland. In the east the Slavs are burning Hamburg. And in the south the most terrifying of them all, the Magyars, a steppe tribe like the Huns and the Mongols, are marauding all the way from Bavaria to Northern Spain.
Cometh the time, cometh the man/woman?
30 second summary
Out of the ruins of the Carolingian empire a new polity emerges. It is not yet Germany, but it is no longer a pan-European Frankish empire. King Henry the Fowler elected by barely half the country forges a viable kingdom through cunning diplomacy and personal charm. He establishes the borders of the future Holy Roman Empire, reorganises the military and thereby society and lays the foundation for the eventual defeat of the bane of the times, the Magyar invaders
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Episode 1 – A New Beginning
Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans– Episode 1 – A new Beginning. This is the very first real episode of my podcast and I hope you enjoy it. I am massively excited. And if I sound a bit nervous it is because I am. So please bear with me, it will get better. So on with the show
In the north the Vikings and Danes are ransacking towns and villages along the coasts and even deep inland. In the east the Slavs are burning Hamburg. And in the south the most terrifying of them all, the Magyars, a steppe tribe like the Huns and the Mongols, are marauding all the way from Bavaria to Northern Spain.
One of those crumbling kingdoms was East Francia covering most of what is today West Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Its ruler, Konrad, was the last king who traced his claim back to Charlemagne himself, though it was by adoption only. After 8 years of fruitless civil and foreign wars, Conrad, exhausted and disillusioned, gave up and died. For six months the throne remained vacant.
By rights, the crown should have gone to the West Francian King Charles the Simple as the most senior member of the Carolingian family. However, the four German dukes of Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria, and Saxony agreed on one thing and one thing only, that Charles should not be king.
Ruling Charles out left only three credible contenders, Eberhard of Franconia, brother of the deceased king Konrad, Arnulf of Bavaria, and Henry of Saxony. Burkhard of Swabia was otherwise occupied in his own little civil war.
Eberhard held the greatest of the four duchies and was the closest blood relative of the last ruler, so by all accounts he ought to succeed him.
According to the chronicles, Konrad on his deathbed beseeched his brother Eberhard not to take the reign but to offer it to Henry, duke of Saxony. And it says that Eberhard dutifully travelled to Henry’s castle at Quedlinburg to present him with the crown.
That story is in equal measure cute as it is made up. Note, there were six months between Konrad’s death and Eberhard’s visit. Even though roads in 10th century Germany were pretty awful he could have made that journey in a lot less than six months. It is more likely that used this time to think through the implications of taking up his brother’s mantle. Objectively the kingdom of East Francia was a hospital pass. The king was expected to use up all his resources, including his private property, to defend the realm. At the same time, the rapacious nobles were constantly grabbing more and more of the royal domain making it ever harder to keep the ship of state afloat. His brother, despite being the richest of the dukes had failed in his attempt to unify the kingdom and became a lot poorer in the process. There was no indication that Eberhard would fare any better. So, in all likelihood Eberhard decided that it was better to pass the buck to another duke, kick back and see what advantages he could gain under the new regime.
Whether it was respect for the last wishes of a dying king or a cold-hearted weighing of options, in May 919 at the royal palace of Fritzlar, the nobles of Saxony and Franconia elected Henry, duke of Saxony to be king of East Francia.
Note that it was only the Saxons and Franconians who elected Henry, the other half of the country, namely the Bavarians and Swabians stayed away from the election. Instead the bavarians elected their own duke Arnulf to be king.
Henry’s coronation also differed vastly from Konrad’s.
Konrad had insisted on the full pageantry of a Carolingian royal investiture including being anointed and consecrated, which raised him from a humble human being to a representative of Christ on earth. Henry on the other hand decided to forego any major ceremony and certainly did not want to be anointed and consecrated as king.
Rarely has a king acceded to the throne with so little legitimacy.
- He was no close blood relative of any previous king,
- He was elected by only half of his kingdom’s barons, and
- He wasn’t even consecrated as king by the church.
Behind the low-key coronation and that story with the songbirds may have been a very clever calculation. Conrad, despite his adoption and all that Frankincense and Myrrh could not bend the dukes and bishops to his will. Henry may have more resources having pooled with Eberhard, but success was by no means guaranteed. So, by foregoing the claims to absolute dominion awarded by the church and pretending not to be really interested in the crown in the first place, he opens up the possibility of bringing the other dukes into a new political system where the king is only a First amongst Equals rather than an all-mighty ruler.
