Konrad II (1024-1039)

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Konrad II – History of the Germans
Konrad II – History of the Germans

The founder of the Salian dynastyA German history starting in the Middle Ages when the emperors fought an epic struggle with the papacy to the Reformation, the great 18th century of Kant, Goethe, Gauss, the rise of Prussia and the horrors of the Nazi regime. We will end with the post-war period of moral and physical rebuilding. As Gregory of Tours (539-594) said: “A great many things keep happening, some good, some bad” .

Episode 22 – Konrad II, Who Would Have Thought
byDirk Hoffmann-Becking

On July 13th, 1024 Emperor Henry II died without an heir. not only that, but his family has so comprehensively died out, there is not a single descendant in the male line left. Fear of unrest and civil war grips the inhabitants of the empire.

An election is called for early September, as quickly as such things could be organised in the 11th century. The upper echelons of society debate a long list of candidates before agreeing on a shortlist of just two, both named Konrad, both from the same clan of Salian Franks.

Medieval imperial elections have little in common with today’s elections. there are no set rules about the electors, the purpose is not to determine the will of the people but to unveil the will of God. Decisions are unanimous, mainly because dissenters leave before the votes are cast.

Ultimately Konrad the elder (1024-1039) a giant of a man at 2m tall is elected. He appears in all and everything the opposite of his predecessor. But that may be just appearance…

The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.

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Episode 22 – Konrad II, Who Would Have Thought
Episode 23 – Duke Ernst, Rebel and Legend
Episode 24 – Konrad II’s Acquisition of Burgundy
Episode 25 – Konrad II, the Construction of an Empire

The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.

30 second summary

The founder of the Salian dynasty was an unlikely contender to become king .He had been de facto disinherited by his grandfather who passed the leadership of the family to his uncle and later his cousin. What rescued him was his marriage to the beautiful and ambitious Gisela who brought resources and connections into the marriage. He was elected against the odds in 1024 and managed to establish his rule quickly, achieving an imperial coronation in Rome in 1027. From then on he ruthlessly expanded direct royal control, not only over the imperial church, but also over duchies, counties and abbeys. He developed the concept of the res publica, the state, being separate from and above the person of the king/emperor. He led a successful foreign policy that brought the Kingdom of Burgundy into the empire and broke the threat of a powerful Poland.



Episode 22- Konrad II, Who Would Have Thought

Hello and welcome to Season 2 of the History of the Germans – The Salians. I am really excited because this is the big one, the bit of German medieval history you really need to know about.

We start with Episode 22: Konrad II – who would have thought?

It has been a while since we stopped the narrative and so I thought we should best start with a bit of context.

We are in the year 1024 and this season will cover almost exactly a century, until the end of the Salian dynasty in 1125. This is a period of quite fundamental change, not just in the Empire but in Europe more generally.

As the economic boom of the middle-ages gains pace people begin to think beyond their next meal and a roof over their head for the night They call for an end to the constant violence creating the peace movement that emerges in France and encompasses the whole of Europe. That movement is closely intertwined with the crusades, which begin in 1095 not least as a means to channel military restlessness away from the domestic peasants to the foreign lands.

Once the physiological needs of food, water, warmth and rest are covered and some degree of safety is provided, more and more people move up Maslow’s pyramid looking for belonging, love, status, knowledge, aesthetic beauty, self-actualisation and ultimately transcendence. In the 11th century the afterlife becomes the dominating concern of everyone from the mightiest aristocrat to the lowliest peasant. Therefore, priests and clergy are held to ever higher standards to ensure the effectiveness of prayer and worship in providing access to heaven. The idea that even after your death prayers by those still alive could improve your status in Purgatory drives generous donation to monasteries in exchange for their eternal prayers. It kick-starts frantic construction activity during which the great Romanesque cathedrals of Speyer, Mainz, and Worms rise up.

At the same time increased wealth allow the secular powers to expand their military capabilities.  Stone castles sitting atop unassailable hills begin to replace manor houses and motte and bailey castles. The size of armies gradually increases, and the armoured riders of the Carolingian and Ottonian period gradually turn into actual knights.

And finally, new political entities emerge that either did not exist before or had been insignificant players on the international stage.

The most famous of such new entities to emerge is Norman England. They invade in 1066, less than halfway through the Salian period and establish a powerful entity that begins to project power beyond its own borders. England had hitherto been insignificant on an international stage, if you exclude the brief rule of King Canute.

But that is not the only state the Normans created. In this same period, a small group of pilgrims/mercenaries from Normandy managed to play the three powers in Southern Italy, the Byzantines, the Muslims and the Lombard dukes against each other until they themselves had conquered all the territories of their former employers and forced the pope to accept them as kings of Sicily.

This is also during this time of the first and only really successful crusade that created the Kingdom of Jerusalem and other crusader states. The Crusade movement was however not limited to the Near East. The kingdoms of Portugal, Lean, Castile, Aragon and Navarre conquered more than half of the Iberian Peninsula from the various Muslim kingdoms.

We have already seen the new kingdoms of Poland and Hungary appearing on the map during the 10th century. As we will see in this narrative, these polities will gain coherence and identity distinct from the empire. And another power comes into contact with western Europe, Russia, or more precisely the rulers of Kiev who forge political and marriage alliances with their neighbours.

Whilst new coherent political entities emerge around them, the French kings reach the low-point of their power under Henry I (1031-1061) when they barely control more than Paris and its surroundings. His weakness meant that not only his powerful vassals did as they liked but also smaller noblemen could become robber barons who plundered and murdered anyone crossing their land. The kingdom was sinking into chaos. His successors, Louis VI and Louis VII managed to drag the monarchy out of the hole and patiently expanded and pacified their territory so that by the end of the Salian period they were well on their way to face up against the Angevin empire in the 2 sets of 100 years wars with England.

The other key shift is in social order. The rise in economic activity gives birth to a merchant class based in the cities. That trend is most pronounced in Italy, but it also happens everywhere else in Europe. In Italy the city populations continue to clash with the bishops who often rule the city and the magnates who control the countryside. The rise of urban freedoms in Italy provides inspiration for cities north of the alps to chuck out their bishops and seek political self-determination.

If you take the 10,000 feet view of what has happened here, the striking thing is the absence of a central power. A central power that could organise the crusades, conquer Spain, provide law and order in France and clean up Southern Italy.

In 1024, when emperor Henry II, the last of the Ottonians passed away, such a central power existed. The German kingdom, by the standards of the times was a well-ordered political entity with a monarch who could command considerable resources, mainly through his control of church lands and military capabilities.

The question why Henry II’s successors did not consolidate Europe under their rule and why Europe today has this great diversity of languages, culture and history within a territory half the size of Canada is the story of these 100 years between 1024 and 1125, the hundred years of Salian rule.

Without further ado, let’s get started.

For the second time in a bit more than 20 years a childless emperor had died. First Otto III and now Henry II succumbed to his long-standing health issues on July 13th, 1024. He did not leave a succession plan. As a deeply pious man who saw his job in turning the empire into a “House of God”. In that logic, if the House would please the lord, the lord would select a worthy successor, and if he did not, then good riddance to the whole thing.

That view may have been quite saintly but must have scared the hell out of everyone else. Previous transitions of power even where the new ruler had been designated by his predecessor had caused huge uncertainty. The civil wars of 936, 955, 982 and 1002 cannot have been forgotten. The chronicler Wipo described the situation as follows:

“After the emperor’s passing the state orphaned by the loss of its father began to sway. All well-meaning men were gripped by fear though wicked men were hoping for the destruction of the realm. (and further) Since the emperor had died without offspring the magnates strived to become the first or if that fails the closest to the first, using force rather than wisdom”

The situation was kept in check through a combination of 2 factors. Firstly a date for an election was set quickly for early September, just six weeks after the Henry II’s death which is about as fast as one can organise such things in the 11th century. And secondly, control of the empire in the meantime lay in the hands of empress Kunigunde, who was well respected and had been closely involved in all imperial affairs during her husband’s reign. She, together with her extended and powerful family manage the transition as smoothly as these things can be done.

On September 4th, 1024, representatives of the Swabians, Bavarians, Franconians and Lotharingians meet in Kamba, a now lost location on the left bank of the Rhine to elect a new king. The Saxons stayed behind though they did hold a meeting amongst themselves to discuss the succession.

In hindsight the election of 1024 is seen as a crucial moment when the empire becomes an elective monarchy as opposed to the hereditary French or British monarchies.

At this point in history most elevations to kingship retained an elective element. That came from the ancient Germanic tradition of raising the most capable warrior to be lead the tribe as its king. That tradition had long been watered down, starting by limiting the set of potential electors from “all sword-carrying men” to the aristocratic elite. In France and England the kings kept designating their sons to become kings and negotiate terms with the electors until such time that elections had become foregone conclusions and were eventually replaced by pure declarations of homage. The fact that both Otto III, Henry II and henry V died childless requiring a decision about succession by the magnates, the election process remained relevant and over time became the key requirement for the elevation of the monarch. Whether the electoral principle helped or hurt the development of the empire sis another one of these open questions you may want to keep in the back of your mind as we go through the medieval emperors.

Elections were not about exercising democratic rights and determining the will of the people. Medieval imperial elections were seen as a means to unveil god’s decision who should rule. Hence the elite that made that designation had already been quite small since Carolingian times. In 887 it was expected that each of the main regions should be represented by their dukes or senior lords. But that group seems to have widened again in the 10th and 11th century and included counts and abbots who were only excluded after 1198. Wipo even acknowledges a right of Italian magnates to participate – as they had in the election of Otto III in 983 – but states they could not make it in time for the 1024 election.

Electoral colleges shrank rapidly in the 13th century and elections became more formalised over time until in the Golden Bull of 1348 codified the existing practice. It limited the electors to seven, The archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne, the king of Bohemia, the duke of Saxony, the Count Palatinate and the Margrave of Brandenburg, which with minor additions remained the case until 1806.

The 1024 election was a major gathering with most bishops, excluding the Saxons, present as well as the major dukes and counts, again, excluding the Saxons.

The election itself was not a voting process as we would recognise it, but a negotiation that ended with a unanimous acclamation. There were no rights to veto and dissenters had to leave the gathering so as not to spoil the appearance of unanimity.

Wipo describes how the magnates camped along both shores of the rhine organised by stems and negotiated through secret gatherings and envoys going from tent to tent.

How do you choose a new emperor? What are the criteria?

One concept would be descendance from a previous emperor. In 1024 there was literally nobody who descended from a previous king in the male line, which is quite an achievement given women were expected to produce children to the point of total exhaustion or death. Part of the problem was that the Ottonians consistently turned its offspring into bishops and abbesses, clearly disregarding the urge to prolong the dynasty. The second issue was that younger brothers had a habit of rebelling, which is why the childless Henry II forced his only brother to become a bishop!

It is not even clear whether blood alone would have been enough. The concept of primogeniture was comparatively new and only been introduced by King Henry the Fowler in 935 and not yet widely recognised. Henry II had claimed the throne based on being the closest descendant in the male line of king Henry I, but that was by no means acknowledged by everyone. He ultimately had to capture the throne in a coup, bypassing election.

