In 982 the unlucky emperor Otto II loses a battle in Southern Italy, which triggers an uprising of the pagan Slavs east of the Elbe River giving Poland enough wiggle room to plough its own furrow.

When Otto II takes over from his father in 973 the Ottonian dynasty is at its peak. Otto I had defeated his domestic enemies, the Magyars and expanded aggressively east of the Elbe River.  He was crowned emperor in 962 and Byzantium had sent a “princess” for his son to marry.

Like many sons of successful fathers, Otto II tried to best his old man. Otto I had attempted to take Bari, the main base of Byzantine power in Italy. His son wanted to complete the task. And then go after the ultimate prize, the rich, Muslim held island of Sicily.

Otto II assembled the largest army Europe in this period had seen and marched south. He conquered the Byzantine duchy of Puglia and stayed in Taranto until June 982. As Otto expected, the Emir of Sicily brought his army across the straights of Messina to fight the northerners.

As the emir approached the Ottonian encampment near Rossano Calabro in the deep south he realised that the emperor’s army was a lot larger than he had bargained for. He turned his army around and marched at speed towards Messina to take ships home. He never made it.

As the emir’s troops ran home along the coast, they were spotted by Byzantine merchant ships coming up the coast. They told Otto and Otto’s heavy cavalry began the pursuit.  Somewhere near Capo Colonna (or Stilo) the Emir halted the flight and set up in full battle order.

Otto’s heavily armoured knights crashed into the emir’s troops and pushed all the way to the centre. The emir’s bodyguard crumbled, and the emir was killed. Job done.

No, not done at all. Whilst the German cavalry were busy slaughtering the emir, unbeknownst to them a reserve detachment of about 5,000 Muslim cavalrymen joined the fray. They encircled the fighting Germans and having restricted their room to manoeuvre, massacred them.

Many senior nobles died including the duke of Benevento, the bishop Henry of Augsburg, the Margrave of Merseburg, the abbot of Fulda and a further 19 counts. Otto II fled by hailing a Byzantine ship – oh irony of ironies.

He convinced the captain that he had enough and was just picking up the imperial treasury to retire on. The greedy captain pushed his rowing slaves go double time only to find that when they arrived back at Rossano, the emperor simply jumped into the sea and swam ashore.

The impact was felt al throughout Europe. Though the defeat was not catastrophic, the failure of Ottonian arms gave heart to the Slavs east of the Elbe who had been brutally subjugated and forcibly converted.

The ensuing Slav revolt pushed the borders of the empire back to the Elbe River. As a consequence, the empire needed the help of the dukes of Poland to contain the fallout, allowing this polity to ultimately become an independent state, unlike Bohemia/Czech Republic. 

In Southern Italy the Byzantines, Lombard dukes and Muslim Emirs kept squabbling until the Normans unified the territory. The Southern Normans were crucial support for the papacy in the Investiture Conflict which weakened the empire. More on this really almost completely forgotten battle is available on episode 10 of the History of the Germans Podcast available on all major podcasting platforms.

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In 955 king Otto I annihilated the largest army the Magyars ever fielded, ending their raids into his territory.  His soldiers hailed him emperor, kicking off the (Holy Roman) Empire.

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In the 9th and 10th century pagan raiders threatened Europe. Most famously the Vikings but in Germany, Western France and Itay the Magyars, horse archers with composite bows from the steppes were feared even more. In 954 they raided all the way to Spain.

The following year, 955 they put together the largest army they ever fielded ~ 10,000 fighters plus slaves and labourers to build and operate siege engines. This time it wasn’t just a raid, this time they came to stay.

Their target was the city of Augsburg at the intersection of two ancient Roman roads. The siege started August 8th, 955. The dilapidated walls of the city and its small band of valiant defenders can hold out at best for a few days.

Time is of the essence. Otto I pulls together whatever troops he can get hold of at short notice, in total about 7,000 men. Augsburg is about to fall when Otto I arrives in the area. Luckily, the Hungarians decide to abandon the siege and tackle the arriving army first.

In the afternoon the Hungarian army moved onto the Lechfeld, a gravel floodplain near Augsburg to offer battle. The terrain suited them and their fighting style plus they had won a battle there before. Their horses could move rapidly over the full range of the plain.

Next morning, the 10th of August 955, the feast day of Saint Lawrence, Otto took his troops down to the Lechfeld. He had lined up his eight detachments and marched under the cover of a wooden area to avoid being pelted by arrows.

Whilst Otto’s soldiers snuck through the bushes to avoid being shot at, the Hungarians went behind him and attacked his rear guard.  They captured the baggage train, and wounded and captured the defenders, 3 out of the 8 detachments are now down.

But once the Magyars had captured the baggage, their discipline broke down. That allowed Otto’s generals to bring down a detachment of Franconians, fall on the plundering Hungarians, beat them back and free their prisoners. Otto’s forces regroup and he holds a rousing speech:

“As we all know they fight almost without any armour and, what is our greatest relief, without the help of the lord.” and We rather want to die in glory than being beaten by our enemies, taken away in servitude or even be strung up like feral animals.”

That worked. Item 1 on the list was the most important. The fighting style of the Magyars was horse-based archery. The riders would attack and then feign retreat. With their fast horses they would create a gap over the pursuers until they are at perfect shooting distance.

The maximum impact was achieved by shooting volleys of arrows into the sky that would come down on the attackers like hail. The ideal distance to achieve that was somewhere between 200 and 500 metres.

Had the enemy come closer the Hungarians had to shift to individual point-blank shots, which were less efficient and if the enemy got even closer it was down to hand to hand combat.

Henry the Fowler had proven that an army of heavy armoured knights could break a Hungarian force. They have to get through the death zone of 200 to 500m from the enemy line and crash into the lightly armoured horsemen at full tilt.

And that is likely what happened at the Lechfeld. The Hungarians feigned retreat, but Otto’s highly trained personal troops and the battle-hardened Bavarians pushed through the death zone at speed, crashing into the Hungarian lines.