And man, did this new model and this new king do well!
Henry will achieve in 7 simple steps what all his predecessors since Charlemagne have failed so dismally at – creating a unified, lasting kingdom safe from external threats.
Step 1 – Bringing the Swabians and Bavarians into the fold
The first duke to succumb to the charms and arms of Henry was Burkhard of Swabia. Burkhard may have stayed away from Henry’s coronation but also didn’t support Arnulf. He had other concerns. Having literally just months earlier captured the reins of the duchy, he was now under immense pressure from king Rudolf of Burgundy.
However, as soon as Rudolf’s army had disappeared over the hills, Henry suddenly appeared with his forces. But no battle ensued. Instead of trying to defeat Burkhart and extract land and concessions from him Henry offered him an Amicitia, literally an agreement of friendship. Under this agreement Henry appointed Burkhart to be duke of Swabia as his representative. That meant Burkhart could now legitimately control the royal domain within his lands, appoint abbots and bishops and basically rule at will in his duchy. In exchange he had to accept Henry as king and support him in war. Basically, he received the same freedoms Eberhard of Franconia enjoyed.
Bavaria was a harder nut to crack. The Bavarians always saw themselves as something better. They were more “civilised” thanks to having been inside the Roman empire and having converted to Christianity earlier compared to the pagan, long haired and unwashed Saxons. Not much has changed there. They also had bigger guns than the Swabians.
Henry ran two campaigns, one of which brought him to the gates of Regensburg, the capital of the Bavarian duke Arnulf. Again, rather than trying to achieve a full military success and humiliate Arnulf, Henry preferred to agree terms. Another friendship treaty was signed in 921 and Arnulf gained the same rights in Bavaria over royal domains, abbots, and bishops that Burkhart gained in Swabia and Eberhard enjoyed in Franconia. Arnulf then recognised Henry as king and accepted the duchy from him.
So, within just 3 years Henry achieved what Konrad had so abysmally failed at, he had unified the kingdom, though at the expense of a huge degree of independence for the dukes.
Step 2- Acquisition of Lothringia
Having secured the southern duchies into the kingdom, Henry’s focus now shifted towards Lothringia.
Lothringia had been created as a separate kingdom for emperor Lothar under the treaty of Verdun in 843.
It comprised a strip of land going from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. It included what is today the Netherlands, Belgium, parts of west Germany including the imperial capital in Aachen, Eastern France, namely Burgundy, Alsace, Lorraine, Provence, French speaking Switzerland and northern Italy. That is basically the battlefields of every Franco-German clash over the next 1,102 years.
After the direct descendants of Lothar had died out, the southern end, including Burgundy, Provence and Northern Italy had become separate kingdoms. The Northern parts had become a duchy that moved back and forth between the Kings of East Francia and West Francia. Under King Konrad Lothringia had been lost to the West Francian king Charles the Simple. It was hence a question of honour for Henry to get it back. It included the palace of Charlemagne in Aachen making it even more desirable.
The good news for Henry was that Charles the Simple had become very unpopular in France. In 922 the nobles of France elected Robert of Neustria as the new king. In the inevitably ensuing civil war, Henry remained neutral despite having signed a friendship agreement with Charles a year before. Instead of helping he started nibbling away at Lothringian territory.
And then Charles was captured in a battle where his rival Robert had also died, leaving France without a king, Henry saw his chance and invaded.
However, the French quickly lined up behind Robert’s successor, King Rudolph and retaliated. Henry fled back across the border. In the subsequent peace treaty Henry was somehow allowed to keep his gains so far.
The next chance came in 925 when the Lothringian leaders, including duke Gilbert broke with King Rudolph of France and called on Henry for help. Another invasion resulted in a demonstration of strength but no decisive battle.
And again, Henry used his upper hand not to inflict humiliating defeats, but to sign friendship agreements with the duke Gilbert, the French king and many of the Lothringian nobles.