In terms of blood relations, the closest were the two sons of the Count palatinate Ezzo who had married Otto III sister. Next up from there may be the son of the king of Hungary, whose mother was a sister of Henry II. And then you had the descendants of Konrad the red who was married to one of Otto the great’s sisters. But given that the ultimate winner of this contest barely mentioned the relation to the Ottonians, we can be confident that this was not the most relevant criteria.

But that does not mean any Tom, Dick or Harry could become emperor. Lineage is important. A future king must have pedigree and ideally a pedigree that goes bock to Charlemagne or even the Merovingians, who, as we all know, are descendants of a sea monster. That narrows it down to maybe about 500-1000  individuals in total.

Apart from that, what were the criteria. There are some general requirements for kingship like being a religious and moral person willing to defend the church, being willing to uphold the law and in particular the privileges of the elite, being merciful and being successful in battle.

These criteria are sufficiently vague that there must have been a long list of potential candidates. Over several days of negotiations that list was whittled down to just two, both called Conrad and both from the same clan. How did they arrive at just these two?

This clan did not really have a name at the time. After 1200 chroniclers called them “the Salians” and that name stuck.

The Salian family are descendants of Konrad the Red. You may remember him, he was the close associate of Otto the Great who became duke of Lothringia, then fell out with the emperor and joined Liudolf’s rebellion and, after bending the knee, fought valiantly in the battle on the Lechfeld where he died.

Konrad the Red’s direct ancestors are a bit of a muddle, but the family tradition insists on a long line of high nobility going all the way back to the great Clovis, king of all the Franks (we met him in part 2 of the Prologue). Amongst other things Clovis issued the so-called Salic or Salian law named after the most renowned of Frankish tribes of which he may have been the leader. We know the Salic law today as shorthand for excluding women from the inheritance of titles or monarchic roles. It was a lot more than that, but let’s not deviate too much. Anyway, Clovis was believed to be a Salian Frank so that the later chroniclers began calling the clan of Konrad the Red “the Salians”.

The descendants of Konrad the Red created a coherent power base around the city of Worms, about 70 km south of Frankfurt. This was probably one of the first territorial entities where a magnate consolidated the lands and rights around a specific area into one coherent entity. Up until now aristocrats would often have lands and rights spread across the kingdom, they would hold the office of duke or count in one place, whilst their private lands are in a different part of the country. This Salian territory was different and thanks to being geographically connected and its rights and privileges going fairly deep, a lot more powerful than its optical size indicates. The Salians also worked hard to keep the territory together and -other than their peers – did not divide it between male descendants – there was only ever one descendant who would inherit all. The Salians also held the office of the duck of Carinthia from time to time, though they put little effort into this post a long way away from their personal possessions.

The two members of the Salians that made the shortlist, Konrad the Younger and Konrad the Elder were cousins. Konrad the elder’s father had died when he was quite young so that the control of the Salian territory ended up with the father of Konrad the younger and ultimately with Konrad the Younger himself. Konrad the Younger was the rich and powerful one.

Konrad the elder may have been effectively disinherited, but he was not completely without means. He had rescued his finances by marrying Gisela, widow of Ernst, duke of Swabia. Gisela had the guardianship for her son Ernst II which meant she controlled the duchy. Konrad was hence well connected, not without resources, but by far the less powerful of the two Konrads.

In a smart move the older Konrad convinced the younger Konrad to agree that if either of them would be elected, the other would not contest the election. That was not the cleverest thing to do for the younger Konrad who had the resources to mount a serious threat in case of an election of the elder Konrad, whilst the elder Konrad could not realistically hope to unseat the younger Konrad. When the two Konrad’s sealed their agreement with a kiss in front of the magnates the election was settled, and the majority went for the elder Konrad as king Konrad II.

It seems the reason the elder Konrad was elected was down to the fact that he was the diametrical opposite of Henry II. Henry II may have been a very effective monarch who consolidated and solidified central power, but from the perspective of the aristocratic elite, he was a tyrant. So being the opposite was a good thing as far as the electors are concerned:

Henry II had been an exceptionally well-read individual who was brought up to become a cleric. His interest in theology had led him to pursue a rigorous definition of incest that invalidated almost all marriages amongst the upper nobility and cause untold misery for many couples. Konrad II had been trained to become a secular lord, so never learned to read or write and was unlikely to disappear down a doctrinal rabbit hole.

Henry II was a sickly individual suffering from various ailment including rather painful gallstones. Konrad II on the other hand must have been one of the tallest and physically most powerful men of his time. He was nearly 2.0m tall, had broad shoulders and was known to have ridden for 100  mileswithout stopping. To put that into perspective, at a time when the average height was about 1.69m. Charlemagne who was described as “of lofty stature was a lot shorter at between 1.8 and 1.9m tall.

Henry II could draw on the resources of the well organised and rich duchy of Bavaria when he ascended the throne, making him less dependent upon his lords for vassalage. Konrad II had no material resources in his own right. His access to the resources of Swabia was indirect and temporary until Ernst II reached maturity.

And finally, Henry II had no children, whilst Konrad II already had a son at the time of the election. As it happened, the younger Konrad had no son at the time and would ultimately not sire any male children, though obviously nobody knew that at the time.

Konrad’s opposition to Henry II was well known. He had fought in several rebellions against Henry II and only reconciled with the emperor a few years before 1024.

Now this is my interpretation based on the fundamental differences in character, resources and political position between Henry II and Konrad II. Many historians have very different views stressing continuity between Henry II and Konrad II. That view is based on the fact that Konrad II received strong support from ecclesiastical lords, first and foremost from archbishop Aribo of Mainz who had been a close associate of Henry II and heavily involved in his policy to prosecute secular lords for marrying close relatives.

We will probably never know exactly what motivated the electors in this, the first free election of a German king. There were likely lots of side-deals and promises, some of which will not be kept as many protagonists will find out shortly.

Once it was clear the pendulum would swing in favour of the elder Konrad, the archbishop of Cologne and the duke of Lothringia left the meeting at Kamba. As I said before, this is not an election that comes out with a 60/40 result. The result had to be 100% as it reflected gods will. Dissenters had to leave the assembly, which is what they did.

They had no hope in electing someone else, since the alternative candidate, Konrad the Younger had voted for his cousin. All they wanted was more privileges from the emperor in exchange for their vote. And that is what they got, thanks to some very odd behaviour of the archbishop of Mainz.

Following the election, the assembly proceeded to crown the new emperor in Mainz. As you all know, you need two things for a viable coronation, the imperial insignia and the correct archbishop. The former was procured quickly as the previous empress Kunigunde recognised the election and handed the insignia, including the Holy Lance over to the archbishop of Mainz. Aribo of Mainz was also the correct archbishop as the pope had awarded the right to crown the German king to the church of Mainz.

So, on September 8th, four days after election Konrad is crowned and anointed in the cathedral at Mainz. Who is not crowned and not anointed at the same time is the new empress, Gisela. There are endless speculation why Aribo refused to crown Gisela. The leading theory is that Aribo had refused it on the grounds that Konrad and Gisela were both descendants of Henry I and hence too closely related. That is a possible reason since Aribo was a fervent adherent of the theory that the bible prohibits marriages between relatives in the 7th degree. However, the archbishop would have known about that issue before the election he had just supported. Supporters of this theory therefore conclude that Konrad must have promised to annul the marriage immediately after the coronation, which he clearly did not do. The other theories assume some issue with one of Gisela’s previous marriages or her mother’s marriage, but run into the same problem.

Bottom line is that Aribo refused. Konrad need to get crowned asap because -as we know – being crowned transforms a human being into a representative of Christ on earth, which makes it a lot less likely to be deposed and killed. However, he would not accept the refusal to crown his wife.

The archbishop of Cologne had a lot less scruples about the imperial marriage and offered to crown Gisela. Konrad jumped at the opportunity and -in exchange- supported the bishops request to the pope to become entrusted with royal coronations from here on out. As Aribo found himself on the wrong side with the pope, the privilege was duly transferred to Cologne, so that from now on the correct archbishop is the archbishop of Cologne. That being said, some kings will be crowned by Mainz claiming the elder privilege, whilst sometime anti-kings have receive the blessing from Cologne and still end up not counting as correctly crowned. It’s complicated.

He may be elected, and he may be crowned, but he is not yet truly king. He may have bought the archbishop of Cologne with the right to crown kings in the future, but the two Lothringian dukes, Gozolo and Frederick remained in opposition. Equally the Saxons have not formally given homage.  

Konrad has to undertake a royal progress across his lands to secure support from all his nobles. It is a similar progress we have seen Henry II undertake after his coronation in 1002 and it will become a tradition for future kings and emperors.

The initial route is through Lothringia, where he did not encounter actual resistance, but still did not receive homage from the two dukes. They will come around, but not yet.

The next important staging post is the abbey of Vreden where Konrad is greeted by the abbesses Sophie of Gandersheim and Adelheid of Quedlinburg, the two sisters of Oto III. These are the standard bearers of the Ottonian and thereby the Saxon line. Their involvement in the election of Henry II had already been crucial. And again, by receiving and recognising Konrad as king, the Saxon nobles are compelled to accept him as king. And the Saxons did offer him homage a few weeks later at a great gathering in Minden at Christmas 1024. And, like Henry II, Konrad had to confirm the Saxon’s special rights and freedoms they trace back to the time of Otto the Great. These Saxon exceptionals will become the bane of the Salian regime and contribute to its downfall 50 years later.

Konrad moves on to Regensburg where he confirms his control of Bavaria, a duchy that had supported his election anyway. That does not stop him from moving several monasteries from ducal into direct royal control, in other words, nicking the duke’s assets.

In Spring 1025 we find him deep in the southwest in Konstanz where he received the homage of his Italian subjects, including the archbishop of Milan. During the previous year several players, namely the duke of Aquitaine and the king of France have checked out the situation in Italy considering putting themselves or one of their sons on the throne of Italy.  The discussions with the Italian magnates had convinced these pretenders not to push for it, at least for now.

Konrad may have felt re-assured that the Italians did not go into rebellion and elected someone else as their king, but that is not the same as being in control of the Italian kingdom.

The citizens of Pavia had used the period between Henry II’s death and Konrad’s election to burn down the royal palace in the centre of the city. This palace went back to the time of Theodoric the Great in the 5th century, if not further. It had been the centre of royal administration in Italy for centuries. The reason they burned it down is not hard to fathom. You may remember that Henry II’s troops had burned down the city and massacred its population in 1004 after the king had been attacked inside that same palace by an angry mob. Once he was dead, it was payback time.

When the citizens of Pavia appeared at Konstanz to justify themselves, they argued that they only burned the palace after Henry II was dead and hence did not insult the king or damage any living man’s property. Konrad response is quite remarkable: I know that you have not destroyed the palace of the king, as you had no king at the time. But you cannot deny that you have destroyed a royal palace. Even when the king passes, the kingdom remains like the ship remains even if the helmsman perishes. It was a public building, not a private home. It belonged to someone else, not yourselves. You have hence trespassed on another’s land and are hence subject to royal justice.”

