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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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