Under Charles the Simple Lothringia had been a separate entity with its own laws, courts, and king, who just happened to be king of either West or East Francia at the same time. Henry’s treaties changed that and turned Lothringia into a duchy that was an integral part of the East Francian kingdom, like Bavaria or Franconia. He re-confirmed Gilbert as duke of Lothringia, awarded him the same level of autonomy the other dukes enjoyed and gave him his daughter as a wife.
Having acquired Lothringia not only strengthened the kingdom, but also gave Henry enormous prestige. He now held the capital of Charlemagne in Aachen making him not just practically but also visibly the most senior leader in the ancient Carolingian empire.
Over the ensuing decades the duchies as such remained separate entities with their own internal structure and a lot of independence. The dukes may seem irritatingly powerful to the king, but they themselves were not absolute rulers of their duchies either. Like the king, the dukes needed to balance the powerful families within the duchies, ensure they feel respected, and that their advice was heard.
The title of duke was not yet an inherited one, so the king could and ultimately did replace the ruling ducal families with trusted allies or even immediate family members. That being said, he could not change duchy’s internal structure. So, these new dukes, even when they are sons or brothers of the king will represent the duchy in his dealings with the king rather than being at the king’s beck and call.
Step – 3 Building of a new military
Having created a new political structure for the kingdom ensured internal peace and led to a rapid expansion of the economy. At the same time Henry reformed and founded new monasteries that played a major role not only in learning and spiritual well-being, but also in the internal colonisation of the country that was still almost entirely covered in forests.
The biggest change however was to the military. The Carolingian armies consisted predominantly of free men who were obliged to serve a certain number of days as soldiers at their own expense.
There were some armoured knights embedded in the army, but they were still exceedingly rare and did not form their own divisions. Given the transitory nature of military service, soldiers tended to be poorly trained and equipped. That did not matter much as long as wars were mainly either civil wars or wars against other similarly structured armies in France, or Italy.
In the early 10th century the kingdom came under pressure from new and better equipped enemies, the Vikings in the north and the Magyars in the South.
The Vikings were the greatest sailors of the age allowing them to quickly deploy their forces wherever they wanted along the coasts and rivers. Once on land their advantage lay mainly in the element of surprise and well-deserved reputation for merciless cruelty. By 925 the Vikings had been raiding Northern Europe for nearly 100 years and their attack forces have become veritable armies.
Just a few decades earlier the famous Rollo and his troops had besieged Paris and were paid off with the duchy of Normandy.
The Vikings were terrifying, but they did not challenge the system as such given, they had so far not shown any tendency to stay as they had in England and France.
The Magyars were a vastly different threat. The origin of the Magyars is heavily disputed, but they may have originated near the Ural Mountains in Russia. Over about 500 years they had migrated from Northern Russia to an area that is today’s Hungary. That is why we call them Hungarians though they themselves prefer the term Magyar until today. Their military style was similar to the classic steppe fighters like the Huns and Mongols. Their army consisted almost entirely of light cavalry armed with composite bows.
The composite bow was most powerful and most unsung weapon of the middle ages. A composite bow consists of laminated wood and horn that allows for small but immensely powerful bows that can be shot from a horse. The famous English archers used single wood bows which needed to be much bigger to achieve similar power and hence could only be used by infantry. The reason English archers do not use composite bows is as so many things are, the weather. Composite bows do not work in the rain. The humidity weakens the lamination between the different kinds of wood which weakens the bow. That is probably the only reason why the Mongols never invaded Western Europe.
In the year 907 the Hungarians inflicted a massive defeat on the Bavarian duke Luitpold which opened the border into Germany. They had already made inroads into Italy. From 907 onwards the Hungarians then undertook annual raids deep into Carolingian territory raiding and plundering as far west as Burgundy, Provence, and even northern Spain. In Henry’s reign the Hungarians came through in 919, 924 and 926 and he could not do anything other than hide behind the walls of his castles. The only available military response was to catch them on their way back when they were slowed down by the wagons full of plunder.
By a stroke of luck in 926 in one of these retreat actions, Henry’s troops managed to capture not just the loot, but also a highly ranking Hungarian prince. Henry used this hostage to do what he does best – negotiate. He agreed a 9-year truce with the Hungarians in exchange for the prince and an annual tribute. This truce may have been humiliating, but Henry did not lose time. A fundamental reform of the military was needed to confront the Hungarians.