This is a huge shift in perception of kingship. Under the Carolingian rulers, the kingdom was a private property, in the same way as a farm or a horse was a private property. The same Salian inheritance rules that require partition amongst the male heirs applied to it.Henry the Fowler already altered the legal status of the kingdom by making Otto the great his sole heir. But the idea that the sate could be distinct from the person of the ruler had not permeated by 983. Otto II had his cousin Henry the Quarrelsome incarcerated as a traitor. However, when Otto II died, he was immediately released, as he was only a traitor against the person of the king, not against the “state” (in inverted commas).

What Konrad says here is that he sees the kingdom as something that is bigger and separate from the person of the ruler, that it has its own rights that are unaffected by the fate of the person wearing the crown. This more modern notion of the state will be one of the foundations of Salians’ understanding of their role as kings and emperors. They may not always be consistent in this, but the prevailing logic is that they are acting on behalf of the state, the res publica as it is now sometimes called, not on behalf of themselves.

Apart from these exciting constitutional shifts, the discussions in Konstanz yielded a more practical outcomeq. Italy is restless and imperial power is not recognised.  Konrad needed to go down to Italy and get crowned emperor in Rome.

Other than his predecessor, Konrad went straight down to Italy in spring 1026, basically as soon as the last bit of Lothringian and Swabian opposition had caved, mainly out of exhaustion and lack of support.

In Italy he could rely on support from Aribert, the archbishop of Milan, a small number of friendly bishops and the Margrave Bonifaz of Canossa. Pretty much everyone else was opposed to imperial power. The aristocratic opposition led by the margrave of Tuscany could not build up the courage to elect their own king, they had not even the guts to call in a foreign leader as new king. But they remained in a passive aggressive opposition to Konrad, sitting on their castles sulking. Urban populations were more outspoken as we have seen with Pavia. Konrad besieged but Pavia held out until 1027 thereby slowing the royal progress down considerably.

There were even more urban riots during Konrad’s progress, most violently in Ravenna, another city hosting a major royal palace.

At this point Konrad did nothing much about the situation instead of awarding many a rights and privileges to his allies, namely the archbishop of Milan. The most significant move was transferring Tuscany to his ally Bonifaz of Canossa who now controlled a straight band of lands across central Italy, north of Rome ranging from Ferrara through Mantua, Modena, Reggio, Brescia all the way across through Tuscany.

In March 1027 he finally enters Rome and over Easter Pope John XIX crowns him and his wife Gisela as emperor and empress. As always in these tumultuous days there are violent riots in Rome that cost many lives. People fight over which archbishop leads the emperor to the church gate and even as trivial a matter as a cowhide.

Leaving this aside, it was still one of the most glamorous coronations of the Middle Ages. Two crowned kings were in attendance, Rudolf III of Burgundy and -drumroll- king Canute. Yes, this king Canute. You may have come across him in English history as the king who tried to command the waves. This story is about as misleading as King Alfred and the burned bread.canute is a truly astounding character who created a Nordic empire comprising Denmark, Norway, parts of Sweden, the southern side of the Baltic coast and obviously England. He had come down to Rome not for the coronation per se but on pilgrimage. He used to mix business and devotion to meet and honour the brand-new emperor. Apparently the two got on well and forged an alliance that included a marriage between Konrad’s son Henry and Canute’s daughter.

This was quite a journey. Within a mere three years a mid-ranking aristocrat with nothing more than an impressive physique and impeccable lineage managed to rise first to king and now to emperor. And it is not just the titles he collected he also gained a modicum of control over this empire he took over from a very distant cousin.

His trials and tribulations are not over though. Whilst he is trying to get to grips with the bewildering situation in Italy, his stepson, Ernst II of Swabia had returned to his homeland and began a more serious rebellion. A rebellion that would turn into a great legend of friendship, a mother’s broken heart and adventure in foreign lands. At the same time, the Polish ruler  Boleslav the Brave had crowned himself king, disregarding Konrad’s prerogatives. When Boleslav died, his son Miesko II did the same, bringing down the wrath of the emperor. And, most importantly there is the acquisition of Burgundy. Burgundy had been associated to the empire and its kings had often given homage to emperors, but it was never formally integrated into the empire. Its king, Rudolf III was now very old and had no male heirs, opening up the route for an almighty inheritance dispute. All this and more in next week’s episode.

I hope to see you then. And if you liked this episode, please tell your friends about it and follow the show on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts from. Note that nothing increases visibility of a show more than growth in followers.

Episode 23- Duke Ernst, Rebel and Legend

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 23: Duke Ernst of Swabia stepson and rebel.

Last week we began our new season with the unexpected and rapid rise of Konrad, a middling count of impeccable lineage but modest means to first king and then emperor. He and his wife Gisela were crowned emperor and empress at Easter 1027 in Rome. By June they were back in Germany holding a royal assembly at Regensburg. Item one on the agenda was the succession of the recently deceased duke of Bavaria. Konrad proposed none other than his son, the future king Henry III to become duke of Bavaria. It is testament to the level of authority Konrad had built in the last 3 years that the Bavarian magnates unanimously elected the 11-year old Henry to be duke.

This demonstrates more than anything the difference between Salian and Ottonian domestic policy. The Ottonians had not given any major ducal or Margrave positions to members of their immediate family after 955. The background to that was the rebellion of Liudolf that was at least in part fuelled by secular lords frustration that all routes of potential advancements were blocked by Ottonian family members. Otto I, Otto II, Otto III and Henry II would appoint members of the powerful clans, the Konradiner, the Luxemburger,, the Ezzones, the Babenbergers etc. as dukes. Some dukedoms, like Saxony had become de facto inherited positions.  To curb the power of the dukes, the Ottonians, in particular Henry II, hollowed out the duchies by shifting possessions either to the royal demesne directly or the imperial church. Another way to reducing the power was by splitting the large duchies into smaller units. Lothringia was split into Upper and Lower Lothringia. Carinthia was cut out of Bavaria and the marcher lords like the Margraves of Meissen and those of Austria were given considerable autonomy relative to their dukes.

Konrad II’s decision to make his son duke of Bavaria is a break in this policy. He deliberately goes back to the pre-955 policy of Henry the Fowler of consolidating secular power immediately within the royal family. That would provide a second leg to imperial power beyond the imperial church.

Chris Wickham points out that there is a similar development taking place in Normandy at the same time. The dukes of Normandy are consolidating their power first by expanding a church system, mainly through abbeys as Eigenkirchen that give them a strong base of military and economic resources. They then subjugate the secular lords within the duchy using these resources so that by 1066 William the Conqueror commands one of the most unified and coherent political entities in Western Europe.

It is extremely unlikely that the Salian rulers looked at Normandy as a role model or were even thinking remotely in these political terms, but as we will see in the next dozen or so episodes, one of the planks of Salian political practice is to strengthen the royal demesne by confiscating vacant fiefs for the crown and reclaiming royal possessions given away by their predecessors.

For instance, Konrad II ordered an investigation and listing of all royal rights in Bavaria. The Bavarian counts were ordered to declare under oath all assets that are owned by the crown or had been passed out of the hands of the crown. This exercise did not have anywhere near the depth of the Doomsday book, but it had a similar intention, identifying what resources were there and which of those were available to the king.

And Konrad did not hesitate to take on the most prestigious of inheritances. When empress Kunigunde died, he had all former royal possessions confiscated for the realm. The fact that they were granted to her by Henry II and that she had been instrumental in his ascension of the throne counted for nought.

This again showed that Konrad firmly believed in a separation between private and state property as he made so clear in his response to the inhabitants of Pavia. By removing royal possessions from Kunigunde’s inheritance he sets the precedent that a king cannot dispose privately over state assets – a major departure from Carolingian thinking.

Konrad’s political shift towards secular lordships as a foundation of Salian rule had sometimes been seen as a departure from Henry II’s policy of being a theocratic ruler using the imperial church to achieve his objectives.

Konrad clearly was no theologian or a “king of the monks” like Henry II. Au contraire. He had been called an “idiota” by an Italian cleric. Idiota at that time did not mean stupid, but more that he could not read and write and lacked understanding of theology.

He was still a pious man though and he started the greatest church building project since the imperial chapel in Aachen, but we rarely see him actively intervening in theological disputes as Henry II did. He formally presides over synods of bishops, but I guess he thought that most of their learned Latin disputations to be utter Gobbledegook.

That however does not mean he would let go of control over the imperial church system. Konrad is not the sort of guy who lets anything slip through his hands. He maintains Henry II’s policy of selecting and investing bishops and abbots on his command with the canonical election being a mere formality. He also continues Henry II’s support for the reform movement that continues to spread. Cluny was the epicentre of this movement that required the monks to stick to the Benedictine rule of Ora et Labora – to pray and to work. Konrad, like literally everybody at the time believed that prayers by saintly monks improved your chances to go to heaven and that the more saintly the monk, the more effective the prayer. It was therefore a king’s obligation to foster good behaviour amongst churchmen. What he and his descendants did not think about was that a reformed church would gain moral authority rivalling the moral authority of the anointed monarch who derives his right to rule from the same source the grace of God.

What Konrad was less concerned about was Henry II’s obsession with ‘incestuous’ in inverted commas marriages. You may remember for Episode 18 that Henry II together with bishop Aribo of Mainz extended the notion of what constitutes incest. These two took the view that anyone related in the seventh degree is not allowed to marry. That is a tall order, since the aristocratic families of East Francia were still few and so practically everyone, including the now reigning emperor was in breach of this interpretation of the rule. Konrad, rather than having a lengthy theological discussion about it, simple withdrew his troops enforcing the rule. In particular he ended the persecution of the Hammersteins, whose castle had been besieged by Aribo and Henry II and count Hammerstein was forced to agree to an annulment of their marriage. Once the imperial troops had withdrawn the couple got together again and lived happily ever after.

Konrad also ruled on the other great church controversy, the fight between the bishops of Mainz and Hildesheim over the abbey of Gandersheim. That had already been going on for decades when Konrad’s vote was called upon. Konrad sided with Hildesheim, which drove a last and final nail into archbishop Aribo of Mainz’s ambitions.

The man who had been the effective #3 of the realm after Henry II and Kunigunde, the man who brought Konrad to kingship and had crowned him in his cathedral of Mainz suddenly stood in the rubble of his political ambitions. The great fight against incest was over, Gandersheim lost and most significantly the right to crown the king had shifted to Cologne. In 1028 he announced that he would leave Mainz and go on pilgrimage to Rome. He never returned and died of disease in Como, Northern Italy.

Other changes Konrad II brought in were even more momentous. We are in the period when feudalism gradually takes over. The rights and obligations between lord and vassal are being defined more and more specifically. As this happens, in particular the lower nobility increasingly asserts the right in inherit their father’s fiefs, a process that gets formalised around the middle of the 11th century. These feudal obligations are hard to enforce, specifically if the vassal has managed to build one of these newfangled fortifications called castles. The vassal can always find a reason why he does not owe service and as a free man, the only way to force him is by force.

In this situation a new type of armed warriors emerges, the Ministeriales. These are “unfree” men, in other words peasants with an aptitude for violence. This peasant is trained up to the standard of the noble knights, but their status remains that of an unfree man. Hence, he can be ordered to do whatever the lord requests, can be dismissed and his sons have no direct right to take their positions. Ministeriales first appear on church lands as bishops and abbots look for ways to defend themselves against their secular neighbours without becoming dependant upon the next lot of noblemen. Under Konrad II Ministeriales enter royal service and these unfree knights become a major part of the troops the emperor can call upon, both his own ministeriales as well as those of his bishops.

