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:

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Hello and welcome to the history of the Germans – Episode 29 The last years of Henry III.

Last episode we left Henry III at the height of his power.  He had deposed 3 popes and put a new set of popes in place who responded to the great desire of Christendom, the reform of the church. The popes would fight the corruption of simony, the licentiousness of priests and the renew discipline in monasteries. In 1046 Henry III was not just master of the spiritual world, he also believed he had absolute dominion over his realm.

Oh Henry, cherish the moment, because this is not to last.

We already heard that the Saxons were chafing under the rule of a Southern overlord. Henry’s policy of expanding the crown domain into Saxony and his support to the bishops of Hildesheim, Halberstadt and most of all Hamburg-Bremen irritated the dukes of Saxony and its major nobles. In 1046 Margrave Ekkehard of Meissen, one of Saxony’s wealthiest and most powerful magnates died childless. When he bestowed all his possessions to Henry III, the Saxons saw the encroachment tightening further.

At the same time the Slavs to the east of the duchy resumed hostilities. The defending nobles did not receive any support from the emperor, and even the bishoprics in Saxony failed to contribute to the defence of the realm. In 1056 a major Saxon army was defeated near the mouth of the Havel River, a defeat blamed on the absent emperor and his hostile policy towards the ancient heartland of the empire. Miraculously Saxony does not rebel yet.

That is something that cannot be said about the recently subjugated Hungarians. In 1044 Henry III had fought the successful battle of Ménfő and put king Peter Orseolo back on the throne. This improbable king of the Hungarian whose father had been the doge of Venice had stubbornly continued the policies that had already lost him the throne once. As before he relied of foreigners to govern the kingdom, mainly Germans and Italians who received all the plum jobs, rich heiresses and splendid fiefs. Last time the enraged Hungarians took only his crown and sceptre and sent him on his merry way. This time round they hoped to accelerate the learning process by taking his eyesight. It remains unclear whether the treatment worked since king Peter either passed shortly afterwards or ended his days in relative obscurity in Bohemia.

The new king of Hungary was Andreas, son of Vazul who was so brutally executed by Saint Stephen. Despite all possible grudges Andreas might have had against the emperor he did sent envoys with humble entreaties, offered subjugation to imperial rule and restitution for the treatment of Peter. Admittedly Andreas had not many options since a pagan uprising was still raging across Hungary and he needed calm frontiers to sort that out.

Henry III was given the choice between accepting Andreas as his new unruly vassal or fighting to avenge the feckless Peter. He chose, not to choose, which is probably the worst of all available options. Admittedly he was distracted by events in Lothringia we will talk about in a second. Doing nothing was particularly bad because it allowed Andreas to sort out his domestic issues without ending up in an obligation to the emperor. And when Henry III finally got round to attacking Hungary Andreas had built a string of border defences and renewed his army.

Between 1050 and 1053 Henry attacked Hungary every year without much success. Sometimes his troops are being lured deep into the Great Hungarian Plain until the supply lines become overstretched making the starved soldiers on their emaciated steeds an easy prey for the fearsome horse archers. On other occasions the Hungarians held out in their re-enforced defensive structures like the castle of Pressburg/Bratislava until the emperor had to turn back home. Counterattacks into Bavaria followed that will become costly as you will see later.

In between these military campaigns the Hungarians would regularly offer peace and submission provided the emperor accepts Andreas as king. Even pope Leo IX intervenes on Andreas’ behalf. But Henry III remains stubborn.

The inability of Henry III to bring the Hungarians to heel affects the whole of his eastern European policy. The Polish duke Kasimir, who -after all- owes his throne to Henry III is contemplating rebellion, aka refusal to pay tribute. Equally the new duke of Bohemia links up with Hungary in 1055. Andreas marries the daughter of Jaroslav, Grand Prince of Kiev who had created a veritable network of allies surrounding Henry III. Jaroslav had married one of his daughters to the king of Norway and another to the king of France after Henry III had refused that self-same daughter.

