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

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Gravensteen castle in Ghent was the seat of the Counts of Flanders who became serious players on the European stage from the 10th century. The first count was Baldwin who was appointed in 862, allegedly after eloping with emperor Charles the Bald’s daughter.

The counts were an ambitious lot and grew their territory step by step. A key breakthrough came in the middle of the 11th century. In 1044 emperor Henry III awarded Baldwin V, the count of Flanders a fief in the empire, largely to irritate his rebellious archenemy, Godfrey the Bearded, Duke of Upper (and Lower) Lothringia. Baldwin repaid imperial generosity by joining Godfrey and Count Dietrich of Holland in a major uprising in 1046 that set the whole of the Western border of the empire on fire. Initially things went well and the rebels burnt the mighty imperial residence at Nijmegen.

But in 1049 the three allies suffered severe losses in an imperial counteroffensive led by the bishops of Utrecht, Liege and Metz. The final blow came when emperor Henry III took advantage of having a pet pope in the form of Leo IX. The pope excommunicated both Baldwin of Flanders and duke Godfrey the Bearded. Godfrey succumbed and surrendered to the imperial mercy in Aachen in 1049. Baldwin of Flanders held out a bit longer but finally had to give up and sign a peace agreement.

This may all look like a great outcome for Henry III. But by breaking the ducal authority in Lothringia he also created a political vacuum along the western frontier of the empire. As it happened the empire was either unwilling or unable to step into this vacuum which ultimately led to a fragmentation of power in the realm’s western frontier.

It did not take long for the problem to materialise, not even 12 months to be precise. The ink on the agreement between Baldwin of Flanders and the empire was barely dry when the cunning count concocted his next move. He married his son and heir to the heiress of the county of Hainault, or Hennegau in German. This brought Flanders a major dominion inside the Empire. Under feudal law the marriage would have required Henry III’s consent. Marrying without it was a breach of the law. So, war returns. In 1053 Baldwin and his son mount an aggressive attack into imperial territory, burning down the lands of the bishop of Liege. Henry III retaliated in 1054 with a large army but failed to dislodge the enemy from Hainault.

After Henry III died in 1056 and his wife became regent, the empire accepted Baldwin V’s control of Hainault, which brings most of what is now Belgium under his control. From this point onwards the counts of Flanders play a major role in French, English and Imperial politics. Their great castle, the Gravensteen in Ghent became their seat of power until the burghers of Ghent make them leave in 1353. The County of Flanders ended up in the hands of the Habsburg Emperors when Maximilian I married Marie, heiress to the dukes of Burgundy in 1477(see previous post). Today the title of Count of Flanders is occasionally used by the Belgian royal family.

More History of the Germans on my podcast available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts (links here: and my website

In 1046 Henry III reached the zenith of his rule. He deposed three unworthy popes and replaced them with serious churchmen who will bring the necessary reforms about. Domestically he is in control of the three Eastern European lands, Poland, Bohemia and Hungary and the restless Lotharingians seem settled.
How did it come about that by 1056 the chronicler writes that “both the foremost men and the lesser men of the kingdom began more and more to murmur against the emperor. They complained he had long since departed from his original conduct of justice, peace, piety, fear of god and manifold virtues in which he ought to have made progress”
Find out in Episode 29 of the History of the Germans Podcast on Spotify, Apple podcasts or here:

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

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

In the early 11th century, the Peace of God movement spread across Europe. It attempted to stop feuding by making nobles swear oaths to let the arms rest on certain days. These oaths were taken on holy relics and a breach would bring spiritual punishment incl. excommunication.

The Peace of God movement was an act of desperation in parts of Europe where the authorities were unable to maintain order. It originated in France where central power under King Henri I (1031-1060) had shrunk to just the Ile de France (see recent post).

The (“German”) Emperor Henry III (1039-1056) borrowed some elements of the Peace of God movement. In 1043 he held a Synod where he assembled the nobles of Swabia. He first forgave every trespass committed against him. And then through prayers and exhortations he achieved a mutual reconciliation amongst all the Swabians present. They in turn forgave each other any trespass committed against them.

These peace happenings were repeated all across the country. The chronicler Hermann of Reichenau described the outcome as “a peace unheard of for many centuries that the king confirmed in an edict”.

The last sentence matters most: “confirmed by edict”. In other words, irrespective of the religious pomp, Henry III did order peace or more precisely banned feuding by secular law. There were only two rulers in Western Europe at this point who had enough centralised power to do that, the Duke of Normandy and the Emperor.