He called a royal diet in Worms in November 926 to agree two major reforms.
The first one was the “Burgenordnung”. The idea was to professionalise the peasant infantry. Instead of all peasants having to come to the aide of the king in war, out of each group of nine one was selected to do military service for them. This 9th peasant was to become a full-time soldier and move to a castle. In the castle he must build and maintain accommodation for the other 8 and their families and animals should they need to retreat. The other 8 would have to do the fieldwork on the land of the permanent soldier and store one third of the harvest in the castle. So, when the enemy comes, the population flees into the castle. There they hide out until the raiding Hungarians have gone back home. Given they have stored one third of last year’s harvest in the castle, the peasants have enough seed to sew the crops for next year. You have to remember that agriculture in the early Middle Ages was extremely inefficient. You needed about 1/3 of the harvest as seed for exit year. That meant when an enemy had raided the countryside and stole or destroyed the entire harvest the peasant not only lost this year’s crop but potentially several years of harvest. By storing a third of the grain in the castle the maximum damage was limited to just one harvest.
Henry also ordered that markets and courts should be held in these castles, making castle building even more attractive. There is a rather tedious debate amongst scholars whether Henry had the legal and political right to enforce the Burgenordnung outside his own duchy of Saxony. The answer is – probably not. However, the Hungarian invasion was a major threat to all duchies and Burgenordnung was a pretty good idea. That combined with Henry’s negotiation skills meant that most if not all dukes, counts, bishops and abbots fell in line and castles sprung up all over Germany.
This military reform was not confined to the ability to fight wars but had fundamental consequences for the social structure. By professionalising the army, the free peasant lost his right and ability to bear arms. Suddenly he turned from being a member of the conquering royal army to being a defenceless subject who needed protection from armed warriors. The armed warriors could in turn demand food and labour from the peasants. This shift did certainly not come about just through the Burgenordnung, but the Burgenordnung is the watershed where what we now call feudalism became the norm and we are moving into the middle ages proper.
Step 4 – Expansion into the East
Before Henry could use is shiny new army to oppose the Hungarians, he needed to try them out. The best place to do that was the eastern border of his own duchy in Saxony. That allowed him to catch two birds with one stone. On the one hand he expands his own domain and on the other he acquires lands he can then lease to his new armed cavalrymen. In a campaign in 928 and 929 he pushes the border towards the Elbe, including the previously unconquered areas in what is today’s state of Saxony around Dresden and Leipzig.
The following year he teams up with the duke of Bavaria and subjects the Bohemians and enters their capital in Prague.
Step 5 – The Holy lance
Having an army on earth seemed to have not been enough for Henry to dare to confront the Hungarians. What he needed now was the support from above. In 932 he held a synod of all the major bishops and abbots of his realm calling for god’s blessing in his upcoming endeavour. As part of the bargain with the lord, the synod implemented a number of church reforms, including new feast days, stricter fasting rules and severe punishment for priests who fail in their moral rectitude. Sounds like Charlemagne’s General Admonishment needed another refresher.
But the most important celestial help came from King Rudolph of Upper Burgundy. Amongst the treasures of Upper Burgundy was the Holy Lance.
So far Henry had been really good at negotiating. This one, I am not so sure. On the one hand the city of Basel is at least today, one of the richest spots on earth. The Holy Lance on the other hand unfortunately looks suspiciously like an 8th century standard Frankish lance. There is also the side issue that there are holy lances in Paris, Rome, Armenia, and Constantinople. One has to wonder what was going on in 8th century when they not only produced the fake Constantine donation but a veritable avalanche of relics. There were two notorious dealers in relics called Deusdona and Felix who sold the same saints over and over again. As far as I found out there seem to be at least 5 heads of John the Baptist. For years I believed there was a church in Sicily where they venerated a head of John the Baptist at the age of 6. When preparing the podcast, I was looking for the source of the story and it is from Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. So probably not true but if anyone of you finds evidence for it please post it on Twitter or Facebook.
Anyway, Henry swapped a city for a stick, a stick he believed will make him invincible. We will see whether that come true. Over the centuries the myth of its magical powers grew and grew and in the 12th century folklore tied it to the Lance of Longinus who pierced the side of the lord at the crucifixion. It remained the most revered of the imperial regalia and we will meet it again and again in our narrative and if you want to see it, it is in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna.
