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

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

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

But before we start let me tell you that the History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at or on my website You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to Thor E., Andreas S., Evan L. and Zoe S. who have already signed up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But before we start let me tell you that the History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at or on my website You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to Anders B., Sherrylyn B., Felipe A. and Andreas A. who have already signed up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But before we start let me tell you that the History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at or on my website You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to Jeff M., Michael M, Robin R., and Claude L. who have already signed up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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