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Episode 31 - The (second) Saxon War
Episode 3123rd September 2021 • History of the Germans • Dirk Hoffmann-Becking
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In 1065 king Henry IV begins his personal rule. After 9 years of regency., the last 3 of which under a government of barons headed by archbishop Anno of Cologne, imperial power is much diminished. 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 operates. 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.

He chooses the royal lands around the rich silver mines of Goslar as the nucleus for his new, territorial power base. He builds mighty castles on the tops of mountains that project royal power, he installs a governor, rather than a count as the head of 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 who had already stood in opposition to Henry's father and had plotted to murder him when he was only a child. In 1073 the Saxons gather in an assembly to hear Otto of Northeim 's famous speech that turned disaffection into outright rebellion. In 18 months, Henry IV's Saxon War will become a rollercoaster where he goes from unconditional surrender to triumph - but is the triumph going to last?

The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.

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Episode 31 – The (second) Saxon War

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 31 The (second) Saxon War

I think I have to apologise for last weeks oversized episode. I am trying to keep the length to 25-30 minutes with a tolerance up to 35 minutes. 43 minutes was definitely too long. The problem came about because we reached one of these moments of high drama when the three strands of the Investiture Controversy come together. The struggle between imperial power and the magnates, the popular movement demanding church reform and the expanding role and conception of the papacy.

Today’s job should be a touch easier because we will predominantly focus on the first of these three, the escalating tensions between the young king Henry IV. and his Saxon barons. I say should, because it is not that simple.

One of the problems are the sources. Up until now most of the sources, be it Widukind, Liudprand of Cremona, Thietmar of Merseburg, Wipo, Hermann of Reichenau etc were usually supportive of the emperors but not excessively biased. Some had to be taken with a grain of salt as they skipped bits or put their favourite ruler into a better light. But they did not as a rule make things up. The chroniclers we have for the second half of the 11th century are different. Since the controversy between emperor and pope goes to the heart of people’s identity and beliefs, there is no neutral or semi neutral observer.

The main sources, namely Bruno who wrote the Book of the Saxon Wars and Lambert of Hersfeld whose annals provide a detailed account of Henry IV. reign are both heavily biased against the emperor. And when I say biased, I really mean biased. Bruno in particular accuses Henry IV. of all sorts of all sorts of treachery and licentiousness up to the rape of nuns, incest with his sister and premeditated murder. Henry IV. much less effective PR machine retaliates with accusations of papal love affairs with Matilda of Tuscany etc.

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With almost all the sources painting a negative picture of Henry IV. and a big black hole where his own PR machine should be left historians with a serious dilemma. It is hard to dismiss the accusations entirely, since one of the consistent demands of Henry IV.’s enemies was for him to be subjected to an enquiry into his “crimes”. They would not have done that if he had had been whiter than white. But how much of that are we to believe? And if we do not believe it, what was he like instead?

In the 19th century German historians tried to dismiss the notion of Henry IV. as a debauched and incompetent ruler. Modern historians like Gerd Althoff have concluded that there was something, even to Bruno’s accusations and attribute at least some of the difficulties in his reign to his personality. Stefan Weinfurther highlights the unwillingness of Henry IV. to adhere to the traditional methods of imperial rule and conflict resolution as a major contributing factor to his failures.

Well, I will try to stay as close to the current consensus as I can, but with the sources as they are, I am likely to fall for my own biases as we go through this story. Apologies in advance. All angry comments please DM me, if you like what you hear, feel free to put it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.

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As we heard last week, imperial power had been receding under the regency of Agnes of Poitou. But once Anno of Cologne had abducted the young king and created a new government, things became nearly anarchic. Archbishop Anno of Cologne and his co-conspirators could not retain control unchallenged. They had to concede a role to their archenemy, Archbishop Adalbert of Hamburg-Bremen. That does not stop regular conspiracies aimed at removing Anno and/or Adalbert. It seems that all that the magnates cared about was to expand their personal power as quickly as possible, presumably thinking that once the king would get a handle on the levers of state, the party would be over.

We have little evidence about the rapaciousness of the secular lords, but there are some juicy stories about our two archbishops. Our friend Anno was accused of putting his family members into the plum bishoprics all across the country, and indeed one of his brothers became archbishop of Magdeburg, a cousin became bishop of Halberstadt and another was earmarked to become archbishop of Trier. That latter one did not make it though. The people of Trier were sufficiently irritated about not having any say in the matter who their bishop should be that they captured the pretender upon arrival and had him thrown down from the highest cliff.