There might have also been a flank attack by the armoured knights from Augsburg who tried to join up with Otto but had not found him in the dark. When they saw the enemy dead ahead, they joined the melee from the sides causing more chaos in the Hungarian lines.

There are other theories about the battle. In later Hungarian chronicles the defeat s blamed in a sudden rainfall that made the composite bows unusable. German chroniclers mention excessive heat so that there may have been a summer thunderstorm later in the day.

Whichever way it happened, the Hungarians were annihilated, their leaders captured and killed. The raids stopped for good and by 1000 King/Saint Stephen formally converted to Christianity.

This was Otto’s greatest military and political success. The chronicler Widukind of Corvey reports that the assembled troops declared Otto emperor on the field of battle, just like the ancient roman legions had done.

It will take until 962 before Otto I is crowned emperor, but after the battle on the Lechfeld he was the undisputed leader of Western Europe. From this point the political entity that will later be called the Holy Roman Empire comes into existence. If you want to hear the whole story, check out Episode 6 of the History of the Germans available on all podcasting platforms:

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Part of a series about 20 crucial moments in German Medieval History. In 950 King Lothar of Italy dies, leaving behind his 19-year-old widow, Adelheid/Adelaide. With her begins the entanglement of the medieval emperors in Northern Italy.

Adelaide was born the daughter of the King of Upper Burgundy (~Fench speaking switzerland + soutwest France) Her father acquired the crown of the Kingdom of the Lombards (= Norther Italy) in the 920s but had to cede it to Hugh of Provence already in 925

Hugh of Provence invaded Upper Burgundy in 937 and abducted Adelaide and her mother. Adelaide was only 6 years old at that time. Once she was 15, Hugh married her to his son Lothar who he had elecated and crowned as King of Italy.

Now it is time for Hugh to lose his power. In 945 the margrave of Ivrea, Berengar ousts Hugh who retires back to Provence. Berengar however leaves Lothar and Adelheid as King and Queen of Italy.

That was a neat arrangement as it combined the three contenders for the crown of Italy. Adelheid for Upper Burgundy, Lothar representing Provence and Berengar representing Italy. It might look neat, but in reality, Berengar held total control of the reins of power.

This neat arrangement fell apart when Lothar unexpectedly died in 950. Berengar had to take the plunge and declare himself King of Italy without really having much legitimacy apart from having the bigger guns.

That was not his only problem. He also had to figure out what to do with the young queen Adelheid. You see, Adelheid was not only blood-related to almost everyone who was anyone in 10th century Europe, she was also enormously rich in her own right.

o top it up, it was customary for usurpers to derive their right to rule from marriage to the wife or daughter of a recently deceased ruler, just ask king Louis of France, duke Henry of Bavaria and duke Liudolf of Swabia.

You see why Adelheid was now the hottest potato in all of Italy, if not all of Europe. Though they did not have potatoes then. Maybe the hottest parsnip? Berengar proposed for her to marry his son Adalbert, but Adelheid refused.

At that point Adelheid becomes a risk. Leaving the key to the kingdom run around free in Italy to be picked up by some random chancer was not an option. So Berengar had her thrown in a prison in a fortress on lake Garda.

Whilst Adelheid, richest heiress in Europe and 19year old beauty lay in her cell contemplating what to do, world politics are set in motion. Hang on, Adelheid, Europe’s richest and most beautiful heiress and is held in a jail by some jumped-up Margrave – any takers, anyone?

Well, plenty. anyone who could dislodge Berengar and marry the 19-year-old and allegedly very attractive Adelheid would become king of Italy. That is the kind of offer that brings out the best in men.

First suitor was Henry, Duke of Bavaria and brother of King Otto I of East Francia. Though he is closest and has a significant followership his efforts stalled at Aquileia, 250km off target on Lake Garda.

Next up was the son of King Otto I, Liudolf. Luidolf was the oldest son and heir of the kingdom. Otto had him acknowledged by his magnates as his successor. All was good for him. So he wanted to crown his achievements by rescuing a damsel in distress.

That backfires badly. Not only does his uncle Henry stiffen the resistance of the Italian barons, little Liudolf has also failed to ask for permission from Dad. Otto I is not happy about his son’s move south and orders him back home

And now Otto I makes his own move. He takes a large army down to Italy to finally release the chained princess. Berengar sees him coming and hides in one of his castles. Otto I takes Pavia, capital of the kingdom of the Lombards, without much resistance.

Adelheid, it turns out did not need the help. She had escaped from the Rocca di Garda all by herself and found shelter with the bishop of Reggio on the castle of Canossa, a place that will become of even greater significance in German history

Castello de Carpienti, part of the set of defences that protect Canossa

Otto I, recently widowed now asks for Adelheid’s hand in marriage. Otto was a very eligible widower – with his white hair, red face, bushy beard, moderate sized belly and a chest covered in hair like the mane of a lion.

But his good looks alone did not seem to have done the trick. He had to strengthen the queen’s love for him with gold. Having received enough gifts as well as probably concessions about her future role, Adelheid accepted Otto’s advances.

And with that Otto I could pick up the iron crown of the Lombards. From this time onwards the Italian crown was (with one interruption), part of the Empire and whoever was elected King of the Romans had automatically authority over Lombardy.

This will be one part of the “Italian Entanglement” that makes medieval emperors cross the Alps again and again, seeking fame and fortune. Heinrich v. Sybel (1817-95) blamed this for the delayed nation building in Germany.

Modern historians have a more differentiated perspective. However, the rule over Italy did take up a lot of the resources and headspace of medieval emperors, in particular Henry IV, Barbarossa, Henry VI and Frederick II.

More on this story and many more, check out the History of the Germans Podcast available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all major platforms.

