There are nearly 20,000 castles in Germany, some are famous for good reason like Trifels, Wartburg or the Hambacher Schloss. Some are historically irrelevant pastiches like Neuschwanstein or Schwerin. And very few are really important to the point of being almost protagonists by themselves. One of these few is the Harzburg.
Construction begun in 1065/1066 under King (later emperor) Henry IV. At that point Henry had been king for almost 10 years, though most of the time the government was in the hands of a regency council headed initially by his mother and later by the archbishop Anno of Cologne, a rapacious prelate who had abducted the king in a coup d’etat when he was just 12 years old.
In 1065 Henry is 15 years old and therefore mature enough to begin his personal rule. His personal rule was however still heavily constrained. How constrained can be explained by the following story told by Lambert of Hersfeld.
For background, Henry IV had travelled to the Imperial Pfalz of Trebur to confront his barons who are intending to dismiss one of Henry’s allies from his council. According to the chronicler, the king stayed not in his own royal palace at Trebur, but in a nearby village that belonged to the abbey of Hersfeld. It seems there was nothing there to feed the royal party and the peasants refused to hand over the goods. A bloody fight between the royal soldiers and the local population ensued. In the fight either a lowly peasant or -shame of shames- a dancing girl, felled the commander of the royal bodyguard, count Werner. Werner was brought before the king. And whilst he lay on the ground in mortal agony, the bishops present refused the dying man the last rites, until he handed back an estate he had received from the king but which the abbot of Hersfeld claimed was his.
All this happened in front of the king. His man was lying there, and the churchmen refused him the last sacraments until some money issue was settled. And not just any money issue, but the reversal of a donation the king had made himself. And why was his man lying there? Because the abbey of Hersfeld had refused to feed the royal troops, something they were obliged to as an imperial abbey. Nothing shows more clearly the powerlessness of the young king, and nothing explains better his deep-seated animosity to his magnates.
No chronicler says it, but my sense is that it is right after the meeting in Trebur when Henry IV. decides that enough is enough. No longer can an emperor rely on oaths of fealty from his dukes and counts, nor can he rely on the support from the Imperial Church as his father had been able to. A new form of royal administration is required.
Henry IV. begins his major castle building project around Goslar. His father had already begun the process of creating a coherent royal territory around the silver mines in the Harz mountains. This is a different concept to the 10th century imperial duchies which were administrated through assemblies and vows of fealty. Not here. These royal lands around Goslar will be administrated by Ministeriales, unfree men trained in war and administration. Mighty castles are built on the tops of mountains and, instead of enfeoffing it to loyal men of noble descent, he manned it with his Ministeriales. He put the management of the royal territory not into the hands of a count as would have been the case 50 years earlier but appoints a governor (Prefectus) who could be hired and fired at will.
The largest and most important of these new castles was the Harzburg, not far from the imperial residence in Goslar. Harzburg was not only one of the largest castles built in the 11th century, rivalling Fulk of Anjou’s mighty constructions, it was also designed as an imperial residence and administrative centre. Nothing indicates more clearly the change of times than the fact that the emperors are leaving their indefensible palaces on the plains like Ingelheim and Frankfurt and move behind 10-metre-high walls on mountaintops.
The Harzburg contained an imperial palace as well as a monastery. Henry IV had his brother Konrad who had died very young as well as his first son buried in this richly decorated chapel. He also transferred the imperial regalia, i.e., the imperial crown, the Holy Lance etc. onto the Harzburg.
In the summer of 1073, the Saxon had enough of Henry’s castles. Led by Otto of Northeim they rebelled, and besieged the Harzburg. The Saxons set up camp on an opposite hill and sent their demands to the king. He was to dismantle all his castles in Saxony and dismiss his false councillors. The Harzburg was almost impregnable, so the Saxons blockaded the castle’s food supplies whilst throwing large stones down on the fortifications from a new structure built on the hill opposite.
Henry IV realised his situation was precarious unless he could raise an army to relieve the Harzburg. He fled the castle under cover of darkness, allegedly via the sewage system. He set up camp in Worms but failed to convince his magnates, in particular the dukes of Bavaria, Swabia and Carinthia to support his endeavour.
On February 2nd, 1074, he had to sign the peace of Gerstungen, which cannot be described as anything but a complete capitulation. In a near full assembly of the great bishops and princes of the realm, Henry IV. conceded the demolition of all his castles, dismissed his councillors and gave full amnesty to all the rebels.
Henry IV. withdrew the garrison of the Harzburg and immediately the Saxons stormed in. The Saxon troops it is important to note were not just aristocratic knights but comprised a lot of free peasants. These guys were the first through the gate and began the demolition work. In the peace agreement it was specifically stated that the demolition of the Harzburg should be gentle, respecting the imperial chapel on the site. Well, that did not happen. The Saxon commanders could not stop their enraged mob who tore down the chapel, stole the relics and horror of horrors pulled the remains of the Salian princes buried there out of their coffins and threw them in the ditch like vile garbage.
This profound insult to the honour not just of Henry IV. but the realm as a whole led to one of these sudden mood swings that will punctuate the story of the Investiture Controversy.
The Saxon nobles apologised immediately and promised a thorough investigation and harsh punishment for the perpetrators. But that was not enough. The mighty princes, who did not treat their peasants any different to the way Henry IV. had treated the neighbours of the Harzburg suddenly realised that these Saxon armies contained an unsettlingly large contingent of villeins. And in 1073/1074 there had already been uprisings in major cities, namely Worms and Cologne where the bishops had to run for their lives. Our old friend Anno of Cologne was one of them. He only managed to get out because one of his supporters had just put a door into the city walls near his house. This “hole of Anno” can still be seen in Cologne.
Given the choice between supporting a potentially overbearing emperor or the rabble-rousing Saxons, many of the Southern dukes, namely Rudolf of Rheinfelden took the side of Henry IV. Henry IV. could finally muster his army to bring the Saxons to heel. The two sides met at the Unstrut river on June 9, 1075.
What ensued was one of the bloodiest and most painful battles of the 11th century. Though in principle it was Saxons against the rest of the kingdom, in reality many families were split. Fathers were fighting sons; brothers were killing each other in the melee.
The unity of the kingdom created at the battle of Riade against the Hungarians in 934 was trampled into the dust on that early summer’s day.
Henry IV. prevailed in the brutal fighting. After the battle his troops were let loose across Saxony, murdering and pillaging as if they were in enemy lands. On October 25th, 1075, the Saxon barons conceded an unconditional surrender.
After a decade of humiliation and defeat, Henry IV. had finally regained the position his father and grandfather had held. The magnates of the land recognised him as his overlord and the Saxons, who had plotted to kill him since he was a child were utterly defeated. Finally, he should now be able to go to Rome and take what had been his since birth, the imperial crown.
That is not what is going to happen. Within a mere 18 months Henry IV. will find himself kneeling barefoot in the snow outside the inner gate of the castle of Canossa utterly friendless and about to lose his crown.
If you want to hear how this story continues into one of the great turning points of the Middle Ages, check out the History of the Germans Podcast available on this website: http://www.historyofthegermans.com or on Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Podbean etc.