When people quote Voltaire’s quip that the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire in relation to the 11th century, they could not be further from the truth. Leaving aside that the term Holy Roman Empire only coming into usage 200 years later, by 1044 the Empire was indeed sacred, led by a sacred ruler, it had inherited the ambitions of the Roman empire, and it was very much an empire, the most powerful and coherent political entity in Western Europe.

More on Henry III in Episode 26f of the History of the Germans

The role of a medieval king is not only to expand the reach of Christianity, but also to bring peace and justice to his lands. In the 11th century the call for peace gets louder and louder, in particular in France. Peace is not so much the absence of large international war. What the population suffered most from were the incessant feuds between rival lords. When two rival lords had a disagreement, they rarely went on to fight it out as men. No, no, no, that would actually be dangerous. Much better to burn down the rival’s fields and murder his peasants. Unarmed peasants could not inflict much harm on an armoured rider and when the rival lord comes with his equally well-equipped men, you can always race back into the safe stone castle you had just built.

The simple equation is more stone castles equals more feuds equals more peasant misery. A king who wants to have peace in his lands needs to do one thing first and foremost, which is preventing his nobles from building castles. In an ideal world only the king would build and man castles. However, the 11th century is far from being an ideal world.

The world is particularly far from the ideal in France. King Henri I (1031-1060) is considered one of the weakest French kings in history. He was off to a bad start since he had to give the duchy of Burgundy to his brother Robert, shrinking the already modest royal possessions even further. Check on the map. The light blue bit is the only part of France King Henri I directly controlled.

His brother was not one of Henri’s most pressing problems. He also had to deal with his overbearing magnates. The two most irritating ones were the Counts of Anjou (dark green) and the Counts of Blois-Champagne (yellow) who would usually fight each other. Count Fulk III “the Black” of Anjou was famous for building castles. He is said to have built almost 100 of these, mostly in stone, the ruins of which are still terrifying.

Then you had the Dukes of Normandy (dark brown) and the Dukes of Aquitaine (mid green) who were a bit further afield from Henri’s direct zone of control, but often intervened in the struggles. New powers rose as well like the Counts of Flanders and the Counts of Toulouse. But even the magnates were not able to maintain order much beyond their castle walls, which meant every little count, baron or castellan built his own castle(s) and went merrily along brutalising the villeins. In this chaotic environment the Peace of God or Truce of God movement gained traction. The idea was to bring the perpetrator of violence to heel by threatening them with sanctions meted out by heavenly intervention. The Church took the lead and held several councils, the first in Le Puy in 975, but then quite regularly during the early 11th century with a frenzy of activity in the 1030s, the millennium of Christ’s passion and potential date for the arrival of the antichrist.

According to the monk Adhemar, these events were religious festivals where the bishops would whip the crowd into a frenzy through a generous display of relics and calls upon the saints to intervene. The warriors in presence would then declare their intention of making war on those who violate the peace of God. These attempts of pitching an army of saintly warriors has more than the whiff of crusaders to it and indeed the crusader movement incorporates elements of the Peace of God movement. It takes them to its logical conclusion which is sending the most violent and aggressive thugs out of the country. That being said, these holy armies or more accurately holy militias were rarely successful against the battle hardened Seigneurs.

That is why from the 1030s onwards a more manageable Truce of God was sought. The concept was that the lords would make vows on powerful relics promising to suspend warfare during the weekend, Saturday to Monday or even Wednesday to Monday as well as on high days and holy days. If they breached this obligation, they would be subject to all sorts of spiritual sanctions like banning from mass up to full excommunication. The imposition of these sanctions as well as the whole management of the Treuga Dei was initially in the hands of the church, mainly the bishops and abbots who regularly suffered from incursions by secular lords. The Abbey of Cluny became a key sponsor and coordinator for the Treuga Dei.

The Treuga Dei was needed most in the parts of France where central power was weakest. The dukes of Normandy whose duchy was tightly run were able to maintain public order by themselves without having to take recourse to the church.

Equally by 1035 the empire did (yet) not feel the need for a Treuga Dei. The central power was strong under Henry III and entirely capable to prevent feuds and control the construction of stone castles.

