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.

King Henry IV embarks on his ambitious castle building project around Goslar, Otto of Northeim delivers a rousing speech, Saxons rebel, royal bones are thrown in the rubbish, brother fights brother…and more! Listen here https://history-of-the-germans.captivate.fm/listen

Picture: Burg Hanstein Carl Duval (1807-1853) Wikimedia Commons

Shownotes:

In 1065 king Henry IV begins his personal rule. After 9 years of regency imperial power is much diminished. Under the rule of Anno of Cologne and Adalbert of Hamburg-Bremen prelates and lords are raiding the imperial purse. When the barons force the young king to dismiss his main adviser, he realises that the previous model of kingship no longer works. He cannot rely on the oaths of fealty sworn by his counts and dukes, nor can he put faith in the Imperial Church System his predecessors could draw on.

The royal lands around the rich silver mines of Goslar are the nucleus for his new, territorial power base. Mighty castles on the tops of mountains project royal power, a governor, rather than a count heads his administration, and most of the castles’ garrison and administrators are ministeriales, unfree men trained in war.

This new policy clashes with the Saxons, the stem that already stood in opposition to Henry’s father and plotted to murder him when he was a child. In 1073 Otto of Northeim delivers his famous speech that turned disaffection into outright rebellion. In 18 months, Henry IV’s Saxon War will become a rollercoaster hurtling from unconditional surrender to triumph – but is the triumph going to last?

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

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