All this adds up to a further concentration of power with the king, going beyond what even Henry II had achieved. That was clearly not at all what the lords who elected Konrad II had in mind. We already heard that the dukes of Lothringia, the duke of Swabia and Konrad the Younger had to be less than gently encouraged to recognise Konrad II during his royal progress in 1025.

2 years later when it had become clear what Konrad was up to, the discontent turned into open rebellion. The dukes of Lothringia did not actively participate, but it is duke Ernst II of Swabia who takes the lead, together with count Welf II of the Welf family that we will hear a lot about in this podcast and who are famously the ancestors of Queen Elisabeth II.

Ernst II was Konrad’s stepson. You may remember that Konrad had married Gisela, the widow of the duke of Swabia. She had two sons out of her first marriage, the oldest, Ernst succeeded his father as duke of Swabia. Ernst was probably 11 or 12 years old at Konrad’s coronation which means his mother’s guardianship would have ended shortly after that. What motivated young Ernst to oppose Konrad almost from the get-go is not quite clear. It might be that he just hated his stepdad. These things happen. But there are good political reasons for Ernst II to oppose his stepfather.

The big event everyone is waiting for in the 1020s is the death of Rudolf III King of Burgundy. Rudolf had no children and only three sisters, one was the mother of emperor Henry II, one was married to Count Odo of Blois and the third had been married to duke Hermann of Swabia, grandfather of our friend Ernst. Swabia and Burgundy are neighbours and their ruling families had been close since basically forever.

When Henry II was still alive, it was fairly clear that he would inherit Burgundy as the nephew of Rudolf III and proud owner of a lot more guns than anybody else. The new emperor and proud owner of self-same guns was Konrad who was not personally related to Rudolf III’s family, only his wife Gisela was. It would not be mad for Ernst to believe the game was open again and he was in with a chance to become king of Burgundy.

Therefore, step one for Ernst would be to assert his claim to Burgundy in the manner most appropriate in the 11th century, by violence. Konrad had tried to stop Ernst from going down this route by first taking him along on his trip to Italy, and when he wanted to go back home, by giving him the abbey of Kempten as a consolation prize.

Kempten, despite being gorgeous and close to some excellent skiing was not good enough for our ambitious young Ernst, now maybe 15 or 16 years old. As soon as he had come back from Italy he began an assault on Burgundian territory. He also built a castle near Zurich from where he began devastating the lands of the rich imperial abbeys of St. Gallen and Reichenau.

The plan seems ton have been to on the one hand gain supporters by handing them the land taken from the two abbeys, whilst at the same time making a statement that he was absolutely serious abut his claim to the Kingdom of Burgundy. This behaviour would have been considered completely normal and justified in the late Carolingian period, i.e., before Henry the Fowler.

So, when Conrad II called Ernst to a royal assembly I Ulm to justify himself, Ernst was happy to come. He believed that he could bully the emperor into accepting his demands by appearing with his full military might, bringing along all of his vassals he could find along to the royal assembly. And should the bullying tactic not work, he and his troops could always fight his way out of the imperial hospitality.

Whilst he is camping outside the walls of Ulm, he has a last meeting with his vassals asking them to renew their vows of support, reminding them of the Swabian nobles’ long tradition of fidelity to their dukes. He appeals to their sense of honour and promises untold glory and riches, presumably from Burgundy, should they stick with him. What Ernst did not expect is what happens next. Two counts, Friedrich and Anselm stand up and say (quote): “We do not deny that we have sworn never ending fealty to you. We are prepared to fight for you against anyone, except for one, the one who has put us into vassalage to you. If we were unfree servants of the king, and he had given us to you as your serfs, then we would have to stay with you. But we are free men and the highest protector of our freedom on earth is the king and emperor. If we abandon him, we would lose our freedoms, whish as is written, no honourable man will ever give up. On these conditions we will serve you in all your honourable and just endeavours. If however you ask us to go against our honour, we will return to where you had summoned us from ”. (unquote)

That suggests the king’s rights to vassalage penetrate through the mid-layer of dukes all the way down to all free men. As someone growing up in English or French history that would not be much of a surprise, but for me it is. I always understood that one of the reasons the medieval German emperors failed to establish a centralised monarchy like the French and English kings was that in the empire the oath of vassalage was only ever to the next lord up the food chain, i.e., the knight would pledge to the count, the count to the duke and the duke to the king, whilst in England and France all free men would swear an oath to the king. This scene shows that at least in the early 11th century, the free men felt bound directly to the king by oath, even in the empire. That will ultimately change and by the 14th century there will be a formal distinction between immediate vassals to the emperor (“reichsunmittlebar”) and those who owe allegiance mediated by their respective overlords. But for now, the emperor still has direct vassalage rights over all free men. The other interesting thing is that the unfree men have no choices to make. Whoever owns/controls them can ask them to do whatever he wants, even order them to commit high treason, as if they were not really human.

For duke Ernst, this was a major blow. Without his supporters there was no point in continuing the rebellion and Ernst surrendered unconditionally to the emperor’s and his stepfather’s mercy. The other conspirators, Welf II and Konrad the Younger gave up too. By 1028 the rebellion had collapsed.

Ernst lost his duchy of Swabia and was incarcerated in the fortress of Giebichenstein next to the city of Halle and der Saale, a castle that had already become the state prison for Henry II and would continue to hold eminent prisoners throughout the Middle Ages.

Ernst situation should now be quite dire. The Ottonians had established a “Two strikes and you are out” policy. That meant a first revolt would normally be forgiven against renewed commitment to service. Once that is done publicly, the rebellious noble would receive most, but not all of his possessions and offices back. But if the noble rebels again, it is game over. All titles and possessions are granted to someone else, and the offender will have to flee into exile to avoid being hanged.

Technically Ernst was on his second strike since he had briefly opposed Konrad’s election by force of arms in 1025. But he is released after less than a year, and it seems returned to Swabia.

This preferential treatment may well have a lot to do with the fact that Ernst was the emperor’s stepson.  Ernst’s mother, the empress Gisela was another one of these formidable early medieval empresses like Mathilda of Ringelheim, Adelheid, Theophanu and Kunigunde. Her influence and wealth had not only been instrumental in getting Konrad to the throne, but she was also his most important counsellor. More than half of the imperial charters include the opening phrase “upon recommendation of the empress Gisela”, suggesting she was instrumental in making the decision laid out in the charter. She took a lead role in the crucial negotiations with the king of Burgundy as well as taking part in synods and royal assemblies. Gisela was no pushover and clearly able to assert her wishes, one of which was for her son to be shown mercy.

In 1030 Ernst was called to Ingelheim to discuss the terms of his formal reinstatement as duke of Swabia.  Konrad had one key condition for his re-instatement. Ernst should go and persecute Werner (or Wezel) of Kyburg, one of his most loyal supporters who had kept the rebellion going whilst Ernst was in jail. The order was to treat him and all his family as enemy of the state, which means capturing and hanging them without trial.

Some sources say, Werner of Kyburg had grown up with Ernst and that they were close friends and almost brothers. But even if that was not so and Werner was just a vassal, albeit a very loyal one, the situation for Ernst is now extremely difficult. If he follows through with Konrad’s demands, what are the other vassals going to think about a duke who wipes out one of his loyal supporters, including his entire family. On the other hand, if he refuses, he will lose the duchy.

Ernst does the honourable thing and refuses. He loses the duchy and Konrad goes one step further. He gets a court of princes to convict Ernst as an enemy of the state, which makes him an outlaw or, as the Germans call it “vogelfrei”. That means anyone can kill him, steal his possessions, devastate his lands without persecution. To complete the circle the bishops excommunicated Ernst and all who followed him and order all their possessions to be confiscated.

Where is Ernst’ mother in all of this you ask? The chronicler Wipo says that the empress Gisela, though saddened by developments, gives a public commitment that she would not seek revenge against anyone following through with these judgements.

This decision has forever blackened Gisela’s name. One may argue that at this point in the proceedings there was little she could have done to rescue her obstinate son. But nevertheless it is remarkable that though her husband had de facto called for the murder of her son, Gisela remained at his side and there is no record of a cooling of the imperial couple’s relationship. These were sometimes rather unemotional times it seems.

Duke Ernst and his friend and vassal Werner von Kiburg flee from Ingelheim and began a life of outlaws.

And here the narrative splits. The legend of duke Ernst written in the 13th century tells us that Ernst and Werner embark on a journey to the holy land. This trip leads them to the most weird and wonderful lands.

The first land they reach after a terrible storm that left them disorientated. In the distance they see a splendid looking city.. As the duke and his party approach the city they find a beatific park outside where a sumptuous meal laid out on gold and silver dishes, but no-one to be seen anywhere. After they have  eaten, Ernst and Werner enter the city telling their fellow travellers return to the ship. There they saw stately palaces -beautiful, grand and strangely formed – with arches and lofty doors which were more ornate than any others and sparkled like stars. Nearby the park they had eaten they find a place which had a gold roof and skilfully fashioned emerald walls that gleamed bright green. In it Duke Ernst found a room which was gracefully decorated with jewels set in shining gold. In it was a bed trimmed with gold and pearls arranged in squares, the bedstead adorned with lions, dragons and snakes, all skilfully wrought of gleaming gold. There was also a chair made from ivory and decorated with amethysts shining red, and so on and so on. Finally they saw in the courtyard two streams, one warm, one cold flowing into a bathhouse with an arched roof of green marble. Inside gleamed two red gold vats into which water flowed through silver pipes that were cleverly arranged to supply a strong flow of either warm or cold water, whichever one wished. The vats drained off into a bronze pipe that conducted the water all across the city to clean its marble roads, since the people liked their city to look nice.  And, since there was no one in the city, Ernst and Werner decided to take a bath and then lay down for a snooze on the bed. When they woke up they began to seriously wonder which community of Russian oligarchs was living in such beautiful a city.

They put on their armour and kept watch at one of the palace’s windows. That is when they heard a strange cry, mighty and terrible which came from the plain outside the walls and sounded like the screeching of a huge flock of wild cranes. The din was very loud and frightening, as fierce a clamour as has ever been heard. The two knight retreated deeper into the palace and kept watch.

Finally, they caught side of a throng of men and women in front of the city gate. Both young and old had well formed hands and feet and were in every aspect handsome, stately people, except that their necks and heads were like those of cranes. They wore clothing of satin and silk and no fault could be found with their bodies, which, both men and women, were strong and beautiful.

These were the people of Grippia, whose king was distinguished by having the neck and head of a swan. They had just come back from an expedition against the king of India who they had killed and whose beautiful daughter they had captured to become the king of Grippia’s new wife.

The banquet laid out in the park had been the wedding banquet for his marriage, which duly proceeded. The two knights saw the beauty and sadness of the girl and decided to rescue her. Duke Ernst’s plan was to jump into the middle of the wedding party, kill the king and his retinue and fight their way back to the ship. Werner held him back from that complete madness and so they waited for the king to take the girl to the luxurious bedchamber. Once the king and 12 of his magnates had entered the bedchamber where the girl was being undressed, the two dukes fell upon them. However, as they were hacking their way to the princess the Grippians close to her stabbed her with their beaks. The knight had killed all, including the king but save for one who ran away to alarm the whole city. The princess heavily wounded lay sorrowfully, stained by her warm, red blood, for she was in great pain and near death. She promised them the riches of India if they could rescue her, but finally succumbed to their wounds.