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I recently went to Rome – mostly as a romantic getaway – but also to get a better idea what Rome would have looked like to the medieval emperors who came down to be crowned by reluctant popes. A lot of the main historic sites have been fundamentally remodelled (St. Peter, St. John Lateran, Santa Maria Maggiore), but more survives than one thinks.

The first thing to remember is that by the time say Henry IV or Frederick Barbarossa come to Rome, many of these churches are already unfathomably old. The first great period of church building in Rome was during the fourth and fifth century. Emperor Constantine funded the construction of the two great basilicas of Old St. Peter and the Basilica of the Lateran. But as the share of Christians in the population grew from 15-18% under Constantine to being the vast majority by late fifth/early 6th century, new churches needed to be built all across Rome.

These early churches were mostly new built over virgin land or land previously used for residential or industrial purposes, not over existing pagan temples. The building was usually in the form of an ancient Roman basilica. These basilicas were originally secular buildings used amongst other things to hold court cases with the judge/governor/emperor sitting in the apsis dispensing justice.

There is one still extant imperial basilica, in Trier that dates from the time of Constantine.

Basilica Trier

In early Christian churches, the judge’s seat was replaced with the altar but otherwise the architecture remained the same. And this apsis was than lavishly decorated with mosaics, depicting Christ in the place where the emperor would usually have sat. This mosaic here is the oldest and most beautiful in Rome dating back to around 390 AD.

Santa Prudentia (Rome)

Imagine you come from say a great Carolingian monastery like Corvey with beautiful early medieval interior decorations, and then you look at this. Nobody during this period was able to create such natural expressions or depiction of movement. It must have been a complete shock to see…

The Basilica of Santa Sabina

The best way to get an impression what these early churches looked like is to visit Santa Sabina on the Aventine hill. The church was built between 422 and 432 and is largely unchanged in its structure today.

If you stand inside you can experience what a space like old St. Peter would have felt like. Not at all dark and “medieval”, but bright, symetric with clean lines. Windows were in clear glass, letting the bright Roman sun into the building. All eyes look down towards the Apsis where all teh important things, like teh coronation is happening.

Santa Sabina, Interior

Though Santa Sabina does no longer have the brilliant Mosaics that once covered its apsis, it has another, truly astounding piece of decoration, its doors, which are original from the 5th century.

Santa Sabina doors (~430 AD)

Let me repoeat this. This is a set of cedar doors made in ~430 AD. The image cannot really convey what they look like. The wood is still shiny, the carving beautiful and detailed, as if no time had passed.

I know the doors in the Pantheon are older and larger, but still, these must be the second oldest doors still in operation anywhere in the world. And if you go to Santa Sabina, you share the space with some Dominican friars, the kids from the primary school opposite and a small number of full-on history geeks (Birkenstocks and all) – well worth it (also got a great view over the city from the park).

The Mystery of the Destruction of Old San Clemente

The next church to look at is San Clemente, which is interesting for two reasons. The first one is its marvellous mosaic that covers the whole of the apsis.

San Clemente Apsis Mosaic (c. 1200)

This work of most likely Byzantine artists is a little younger than the others we will be looking at here but it contains such marvellous little details that again display the incredible craftsmanship of these unknown artists.

The church of San Clemente is full of other fascinating things,  such as the grave of Saint Cyril and a beautiful renaissance chapel to Santa Catarina.

But the most interesting stuff is underground. San Clemente was built over what was initially a private house, then became an industrial complex, some argue the mint where the empire would strike its coins. It at least in part became an apartment block with a sanctuary for the cult of Mithridates in its centre. By 392 all these buildings had been filled in and a church built on top.

This church was redecorated in the 9th and then in 11th century. And then something strange happens. The whole church is getting destroyed, filled in and a new church is built on top of it around 1099 to 1120.

All these underground structures have been excavated and can be visited., something well worth doing. If you go, buy the ticket online before you enter the church, it is 2€ cheaper and connection is better outside.

During the excavations they found part of the fresco decoration of the church that was destroyed, depicting the story of Saint Clement. And that is where the mystery starts.

San Clemente Lower Basilica – the Rescue of a Child

Initially people thought the church was destroyed during the sack of Rome by Robert Guiscard in 1084, which I talk about in Episode 36: (

But they could not find any signs of burning so the suggestion was the lower church had been deliberately destroyed. But why? Some argue it was because the street level had risen and so the old church was constantly flooded.

Image of Saint Clement Lower Basilica

But there could be another reason. The images in the old chapel depicted the Saint Clement, which in the 1080s was a dangerous name. As you know Henry IV had elevated Wibert of Ravenna to be antipope Clement III. Painting a church with the deeds of the antipope’s namesake was an affront. And moreover, who was the titular deacon of San Clemente in the 1080s? Hugh Candidus, or Hugh the White. You remember him? He is the cardinal who fell out with Gregory VII and alleged the pope was living in sin with Matilda of Tuscany and was up to all sorts of shenanigans (check out Episode 35).

Hence pope Gregory and his successor, Pope Paschalis II who was deacon of San Clemente after Hugh the White  had motive and means to literally bury the antipope Wibert and his enabler Hugh the White. If that is true, it would be a rare case of church destruction on ideological grounds.

San Cosmas and Damian vs. Castor and Pollux

The foundation of this church was in 527, when Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths , and his daughter Amalasuntha arranged the donation of two buildings on the Forum to the Church under Pope Felix IV. These building were the Temple of Peace and the “temple of Romulus”

Three interesting observations can be made about this. Firstly, the king was consciously not acting in his own name, but as the agent of Emperor Justinian I in Constantinople. Modern historians may have pretended that the Roman Empire came to an end in the West in 476, but the inhabitants of Rome were not aware of this fifty years later. Secondly, the area of the Roman and Imperial fora was still functioning as part of the city and had not yet fallen into complete ruin. Thirdly, this was the first Christian church to be founded in the area. Again, despite modern popular historical imagination, much of the nobility of Rome was still hostile to Christianity in the 5th century and this may have prevented the provision of churches in the cultic centre of the city before this one.