Step 6 – Defeating the Hungarians
In the year 933 Henry felt ready to take the plunge. The army was ready, the heavenly forces were appeased, and he had the Holy Lance. He summoned the people and said quote:
“Once your empire was disrupted on every side by countless dangers, but now it is free. You, yourselves know this well having laboured under the grinding weight of civil conflicts and foreign wars. And now, through the grace of the Highest Divinity, by our own labor, and by your strength, there is peace and unity. The barbarians have been defeated and subjected in service to us. There is just one thing remaining for us to do. We must join together against our common enemy, the Magyars.
I have plundered you, your sons, and your daughters, to fill their treasuries. And now I am forced to plunder the churches and the servants of those churches, leaving us naked and with no money. Consider among yourselves what should be done about this and choose.
Should I take the treasures that were consecrated to the divine office, and hand them over to purchase our redemption from the enemies of God?”
At this, the people raised their voices to heaven saying that they wished above all to be redeemed by the living and true God because He was faithful and just in all of His paths, and holy in all of His works. Promising to the king their full effort against this most vicious of peoples, they raised their right hands into the air and affirmed this pact.
So, Henry refused to pay his annual tribute and waited for the Hungarians to show up.
The Hungarians realised quite quickly that something was up. The Slavic tribes on the Elbe instead of coming along on the raid as they had done in the past, sent them “a very fat dog as a present”. The Hungarians did not have time to avenge that insult as they were too much in a hurry to get into the fight with the Saxons. As the Hungarians entered Germany proper, they found the defences stronger than expected and they lost two smaller skirmishes in Thuringia.
Then on the 15th of March 933, an army consisting of soldiers from all across the kingdom faced the Hungarians at Ried on the Unstrut river. The armoured cavalry proved its worth as did the much-improved infantry and the Hungarians fled back into their homeland. This was not the final or even a devastating defeat, but it was the first time a Frankish army had beaten the Hungarians in an open battle.
Step 7 – Expansion into Schleswig
Henry led one last campaign against the Danes in 934, conquering Schleswig and thereby bringing the threat from the Vikings to an end. Germany had always been a secondary target for the Scandinavians mainly because England and France offered richer pickings without much risk of retaliation. Germany was poorer and had a land border with Denmark meaning they could bring fire and brimstone to the Danish homes whilst the vikings were away on raids.
Henry’s attack reminded them that the latter was a real option. From then on the Danes kept to foreign shores and even went through some charade of submission to the German kings.
And that was it. Henry died of a stroke in 936 having reigned just 17 years. He achieved in these 17 years more than any Germanic ruler since Charlemagne.
He unified the Kingdom of the Germans, defined its borders that remained largely unchanged at least in the West, north and south until 1648.
He created not just the new military structure but also the new social structure that would prevail for another 500 years. He founded castles, cities, and monasteries in untold numbers, and he fought off the Vikings and the Hungarians. His authority extended well beyond the borders of the kingdom. He was recognised as the senior ruler in the ancient Carolingian realm and so he was called upon to resolve internal conflicts within West Francia, Italy and Burgundy.
But the last and final major reform came at the end.
Henry broke the damaging tradition of the Merovingian and Carolingian kings to divide their empire between their sons. He made the nobles swear to elevate his oldest son Otto to the kingship and only him. From this point forward Kings and ruling dynasties will change, the central power will rise and wane, but the kingdom as such will no longer be formally divided until the Napoleonic wars.
And that is the magic word – kingdom. What Henry did not achieve was to be crowned emperor and turning his kingdom into an empire, that will be the job of his son Otto the First, known as the Great.
Next week we will meet young Otto and follow his tumultuous first years in office where he nearly destroyed all his father had achieved. I hope to see you then.
And if you enjoyed the show, please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts and any future episodes will miraculously appear in your feed every week, promise. You can go even further and leave a positive review which would be really, really appreciated.
Just to let those of you know who have not yet had enough German history for this week, I have also posted 3 prologue episodes today. The prologue is there to give you an extremely condensed rundown of the preceding thousand years of German history before 919 that I have decided to skip for reasons I will become clear when you listen to the story.
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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!