The two knights then had to fight their way back to the gates of the city where their companions had come hearing the din of battle. So far they had not lost a single man, but on their way back to the ship they were attacked by a Grippian army on Horseback who pelted them with arrows but avoided hand-to-hand combat – Hungarian style. Only after severe losses di Ernst, Werner and their comrades make it back to their ships.

Their ordeal was far from over though. As they fled, they came close to the Mountain in the Congealed Sea. This rock draws to itself in a short time all ships built with iron nails that sail within 30 leagues of it. There was nothing to be done and the knights commended their souls to the lord and awaited their end. The rock pulled the knights ships in faster and faster. As they drew nearer, they saw a great fleet of ships all drawn to the rock. Then its power dashed their ships towards the shore with such force that all the vessels crashed against each other, and their masts collided again and again. The knights miraculously survived the falling masts and in fear jumped ship and swam to the rock. The rock was barren, and the knights began dying of hunger. And every morning two griffins would come to the island from afar and grab the knights who died in the night to take them as food to their nest. After a month there were only six knights left, Ernst, Werner and four others. Werner suggested a last daring attempt to escape. He and Ernst put on their full armour and then get their comrades to sow them up in strong cowhides. Then they were laid out on the deck of the ship for the griffins to pick them up. So they duly did and the two valiant knights were brough to the Griffin’s nest. The griffins’ young tried to get at the knights inside their armour, but after a while gave up. Once the griffins had lost interest the two knights cut open the cowhide with their swords and escaped. All of their comrades, except for one escaped by the same route to continue their journey.

They next come to the land of the cyclops where they find a great jewel that now adorns the imperial crown. They helped the cyclops in a fight with their neighbours, the Flat Hoofs. These man had such large feet that when it rained they would simply lie down, raise their legs and shelter under the cover of their enormous feet. The king of the cyclops was so happy about his help that he gave Ernst a duchy to rule and generously rewarded his followers.  Ernst was however restless and began a war with a people called the Ears, whose enormous ears reached all the way down to their feet and which they used as clothing. Needless to say, he won that war as well.

His next expedition was to the Prechami, the smallest people in the world. The Prechami lived in perennial fear of the giant armoured  Cranes that stalked their land and picked them up and ate them whenever they left the dense forest, they lived in. No surprise, Ernst and his men, valiantly supported by the Prechami army prevailed over the armoured Cranes and just asked for a few men of his race as reward.

Next up are the Caananites, a race of giants who ran an equals sized protection racket. When they decided to expand their operation to the land of the cyclops, duke Ernst urged the king to hold out. The king agreed and rejected the giants demand for tribute, who promptly send an army of 1000 giants tall as five men standing on top of each other. Duke Ernst decided to attack them inside a thick forest. Under the cover of the forests canopy the giants could not see duke Ernst’s men who cut off  their lower limbs with swords and javelins. One giant after the other fell, crashing into the forests whilst their comrades smashed everything with their rods, doing more harm to their own side than to Ernst’s cleverly protected men. The giants had to retreat, and Ernst managed to capture one of them. He healed his wounds, and this adolescent giant became his servant and friend.

After six years Ernst decided that he should finally complete his pilgrimage and travel to Jerusalem. He took the treasures he had accumulated as well as a Flat Hoof, a Prechami, one of the Ears and his giant and travelled via Ethiopia and Egypt to Jerusalem. There he prayed at the church of the holy sepulchre, fought the heathens and gave donations to the church.

Finally, he returned home via Rome and went secretly to Bamberg where the emperor was holding a diet. The day before Christmas he managed to contact his mother and they arranged to call upon the emperor’s mercy. On Christmas eve he kneeled in front of the emperor and asked for forgiveness. He brough him the treasures he had collected on his travels as well as his giant, his Prechami and Flat Hoof. The emperor was best pleased with these presents and understood that he had been misled by his advisors in banning Ernst. And so they lived happily ever after.

That is what the legend says.

The reality is more prosaic. Ernst and Werner first tried to gather some support with French magnates but were sent packing. They then hid in a wilderness that was called the Black Forest living of banditry. Finally, one of the soldiers the emperor had sent to capture him got hold of his horses making them immobile. He took one last stand with his comrades in a clearing near the castle of Falkenstein. Ernst, Werner and all his remaining supporters died as did the count who had pursued him. His body was brought to Constance and, after his excommunication was lifted, was buried in the church of Saint Mary. When Conrad heard of the death of his stepson, he is supposed to have said: “Viscous dogs rarely have offspring” Unemotional times indeed.

The duchy of Swabia first went to his little brother Hermann who died young and was afterwards awarded to the heir to the throne, king Henry III.

That is all we have for you today. Next week there will be no more Flat Hooves and Prechami, but cold, hardnosed politics. We will look at how the biggest political question of his time, the succession in Burgundy will be handled. We will also hear about the wars against the would-be king of Poland and the actual king of Hungary.  I hope you will join us.

Episode 24 – The Acquisition of Burgundy

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans, Episode 24 – Konrad II’s acquisition of Burgundy. I know, you have opened this with some trepidation thinking, is he going to tell some more weird legends again or are we getting the podcast we have signed up for? No worries, this episode will be entirely fact based. I still hope you enjoyed meeting the king of Grippia and the Flat Hooves and if not, I am sorry for taking away 7 minutes of your life that you will never get back.

But now, as promised, let us go for some hard-nosed dynastic politics. As you may have heard in the last few episodes, there is a major political issue brewing in the background since around 1000. The last king of Burgundy, Rudolf III had failed to produce any offspring so that the vultures have been circling the kingdom for most of his 40-year reign.

Before we go into the intricacies of the Burgundian succession, let us talk first about what Burgundy is. This of you with exceptional memory may recall episode 4 when we discussed the three different Burgundies. But since I myself can barely remember how it works, here it is again.

The name of Burgundy goes back to a Germanic tribe that occupied a territory comprising more or less the Italien region o Piemont, French speaking Switzerland, the current French regions of Bourgogne-Franche Comte, Rhone Alpes and Provence, Alpes Cote d’Azur. The area kept its name but went through multiple hands including being the core territory of the kingdom of Lothar created in 843. After the kingdom of Lothar had fallen apart in the late 9th century, the area of Burgundy broke up into three parts. The first one is the region we today know as Burgundy. That became the Duchy of Burgundy, which, to confuse everybody, is not part of the kingdom of Burgundy. The kingdoms of Burgundy were originally two, upper and lower Burgundy. These were united under king Rudolf II with a lot of help from Henry the Fowler and Otto the Great in the early 10th century.

This kingdom looks quite impressive on the map, but its kings were weak. Similar to the kings of France the Kings of Burgundy had little control over their vassals. Thietmar of Merseburg said about Rudolf III that there was no king like him. All he has is a title and a crown. He awards the bishoprics to anyone the local magnates demand and there is no count who does not act as independent as a duke. The king really only controlled the region around lac Leman, centred on the bishoprics of  Geneva, Lausanne and Sitten, the estates of Vevey and Orbe and the monasteries of St. Maurice, Romainmoitier and Peterlingen.  Yes, this is today real estate worth Quasillions, but in 1030 it was a nice but ultimately modest possession, the value of which lay mainly in the control of alpine passes. The local magnates, including the future dukes of Savoy and counts of Provence acknowledged a nominal overlordship of the King, but otherwise did as they pleased, very similar to the situation in France more generally. The absence of a central power allowed for constant feuding between lords and the emergence of proper robber barons, all of which put immeasurable pain on the local peasantry. 

At the same time the kingdom came under external pressure, mainly from the duke of Burgundy, Otto-Wilhelm, who was the son of Adalbert, former king of Italy and adversary of Otto the Great in his Italian wars. If you want to fully geek out on Burgundies, here is a fourth on. Otto-Wilhelm at some point lost the duchy of Burgundy and was reduced to a territory around Besancon, which he christened the County of Burgundy. Since the County  was part of the Holy Roman Empire, rather than France, it became called the Free County of Burgundy or in French the Franche Comte. Ok., let’s leave it here, the Franche Comte will not be on the test.

I guess from what I said so far it is clear that the Kingdom of Burgundy was not a great prize. But, whoever took it on would gain prestige, a title and controlled access to Italy. The latte ris what mattered most to the emperors, since owning Burgundy means that the king of France would not be able to deploy troops into Italy.

Because of this strategic situation the emperors have been involved in Burgundy since the 930s. Family ties were close, most famously as the formidable Adelheid, wife of Otto the Great, was the daughter of a previous king of Burgundy. Equally, the mother of emperor Henry II was a daughter of again another king of Burgundy. In line with family ties, the emperor would regularly provide military support to keep the rickety kingdom going and in return the king of Burgundy would regularly attend the imperial court.

For all intends and purposes, Burgundy was a vassal state of the empire, but that relationship had never been formalised as such until 1016. In that year emperor Henry II made the support in another border skirmish conditional upon Rudolf III formally promises him to make him heir. In a lavish ceremony Rudolf handed crown and sceptre of Burgundy to Henry II, who handed it back hem, which should be understood as Rudolf becoming Henry II’s vassal.

Had Rudolf III had the decency to die before his nephew Henry II, all would have been ok. As it happens the old codger clung on to life, whilst Henry II though 20 years younger succumbed to his wide range of illnesses.

Now we have a problem. Henry II could claim Burgundy both on the grounds of being its overlord and the fact that he is Rudolf’s nephew and hence one of his closest relatives.

Konrad II has no such personal claim. Yes, he is sort of related since his wife Gisela is a niece of Rudolf III, but to be frank, there are another two nieces and a sister, al married to powerful aristocrats. One of these powerful aristocrats is Odo, count of Blois and Chamapgne, one of these quasi-independent French magnates whose lands lay just north of Burgundy.

Konrad – as always – tried to get on the front foot. His argument was that he may not have a personal claim, but that the empire had an institutional claim on Burgundy. We already heard that view of the empire being a separate entity from the emperor when Konrad told the citizens of Pavia off for destroying the royal palace. Here it is again, just with a lot more significance than in the Pavia example.

As ever, subtle legal arguments work a lot better when they come with sharp and pointy things attached. Konrad may not have been a legal scholar of great renown, but he did know how to yield a sword. Already in 1025, so within months of his coronation he occupied Basel, a city Rudolf had occupied immediately after Henry II’s death. He took the opportunity to appoint a tame cleric as bishop of Basel without even consulting with Rudolf who was nominally required to acknowledge the appointment. That demonstration of force plus intervention by the actual heiress, empress Isela, had the desired effect, an agreement was reached, and Rudolf showed up for Konrad’s coronation in Rome in 1027.

As agreed, Rudolf ordered the insignia of the Burgundian crown to be sent to Konrad upon his death, which duly happened on September 6, 1032. So far, so good.

Where things became unstuck was when it came to the Burgundian nobles. They had gotten so used to a feeble king, the last thing they wanted was the powerful and energetic Konrad taking over. They very much preferred the much less resourceful Odo of Blois who was invited to come to Burgundy. It seems Odo was a bit unclear what he was really doing there. Instead of aiming for a quick election and coronation, he wandered around Burgundy collecting the odd acclamation, but mainly plundering and trying to expand his territory.