Henry III’s Eastern European policy has not yet collapsed but is under severe threat.

What stopped Henry III to go  immediately after King Andreas of Hungary was another, ultimately unnecessary fight. You remember that in 1046, just before going down to Rome, Henry III had released Godfrey the Bearded from his jailcell and re-instated him as duke of Upper Lothringia.

While in Rome, Henry issued another one of his peace proclamations where he forgave all his enemies and in turn expected everyone else to forgive those who had trespassed against them. Godfrey the bearded was explicitly excluded from this act of mercy, a terrible affront that is hard to explain given Henry III had just received Godfrey back into his grace.

Despite this rudeness Godfrey still towed the line and remained a faithful servant. That only changed when the Dietrich, count of Holland continued his attempts to expand his territory at the expense of the empire and the bishop of Utrecht. Rumours were going around that the King of France had offered Dietrich support. Henry’s attempt to bring Dietrich to heel fell short as he struggled with the waterlogged conditions. On his return the locals were chasing the imperial troops with small ships like pirates killing many.

Seeing the mighty emperor flailing about, Godfrey saw a way to restore his honour. He joined Dietrich of Holland who had gathered another set of magnates in his quest, Baldwin, the count of Flanders and Hermann, count of Hainault. Now pretty much all of the Netherlands, Belgium plus what is today Lorraine are in open revolt. They devastate the imperial Pfalz in Nijmegen, one of the great residences inherited from Carolingian times where Theophano died and Henry III had got married in 1036. Godfrey burns the  city of Verdun to the ground and many imperial castles fell to the conspirators. This is now a serious threat to the Imperial rule.

What does Henry III do? He raises a previously unknown count, Adalbert of Longwy to be the new duke of upper Lothringia. That does not last long since Godfrey killed Adalbert in an ambush within a year. Henry III now appoints his brother, Gerard of Chatenois to be the new duke. Just as an aside, his family would rule Lorraine until the 18th century and with Francis I marriage to Maria Theresia become the ancestors of the Habsburgs in the male line. Not bad for a second rate count. But apart from this great optionality the count of Chatenois gets very little in terms of help from the emperor.

The picture turned in Henry’s favour after 1049, first because the bishops of Utrecht, Liege and Metz gang up on Dietrich of Holland and lure him into trap where he gets killed. Godfrey tries to take over Holland after Dietrich’s demise but get expelled by the bishops. These three bishops are clearly not to be messed with. The other military support came when henry could mobilise Danish and English ships against the count of Flanders whose expansion had raised concerns with the other states along the North Sea coast.

The final blow came when Henry III took advantage of having a pet pope in the form of Leo IX. He excommunicated both Baldwin of Flanders and 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 with Henry III.

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. As it happened the empire was either unwilling or unable to step into this vacuum which ultimately led to a fragmentation of power in Lothringia that weakened 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, to which Hainault belonged. 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 the 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 Hennegau.

The situation is so dire that Henry III calls Godfrey the Bearded back. Not that he makes him duke again, but he gets some of his lands back. He even gets a role in the war against Baldwin of Flanders. This gradual reconciliation may have been brought about by pope Leo IX. Leo IX had been bishop of Toul and had been close to the family of Godfrey the Bearded. Godfrey’s brother, Frederick was Leo IX’s chancellor.

But that improvement to the relationship did not last. For once it was not Henry III’s behaviour that led to the breakdown, but Godfrey himself. In 1054 he married Beatrix, widow of the count Boniface of Canossa and Tuscany.