The new church was not a titulus or a monastic church, but was a diaconia. This meant that it was a centre for the Church’s charitable activities such as helping poor people. When the pope united the two buildings to create a basilica devoted to the two holy Greek brothers and doctors, Cosmas and Damian, he may have been wishing to continue the free public medical services formerly based in the Temple of Peace. There may also have been a deliberate contrast with the ancient pagan cult of the divine twin brothers Castor and Pollux, who had been worshipped on the other side of the Forum in the Temple of Castor and Pollux.

The whole structure was changed many times and today the entrance is no longer on the Forum but from the Via dei Fori Imperiali which has its advantages, i.e., no entrance fee. Go there, even if all you need is shelter from the August heat. It has a lovely shaded little cloister.

But that is not the only reason you may want to get there. The apse of the new church was decorated with a mosaic, representing the parousia (coming at the end of time) of Christ. This work was immensely influential, and art historians have been able to trace its inspiration in mosaics in later Roman churches. It stands nowadays as one of the foremost examples of the old Classical style of depiction starting to mutate into the (then novel) Byzantine style.

San Cosmas & Damian

The mosaics are masterpieces of 6th century ecclesiastical art. The apse mosaic is especially fine, but you need to remember that you should be standing seven metres lower than you actually are, in order to see it as the creators intended. There is a coin-operated light for it at the head of the center aisle in front of the alter.

In the middle is Christ at his parousia, or Second Coming as triumphal judge at the end of time. He is standing on the red clouds of dawn, and is dressed in golden robes with a single monogram I which stands for either Iesus or Imperator. In his left hand he holds the rolled-up scroll of the Torah, which only he is able to interpret. To the left is St Paul, and to the right is St Peter. They are introducing SS Cosmas and Damian to Christ, and it is not possible to tell which is which because the mosaicists followed the tradition that they were identical twins. They are carrying martyrs’ crowns. To the far left is Pope Felix IV, who as founder holds a model of the church; this figure was restored in the 17th century. The reason for this is that Pope Gregory XIII saw fit to alter the figure to show Pope Gregory the Great in the previous century, and a very bad job was done. The Baroque restorers put it right. To the far right is the martyr St Theodore. The figures stand in front of a river labelled Iordanes (Jordan) and are flanked by palm trees.

Note the phoenix on the left-hand palm, a symbol of the resurrection.

San Cosmas & Damian Phoenix

Below Christ is another representation of him, this time as the Lamb of God accompanied by twelve sheep representing the Apostles. The Lamb stands on a hill with Jerusalem on the left and Bethlehem on the right, and from the hill flow the twelve Rivers of Paradise labelled Gion, Pison, Tigris and Eufrata (Euphrates).

Santa Prassede and the running pope

After the destruction of Rome during the Gothic wears (535-554) the city’s population collapsed. The low-lying areas were gradually abandoned and became hotbeds of malaria and other diseases.

There was no longer the money to build splendid rectangular basilicas on brownfield sites. The church began to invade the now abandoned pagan temples, using fallen masonry to create new structures. These are often oddly shaped and Roman columns protrude from the walls.

When pope Paschal I (817-24) began the construction of Santa Prassede, he did intend to create a classic basilica, but it did not really work. the surveying during the construction was seriously badly done and the edifice is “wonky”. The nave walls and colonnades are not parallel, neither are they straight. The transept is not at right angles to the nave’s major axis, and neither are the façade and the atrium.

But it is still standing and it houses one of the greatest early medieval interiors in Rome. Two 9th century mosaics stand out, those on the triumphal arch in the centre of the nave.

The overall theme is the Second Coming of Christ and the End of Time, based on the description given in the “Apocalypse of St John” (Book of Revelation).

On the triumphal arch, the one closest to the nave,The Heavenly Jerusalem is depicted as a walled and gated enclosure with its golden walls set with jewels. In it, Christ accompanied by two angels is venerated by two queues of apostles and saints; to the left, the first two are Our Lady and St John the Baptist, and to the right the first is St Praxedis. At the ends of the queues are Moses and Elijah. The city gates are guarded by another pair of angels, and a further two escort more saints through flowery meadows, with the right hand group led by SS Peter and Paul.

Below this composition, on either side of the arch, are two crowds of people holding crowns and palm branches. These are the multitude of the martyrs. 

And then there is the Apse Mosaic – just look at it

And if you look for some historic context, here is a tale from 1118

The papacy had recovered from the depth of its depravity in the 10th century thanks to a string of powerful popes, namely Leo IX, Gregory VII and Urban II. By 1111 the tide was however turning. Pope Paschalis II made a most unexpected offer to emperor Henry V to return all the lands and privileges the church had received over the centuries in exchange for the emperor no longer interfering with church affairs. That backfired terribly as literally everybody hated the idea, except for the pope and the emperor. Paschalis lost all authority in Rome. The two great Roman families of the Frangipani and the Pierleoni began fighting over control of the seat of Saint Peter.

When Paschalis died in 1118 the Frangipani made their move. The cardinals had elected the former pope’s chancellor as pope Gelasius II. On the day of his election, the Frangipani captured him, put him into a windowless cell and tortured him mercilessly. Censius Frangipani allegedly hissed at him like a giant snake, grabbed the pope by the throat, struck him with his fists, kicked him, drew blood with his spurs and dragged him away by his hair. Had he not been rescued by a mob paid for by the Pierleoni, Pope Gelasius would hold the record for the shortest Pontificate. This way he lasted a year and a bit. In his last months he could not hold the Vatican and hence celebrated mass at the church of St. Prassede, an amazing and truly ancient but size wise very modest building. If you are in Rome, go there it is a wonderful refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Anyway, whilst saying mass he was attacked by Censius Frangipani again and only escaped on a swift horse. His attendants found him hours later sitting in a field, muttering incoherently – still wearing his papal vestments. Gelasius had enough. He left Rome to travel to France and died in the safety of the abbey of Cluny.