Hesitation is something Konrad II did not suffered from. As soon as he heard of Rudolf’s death, he jumped on a horse and rode hell for leather to Burgundy. The slight difficulty was that he was on the Polish border at the time, a good thousand kilometres from Burgundy. But by Christmas he had made it to Strasburg and on February 2nd he gathered his Burgundian supporters in the abbey of Payerne/Peterlingen where he was duly elected and crowned king of Burgundy.

That was a smart move as Odo’s wavering meant he was the only crowned king who could claim legitimacy. But legitimacy alone does not equate to control and Odo had captured a large number of strongholds across Burgundy. Konrad got to work besieging one after the other.

It was a miserably cold winter, a winter so cold that the horses would literally freeze into the ground over night so that they could only be freed with axes and stakes. The men were constantly frozen so that their faces were constantly white with frost and even the beardless adolescents looked like old men. One man who could not find help to free his horse killed it and skinned it upwards as it stood. Basically, it was like Stannis Baratheon’s attack on Winterfell.

Other than Stannis, Konrad knew when enough was enough and retreated to Zurich, where he received homage from some more Burgundian magnates who were disappointed with Odo’s indecisiveness.

The other move was for Konrad to sign an agreement with king Henry I of France. Not that Henry has much power or resources given France has been in a more or less perennial civil war following the long and disastrous reign of his father Robert II. In the 1030s we have the houses of Anjou and Blois fighting over supremacy whilst the king looks on. At this particular point in time Henry had sided with Anjou so allowed Konrad to enter French territory to devastate the homelands of Odo. Seeing his home under threat Ode had to hurry back home, giving up positions in Burgundy.

In the next year, 1034 Konrad finally put the boot in and attacks Burgundy on two fronts. One army is coming down from Germany, whilst his allies in Italy, the archbishop of Milan and the count of Canossa brings up an Italian army. I am not sure, but that might be the only time the Italian possessions of the empire ever provided support to imperial policy outside Italy.

Odo of Blois had to give up all his possessions in Burgundy and return home. He remained hostile until he attacks again in 1037 but gets comprehensively beaten by the duke of Lothringia in a battle where Odo himself dies.

And with that Konrad is universally acknowledged as ruler of Burgundy. However, he immediately passes the crown to his son the future king Henry III who actually has a hereditary claim to the throne through his mother Gisela.

Henry III is now by far and away the most powerful secular lord in Germany. He is duke of Bavaria, duke of Swabia after his stepbrother Hermann had died and now king of Burgundy. He controls all alpine passes, which means he is de facto in control of imperial policy in Italy as well. This shows more clearly than anything how Salian policy differed from the Ottonians who usually appointed local lords as dukes into vacant duchies.

And, from then on until 1648 the lands of Burgundy, which comprises most of South-Eastern France including the Provence, the lands around Lyon, Macon and Besancon remained part of the Empire. How much use Burgundy was is debatable though. Neither Konrad nor any of his successors will make serious attempts to streamline the Burgundian kingdom in the same way they did Germany and tried in Italy. The magnates of Burgundy remained semi-independent, and the only effective control was over the royal heartlands around Lac Leman and the main alpine passes of Mont Cenis and St. Bernard. That kept the French out of Italy, which was the main objective in the first place.

As for the lands of the kingdom of Burgundy itself, in particular Provence, Franche Comte and Alsace, they kept a somewhat separate status even after they had come under French suzerainty giving them a distinct character.

Before we leave the western frontier, there is another topic that always plays a role in the region and that is Lothringia. As you may remember the very large duchy of Lothringia had been split into two by Otto the Great in the 950s. Since then, the respective dukes of upper and lower Lothringia playing a complex game of three-dimensional chess between the Emperors, the local powerful families like the Luxemburg’s and the powerful bishops.

By 1030 the counts of Flanders had to be added to the mix as they built up another coherent territorial polity just across the border in French territory. Amidst all this the duke of Upper Lothringia died without a male heir. He had two daughters who became wards of the empress Gisela but no son. For once he did not invest his son Henry III with the vacant duchy. 

Instead, Konrad decided that Lothringia needed to be streamlined and so reunited it under Gozolo, the duke of Lower Lothringia. That created on the one hand an entity that could assert itself against the rising powers of the counts whilst being able to repel attacks such as the assault by Odo of Blois in 1037. On the other hand, it created a new centre of power that could challenge the emperor – swings and roundabouts.

So much for the western border.

The East and in particular Poland had been a major challenge to imperial power pretty much since the Slavic uprising of 983. Henry II despite being the most domestically powerful German ruler since Otto the great had comprehensively failed to control Boleslav the Brave. Henry, saintly or not, had even allied himself with the pagan Liutzi against the Christian poles to no avail.

Since 1018 Poland and the empire maintained a somewhat uncomfortable truce which allowed the empire to focus on Italy and domestic affairs, whilst Boleslav continued his astounding string of successes by invading the Rus and occupying Kiev.

When Henry II died in 1024 Boleslav used the opportunity to again assert his claim to be a king, an honour he believed had been awarded to him by Otto III at the congress of Gniezno. Henry II never acknowledged the title and consistently referred to him as duke Boleslav.

Irrespective of whether he was already king or not, Bolelsav had himself crowned king of Poland sometime around the end of 1024 or early 1025, i.e, during the period when Konrad II was ascertaining his position in Germany.

Boelslav died shortly afterwards and was succeeded by his son Miesco II who had himself crowned in December 1025 in Gniezno. Conrad protested, but was at that point preoccupied with consolidating his rule in Germany and the upcoming expedition to Italy.

Whilst Konrad was in Italy the German opposition around Duke Ernst of Swabia and the Lothringian dukes tried to build links to the King of Poland. Around 1026 the duchess Mathilda, mother of Konrad the Younger and wife of Duke Friedrich of Upper Lothringia sent Miesco a valuable manuscript which in one of the pictures shows Miesco enthroned as king. In the accompanying letter she praises him for his excellent education, honour and charity and calls him the invincible king, who has been granted the royal diadem by the grace of God. Despite this combination of flattery and high treason however did not yield a material support to Duke Ernst’s rebellion.

Only by 1028 did Miesco II act. What has driven that is unclear, but it may well be the developing links between Konrad and King Canute that would culminate in the marriage of Henry III with Canute’s daughter Gunhilda 8 years later. Remember that Canute’s kingdom comprised not just England, but Denmark and large parts of the Baltic coast, making him Poland’s neighbour in the north.

Miesco begins a kind of Guerrilla war with Konrad where he avoids an open battle and lures the imperial troops into the endless swamps and forests of Poland where their horses are useless and armour cumbersome. But despite his smart tactics, success eluded him. Whilst his father managed to put the fear of god into all his neighbours, expanding Poland at the expense of the empire, Bohemia and the Kievan Rus, his son lacked the authority required. Furthermore, he was not the only son of Bolelsav. His brother -and I will now properly embarrass myself- called Bezprym had contested the father’s will and fled to Russia.

His three enemies created a powerful coalition taking back the lands Boleslav had gained. The Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus attacked Poland from the North with the intention of putting Bezprym on the throne. The duke of Bohemia came from the south taking back Moravia and the emperor took back the county of Lusatia that Henry II had to grant to Boleslav.

In 1031 Miesco was expelled from Poland and his half-brother Bezprym was put on the throne by the Grand prince of Kiev. Bezprym immediately reconciled with the emperor by sending him the royal insignia of Poland thereby renouncing the royal title. However, his reign did not last long. There are reports of riots caused partially by Bezprym’s persecution of Miesco’s followers and he was murdered after just a year. Miesco II came back to Poland in 1033 but gave up his hostility towards the empire. He submitted to Konrad at a royal assembly in Merseburg where he gave up his pretensions of kingship and reverted to being a mere duke and gave up all claims on Lusatia.

Konrad ordered Poland to be split up amongst the three surviving members of the Piast dynasty. That separation did not last long as Miesco II’s two contenders met a violent end. But after the upheaval of the last decade, order was almost impossible to restore. The peasants revolted and aristocrats expanded their positions. When Miesco II died, his wife and little son, Kazimir, fled to the court of Konrad II. Kazimir made several attempts to regain control, which initially failed. We will talk about Kazimir’s return to the throne when we talk about Henry III’s reign.

As for Konrad, he effectively broke the Polish hegemony of the eastern lands and recovered Lusatia. This is something his predecessor Henry II had been unable to do, though his adversary was Boleslav the Brave, one of the most accomplished soldiers and politicians of the age.

Management of the Polish border was given to the last descendant of Margrave Eckehard of Meissen. He is most famous for being married to Uta von Ballenstedt, whose sculpture on the cathedral of Naumburg is one of the most recognisable pieces of medieval art. In the 1930s she was appropriated both by the Nazis as the ideal Arian woman and by Walt Disney as the Evil Queen in Snow White. When Umberto Eco was asked which woman of European art he would be most like to spend an evening with, he replied: In first place, ahead of all others, Uta of Naumburg”. I will piut a picture of her in the blog on the website and you can make up your own mind.

The issue with the countries on the eastern side of the empire is that they are a system of communicating vessels. If one goes down, another goes up. So when Poland went down, Bohemia came up. The duke of bohemia, Udalrich, had benefitted materially from Miesco’s weakness and recaptured Moravia, which had been lost to Boleslav the Brave 20 years earlier. He even managed to capture Miesco when he had to flee from his half-brother. This rise in Bohemian power caused concern in the empire, so when by 1033 Miesco and Poland had become embroiled in their internal fighting, Konrad sent an army under the nominal command of his son Henry III to Bohemia. Udalrich had to submit to Konrad who deposed him. Bohemia was split up again and Udalrich was replaced by his brother Jaromir, whilst Moravia was given to Udalrich’s son, Bretislav. By 1034 Konrad changed his mind upon pressure of Bohemian magnates and gives Udalrich the duchy to rule jointly with Jaromir. No prizes for what happen next. Udalrich takes over the whole of the duchy and blinds his brother Jaromir. That is not quite what Konrad wanted, so he would have invaded Bohemia again had not the sudden death of Udalrich solved that problem. Udalrich’s son, Bretislav, was made duke of a now reunified Bohemia. He paid homage to Konrad, provided hostages and promised to help with an expedition against the Slavs.

Yes, the Slavs, or more precisely, the Liutzi, former allies of henry II were still around. Though they paid tribute to the empire, they were still independent and largely pagan. With Poland and Bohemia largely under control the natural next political step had to be to strengthen control over the Slav lands between the Elbe and the Oder.

There was however a real problem in justifying an attack. The Liutzi had been allies and were paying tribute. There were regular raids by probably both sides into each other’s territory, but assigning blame was difficult. In 1033 a Saxon Count Liudger had been killed by the Slavs together with 40 of his comrades. The Slavs claimed that it was the Saxons who had provoked the fight, and they had only acted in self-defence.  As there were no Christian witnesses, the emperor, on advice from his princes, proposed to determine the veracity of the respective claims through a trial by combat.