Adalbert was no better. He tried to take over some of the most storied and richest imperial monasteries like Malmedi and Kornelimuenster. When he tried to take over Lorsch, south of Frankfurt, he had to contend with a bunch of very angry monks. They, quite understandably, argued that they cannot see any reason why the church of Hamburg, 550km north would be a suitable spiritual overlord.

With the government split right down the middle, imperial policy effectively seized to function. After the debacle of the papal schism that Agnes had created, a journey to Rome and a lavish coronation would have been paramount to restore imperial prestige. As part of the settlement of the schism, pope Alexander II was happy to crown young Henry IV. He might also have hoped to entice the emperor into a campaign against the Normans who had become a little too full of themselves after helping to end the schism.

Equally the Northern Italian bishops wanted their king to come and sort out the Pataria uprisings in Milan and other cities. I mentioned this popular movement last week. The citizens of Milan and elsewhere had requested a clean-up of their diocese where literally all priests had paid for their offices and the canons lived in luxury with their wives and children. When the archbishop refused he was thrown out and lacked the military resources to get back in. What did not help the bishop was that the Pataria enjoyed the support of at least parts of the papal administration.

Basically, it was high time to go down to Rome. Twice did the imperial army muster in Augsburg, and twice did they ultimately decide not to go. Squabbling amongst the magnates was the main reason.

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The anti-Henry propaganda machine accused Adalbert of spoiling the child-king, telling him that he could do whatever he desired, as long as he manages to get absolution on his deathbed. According to the super biased chronicler Bruno, Henry IV maintained 2-3 mistresses at any time and had ordered all the pretty girls to be brought to him, if necessary, by force.

I would not doubt that a sixteen-year-old with no parental supervision would indulge himself in bad behaviour. And I can also see that Adalbert would not admonish the young king too severely for transgressions since he was his only political asset.

However, I doubt it needed all that for Henry IV. to support Adalbert against the hated archbishop Anno of Cologne. Adalbert had been a close associate of his father and was supporting a strong central imperial power. Anno and his associates represented the powers that wanted to expand the baronial prerogatives at the expense of the empire.

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Henry IV. and some of his followers raced to Trebur to confront the princes. To give you an idea how precarious the position of the king already was, let me tell you the story about what happened the day before that meeting. This is the story as it was told by Lampert of Hersfeld, the other main chronicler and opponent of the Salian policies.

According to him, 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 peasant or -shame of shames- a dancing girl felled the count Werner who commanded the royal bodyguard. 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.

Not much has to be said about the fate of Adalbert of Bremen. A king who cannot feed his men and protect his wounded soldiers cannot decide who should be his main advisor. Adalbert was to go, or more precisely to run back to Hamburg protected by the few soldiers the impecunious king could spare.

A few weeks later Henry IV falls severely ill. So severely ill the doctors give him up and the magnates begin discussion about who should succeed the king. But he recovers and by Pentecost he is back in health.

No chronicler says it, but my sense is that it is right after the meeting in Trebur and his recovery 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.

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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 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.

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Back to the castles. They were designed to project royal power. But they were nothing new, not even in Saxony. The nobles of Saxony had engaged in the construction of mountaintop castles decades before Henry IV. started his building program. As I said before, the construction of castles is a clear indicator of deteriorating central power. And since the last years of Henry III and then even more under the regency, central power had declined and castles have risen in unison. And you may have noticed that the names of people have changed. Otto of Northeim, Rudolf of Rheinfelden are all named after their main possessions, aka their castles. Up until then major aristocrats were referenced by their ancestry, the Ezzone Konrad or the Konradiner Eberhard etc. If that was not distinctive enough, they were named after their title, margrave Eckehard of Meissen, duke Godfrey the Bearded. Some made it even easier, by calling themselves just Welf I, II, II or IV. But from now on, aristocrats are referred to first and foremost by the name of their main castle, rather than their family or title. What this castle-building also means is that the model of peace by edict of Henry III had ended, making the life of the peasants in the empire just that little bit harder.

Whilst the walls of the Harzburg and other fortifications are going up, the empire is shaken by a sequence of scandals that further undermine the imperial reputation.

The first one is entirely of Henry IV. making and concerns his marriage. Long ago, when Henry IV. was a child, his father had engaged him to marry Bertha, daughter of the Count of Savoy. That seems a rather odd choice, since as future emperor he should get married to a byzantine princess or absent that, at least the daughter of a king, not a mere count. Bertha’s family had however one key asset, which will become important as we go further, and that was the alpine pass of Mont Cenis. This pass, south of Mont Blanc was of major strategic importance as the connecting road between France and Italy. As the empire already controlled all other Alpine passes, Mont Cenis was the missing link that made sure no other power could get into Italy. In principle the emperor should not need the Count of Savoy for that since Mont Cenis was in Burgundy and Henry was already king of Burgundy. But Burgundy was a kingdom very much in principle, in practice Mont Cenis was held by the count of Savoy. And the count’s price for the pass was to become grandpa of an emperor.