Boniface was the most powerful secular lord in Northern Italy. He was a creature of the imperial rule in Italy through and through. His family owed its rise from obscurity to Empress Adelheid who awarded them with Mantua and other counties in the 960s and Konrad II had awarded Boniface the mighty county of Tuscany in 1027. His relationship with the imperial house was further strengthened when he married Beatrix, a wealthy niece of Konrad II. His lands comprised a band of cities and fortresses going east to west across Italy including Mantua, Parma, Reggio, Modena, Pisa, Lucca, Florence, Brescia and Verona. Imperial rule in Italy was simply unimaginable without Boniface’ support. Boniface stopped French ambitions on the Italian crown after Henry II’s death and fought Odo of Blois for Konrad II

The relationship between Boniface and Henry III must have become fraught after the two men met in Florence in 1046. By 1047 when Boniface opposed the emperor and supported a futile attempt by the ex-pope Boniface IX to return to Rome. When Boniface died in a hunting accident/ambush in 1052, rumours spread that Henry III had his hand in the game. There were other people who held a grudge against Boniface who had conquered and burned many a city in Italy, so the rumour is likely unfounded. After all, it might have been the angry boar.

But do you notice something here? A lot of Henry III’s problems after 1046 stem from his stubbornness. Why did he insist on fighting king Andreas of Hungary who was constantly trying to become his vassal? What is it Godfrey the bearded had done to be excluded from the indulgence of 1046? And now he is clearly falling out with his most powerful vassal in Italy. Historians have two explanations. One is that henry III had a notion of imperial dignity that did not allow the slightest compromise or challenge to his rule. Hence King Peter, incompetent as he was, needed to be avenged, Godfrey and Boniface were simply too powerful to be tolerated. The other theory is that the change in behaviour came about after his illness in 1045. During that illness the magnates feared for the emperor’s life and -since he had no son at the time – lined up a Count Palatinate as his successor, just in case. It seems something in this period had changed Henry’s personality and outlook that contributed to the tensions with his magnates.

No bonus points for guessing Henry’s reaction when he realises his archenemy Godfrey has just got hold of a big chunk of Northern Italy by marrying the widow of Boniface.  Imagine Godfrey teams up with the Normans who had just won the battle of Civitate. Suddenly Godfrey would be the master of Rome and hence of the Papacy.

Godfrey tried to assure Henry of his unwavering loyalty, but there was nothing going. Henry mobilised all his supporters in Italy to oust Godfrey, which they managed even before the year 1054 was out. In 1055 when Henry came down to Rome for a second time, he had the dowager countess Beatrix and her daughter Matilda arrested and sent to Germany. Frederick, the heir to the lands of Boniface died around that time under mysterious circumstances, making Matilda the heiress to one of the largest territorial lordships in Southern Europe. That makes her the Matilda of Tuscany, who will play such an important role in our narrative going forward.

You would think that with Saxony grumbling, Hungary resisting, Lothringia in perennial revolt and a key ally in Northern Italy lost, this would be the full compliment of later rule issues for an emperor.

But no. You may remember that two episodes ago I said we would get back to the awarding of the Southern duchies to major magnates. Now is the time.

Henry III started his reign being Duke of Bavaria, Swabia and Carinthia as well as king of Burgundy. By 1050 all these duchies have been granted to other magnates, the only title he keeps is King of Burgundy. According to Egon Boshof the political logic was that the empire needed these mid-layers between the counts and lords on the one hand and the emperor on the other to function. Since Henry the Fowler only one duchy has ever been dissolved, Franconia after the rebellion against Otto the Great. But that did not last since the Salians established a power-base within the old duchy of Franconia that effectively replaced it. Given the fact duchies are necessary, Henry III decided to hand them to magnates whose main possessions lay outside the duchy. That way the new duke would be dependent upon the emperor. Or so he thought.

By 1052 the duke of Bavaria is Konrad, member of the powerful Ezzonian family. The Ezzonians’ main territories lay along the Rhine north of Cologne. By now they were no longer nouveau riche but highest nobility, tracing their line back to Otto the Great. Konrad of Bavaria like his predecessors, had been appointed directly by the emperor without regard to ancient Bavarian traditions that allowed for an election of their duke. All that should have made sure he had little support amongst the Bavarian nobility.

