Otto was born into a family of Saxon magnates with possessions in the Harz mountains. He was one of the most accomplished military and political leaders in Germany during the reign of Henry IV. The Empress Agnes made him duke of Bavaria in 1061 to lead a campaign into Hungary. A mere 12 months later he repaid her by becoming one of the leaders in the coup of Kaiserswerth. He and his co-conspirators abducted the 12-year old King Henry IV. Henry IV never forgave him for that.

In 1070 he was accused of having hired thugs to murder king Henry IV. Absent any proof, other than the word of the thug himself, King Henry IV. ordered a trial by combat. When Otto did not show, he was deposed as duke of Bavaria and lost all his possessions. He was captured and imprisoned for 2 years before the king released him. He returned some of his personal property back to him. The Saxon chroniclers claim that all of that was a plot by the king to depose Otto of Northeim.

Northeim’s revenge came when the Saxons had gathered in Hötensleben in 1073 to discuss what to do about the king’s encroachment on to their land and ancient freedoms. The king had built a string of castles, including the famous Harzburg (see previous post) in order to create a new royal territory.

Though the Saxons had been insulted by the king just weeks earlier and had been seething under the Salian rule for decades, outright rebellion is no easy decision. That is when Otto takes a stand and delivers a speech, which must be one of the first political speeches by someone not a king or pope ever recorded in Germany:

“The calamities and disgraces that our king has brought upon each one of you for a long time are great and unbearable, but what he still intends to do, if the Almighty God permits him, is even greater and more severe. Strong castles he has erected, as you know, numerous in places already firm by nature, and has placed in them a great multitude of his vassals, and abundantly provided with weapons of all kinds. These castles are not erected against the heathen, who have completely devastated our land where it borders theirs, but in the midst of our country, where no one ever thought of making war against him; he has fortified them with such great effort, and what they mean for this land some of you have already experienced, and if God’s mercy and your bravery do not intervene, you will soon all experience it.

They take your possessions by force and hide them in their castles; they abuse your wives and daughters for their pleasure when they please; they demand your servants and your cattle, and all that they like, for their service; yes, they even force you yourselves to bear every burden, however odious, on your free shoulders.

But when I imagine in my thoughts what is still waiting for us, then everything that you are now enduring still seems to me to be bearable. For when he will have built his castles in our whole country at his discretion and will have equipped them with armed warriors and all other necessities, then he will no longer plunder your possessions one by one, but he will snatch from you all that you possess with one blow, will give your goods to strangers, and will make you yourselves, you freeborn men, oblige unknown men as servants. And all this, you brave men, will you let it happen to you? Is it not better to fall in brave fight than to live a miserable and ignominious life, being made a shameful mockery by these people?

Even Serfs who are bought for money do not endure the unreasonable commands of their masters, and you, who were born free, should patiently endure servitude? Perhaps you, as Christians, are afraid to violate the oath with which you have paid homage to the king. Indeed, to the king you have sworn. As long as he was a king to me and acted royally, I also kept the oath I swore to him freely and faithfully; but after he ceased to be a king, the one to whom I had to keep loyalty was no longer there. So not against the king, but against the unjust robber of my freedom; not against the fatherland, but for the fatherland, and for freedom, which no good man surrenders other than with his life at the same time, I take up arms, and I demand of you that you also take them up. Awake, therefore, and preserve for your children the inheritance which your fathers have left you; beware lest through your carelessness or slothfulness you yourselves and your children become serfs of strangers”

(Rough translation based on W. Wattenbachs translation of Bruno’s Buch vom Sachsenkrieg)

Now before you go and think that here is the first outburst of German nationalism, I have to stop you there. When Northeim talks of “patria” or “fatherland” he talks about Saxony, not Germany. And when he talks about freedom, he is not talking about human rights, but ancestral privileges, the “Freedoms” as they will be later called.

The speech was successful, and the Saxons rebelled, a rebellion that was ultimately crushed in the first of many brutal battles of the ensuing 50 years of civil war. Success in this first battle encouraged young King Henry to take the fight to the papacy and its most formidable leader, Pope Gregory VII, a fight that neither side would win, but would leave Germany on a path towards a weaker centre controlled by the princes, a structure known as the Holy Roman Empire (again see previous post).

Otto was, despite his great oratory, a turncoat. Once the rebellion had failed, he joined the king and became his administrator in Saxony. In a twist of irony, he was put in charge of rebuilding all these castles he had railed against.