His successor Calixtus II was able to regain some semblance of control, but the next election, Honorius II ended with even more bloodshed.

If you want to follow the whole story, including detail about the divisions in the church and the city of Rome around 1130, listen to Episode 45 of The History of the Germans or read the transcript, both available here:…/episode-45-triple…/

Santa Prudenziana

My greatest find on the whole trip was however Santa Prudenziana. Santa Prudenziana, if she existed, was the sister of Santa Prassede but her church is even more undeservedly overlooked.

And overlooking it is easy. The church sits in a non-descript street below Santa maria Maggiore and is itself a couple of metres below street level. The façade is less than impressive and I would have instinctively walked past had I not looked for it.

But this is a true treasure trove. This basilica is recognised as the oldest place of Christian worship in Rome, dating back potentially to the time of the Apostles but more convincingly to the time of pope Pius I (140-155). The popes would reside in this complex until Constantine offered them the palace of the Lateran in 313.

In around 390, the church received its mosaic, which is of prime importance, not just because of its beaty, but also because of its subject.

The magisterial figure of Christ, seated on a gilded throne embossed with jewels and cushioned with purple fabric, recalls ancient representations of Jupiter. The apostles are dressed in togas, like Roman senators. Such images reflect the fundamental change in the role of the church. No longer a persecuted minority that has to hide from authority, Jesus (or god) is now in charge, determines the order man has to live by. You can see visually how the church goes from providing spiritual guidance to being an unquestionable authority, a process we have heard so much about in the podcast.

Image of mosaic in Santa Prudenziana

Today this tiny church is serving the global community of Catholic Filipinos, the largest Christian community in Asia.

I could go on for hours from here. And maybe I will write another post looking at secular medieval buildings in Rome. But if you ever go, sure, do all the classic Roman and renaissance things, but if you have a bit of time on your hand, check out these treasures. They are so worth it. (and also listen to the History of the Germns Podcast – also worth it)

Among the most splendid objects in the great churches of Cologne are large architectural shrines containing relics associated with local as well as biblical saints.

The most celebrated of these is the reliquary for the bones of the Three Kings which dates from around this period. But there were many more. These ambitious goldsmiths’ works are among the greatest artistic achievements of their time.

Refined decorative fragments like the small rectangular plaques shown here are often all that remain of these monumental objects as many of these shrines were dismantled or even destroyed following the secularization of church property in this region in the first decade of the nineteenth century. During later efforts to restore shrines, some fragments were replaced and the originals sold to collectors and museums.

If you want to hear how the Three Kings ended up in a splendid box in Cologne, follow the History of the Germans Podcast which is about to cover this soon. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all major podcasting platforms.

Metropolitan Museum New York

Accession Number: 17.190.2136

#OTD, January 26th 1699 the Great Turkish war ended when the Sublime Porte, the Holy Roman Empire, the Republic of Venice, the Tsar of Russia and the Kingdom of Poland signed the peace of Karlowitz.

The peace of Karlowitz marks a turning point in European history, bringing over 200 years of Ottoman expansion into Europe to an end. In 1683 the Turkish army had besieged Vienna and without the help of the Poles led by King John III, Sobiesky, the city would have fallen. After the siege of Vienna had ended war raged mostly in Hungary.

In July 1697 after years and years of inconclusive fighting the emperor appointed Prince Eugene of Savoy to be the new commander in chief. Within a mere three months Eugene delivered the most comprehensive victory over a Turkish army seen to this date.

At Zenta the Turkish army was crossing the river Tisza thinking the enemy was still a long way away. Their artillery was on a pontoon bridge and hence useless, allowing Eugene’s troops to overrun the position on the shore. Imperial troops also managed to occupy sandbanks in the river allowing them to attack the Ottoman rear. 25,000 Turkish soldiers fell, the entire artillery was lost, as were the supplies.

As a consequence Sultan Mustafa II (1695-1703) had to sue for peace. In the negotiations at Karlowitz the Habsburgs gained Hungary, parts of Croatia and Transylvania, Poland received Ukraine and other areas back that had been occupied by the Turks and Venice gained the Peloponnese.

The Turkish army never really recovered from this defeat and was in constant retreat until World War I. Eugene of Savoy became the most famous military figure in Europe and built himself the marvellous Belvedere Palace in Vienna, where he lived alone as “Mars without Venus”.

And the Habsburgs began building their empire in South-Eastern Europe. The Bavarians and other German states who had sent troops received the emperors eternal gratitude and plunder, but no land or positions.

As always for more German history check out my podcast History of the Germans on most podcasting platforms or on my website

On this day, December 16th, 1740, King Frederick II (the Great) of Brandenburg-Prussia occupied Silesia, until then a possession of the House of Habsburg. Frederick claimed Silesia as compensation for accepting the “Pragmatic Sanction”.

The Pragmatic Sanction was a change in the rules of inheritance prevailing in the Habsburg lands. If the imperial family had died out in the male line, the eldest daughter of the last holder of the title should now inherit the lands. This insurance policy had to be called earlier than expected when Emperor Charles VI died in 1740 and left all to his daughter Maria Theresia.

As soon as Charles VI had passed, various pretenders contested the validity of the Pragmatic Sanction, including Bavaria, Saxony and Prussia. Frederick II stood out for having no claim on Silesia at all – he just wanted it. What he did have was a formidable standing army created by his father who he despised. That army he put to use in Silesia, which he occupied within days.

The invasion of Silesia kicks off a period of near continuous warfare between Austria and Prussia that involved France, Great Britain and several of the German states. It lasts until the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. Prussia and Great Britain emerged as the winners in this, the first global conflict. Britain gains an empire in North America and India and Prussia leapfrogs Bavaria and Saxony to the #2 position in Germany behind Austria.