To make sure Bertha was at least brought up to an imperial standard, she was delivered aged 6 to the imperial court where she grew up in the household of Henry’s mother, the empress Agnes of Poitou.

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By 1069 Henry IV. wants a divorce. At the Reichstag in Worms he stands up and declares that he simply “does not think he and his wife are a good match”. He says that he is simply tired of pretending that the relationship was ok., when it was not. He does not accuse her of anything, that would warrant a divorce. But he, be it by fate or divine order, cannot be in a marital relationship with her. He therefore asks for the grace of God to be released from these chains. He hopes that she would find a happier life in another marriage and if needed, he would swear that the marriage had never beenconsummated..

This strikes me as a very modern grounds for a divorce. The fact that two people just simply are not meant to be together. But an 11th century royal marriage is not an agreement between two adults looking for fulfilment and happiness. It is a political contract, and that meant, liking each other is not a requirement. The pope sends Peter Damian up to Germany to explain these simple facts to the young king and he accepts the verdict. Henry and Bertha will from then on have a strong relationship where she will stand by him even in the most challenging moments and be more loyal than his own mother was. The couple had 5 children.

Step back. What was that. Henry IV. asks for a divorce because he does not think a relationship is possible and wants her to be happy with someone else. And then -when forced- fulfils the marriage and things turn out ok.

I am going out on a limb here, but it seems as if the most obvious point is completely overlooked by most historians Bertha and Henry have grown up together since they were five. They have grown up in a super tense environment where empress Agnes was clearly out of her depth most of the time. His older sisters have been sent away to become abbesses or have died early. It is not impossible that Henry and Berth felt more like siblings than marital partners. That would explain his insistence on her being blameless and his wish that she would be happy with someone else. It would also explain why the couple could maintain a relationship of trust and friendship despite his attempt at divorce.

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As we have heard before the Saxon nobles had been on a roll with attempts at the life of the Salians. The brother of the duke of Saxony may have tried to murder Emperor Henry III in 1048 and in 1057 the Saxon nobles conspired to have Henny IV. killed, a child of 7 at the time. There is no indication that Otto of Northeim was involved, but it is unlikely the Saxons kept him in the dark. The attempt on Henry’s life was foiled as allies of the king encountered the Saxon contingent by chance outside the royal palace and killed them.

Northeim then appears again as a co-conspirator in the coup at Keiserswerth, something that cannot have endeared him to Henry IV.

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In 1070, a certain Enigo, a thug of ill repute, claims publicly that Otto of Northeim had tried to hire him to murder the king. Otto of Northeim strenuously denies the claim. In classic 11th century fashion, when it is one man’s word against another’s, the resolution has to be through trial by combat. Otto of Northeim initially accepts the ruling but does then not appear on the set dates in Goslar to fight for his honour. Under the circumstances Otto could demand a judgement in default, which the Saxon nobles assembled as the jury granted. Otto of Northeim was stripped of the duchy of Bavaria, all other fiefs and of his allodial possessions. Northeim is also declared an outlaw.

According to the chronicler Bruno, this was all a plot by Henry IV. to strip Northeim of his possessions. Bruno even alleges that Northeim would have been killed on the king’s orders even if he had won the trial by combat. I find in particular the latter hard to believe. The trial would have taken place in full view of the Saxon nobles and if Henry would have wanted to pull a stunt like this, his reputation would have suffered immeasurable damage. That in combination with the string of assassination attempts by Saxon nobles and the mysterious death of his ministeriales the year before makes it likely that there was something to this allegation.

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After Northeim’s fall, the duchy of Bavaria had been given to Welf IV upon recommendation of Rudolf of Rheinfelden, the powerful duke of Swabia. Over the years Rheinfelden and the duke of Carinthia, Berthold of Zaehringen had mended their relationship that had been strained when Rheinfelden was made duke of Swabia, a role Zaehringen thought was his. That now created a major political block in the south where Rheinfelden could rely on support from both the duke of Carinthia and his old friend Welf IV the newly appointed duke of Bavaria.