He changed sides again in 1078 and joined the anti-king Rudolf of Rheinfelden in his campaign against Henry IV. That was the last time he swapped sides. Even after Rudolf had lost and died, Otto remained in arms against the now emperor Henry IV. Otto of Northeim died in 1083.

Otto is a typical example of a magnate of the 11th century. He was not opposed to the dynasty as such or the king specifically. What he fought against was the rise of territorial kingship that would reduce the senior lords influence on imperial decision making. And in that, despite the regular setbacks, he was successful.

Otto’s speech features heavily in episode 31 of the History of the Germans Podcast that looks more closely at the conflict between Henry IV and his magnates. To listen for free on Apple, Spotify, Google Podcast, Podbean etc., follow this link: https://history-of-the-germans.captivate.fm/listen or go to my website www.historyofthegermans.com where you can also find ways to support the Podcast and Blog.

Picture: From Froissart’s Chronicles, so clearly not a depiction of Otto of Northeim, but the only picture of a medieval speech I could find.

And another protagonist in the Investiture Controversy

Godfrey the Bearded is one of those figures of History who despite his significant influence over crucial events has fallen through the cracks because he did not fit into a national narrative in either Germany, France or Italy.
Godfrey was the son of Gozelo, duke of Upper and Lower Lothringia. Emperor Konrad II had put Gozelo in charge of the two duchies of Lothringia since he needed a strong defender of the French border, particular against the mighty counts of Blois-Champagne. Konrad II died in 1039 and his son Henry III changed the strategic outlook. The threat from France had receded, which removed the rationale to create such a powerful vassal in the west. When Gozolo died in 1044, Henry III split the two duchies up again between Godfrey, who received Upper Lothringia, and his brother.
Godfrey felt wronged by this decision and began feuding against the emperor. Though Godfrey had to concede defeat several times and lost the duchy of Upper Lothringia, he retained huge support amongst the Lothringian nobles. Henry III could never really gain control of Lothringia. The ambitious counts of Flanders were the main beneficiaries of the power vacuum his wars with Godfrey created. The counts of Flanders put together a territory that after many iterations ended up as the country of Belgium.
During his conflict with the emperor Godfrey made a great political move. He married Beatrix, widow of Count Boniface of Tuscany. That gave him control of a broad stretch of land across central Italy, from Mantua to Florence. Sometime later he would also acquire the duchy of Spoleto, giving him control over access to Rome and hence the papacy.
In 1056, Godfrey’s archenemy, emperor Henry III died. The crown went to his 6-year-old son Henry IV and his mother, Agnes of Poitou.
This event was not just significant for Godfrey who would gain the duchy of Lower Lothringia under the new regime, but even more for the papacy.
The elevation of pope Leo IX in 1046 had kickstarted the reform of the papacy, which was part of a broader church reform movement. Church reform focused on ending Simony, the practice of buying and selling holy offices and curbing the licentiousness of priests, including the marriage of clerics. The papacy itself was being reorganised. Leo IX created the college of Cardinals and began to proactively get involved in church policy across western Europe, either personally or through papal legates. This is the beginning of the universal papacy we know today.
The papal reform had initially been sponsored by emperor Henry III. Henry III freed the papacy from the chokehold of the Roman aristocracy. The great Roman families had dominated the papacy until 1046, appointing and dismissing popes at will.
After emperor Henry III had died the reform party was concerned that once the current pope, Victor II, died, the Roman aristocracy would come back. They turned to Godfrey as the only power in Italy that could offer protection during the regency.
It is hence no surprise that the reform-minded bishops elected Godfrey’s brother as pope Stephen IX within two days of receiving note of Pope Victor II’s death. Stephen IX lasted only 8 months, hence the issue came up again in March 1058. This time the Roman Aristocracy were quicker and elected one of their own as Pope Benedict X before the reform-minded party managed to elect someone.
The reform leaders, including the future pope Gregory VII fled to Godfrey’s capital of Florence. There they elected the local bishop as pope Nicolas II. Godfrey provided the muscle that brought Nicolas II into Rome and on to the throne of St. Peter.
Pope Nicholas II presided over the synod of 1059 where the process for papal election was first established. Instead of imperial appointment or acclamation by the people of Rome, the pope was to be elected by the Cardinal Bishops, a process that still takes place today.
Thanks to Godfrey’s support the papacy could hold its own against the Roman aristocracy and, at the same time free itself from the imperial dominance. Two papal elections later, pope Gregory VII will excommunicate Emperor (at the time only king) Henry IV which will lead to the famous scene of the most powerful ruler in Europe kneeling in the snow before the pope in the castle of Canossa. Godfrey will be dead by then, but his stepdaughter, Mathilda of Tuscany, whose castle Canossa was, will play another key role in the story of the Investiture Controversy.
All this is still to come on the History of the Germans Podcast, though we are getting close. If you want to catch up, check out the Episodes 26-30 where we go through the reign of emperor Henry III and the regency of his wife Agnes of Poitou. The podcast is – as always – available on my website www.historyofthegermans.com and links to Apple, Spotify etc. are here: https://history-of-the-germans.captivate.fm/listen