Prussia’s or more precisely Frederick II’s success was hard won and brought him more than once to the abyss.

The post 1763 power structure in Germany pitted Prussia against Austria for leadership in a future unified German national state. That conflict gets resolved 100 years later in the battle of Königgrätz/Hradic Kralove (1866) and the subsequent creation of the Deutsche Reich under Prussian leadership in 1871.

I am not a fan of the “great man” approach to history, but Frederick II, for good or ill, had been one of the rare individuals whose choices did change the course of history. Without his daring and persistence, Prussia would have remained a mid-ranking state within Germany. National unification would have come about in a very different fashion…

In this week’s episode the last of the Salians will find that despite all his efforts, the tide of history cannot be stemmed, leaving him in exactly the same place his father ended up in 1076.

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Episode 41 – the Duke’s Rebuke

Hello and Welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 41 – The Duke’s Rebuke

In this week’s episode the last of the Salians will find that despite all his efforts, the tide of history cannot be stemmed, almost leaving him in exactly the same place his father ended up in 1076.

Before we start a just a reminder. 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 Andrew, Martha and David who have already signed up.

Last episode we left Emperor Henry V in May 1111 returning from his journey to Rome in triumph. The pope had confirmed the full ancient rights of investiture of the emperors. Not just that but the pope also promised not to bother the emperor ever again about investiture and had renounced any possibility of ever excommunicating him again. And, to top it all off, Henry V had secured the unimaginably rich inheritance of Great Countess Matilda of Tuscany upon her soon to be expected demise.

With more than anything anyone could have hoped to achieve, why the long faces, even amongst Henry’s entourage?

Henry’s close supporters, many of them bishops and abbots were still reeling from the events in Rome that happened before the pope’s hand was dragged over the signature box of the agreement by a rough looking imperial retainer.

You see, before all this heavy handed ness The pope had made a deal with the Emperor whereby the church would hand back all the counties, estates, market rights, mills and mints they had been awarded by the crown in exchange for the emperor renouncing any involvement in the selection and investiture of prelates.

Even though the deal collapsed as soon as it had been made public, for the bishops it was the ultimate betrayal. Their king had been willing to strip them of all their ancient rights and privileges. After all these centuries of service to the king, he was happy to drop them.

It is not just that. If Henry V had indeed taken back all the church’s lands and rights into his direct ownership and control, he would have been able to establish an all-powerful central authority. Something his father, with much less resources had tried to do in Saxony. Imagine what the son could have done with more than a third of all the assets of the country. A tyranny is what the bishops, abbots and their cousins, the dukes, counts, lords and knights would have called it.

It did not happen, but from this moment onwards all these bishops, abbots, dukes, counts, lords and knights no longer believed the king was the guarantor of their rights and freedoms. They now had to protect these rights by joining up together, against the king. It is from now that the documents begin to call all of these potentates, be they secular lords or bishops and abbots as princes. And these princes began to see themselves as the mutual guarantors of each other’s status against royal overreach. The Imperial Church, if it ever was under orders of the king, no longer sees itself as the instrument of the crown. These men, and very few women were Princes now, focused on expanding their territorial power and supporting their brethren.

How sudden this shift happens becomes visible in the person of Adalbert, chancellor of Henry V. He was a member of the inner circle of Henry’s government. He was one of the handful of people involved in  the initial negotiations with Pope Paschalis II that had led to that infamous deal in February 1111. In recognition of his services, Adalbert was made archbishop of Mainz that same year.

When Adalbert arrived at Mainz, he decided that his archdiocese could not rely on the protection from the emperor. What was needed was a strong, coherent territorial power base that would allow him in extremis to give the “dos fingos” to the emperor.

Mainz being a mere 30 miles from the Salian heartlands around Worms the archbishop quickly found himself in a direct conflict with his former boss. The ultimate point of contention was the castle of Trifels, at this point still a modest fortification on a very promising location in the Palatinate. The two former friends came to blows and after alleging Adalbert was about to attack, Henry V had the archbishop arrested in 1112. That resulted in an outcry not just in Germany, but even in Rome where Pope Paschalis II intervened on behalf of his former adversary.

Henry took the Trifels and turned it into an imperial fortress, and probably one of the most famous ones. For a hundred years it will the place where the imperial regalia would be held for safekeeping, and it was also where King Richard Lionheart will be imprisoned.

The conflict with Adalbert was not the only indication that things weren’t right. Whilst Henry V maintained the outright façade of a ruler who acted always in concert with his magnates, backstage he was gradually building a royal territory in the Rhineland, sort of what his father had tried to do in Saxony. For that he relied on his Ministeriales who he supported across the whole of the realm. When he was called to adjudicate conflicts between nobles and Ministeriales, it seemed to the magnates that their Emperor would always side with the Ministeriales.

One of these disputes escalated and the Duke of Saxony with some of his magnates decided to abduct one of these litigious ministeriales who had appealed to the imperial court. That was a direct challenge to imperial authority. Henry V deposed the Duke of Soxony, who was, you may remember a certain Lothar of Supplinburg. Remember the name. He will be important. In this initial effort Henry V was very successful. He apprehended the duke as well as a number of Saxon Magnates. One of them had also been the Count Palatinate holding lands along the river adjacent to the Salian lands. Henry V removed the title and lands and granted them to one of his closest followers. This was again another move to create a coherent power base around his family lands.

In 1113 Henry V looks as if he is on top of the world. His adversaries in Germany have not been able to foil his plans and he calls a royal assembly in Mainz. It is a splendid occasion where Henry V formally marries Matilda of England, now 11 years old. The duke of Saxony, Lothar of Supplinburg submits and is received back into the imperial grace. Some of his co-conspirators are not so lucky and remain in jail.

All that leaves a bitter aftertaste in the mouth of many a mighty lord. The attempt to strip the church of its lands, the expansion of royal territory, the support of the Ministeriales and the incarceration of Adalbert and the conspirators makes Henry V look very much like his dad.