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Again, who knows what went on. Maybe Henry Iv. looked at the comparatively easy win over Otto of Northeim and thought, hey this is a brilliant tool to break the power of his magnates. Or Rheinfelden looked at the events in Saxony and thought to himself, time to strike now before this king gets ever more powerful. Or it was indeed a misunderstanding over the indeed gorgeous monastery of St. Blasien.

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That came just in time, because events are now accelerating.

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In June of 1073 the magnates of Saxony, including the bishops of Magdeburg, Halberstadt, Hildesheim, as well as Hermann Billung, uncle of the incarcerated duke Magnus of Saxony and Otto of Northeim appear before the emperor in Goslar demanding an audience to discuss the castle building program.

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The Saxon magnates are now infuriated to the max. A month later they meet at Hoetensleben for an assembly. There Otto of Northeim gives his famous speech, which I will try to translate here. Thanks, by the way to deepl.com whose free translation service has become a lifesaver for this podcast. Here is Otto of Northeim:

“The calamities and disgraces that our king has brought upon each one of you for a long time are great and unbearable, but what he still intends to do, if the Almighty God permits him, is even greater and more severe. Strong castles he has erected, as you know, numerous in places already firm by nature, and has placed in them a great multitude of his vassals, and abundantly provided with weapons of all kinds. These castles are not erected against the heathen, who have completely devastated our land where it borders theirs, but in the midst of our country, where no one ever thought of making war against him; he has fortified them with such great effort, and what they mean for this land some of you have already experienced, and if God's mercy and your bravery do not intervene, you will soon all experience it. They take your possessions by force and hide them in their castles; they abuse your wives and daughters for their pleasure when they please; they demand your servants and your cattle, and all that they like, for their service; yes, they even force you yourselves to bear every burden, however odious, on your free shoulders. But when I imagine in my thoughts what is still waiting for us, then everything that you are now enduring still seems to me to be bearable. For when he will have built his castles in our whole country at his discretion and will have equipped them with armed warriors and all other necessities, then he will no longer plunder your possessions one by one, but he will snatch from you all that you possess with one blow, will give your goods to strangers, and will make you yourselves, you freeborn men, oblige unknown men as servants. And all this, you brave men, will you let it happen to you? Is it not better to fall in brave fight than to live a miserable and ignominious life, being made a shameful mockery by these people.

Even Serfs who are bought for money do not endure the unreasonable commands of their masters, and you, who were born free, should patiently endure servitude? Perhaps you, as Christians, are afraid to violate the oath with which you have paid homage to the king. Indeed, to the king you have sworn. As long as he was a king to me and acted royally, I also kept the oath I swore to him freely and faithfully; but after he ceased to be a king, the one to whom I had to keep loyalty was no longer there. So not against the king, but against the unjust robber of my freedom; not against the fatherland, but for the fatherland, and for freedom, which no good man surrenders other than with his life at the same time, I take up arms, and I demand of you that you also take them up. Awake, therefore, and preserve for your children the inheritance which your fathers have left you; beware lest through your carelessness or slothfulness you yourselves and your children become serfs of strangers" (end quote)

Now before you go and think that here is the first outburst of genuine German nationalism, I have to stop you there. When Northeim talks of “patria” or “fatherland” he talks about Saxony, not Germany. And when he talks about freedom, he is not talking about human rights, but ancestral privileges, the Freedoms as they will be later called.

But rousing the speech is nevertheless and the Saxons raise an army and head towards the Harzburg, where Henry IV. had gone to hold out while his agents bring over the army initially meant for the Poland campaign to defeat these obnoxious Saxons once and for all. 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 opposite hill.

Henry’s hope of support from the army readied for the war in Poland was quickly dashed. The mighty princes shared many of the views Otto of Northeim had articulated in his speech. They could see that if Henry were to prevail in Saxony, he would proceed to build similar castles in Bavaria, Swabia and anywhere else in the country. Rudolf of Rheinfelden and the two Southern dukes also had not forgotten that Henry had tried to nail them just a year earlier. So, the princes withdrew their troops. Some magnates led by the archbishop of Mainz even began negotiations with Otto of Northeim, allegedly offering him the crown.

Henry IV. fled the Harzburg and set up camp in Worms. There he managed to gather some bishops for an attempt to make a military move on Saxony, but his support was far too weak.

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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 or half 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.

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Given the choice between supporting a potentially overbearing emperor or a rabble-rousing Saxon, 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 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 king Henry the Fowler had fought against the Hungarians nearby in 934 was trampled into the dust on that early summers day.

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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. Next week we will find out how it comes that within a mere 18 months Henry IV. will find himself utterly friendless about to lose it all kneeling barefoot in the snow outside the inner gate of the castle of Canossa. I hope you will join us again.