What happens next is a bit unclear. Some sources talk about a personal clash between Konrad and Henry over a marriage proposal. And there is also the question of what to do with regards to Hungary. Bavaria was the main battlefield of the Hungarian war which caused a lot of damage. It seems Konrad could not quite see the point of perennial, un-winnable conflict for the sake of revenge for an inept and now long dead former king. On this point he clashed with the Gebhard, bishop of Regensburg who took a hard line. The feud between Gebhard and Konrad escalated into full on revolt by the duke, who found support amongst the Bavarian nobles tired of having their lands raided.

Henry III deposes Konrad who flees to Hungary. He then awards the duchy successively to his 2-year-old son Henry, then Henry’s little brother and finally his wife, Agnes of Poitou. When Gebhard of Regensburg did not get the regency over Bavaria, he joined the rebels as well, as did duke Welf of Carinthia. This is now a major, major problem. The conspirators are putting plans together to have Henry murdered and Konrad to be made king. This plan would have had a good chance of succeeding given the issues in Saxony and Lothringia and the fact that henry III’s heir was a child of 4 or five at the time.

Luckily for Henry the rebellion collapsed when the main instigators, Konrad of Bavaria and Welf of Carinthia died in 1055. Gebhard of Regensburg is put in jail but returns to his bishopric after a year. Another conspirator ends up as duke of Carinthia in 1056.

This highlights the big difference between the way the emperors managed their realm and the way the French kings go about it. No French king in the 11th to 13th century would ever, in his wildest dreams, hand over a vacant duchy or county to another magnate, unless forced. Because the French nobles are constantly at war with the king, the logic for the king is to grab hold of any plot of land he can get his hands on and build an infrastructure that allows him to administrate this land without having to enfeoff it to someone else. When Phillippe Auguste in the 13th century rebuilds the French monarchy, he takes over Normandy and the County of Toulouse amongst others and incorporates them into the crown lands.

Compared to France, the empire is largely at peace. The prevailing ideology is that the empire is run through a consensus between the emperor and his major vassals who give him support in war and advice in peacetime. Yes, the emperors did try to build a territorial structure in the crown lands of Saxony around Goslar and in Franconia around Speyer. But that is small fry compared with whole duchies they often held in their hands. They did not create a bureaucracy that could manage a whole duchy directly on their behalf. It seems that ducal positions had to be granted to members of the highest nobility to maintain that semblance of consensual rule. The emperors increasingly relied on the church to provide administration, military support and a counterbalance to the dukes..

Talking about the church, Henry III even managed to weaken that pillar of his realm. The first incidence involved the bishop of Cambrai. The bishop’s lands had been subject to raids by the rebels in the endless Lothringian wars. One of his particular scourges was his neighbour, John of Arras. At some point in the fighting Henry III needed the support of John of Arras. He offered John the role of count of Cambrai if he would switch sides. Henry may well have thought that the bishop of Cambrai would accept this tactical decision. But he did not. Henry, caught between his promise to John and his obligation to the loyal bishop took the wrong decision. He forced the bishop to accept John using force. That caused no end of concern amongst the bishops of Lothringia who had been the main combatant on the imperial side. Equally bishop Wazo of Liege found himself exposed to imperial displeasure when he signed a truce with Godfrey the Bearded after a long siege and the emperor had failed to send relief.

These may be minor issues caused by a lack of understanding of the political situation in Lower Lothringia. But there is a broader context that causes the churchmen to question their position. We have no data on how severe the imperial demands for military assistance from the bishops and abbots were in 1050. If already by 982 the majority of imperial troops had been raised by bishops and abbots, it is likely that after a further 70 years of Imperial Church policy the army was predominantly provided by the church. We did hear about the abbot of Fulda’s complaint to send even more soldiers  after the previous contingent had been all but wiped out.