The rebellion starts in Cologne where the archbishop and the now very powerful city reject imperial rule. When Henry V’s attempt to besiege and subdue Cologne fails, the rebels are joined by various Lotharingian nobles, always willing to push back imperial control.

When Henry fights these combined forces and loses the whole of Northern Germany is encouraged to refute imperial authority.

Henry V changes tack and calls a royal assembly in Goslar to debate the issues and maybe find a compromise. When nobody who matters shows up, the severity of the situation is becoming clear.

A major military conflict is now inevitable.

On February 11th, 1115 in a place called Welfenholze the armies of Lothar of Supplinburg, mostly Saxons and people from the lower Rhine face up against the imperial army under Henry’s general, Count Hoyer von Mansfeld.

Not much detail is known about the battle. It seems that at some point the Saxons were under severe pressure and Hoyer von Mansfeld set out to bring the Duke Lothar of Supplinburg down himself. In that attack the imperial general was felled by a Saxon nobleman. After that the imperial army lost cohesion and the Saxons prevailed.

Lothar uses his advantage and  quickly consolidates his position in the North occupying the Harz mountains including the silver mines in Goslar as well as Westphalia. From this point onwards Henry V will no longer have any power in Northern Germany. The citizens of Mainz even force him to release Adalbert their archbishop, who immediately joins Lothar’s army.

The excommunications that had been raining down on henry since 1111 not from the pope himself but from various bishops and archbishops. He could initially ignore them but now the bans are  taking effect. Kicking a guy when he is down. Bishops are leaving the imperial camp as are many of the lay lords. The rebels hold an assembly in Cologne 1115 where they endorse the excommunication.

Henry’s saving grace were the southern lords, the Staufer, the Welfs and the Zaehringer who remained loyal. In that respect he was luckier than his dad who had to fight both the North and the South West. The lack of support in the south may have been the reason his opponents did not proceed to elect an anti-king as they had done in 1077..

From now on there is this odd situation that the country is split in half. The north is run by Lothar of Supplinburg, whilst the south is held by Henry V and his allies. The two sides kept fighting along the faultline, which was more or less along the Rhine and Main rivers. But neither side was able to mount an invasion of their enemy’s territory.

In this gridlock the news break that Matilda of Tuscany has died at the ripe old age of 69. Henry V sees this inheritance as crucial to tilt the overall balance in his favor. With the wealth of Northern Italy behind him he may be able to break his opponent’s stranglehold and establish true imperial control of the Reich. This logic will become the mainstay of imperial policy for the next century. Henry V’s ultimate successors, the Staufer will pursue a strategy of gaining resources in Italy as a means to defeat their enemies in the north.

In this, the first time the plan was implemented, it went surprisingly well. Even though Henry V had arrived without an army, he could take possession of most of Matilda’s assets and awarded her imperial fiefs to loyal men.

Whilst he was in Italy, opportunity came knocking. Pope Paschalis II had been expelled from the city of Rome. You may remember that old aristocracy of the Crescenti and the Tuscolani had become casualties of the Gregorian reform and the subsequent destruction of Rome by Robert Guiscard. By now a new set of families were taking control. The two leading clans now were the Pierleoni and the Frangipani. The Frangipani had risen within the old system of city government and one of their ancestors had been the prefect of the city. They converted the Colosseum into their private fortress. The Pierleoni were of a different sort. They were merchants and financiers who had most probably converted from Judaism in the late 11th century. They operated mainly as an urban family with their headquarters in the former Roman Theatre of Marcellus, that they had converted into their fortress.

At this time several of the ancient Roman monuments served as family strongholds. The Capitoline Hill was the seat of the  Corsi family and the Palatine was held by a other clan. The Mausoleum of Hadrian had been Rome’s most formidable fortification, the Castello Sant Angelo for centuries. As in many Italian cities the ruling families lived in heavily fortified compounds to protect themselves against their rivals.

It was one of these conflicts between the major aristocratic families that led to the expulsion of the Pope. Paschalis II had supported a Pierleoni to become City prefect. That annoyed the Frangipani who started rioting.  The rioters gained the upper hand and the pope, as well as their Pierleoni. Followers had to leave the city.

That meant the city was open for Henry V who entered in early 1117. There was not much for him to do in rome other than demonstrate to Paschalis that he should call back his excommunicating prelates if he wants his city back. But since he was there why not celebrate a coronation.

Maybe a quick word on coronations. There are generally two types. There is the “real coronation where an individual is elevated to a new status as king, queen, emperor or empress. And there are the festive coronations. These are sort of re-enactments of the actual coronation performed quite regularly at major gatherings like royal assemblies or on important church holidays. These were festivals meant to show off the magnificence and holiness of the monarch.

The coronation in Rome in 1117 was probably a bit of both. Henry was already emperor, so for him it was just a reenactment. But his new bride had not yet been crowned empress, so it may have been intended as an elevation of her to imperial status. Henry’s party planners quickly ran up against an obstacle. None of the cardinals still resident in Rome were willing to crown the young lady. Finally, a bishop, Maurice of Braga could be convinced to put a crown on the head of the wife of the emperor. This ceremony, even in the widest definition of the word coronation, could not be regarded as a valid elevation of Matilda to Empress. For that you need a pope actual or antipope, or at least someone authorised by a pope. Maurice of a Braga was neither on the day of Matilda’s coronation. Hence when English history talks about the Empress Matilda, she wasn’t really an empress.

The proceedings were still irritating enough for the actual pope Paschalis II to excommunicate the hapless bishop Maurice of Braga. This did not facilitate any further rapprochement between emperor and pope.

In the summer of 1117 Henry left Rome, as he had to if he wanted to avoid dying from malaria. As we all know, come the summer the Germans die in Rome.  That allowed Paschalis II to get back in, thinking he was made of sterner stuff. Paschalis and his team stayed until January, when Paschalis suddenly died.