The Saxons put up a fighter who was full of the Christian faith, but, as the chronicler Wipo said, did not take seriously that God is the truth and decides all and everything in his proper judgement. The heathens on the other hand put up a fighter whose one and only focus was the truth. The Slav fought hard and fair until the Christian defender was hit and fell.

The judgement was clear for all to see, there was no just reason to go to war against the Liutzi. The Saxons and Konrad had to abandon their expedition. To pacify the border, Konrad built a strong fortification at Werben on the Elbe River. The following year they finally got their casus belli. The Liutzi it says had taken the castle of Werben by treachery and killed or captured the garrison left there by Konrad. Whether that is true, or we have an early version of the Gleiwitz incident. In any event, Konrad mobilises his army and enters the territory East of the Elbe River. As his army marches around in the lands of the Liutzi, they burn and devastate the lands but leave the fortifications and towns alone.

The emperor is not shy getting his own hands dirty. He performs great feats of military courage, still fighting when up to the elbows in swamps and leading his men from the front. I probably have not made enough of the fact that Konrad is the first emperor since Otto II who was leading his men in battle. His bravery and quite frankly astonishing physique must have reminded his court of the warrior kings of old and provides a strong contrast to the sickly henry II and the emaciated Otto III.

With his warrior credentials came a taste for cruelty, specifically towards the pagans. Based on a probably false accusation the pagans had desecrated a wooden crucifix by beating it with fists, torn out the eyes and cut of hands and feet, Konrad proceeded to apply the same treatment to actual humans, and not just a few of them.

It is hard to get an understanding how contemporaries saw these kinds of events. It is interesting to note that Wipo, who was writing a eulogy of Konrad and always, always errs on the side of glorification of the emperor is uncustomary hesitant about this episode. First he emphasises very strongly that the Liutzi were in the right and that the Saxons had provoked them. And when it comes to describing Konrad’s activities he does not – as usual – describe it as the eye witness, he actually was, but refers to a poem written by someone else who declares Konrad an “Avenger of the Faith”. I cannot shake the thought that Wipo, and probably many others, felt uneasy about these murderous expeditions.

And in the end, these campaigns were not designed to integrate the Slavs into the empire. All they were meant to do is increase the tribute they were paying. Clearly not Konrad’s finest hour.

Before we close the narrative on the eastern frontier one last thing about Denmark. As mentioned before, Konrad developed a close relationship with king Canute, ever since the two men had met at Konrad’s coronation in 1027. This culminates in the marriage of Henry III to Canute’s daughter Gunhilda who was called Kunigunde in Germany. It had taken a little while for this marriage alliance to come together as Konrad had initially attempted to find Henry a bride in Constantinople. Several missions had failed to produce a suitable candidate, not so much out of reluctance of the Byzantine court but more out of a lack of suitable females. The ones with sufficient blood link to the emperor were too old and Konrad was not prepared to settle for another Theophanu (or Theophano as I am reliably informed, she is called in Greek).   

That being said, Gunhilda was not second best. The marriage was important enough for Konrad that he offered a truly royal present to king Canute, the whole county of Schleswig just across the border from Denmark. This is the beginning of the Schleswig Holstein question, a question so complex Palmerstone is alleged to have said in 1864 that only 3 people ever understood the Schleswig Holstein Question, one was the Prince Consort who was already dead at the time, a German professor who had gone mad, and Palmerstone himself, but he had forgotten. 

And here is my ambition for the Podcast. When we get to the war over Schleswig Holstein, e will all collectively understand the Schleswig Holstein question, ideally without going mad in the process. But until then is still a long way to go. Next episode we will conclude the reign of Konrad II, discuss his second Italian expedition and look at more examples how Konrad’s idea of the res publica manifests itself, putting the needs of the state above the commitments and relationships of the individual. And we will take a look at the greatest of Konrad’s legacies, the magnificently beautiful cathedral of Speyer, a building that will replace the imperial chapel in Aachen as the largest building North of the Alps. All that next week. I hope to see you then.

Episode 25 – The Construction of an Empire

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans Episode 25 – Konrad II, The Construction of an Empire. Before we start, I have updated the HistoryoftheGermans.com website and you can find separate pages for the Salians and Konrad II with transcripts, some interesting pictures and maps. Take a look, it is worth it. You can also subscribe on the website and I will email you every time a new episode comes out.

Last week we followed Konrad’s great acquisition of Burgundy and his sometimes brutal pacification of the Eastern border. Today we cast our eyes south, first to the south-eastern corner made up of Hungary, Croatia, the duchy of Carinthia and Venice and then we shall look at core Northern Italy where Konrad will again shift the focus of Imperial policy. We will close with a look at the kingdom of Konrad at the end of his 15-year reign, the re-definition of kingship, the social changes that are now under way and the acceleration of construction activity that left us with the great cathedrals of Speyer, Worms and Mainz.

But let us start with the South-East. This is a place that has some significance to Konrad in so far as his family had traditionally held the duchy of Carinthia which often included the March of Verona. Carinthia is more or less the eastern border of the empire against Hungary and Croatia, stretching from Vienna to Trieste. The March of Verona is then Northern Italy, stretching from Aquilea to Verona including the Brenner pass. There is a map on my website where you can see it. The duchy itself had a fairly weak internal structure, in particular the Babenberger counts of Austria and the Patriarch of Aquilea were pretty much independent. Equally the Italian cities in the region began to assert themselves.

That may have been the reason the Salian family was never hugely invested in their duchy in the far south-east, so put up little resistance when Henry II took it off them and gave it to a certain Adalbero, member of another aristocratic clan. Even though Carinthia did not matter that much, Konrad still held a grudge against Adalbero and just waited for his chance to take Carinthia off him.

That however has  to wait. For now, Konrad needs Adalbero to deal with another problem – the axis Venice/Hungary.  We have not talked much about Hungary these last few episodes so let me put you back up to speed.

By 1030 the king of Hungary was still Saint Stephen who had taken power in 997 and had been baptised probably by Saint Adalbert sometime between 997 and 1000. In 1000 he was crowned king with a crown sent to him by Pope Sylvester II, the great friend and tutor of Otto III. Stephen seems to have received permission from emperor Otto III, which suggests he would have had to accept the emperor as his overlord. However, Hungarian sources deny that vigorously and, should there have been a concept of overlordship by 1030, it was not of much use to Konrad.

Conflict between Konrad and Saint Stephen emerged over the inheritance of Henry II. Stephen had married the sister of emperor Henry II which made his son, Emmerich, a theoretical contender for the throne. If he had ambitions to that role it did not make it into the chronicles since he does not feature as a candidate in the election in Kamba in 1024.

Apart from the imperial crown, Emmerich had a justifiable claim to the duchy of Bavaria, thereby standing very much in the way of the elevation of Konrad’s son Henry to the ducal title. Whether it was a dispute over the rights to the Bavarian title or escalating border skirmishes we do not know, but what is fact is that Konrad raised a large army to subdue the Hungarians. That effort ended in a total fiasco. Stephen prevailed and even occupied Vienna in 1030. Konrad may have wanted to have another go, but 13-year old Heinrich, or more accurately his tutor and regent for Bavaria, the bishop of Freising, signed a peace agreement with Stephen giving away a stretch of land to Hungary, something that irritated Konrad a lot.

The Hungarian problem largely resolved itself for now when Emmerich died causing a crisis of the succession after the elderly Saint Stephen.

With Hungary neutralised, Konrad no longer needed the cooperation of Adalbero of Carinthia. Time to grab another duchy for the family. This time the power grab was totally blatant. Rather than waiting for the current incumbent to pass away peacefully, Konrad called a court in Bamberg in 1035 where he made a not further detailed accusation against Adalbero. A later chronicler claimed it was for high treason because Adabero encouraged the peace with Hungary in 1031. But that is a slippery slope since the actual signature on the peace treaty was that of Konrad’s beloved son and Hope of the Empire.

It seems the jury of nobles called to adjudicate over Adalbero were also unconvinced by the allegations and requested to hear young Henry III’s perspective.

Henry stood up against his father and said that he could not recommend a conviction of Adalbero since he was bound by oath to support him.

Konrad realised that the whole thing had backfired really badly. Like really, really badly.

If he would have to let Adalbero go free, the imperial prestige would be seriously dented which would encourage the magnates to rebel and roll back the centralisation efforts of the last few years.

Equally if he would disregard his son’s intervention and force the nobles to convict Adalbero, his son’s honour would be attacked, and he could have another Liudolf rebellion on his hands.

When Konrad heard his son taking Adalbero’s side he berated, begged and threatened him until he fainted with anger. That must have been terrifying for the now 18-year-old henry to have his 6’6 father with arms like tree trunks shouting at him at the top of his voice accusing him of supporting his enemies and bringing shame and disrepute on his reign. But Henry held out.

The only thing Konrad to fall on his knees in front of the whole court and beg him under tears to reconsider. At that point henry had to concede. An emperor begging on his knees is a sort of ultimate trump card that is deployed sparingly and only to achieve the most important of objectives. His predecessors had used it too, so for instance Henry II begged on his knees for permission to create the bishopric of Bamberg. As we will see the Salians will have to pull that card a couple more times in increasingly dire situations until it finally stops working.

But in 1035 it still worked. Henry relented and the nobles convicted Adalbero of being in the way or whatever it was Konrad had accused him of. Adalbero was sent into exile where he died 4 years later. As often in these times, even heavy judgements against the head of a family does not preclude their descendants to return into their previous positions. And that is what happened here. Adalbero’s sons would later regain the duchy of Carinthia.

The duchy of Carinthia remained vacant for a year before Konrad gave it to his cousin, Konrad the Younger who after nearly a decade in the wilderness was now considered loyal. When Konrad the Younger died the duchy went to Henry III, making him duke of all of Southern Germany and King of Burgundy.

But Henry’s time has not yet come. Konrad still has one more campaign to run, this time in Italy.

If there is one thing, we know about Imperial Italy it is that it is a mess. Konrad had come to Italy in 1026 and tried to put some structure in. Like in Germany he tried to broaden the imperial powerbase by complementing the control of the church with a closer control over secular lordships. The most important of the latter was that belt across most of northern Italy from Florence to Mantua controlled by Bonifaz of Canossa. But he also sponsored other, lesser lords.

This system looked very successful from the outside. The Italians even contributed an army to support the Imperial efforts to acquire Burgundy, something that is a rarity in pretty much the whole of the Germano-Italian history.

This army consisted in one part of the troops of the secular lords, namely the margrave of Canossa. The other part were the troops of the bishops, in particular the troops of bishop Aribert of Milan. These soldiers are now the problem. To understand where the problem comes from we need to understand a bit more about the structure of the big Italian cities.

In Italy the big Roman cities had not been abandoned as it happened in Gaul but remained relevant centres of commerce even throughout the dark ages. Importantly the upper classes remained in the cities creating an urban aristocracy.  As they remained strong, control over cities did not fall to bishops merely because they were there, as it happened North of the Alps. In Italy the bishops had to fight for it. That fight concluded in the early 10th century when King Hugh of Italy awarded responsibility for the administration of the cities and their surroundings to the bishops, effectively expelling any counts still claiming control.