Polemic against the burden of military service on the churches is circulating and at a Synod in Rheims, presided over by pope Leo IX the bishops reiterate the ancient ban on military service for the clergy.

Equally churchmen begin to question the level of involvement of the emperor in the management of the church. Wazo of Liege wonders in 1046 on what grounds Henry III can remove the correctly ordained archbishop of Ravenna? And equally, is it really the emperor’s job to depose three popes in Sutri before appointing another? Aren’t the spiritual and the secular realm separate, one ruled by the pope and the other by the emperor. Wazo, who is otherwise a staunchly loyal supporter of the emperor even questions the anointment of the king. It is, he argues, not the same as the anointment of a bishop, whose aim is to give life, whilst the kings anointment gives him the right to condemn people to death.

Anonymous treatises start to circulate which condemn Henry III for his uncanonical marriage to Agnes of Poitou who was too closely related. This incestuous marriage makes him an infamus, a man without honour, who cannot even sit in judgement over laymen, let alone judge clerics or even popes.

When the abbot Halinard is elevated to archbishop of Lyon in 1046, he refuses to swear the customary oath of fealty. Halinard argues that his obligation is to first and foremost to god and the diocese, so swearing fealty would be perjury. Henry III had to accept Halinard’s refusal and invests him without oath.

The fact that the marriage to Agnes of Poitou was uncanonical is a recurring issue in the relationship with the church and undermines Henry’s position as leader of the church reform. The abbot of the important reform monastery of Gorze publicly and private criticised the marriage and the whole atmosphere at court and Henry’s choice of advisers.

And even in Rome Pope Leo IX was disappointed in the lacklustre support he received for his plans to fight the Normans. Henry III offered a small number of troops and allowed ambitious men to follow the papal flag, which attracted rogues and adventurers rather than proper fighting men who ran for cover at Civitate.

Towards the end of his reign Hermann of Reichenau, our most reliable chronicler writes: quote “At this time 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 from day to day; that he was gradually turning towards acquisitiveness and a certain negligence and that he would become much worse than he was before”.

Henry III died on October 5th at his palace in Bodfeld in the Harz mountains aged just 39. He leaves behind his eldest son, Henry IV who is just 6 years old when his father succumbs.

Henry III had tried for a son for a very long time. His first wife Gunhild only provided him with a daughter and Agnes of Poitou bore him three daughters before the long-desired son arrived on November 11th, 1050 in Goslar. Henry III must have already known that he had not much time left. He made his nobles swear fealty to the newborn and again at his christening a year later. In July 1054 the now 4-year old was anointed and crowned by the archbishop of Cologne in Aachen, making him king alongside his father after having been elected in Tribur 1053.

All this looks smooth, though the election of henry IV had an unusual quirk. The nobles elected him and swore to serve him for as long as he reigned as a “just king”. In other words, they reserved the right to refuse suit in case young Henry IV does not turn out a good king who respects the rights of the nobility.

Well, we will find out in the next few episodes whether Henry IV is going to live up to these standards, whether the foremost and the lower men of the kingdom will give him suit as the just king when it is most crucial.

But before we go there, I have something special for you. As you know the History of the Germans Podcast has no advertising and I have no intention to go down that route in the future. However, what I am happy to do is help promote other podcasters whose work I respect and admire. Hence next week you will find Episode 1 of the Thugs and Miracle podcast by Benjamin Bernier in your feed. Benjamin is an exceptional storyteller who has taken it upon himself to bring you the story of France from the Fall of the Roman Empire to the fall of the Guillotine. In his more than 50 episodes to date he brings the ancient kingdom of the Franks to life. As you may know, I am not a huge fan of the so-called dark ages and have skipped over them somewhat casually. Listening to Benjamin I am wondering whether that was such a good idea. There are some truly fabulous stories there I missed. But only because I missed out does not mean you have to miss out. So listen in to Thugs and Miracles next week. I will be back on air on September 9th. See you then

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.