The continuation of this story is in Episode 27 of the History of the Germans

Map by Zigeuner – Own work, from France about 1035, in William R. Shepherd, The Historical Atlas, 1911 Data from the same and: Olivier Guyotjeannin, Atlas de l’histoire de France IXe-XVe siècle, Paris, 2005 François Menant, H. Martin, B. Merdignac & M. Chauvin, Les Capétiens – Histoire et dictionnaire 987-1328, Robert Laffont, Paris, 1999

In today’s episode we meet some of the key protagonists who will move the narrative towards the great turning point of the Middle Ages, the Road to Canossa. One of them is Godfrey the Bearded, Duke of Lower Lothringia and red rag to emperor Henry III. Initially he may just have been a bit too powerful for the future emperor’s liking. But after Henry III falls ill in 1045, he becomes more driven by personal animosities. Things become personal.

Other key protagonists make their first appearance, including Archbishop Adalbert of Hamburg-Bremen, Duke Bernhard of Saxony, Empress Agnes of Poitou and the great abbot Hugh of Cluny.

Things are hotting up, so tune in now!

History of the Germans is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Podbean or wherever you get your podcasts from. And also on this site.

Picture: Gottfried I., der Bärtige, Graf von Löwen, Herzog von Niederlothringen – Österreichische Nationalbibliothek – Austrian National Library, Austria – Public Domain.

The relationship between Hungary and the Empire had soured over the last years of the long reign of King (Saint) Stephen (997-1038) of Hungary. Claims for the duchy of Bavaria and a harsh policy towards Venice increased tensions. Under pressure of emperor Konrad II (1024-1039) the Venetian Doge Otto Orseolo had to flee to his brother-in-law, the king of Hungary.

In 1028 Bavarian incursions escalated into all-out war that the Hungarians did quite well at. Fighting was suspended after a peace agreement in 1031. Things calmed down after the death of Saint Stephen’s son Imre (Emmerich).

Saint Stephen was unwilling to name his closest relative Vazul as his heir due to the latter’s pagan leanings. The unexpected result was that he named his nephew, Peter Orseolo, the son of the Doge of Venice as his successor. Vazul was understandably unhappy. According to legend he was silenced by having molten lead pored into his ears – a sort of discount version of the execution of Crassus (or Viserys Targaryan).

Peter resented the Salian family including the new emperor Henry III (1039-1056) since they had driven his father into exile. As soon as Peter had taken over, he seized any opportunity to attack the empire. At the same time he tried to consolidate his power at home which got him deposed. Peter fled …amazingly…to the imperial court of Henry III.

Peter’s successor was another nephew of Stephen, Samuel Aba. Samuel Aba who had no particular beef with the empire was trying to agree some sort of lasting peace. However, negotiations failed, probably because Henry III insisted on full submission to his suzerainty and return of the lands Hungary had seized in 1031.

War was now inevitable. Samuel Aba attacked Bavaria and Austria in 1042. The army sent against Austria was destroyed by Margrave Adalbert whilst the army sent against Bavaria caused much damage. It took Henry until the autumn to raise troops and push the Hungarians back. Henry, or more likely his Margrave Adalbert sacked Bratislava, then a Hungarian fortress and took most of what is now Slovakia.

The two sides agreed a peace treaty in 1043 whereby Samuel Aba returned the lands seized in 1031.

But by 1044 the king of Hungary was back at it. Henry III mustered a comparatively small army and invaded. Samuel Aba whose army was much larger let Henry progress fairly deep into Hungarian territory, presumably hoping to cut Henry off from supplies and capture the king himself.

However, Henry mounted a surprise attack by his armoured riders having shipped his army across the river Raab. The large Hungarian army turned to flight or surrendered right there and then. King Peter was reinstated as king and Samuel Aba was captured and killed shortly afterwards.

With this battle of Ménfő Henry III had achieved a clean sweep of the eastern frontier. The rulers of Poland, Bohemia and Hungary are now all vassals of the empire. This completes his father’s policy that started with breaking the empire of Bolelsav the Brave.

Savour the moment, because only 2 years later king Peter is deposed again and presumably killed. His successor, Andrew, a son of Vazul who had been so cruelly killed by the saintly King Stephen will take over.

He and his successors will no longer make the mistake of letting an imperial army loose inside their kingdom. Despite all their internal squabbles the Hungarians will strengthen and man their border defences making all subsequent attempts to invade futile.

The story continues next Thursday with Episode 27 of the History of the Germans Podcast. I hope you are going to tune in, either on my website or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or any other provider of fine audio entertainment.