In this series of posts I will highlight some key protagonists in the Investiture Controversy, in part to make it easier to follow the podcast where we run into a bewildering array of personalities, locations and events. The bios will also be placed on a specific page on the website once I get to grips with the recent updates in WordPress.

Agnes was the daughter of duke William V of Aquitaine and Agnes of Burgundy. She married emperor Henry III in 1043. The marriage was entirely political, giving Henry III links to the powerful Angevin counts and solidified his position in Burgundy.
The couple had five children, three daughters and two sons, one of whom survived and became emperor Henry IV.
Henry IV was born in 1050 and was hence just 6 years old when Henry III died. Agnes assumed the regency for her son. To say it right away, Agnes of Poitou was no Theophanu and certainly no Adelheid. That is not to say she was terribly incompetent; she just was not absolutely brilliant. And given the situation, absolutely brilliant was the baseline for a successful reign.
After decades of centralisation of power under the previous three emperors time was ripe for a backlash by the mighty barons. Tensions had been mounting in the last years of Henry III, but now the magnates openly demanded a return to the previous system where the king/emperor was more of a “First amongst Equals”. Agnes was unable to hold back the tide, had to enfeoff major nobles with strategically important duchies and was unable to stop feuding amongst the castellans, counts and even bishops. Central power was quickly dissipating.
Her downfall came when the cardinals in Rome elected Pope Alexander II without requesting imperial permission before. Insisting on the ancestral right of the emperors to appoint or at least confirm the pope, Agnes supported an antipope, Honorius III. Honorius was the candidate of the anti-reform party, which comprised the Roman aristocracy and Northern Italian bishops. This party wanted to dial back the clock to a time when the pope was just the bishop of Rome that the city’s rulers literally used as a footstool. And they hoped for a reversal of the tighter rules on clerical marriage and simony, the buying and selling of holy offices.
This was a terrible PR move. Creating a papal schism was bad enough, but the imperial government was backing the bad guys. They pushed against the drive to clean the church from corruption and licentiousness.
And in this one fell swoop Agnes destroyed the reputation of the empire as champion of reform that Henry III and his predecessors worked so hard for.
When Agnes realised what she had done, she froze. Her entire background was in the church reform movement. Her grandfather had founded the abbey of Cluny after all. She took to her bed, pulled the duvet over her face and left all government activity to her advisers.
Her situation had become completely untenable. In 1062 the German magnates, led by archbishop Anno of Cologne staged a coup, abducting the young King Henry IV at Kaiserswerth (check out tomorrow’s post).
Agnes conceded after Kaiserswerth. She no longer led the regency and in 1065 moved to Rome to atone for her sins and in particular her role in creating the schism. She died in 1077 and is buried in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome

The podcast is – as always – available on my website. Links to Apple, Spotify etc. are here: https://history-of-the-germans.captivate.fm/listen

The Three Roads to Canossa

Emperor Henry III is dead. The realm is now in the hands of his widow, Agnes of Poitou who rules on behalf of the six-year-old king Henry IV. Agnes is no Theophanu and no Adelheid. Not that she is incompetent, she just isn’t absolutely brilliant, and absolutely brilliant is the baseline necessary to manage this fragile situation.
The relationship between the central imperial power and the magnates has flipped, and instead of all-powerful emperors, the dukes, counts and bishops do what they like. And Henry III’s bête noire, Godfrey the Bearded is more powerful than ever.
The laity calls for a church that is more like the church of the apostles, pious and dedicated to the poor. They demand an end to simony and the licentiousness of priests.
And the papacy asserts its independence. Not that they necessarily intend to throw off the imperial yoke, but the reformers need protectors against the Roman aristocracy that literally used popes as footstools and ATMs.
All this culminates in a situation where the young king Henry IV sees no other way to escape from his opponents than by jumping into the cold and fast flowing River Rhine, choosing death over captivity…

In the year 1048 the duchy of Normandy is the most tightly run state in western Europe outside the empire. Like in the empire central power is able to maintain order, prevent the construction of castles and stop the nobles from feuding. That is great for peasants but not great for the second, third, fourth and fifth sons of the Norman knightly class.