The cardinals elected Paschalis chancellor as pope Gelasius II, a man widely seen to be willing to compromise. Henry came down to Rome again in March 1118, which frightened the brand-new pope no end. Gelasius disappeared down south to Gaeta when Henry entered the Holy City.

And then Henry V did something odd, so odd that I simply have no explanation. He made his pet bishop, Maurice of Braga pope who took the papal name Gregory VIII. Why Henry decided to create a schism, something that had so badly hampered his father’s room to maneuver is simply inexplicable. Gregory VIII had no material support in Rome or elsewhere in Europe. It might be that Henry V followed demands of his Roman allies, the Frangipani, but their loyalty should not be worth a full-blown schism. It seems Henry realized his mistake almost immediately. He made no efforts to push his new antipope even in Germany and by June the emperor left Rome to leave Gregory the not really VIII to his fate. That fate would be to be captured by the true pope 4 years later and made to ride through the streets of Rome sitting naked backwards on a donkey. This punishment was not unknown and had been meted out to Roman prefects and popes but in this case was particularly apt as Gregory VIII’s nickname was “Spanish Ass”.

The pointless creation of a schism did not just blight the life of a poor Spaniard, but also meant that the new pope Gelasius II finally came off the fence and publicly excommunicated Henry V. With that the temperature in Germany was rising and the opposition was preparing for a royal assembly in Wuerzburg where the emperor was invited to defend his track record. That sounds far too much like a rerun of the Assembly at Tribur where Henry IV had been threatened with deposition. And that led immediately to Henry IV kneeling in the snow outside the castle of Canossa.

Henry V had no desire for frostbite and returned to Germany in haste. When he arrived the idea of a royal assemby dissipated quickly since the Southern dukes stuck with the emperor.  On the face of it the situation looked almost unchanged from when he had left. The North was held by Lothar, whilst his governors, Duke Frederick of Hohenstaufen and the Count Palatinate Gottfried did a good job at preventing him moving south.

But underneath the surface things have changed. The princes no longer just fought for status, tributes or honor. They were beginning to build what we would later call principalities. They built castles to force their will upon those within their territory, constraining their respective rights and privileges. Lothar did a great job of it in Saxony, making himself the most powerful Saxon Duke since Hermann Billung. And the same goes for his counterpart, Frederick von Hohenstaufen. Frederick did indeed defend the position of his imperial overlord, but at the same time began acquiring lands and castles for his own private estate. The chronicler Otto von Freising will describe this period as the time when the Staufer began building their private power base, their Hausmacht as it will be known from now on. They said of him that he would always pull a castle along the tail of his horse. The princes are on the rise.

By 1119 the war between Henry and Lothar had been going on for 4 years and both sides began to get exhausted. All in the country had been in civil war for more than 40 years since the conflict first started with the Saxon uprising 1073. Occasional periods of peace notwithstanding, the constant devastation had badly hurt the economy and let Germany fall behind France and England in cultural and intellectual leadership.

Even amongst his supporters the pressure to bring this endless conflict to an end was rising. Another opportunity emerged after the Pope Gelasius II had died after less than 2 years in office. His successor was Calixtus II, a Burgundian lord and distantly related to the emperor. He had initially been a harsh opponent of Henry V, but once he had ascended to the papacy had mellowed a bit. Calixtus indicated a willingness to negotiate and invited the German bishops to a council at Reims, close to the Franco-Imperial border.

Discussions between Henry V and the papal negotiators focused on a solution not dissimilar to the solution found in France. Henry offered that the bishops and abbots would be freely elected but had to swear a full oath of fealty to the emperor. And most crucially, that the churchmen were obliged to provide financial and military support to the emperor. 

 This solution seemed to have met with positive noises from the other side and Pope Calixtus was prepared to meet the emperor in person at the border town of Mouzon.

The parties exchanged draft contracts as both the Papal court and the Imperial entourage travelled to the agreed meeting point. The German side specifically believed that all was agreed and all they would do in Mouzon was put pen to paper, crack open the champagne and peace would be upon them.

This may or may not have been the same on the Papal side. But just before the two sides were to meet, the clerks on both sides began to stumble over a formulation in the draft contract. The wording in the papal draft suggests that the obligation of the bishops to support the emperor had a voluntary element to it. That was not acceptable to Henry V. The emperor even though taken aback by what he believed was a last-minute change of terms, he offered to discuss it with the princes.  but in the end, there was no rescuing the negotiations.

Afraid of papal duplicity Henry returned home. Meanwhile the Pope’s negotiators made up a story that Henry had appeared with a large retinue of armored men intend on apprehending the pope. That was followed by a full excommunication and a re-iteration of the total ban on investiture. 

All back to square 1.

But three years later the two sides will finally agree what has become known as the Concordat of Worms. What it says is not earthshattering and certainly not worth 50 years of war and destruction. But then it was never really about investiture in the first place. What it really was about we should explore next week. I hope to see you then.

And in the meantime, should you feel like supporting the show and get hold of these bonus episodes, sign up on Patreon. The links are in the show notes or on my website at

It is hard to believe, but the last years of Henry IV’s tumultuous reign still held one final humiliation that capped the pain this man had already endured.

And that despite a period of relative stability which began after his return to Germany in 1097. Henry IV had accepted that his rule could not be one more than a First amongst Equals. He reconciled with his enemies in Swabia and Bavaria, largely by bribing them with valuable crown lands and settled into his new favourite residence in Mainz. The only one he did take issue with was the archbishop of Mainz for his involvement in the murder of the Jewish community under his protection.

He even attempted a lasting reconciliation with the Gregorian papacy admitting to having broken the unity of the holy mother church. But the new Pope, Paschalis II was not playing ball, leaving this issue as an open wound…long after the antipope Clement III had died.

The internal weakness of his regime became apparent when one of the guests at his imperial assembly in Regensburg ends up murdered by Ministeriales…..