In the fight with the counts the bishops had to rely on an army of vassals recruited from the urban aristocracy. These were given fiefs or administrative rights like justice, holding of markets etc. This upper level of the administration became known as the Capitani, who would in turn have their own vassals who provided military or administrative services. These latter vassals were known as Valvassores. The main difference between a Capitani and a Valvassore was that the former would always be able to pass his position down to his offspring, whilst the humble Valvassore would need to be appointed, meaning he could lose the fief. Below this disunited layer of aristocrats were the urban plebs who included not just the poor labourers but also prosperous artisans and rich merchants.

The Valvassores were unsurprisingly unhappy about that situation. They did all the work but had very little security of inheritance and wealth. And that became very obvious when they came back from their glorious fighting in Burgundy. Hoping to be rewarded for their effort, they instead found little coming down to them. As the chronicler Arnulf reported, “Bishop Aribert came to lord it over all, considering his will, not that of others”.

When in the summer of 1035 another one of the Valvassores had his benefices removed without much justification, the cauldron boiled over. The rebels picked up their weapons and attacked the Capitanei and the bishop in his palace. Aribert managed to escape and mobilised an army from other bishops and magnates who were facing similar problems with their Valvassores. The Valvassores in Milan also received help from their comrades in other Northern Italian cities.

The two sides met at a place later called Campo Malo, the Field of Evil, for all the human gore that irrigated it. The ensuing great slaughter ended when the bishop of Asti, a mighty warrior fell. The bishop, disoriented by the loss of his best fighter and the decimation of his army left the battlefield.

Both parties now asked for the emperor to come down to adjudicate.

Konrad with his customary swiftness collected an army and appeared before Milan in 1036. Konrad took one look at the situation and concluded that the group he cared about most were the Valvassores, since they were the actual soldiers Konrad would need. Aribert was understandably unhappy about that and when the next morning the urban plebs rioted it is not hard to figure out how that has come about.  Konrad had to retreat to Pavia and called Aribert to a royal assembly to defend himself Aribert showed up, took one look at the jury bench Konrad had assembled to adjudicate him and went “no comment” and renounced the emperor’s jurisdiction.

Konrad had him arrested and handed him over to the Patriarch of Aquilea for safe keeping. He than put him under the ban, had him deposed and replaced by one of his chaplains.

With that move he managed to turn one small problem into two very large ones.

The Milanese seeing their archbishop locked up and deposed on a pretext immediately stopped their internal bloody squabbles and united as one. Konrad now had to besiege Milan, the largest and richest city in Italy. A city that just 18 months earlier had sent him soldiers to fight his private battle for Burgundy.

If that was pretty bad, the other problem was even larger. The emperor moving against one of the most eminent bishops in Italy rattled the other bishops who had been the main pillar of imperial power to date. Konrad’s actions showed that this emperor relied much more on secular lords and knights than bishops. With their position as de facto rulers of Italy at stake a number of bishops rebelled. Konrad had summoned them to court as well where they were convicted of treason and exiled to Germany, presumably “pour encourager les autres”.

The only encouragement that produced was for the Patriarch of Aquilea to release Aribert who returned to Milan in triumph and began preparing for a siege. Konrad brough his army before the walls of Milan, but struggled to gain any advantage against the well-fortified city, an experience that will become familiar to his successors.

In an attempt to break the unified front of defenders he issued his famous “Constitutio de Feudis”. This law declares that no vassal can lose his fief except through a decision by a court of his peers. All fiefs are inheritable and can even be inherited when the vassal is at war with his overlord, provided adequate compensation is offered. And finally, the vassals are guaranteed not just the fiefs received from secular lords, but also those received from the church.

Several German historians, including Stefan Weinfurter make this out as a sensible move within a broader context of formalisation of the feudal rules and obligations. I am not sure. For me these smacks of desperation. Giving away the church fiefs is the diametrical opposite of previous imperial policy of strengthening bishops and helping them regain lands occupied by secular lords. That was a steep price to pay, not just in Italy but also in Germany where these events did not remain unnoticed.

And it did not work. Milan did not fall. The Valvassores did not flock to Konrad’s banner in gratitude. They said, thank you very much, and kept poring boiling tar on the heads of the German soldiers. When the summer heat set in, he had to retire into the mountains.

He did not come back to Milan the next campaign season. Instead, he took his forces down to Southern Italy in order to reorganise the Lombard duchies. This looked to me like an effort to create some tangible success out of this otherwise dismal expedition. The impact of his activities was insignificant in the near term, but had one very important long term effect. Konrad invested the leader of a band of Norman mercenaries with the county of Aversa.

The Normans had come to southern Italy from around the year 1000. Their journeys tended to be a combination of pilgrimage and mercenary service. Most likely they came in small numbers, between 40 and 250 in the first wave getting involved in the endless fighting between the Byzantines, the Lombard dukes and the Emir of Sicily. They would play each of these players against the other until 40 years later they will have conquered both Southern Italy and Sicily becoming the key powerbroker for the papacy.  I am pretty sure I will do a whole episode on the Normans in Sicily and the six sons of Tancred of Hauteville, because it is an amazing story.

But not yet. Konrad, having “organised” Southern Italy returned home. He had left it too late, and the army had to march through the heat of summer, and more importantly, through the malaria-infested plains North and South of Rome. Disease struck that killed many, amongst them Gunhilda, the daughter of King Canute who had married the heir to the throne, Henry.

Konrad arrives home at the end of 1038. He orders his Italian vassals to besiege Milan next spring, even if he would not be there to lead him. He celebrates Pentecost 1039 in Utrecht where he experiences great pain in the intestines, lies down in bed and dies a few days later.

Despite his last unsuccessful Italian expedition, Konrad had left a well-ordered kingdom to his son and heir, Henry III. Henry III had already been crowned king in 1028 and was duke of Bavaria, Swabia and Carinthia as well as the king of Burgundy. No Ruler had yet held such a formidable personal position upon ascension to the throne.

And the kingdom was booming. The economy benefitted from more efficient agriculture, improving climate and the opening up of trade routes from Italy to England, Poland, Scandinavia and Russia, countries that have long been on the periphery or simply inaccessible. It is not quite clear how much society changed. On the one hand the creation of the Ministeriales created opportunities for Serfs to become lords, but on the other hand, lords, both secular and spiritual became more sophisticated in managing their estates, inventing new obligations their serfs were to deliver. The peasants tried to halt this expansion and sometimes even managed to gain the king’s ear. In 1035 Konrad issued a charter where the abbot of Limburg had to list explicitly all the obligations he expects his unfree peasants to provide “so as to make sure no future abbot requests more than is his due”.

In principle peasants were not able to leave their lord’s lands, but the rapid development of city populations suggests that at least some made it out. Cities not just in Italy but also in Germany were expanding at a rapid pace, some growing five-fold in the span of a 100 years. Konrad was the first ruler who systematically fostered commercial activity by granting rights to markets, coinage, building of bridges and awarding of freedoms. Building techniques improve and the first multi-story buildings are emerging. Wooden city fortifications are being gradually replaced by stone walls. And the legal position of city dwellers improved. Konrad issued a charter for the city of Speyer whereby children of unfree peoples could become partially free when they lived in the city. The leadership of the city lay in the hands of the bishop’s Ministeriales, themselves also unfree. In the largest of the cities like Cologne and Regensburg early forms of communal government were created. We are only 35 years away from the first attempt to expel a bishop from a German city.

It is not just the cities where building activity goes into overdrive. The 11th century is the time when castles spring up all over the country. These are the seats of the aristocrats on the one hand, but also those of the Ministeriales who were given a fief to pay for their service.  

The greatest buildings of this time are the churches though. The activity already started with Henry II’s grandiose plans for Bamberg or his friend Meinwerk’s privately funded building program for Paderborn. But under Konrad and his successors this is going into overdrive. The cathedrals of Starsburg, Mainz, Worms, Wuerzburg, Eichstaett, Hildesheim, and Hamburg to name a few were completely rebuilt. In this episcopal cities the activity is not limited to the cathedral. Whole cities are remodelled in the form of the cross, like Utrecht, Minden and Trier with secondary churches and abbeys punctuating the endpoints. In Cologne, Constance and Eichstaett the bishops are attempting to replicate the topography and holy sites of Rome. Bishops also build sumptuous palaces that re needed to host the emperor who would stay more and more in bishops’ palaces rather than his own Palaces of Pfalzen on his perennial travels across the realm. Some cities turn gradually into sacral landscapes like the temple cities of ancient Egypt. There was such attention to detail that Meinwerk would send one of his abbots to Jerusalem to take exact measurements of the church of the Holy Sepulchre to rebuild it in rainy Paderborn.

Who built all this? The villeins, who else. There are stories of bishops driving their peasants to complete exhaustion, neglecting the sowing of crops leading to famine the next year. Bishop Benno of Osnabrück was known for beating up his peasants if they refused to work. I was not sure about that comparison to ancient Egypt, but now it sounds quite plausible, doesn’t it.

But the crowning glory of Salian construction frenzy is undoubtably the cathedral of Speyer. Speyer is a modest city of 50,000 inhabitants on the left bank of the Rhine south of Frankfurt roughly on the level of Heidelberg. It is part of the heartland of the Salian family possession near Worms. Though it had a bishop since 346 AD at the time of Konrad’s accession of the throne, it was a poor bishopric, its church old and decrepit, was on the verge of ceasing to be a bishopric and tiny with maybe 500 inhabitants.

Konrad, who had seen the splendour his predecessor had lavished on Bamberg wanted a similar monument to his reign. Speyer had the great advantage of already being a bishopric, even if it wasn’t a very prestigious one. That would save him the hassle of begging his bishops for permission to create a bishopric from scratch.

So right from the get go Konrad grants Speyer privileges and supports. However, other than Bamberg, the bishop himself gets only modest help. All the resources are going into the construction of the enormous new church. Even the layout of the city differs from the sacral landscapes actual bishops are building. All roads are aligned to the main façade of the church, a bit like absolutistic rulers in the 18th century designed their cities with streets radiating away from their Palace.

Equally the design differs considerably from Henry II’s Dom in Bamberg and Charlemagne’s imperial chapel in Aachen. These were buildings you entered from the sides, with all four, or in Aachen’s case, eight sides of similar length. They were places for people to congregate and worship together.

Speyer is different. It is clearly aligned from West to East. When it will be finished the main nave will be 134 metres long and 33m high, drawing the eye to the elevated eastern Choir. In Konrad’s design concept that choir would sit on top of a crypt whose entrance would open out to the main nave. The first thing a visitor would see as his eyes are drawn to the Eastern end would be the entrance to the crypt. And that is where the funeral monument of Konrad was to go. It is actually still there, though the crypt had now disappeared under the floor of the Cathedral.

When Speyer Cathedral was finished in 1101 it was, together with the abbey church of Cluny, the largest building in Europe. It still stands today despite some ill-fated restorations and a re-romanisation in the mid-20th century, but even then, you can sense the immense scale of Salian ambition.

And Salian ambition is what we will hear more about as we go through the next episodes. Next week we will look at the reign of Henry III, the son of Konrad. IN many ways he is the opposite of his father, well read and the emperor that will turbocharge the program of church reform emanating from Cluny. Like Konrad he will expand the powers of the monarch, never yielding ground to foreign or domestic adversaries. Let’s see how he can manage the resulting tensions with his magnates. I hope you are going to join us again next week.  

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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