One outlet for their ambition had been to take service as mercenaries in Southern Italy. Southern Italy was a perennial mess where Lombard dukes, Byzantine viceroys, independent cities and the emir of Sicily were tied up in near incessant fighting. The Normans, the superheroes of the 11th century, show up for the first time in 999 as pilgrims to Mount Gargano but soon everyone wants them in their army. Initially they work for cold hard cash, but as that is scarce, accept land and fiefs as payment. Konrad II for the first time enfeoffs a Norman lord with the county of Aversa in the 1030s.

From there it goes bang, bang, bang. Ranulf of Aversa takes over the much bigger Capua. Then the 7 Hauteville brothers arrive. They were the sons of a Norman nobleman, Tancred of Hauteville. The first to come to prominence was William, called Ironhand. The name came about when he decapitated the emir of Sicily with just one stroke of his sword. He becomes count of Puglia in 1042 after taking it from the Byzantines. William and his brother Drogo then attacked Calabria. William died in 1046 and was succeeded by Drogo who was murdered by a local mercenary. On whose orders, nobody knows. But there were still a lot of Hauteville brothers left. The next count of Apulia was Humbert. Humbert goes after Bari and by now, large parts of Southern Italy are in the hands of various Norman lords, with the Hauteville family the most powerful.

The rise of the Normans concerns Pope Leo IX a lot. The last couple of hundred years the papacy’s neighbours to the south were the Lombard princes of Benevent, Capua and Spoleto. These guys may be well armed but spent most of the time fighting each other or the Byzantines or the Emir of Sicily, leaving the pope well alone. Projecting the development of the last 15 years forward Leo IX concluded that soon the Byzantines and Lombards would be gone, and he would look down the barrel of a heavily armed force of Scandinavian giants.

In 1053 he decided to act. Leo IX raised an army amongst the Lombards and Northern Italians supported by a small contingent of imperial troops. Near the town of Civitate in Puglia, the papal army meets the Norman forces led by Humbert of Hauteville and another Hauteville brother, Robert Giuscard (“The Cunning”).

The Normans were outnumbered and undersupplied. The situation was so dire that Humbert asked for a truce which Leo IX refused. When the two sides met the Normans did however win quite unexpectedly. The Norman troops displayed the discipline and cohesion needed to hold the line, something the motley crew of Papal allies lacked. Only the Imperial troops in the centre fought all the way to the end but were ultimately defeated. Pope Leo IX was captured and brought to Benevento, which the Normans quickly annexed.

Leo IX was held for nearly a year and treated with all the honours of his office. He finally made an agreement with Humphrey and Robert Giuscard, the contents of which are not known.

One man in Leo IX’s company directly observed these developments and drew his own conclusions, Hildebrand Cardinal priest of the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls. He realised the Normans were not only a military force that could counterbalance any troops the emperors could bring down to Italy but also that they craved acceptance by the Holy See. Even before Hildebrand ascended the papal throne as Gregory VII did he forge an alliance with Robert Giuscard which made the Hautevilles Kings of Sicily and the former the most powerful Pope the world had ever seen.

If you want to know what that has to do with Germany, check out Episode 28 of the History of the Germans Podcast available on this website, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or https://history-of-the-germans.captivate.fm/listen

In 1046 Henry III finally has time to go to Rome and claim the imperial crown. All he wants is get in, get crowned and get out before the Malaria season. He encounters a problem when he finds out that the current pope Gregory VI has bought the papacy for cold hard cash, a sin that could invalidate his coronation. Henry III gets involved, deposes all three competing popes and inadvertently starts a chain of events that ends in what Norman Cantor calls “the first of the three world revolutions”.

History of the Germans Podcast is available on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and all major podcasting platforms. Alternatively go to my website historyofthegermans